US police hunt for beachside serial killer

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It is a grisly Christmas gift for New York's headline writers. Four badly decomposed bodies were discovered beside a beach road on the south side of Long Island and after confirming that they are all women, the police revealed they may have a serial killer on their hands. The Daily News already has a name for the monster: the Seaside Slayer.

So far none of the victims have been identified. But police, with help from the FBI, were trying to establish a link between the discovery of the bodies and the disappearances last summer of two prostitutes in roughly the same area. More specifically, they are testing to see whether two of the bodies are those of the two missing women.

Yesterday, police officers with so-called cadaver dogs were scouring the area of low brush and sand near Gilgo Beach for clues and to ensure more bodies are not there waiting to be found. They also sealed off a stretch of the road as they searched the home owned by a local man who has admitted to using the services of one of the missing call girls, Shannan Gilbert, immediately before she vanished in the early hours of 1 May this year.

"It's not a coincidence that four bodies end up in the same location," Richard Dormer, the local commissioner of police said at a brief press conference. "We could have a serial killer." Thus, a missing persons case that for months had attracted next to no public attention was turned instantly into a media sensation.

The mythology of serial killers in New York is rich. Gotham was on edge in 1977 as net closed in on David Berkowitz, the serial killer known as Son of Sam. On Long Island, to the east of the city, many residents remember the capture in 1993 of Joel Rifkin, who confessed to killing 17 prostitutes during a four-year spree.

In what may have been her last hours alive, the first prostitute, Ms Gilbert, had fled the house that was being searched by police yesterday in a state of hysterics, knocking on neighbourhood doors claiming someone was trying to kill her.

"I heard screaming at my front door," said Gustav Coletti, who also lives in Oak Beach, a prosperous residential community not far from the stretch of road where the bodies were discovered. "She was saying, 'I need help, I need help, they're after me.'" He watched as she ran off into the brush beyond his garden, never to be been seen again.

The other missing woman is Megan Waterman, 22, a resident of Maine who, police say, was lured by a pimp to Long Island during the summer also to work as a female escort. Her mother, Lorraine Ela, has given DNA to police to help them determine if her daughter is among the newly discovered bodies.

That process of identification could take weeks, Ms Ela has been told. "This has been the roughest part, waiting to hear identities," Ms. Ela said.

With the police revealing little about their investigation so far, the Daily News yesterday kept the serial killer theme alive by visiting Rifkin in his upstate prison. In the story "Sicko Slams Pyscho", Rifkin tells the paper's reporter that he is unimpressed with the work of the new killer.

Rifkin, by contrast, was more careful in disposing of the bodies of his 17 victims. "I dumped them hundreds of miles apart," he boasted, before arguing that no one should be surprised by the new turn of events.

"America breeds serial killers," he said. "You don't see any from Europe." And he added that prostitutes are the easiest targets.

"No family," he explained. "They can be gone six or eight months and no one is looking."