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A year after the first bodies were found, Long Island still fears its serial killer

Residents sceptical as police downplay link between new-found remains and murderer

It was meant to be the week when relatives of the victims of the suspected Long Island serial killer came to the place of their lonely demise privately to pray for their souls and for a breakthrough in the police investigation, which seemed to have gone cold.

Privacy they didn't get, but news from the police they did. Just hours before the planned candlelit vigil on the stretch of shore road used as a dumping ground by the murderer, police announced they had found skeletal remains of another woman, victim No 11.

More importantly, they said they almost certainly belonged to Shannan Gilbert, a prostitute from New Jersey.

No arrests have been made, but finding Ms Gilbert's remains is a signal step.

It was her disappearance in May last year from Oak Beach, one of a string of small seaside hamlets strung along this barrier island, that brought them to the area in the first place and led them to discover the first of the bodies.

For the dozen or more family members who came to Oak Beach this week, the sudden turn in the investigation might offer partial closure, even if some are not yet fully sure the body really is Ms Gilbert's.

No-one among the relatives or the few residents here talking to reporters buys the other thing police are saying – that Ms Gilbert was possibly not killed by anyone at all.

What we already know is that she visited a man in Oak Beach, then fled the house in panic for unknown reasons and ran into the darkness.

Noting her bones were found in a nearby drained marsh, police say she drowned. They think she was trying to get to a nearby bridge leading to the main shore of Long Island.

"The terrain would have made it impossible for her to get to the road," Commissioner Richard Dormer said. "It would be very easy to get exhausted and fall down and not be able to move any further."

Among the sceptical yesterday was Irene Lyons, 45, a resident of nearby Babylon, who said the whole thing had been especially "freaky" for her as Joel Rifkin, another Long Island serial killer jailed two decades ago after killing 17, was at school with her.

"Most people still think her [Ms Gilbert's] death and the deaths of the all the others are still connected," she said. "What are the chances that they are separate?"

As she spoke, Ms Lyons gestured towards Gilgo Beach, the next settlement six miles to the west, where the first bodies were turned up on 13 December 2010, one year ago .

Those 10 corpses were of eight women, one man dressed in women's clothing and a baby girl. Police say all the adults were involved in the sex trade, while the toddler was the child of one of the prostitutes. Drive towards Gilgo Beach from Oak Beach and you begin to see the simple roadside shrines to each of the victims erected by relatives.

This week they were decorated afresh with new flowers and red, heart-shaped balloons. The small white cross that marks where Maureen Bainard-Barnes' body was uncovered also had a small candle in a jam jar, still flickering yesterday under a bright December sun.

Scoffing at the drowning theory won't end soon. "It can't be right," said Doug Shank, 40, who frequents Oak Beach, where he likes to fish. "Every one of these people was in the sex business, so how can this be something different from all the others?"

Police had resumed the search for Ms Gilbert after discovering various personal items here a week ago, including her shoes, her mobile phone and some clothing.

"To say she accidentally drowned is ridiculous when she lost her shoes and her pants," said Elizabeth Meserve, an aunt of one of the victims.

"She was running from something. Someone was trying to kill her...it doesn't make any sense."

Ms Gilbert's former boyfriend, Alex Diaz, is among those anxiously awaiting confirmation from the coroner's office that the bones really are those of his vanished ex-girlfriend.

For him and her family, some sort of peace might then be possible. "I think it's probably her," he said. "Now I know what happened. I can move on now."

But for the residents of this isolated fringe of Long Island, which buzzes with beachgoers and surfers in summer but feels remote in winter, peace will not come until the killer or killers are found.

"It's bad," said Ms Lyons. "Everybody is saying it could be the guy next door."