Long Island police fighting judge's order to release 911 tapes in serial killer case

Shannan Gilbert vanished on Long Island's South Shore in 2010, sparking a search that turned up the remains of 10 other people, most of them sex workers like Gilbert.

More than eight years later, Suffolk County, New York, police are fighting a judge's order to turn over a 22-minute 911 call made by the escort on the night of her disappearance.

Department lawyers argue that releasing the tape would jeopardize an ongoing investigation. John Ray, the attorney for Gilbert's estate, finds the police's refusal suspicious. He believes the police investigation has been compromised and the tapes, if they haven't already been destroyed, could reveal information damaging to the department.

"The public really has a right to know to what is on those tapes as well as Shannan's family," Ray said. "It will generate witnesses who are in the public who know what happened and perhaps will come forward."

Crime scene investigators use metal detectors to search a marsh for the remains of Shannan Gilbert

The mystery over who might be responsible for the deaths of Gilbert and the other 10 people whose remains were discovered in a marshy area along a beach highway has stumped investigators for years. Police suspect a serial killer or killers used the area as a dumping ground, but no arrests have been made.

The Gilbert case stretches back to May 2010 when the 24-year-old from New Jersey vanished after making a 911 call from the home of her last client. In the call, Gilbert told the emergency dispatcher that someone was trying to kill her.

Suffolk County Police launched a search, and in Dec. 2010, a K-9 unit found the first of 10 bodies buried near Gilgo and Oak beaches. The dead included eight women and a man wearing women's clothing — all suspected prostitutes, according to police — as well as a female infant.

It wasn't until December 2011 that investigators discovered Gilbert's remains in a remote marsh near Oak Beach, about a half-mile from where she was last seen.

A medical examiner's autopsy proved inconclusive. Then-Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said at the time that investigators believe she drowned or succumbed to the elements.

"She traveled at least half a mile, three-quarters of a mile, on foot through that muck," Dormer said at a news conference. "It would be very easy to get exhausted and fall down and not be able to move any further."

Gilbert's family later released the results of an independent autopsy that determined injuries to her neck were "consistent with homicidal strangulation."

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Lonnie Franklin Jr., Grim Sleeper serial killer
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Lonnie Franklin Jr., Grim Sleeper serial killer
Suspected killer Lonnie David Franklin Jr., dubbed the 'Grim Sleeper' for a 13-year break between his strings of 11 murders, is pictured during his arraignment in Los Angeles Criminal Courts on July 8, 2010. Franklin, 57, was arrested at his home in southern Los Angeles on July 7, 2010 on suspicion of being 'related' to the Grim Sleeper killings -- eight from 1985-1988 and three from 2001-2007. AFP PHOTO / Pool / Al Seib (Photo credit should read AL SEIB/AFP/Getty Images)
Diana Ware , step-mother of Barbara Ware, stands near the South Los Angeles home of Lonnie David Franklin, Jr. on July 7, 2010. Franklin was arrested Wednesday on 10 counts of murder and one attempted murder. Police allege that he is the Grim Sleeper serial killer. Diana's step-daughter, Barabara Ware, 23, was the serial killer's 4th victim in January, 1987 2 days after her 23rd birthday. (Photo by Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Items are removed from the South Los Angeles home of Lonnie David Franklin, Jr. on July 7, 2010. Franklin was arrested Wednesday on 10 counts of murder and one attempted murder. Police allege that he is the Grim Sleeper serial killer. (Photo by Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
LAPD detective Dennis Kilcoyne, lead detective in the Grim Sleeper serial murder case, stands above an age progression of mug shots showing Lonnie David Franklin Jr, a.k.a. the Grim Sleeper. (Photo by Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Diana Ware, 71, still mourns the murder of her stepdaughter Barbara Ware who was believed to have been murdered by 'Grim Sleeper' serial murder suspect Lonnie David Franklin Jr. on January 10, 1987. Ware lives in West Covina now with her son Rick Frederick JUNE 16, 2010 (Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
JULY 13, 2010. LONG BEACH, CA. In her Long Beach, CA apartment, Romy L. Lampkins (right) listens to LAWeekly crime reporter Christine Pelisek talk about the victims of serial killer Lonnie David Franklin Jr. Pelisek has been covering the long-running crime mystery for many years; Lampkins 21-yr-old sister Lachrica Jefferson was kiled by Franklin in 1988. The suspect has been arraigned on 10 counts of murder in the Los Angeles area between 1985 - 2007. (Photo by Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A woman views photographs set up as a memorial for 10 of the victims of the serial killer dubbed the 'Grim Sleeper' who is currently awaiting trial in Los Angeles on August 10, 2010. Lonnie David Franklin Jr, 57, was recently arrested at his home in southern Los Angeles on suspicion of being 'related' to the Grim Sleeper killings and has now been charged with 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. The murders occurred from 1985 to 1988, and then began again from 2002 to 2007 and the 14-year hiatus led police to give him the nickname the 'Grim Sleeper.' AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Reverend Dr. Kelvin Calloway, who is from a church close to the crime scenes, leaves a message on photographs set up as a memorial for 10 of the victims of the serial killer dubbed the 'Grim Sleeper' who is currently awaiting trial in Los Angeles on August 10, 2010. Lonnie David Franklin Jr, 57, was recently arrested at his home in southern Los Angeles on suspicion of being 'related' to the Grim Sleeper killings and has now been charged with 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. The murders occurred from 1985 to 1988, and then began again from 2002 to 2007 and the 14-year hiatus led police to give him the nickname the 'Grim Sleeper.' AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 06: Lonnie Franklin Jr. is led out from L.A. County Superior Courtroom of Judge Kathleen Kennedy after a hearing February 6, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. Franklin is charged with murdering 10 women and suspected of killing several others in Los Angeles. Families of Franklin's alleged victims cited Marsy's Law, a bill of rights approved by California voters in 2008, entitling victims and their families to a speedy trial. Family members expressed their frustration with the pace of the case of the alleged Grim Sleeper serial killer, charged with murdering 10 women and suspected of killing several others. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY US-CRIME-MURDER(FILES) A woman views photographs set up as a memorial for 10 of the victims of the serial killer dubbed the 'Grim Sleeper' who is currently awaiting trial in Los Angeles on August 10, 2010. Photographs of about 180 women seized from the home of Lonnie David Franklin Jr., were posted online December 17, 2010 by the Los Angeles Police Department to determine whether any of them may have been victims. The photographs were found at Franklin's home after he was arrested July 8 on suspicion of killing at least 10 young women and one man in South Los Angeles between 1985 and 2007. Fraklin was dubbed the 'Grim Sleeper' for a 13-year break between his strings of 11 murders. FILESAFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
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The lead detective in the case has argued in court filings that the department is still in the midst of an "open, active and ongoing" criminal investigation in the death of Gilbert. The detective, Patrick Portela, noted similarities in the sets of bodies that were found in the course of the search for Gilbert and that four of the dead women were escorts who, like Gilbert, used Craigslist and Backpage to advertise their services.

The disclosure of the recordings, Portela said in the court papers, would "compromise confidential information and interfere with and frustrate the Suffolk County Police Department's efforts" in the investigation.

"No arrests have yet been made in this investigation," Portela added. "As such, the [police department] has a critical interest in preserving the confidentiality of this active investigation, including its witness statements, which would necessarily include the calls made to 911."

The police were forced to make the case for withholding a recording of Gilbert's 911 call after her family filed a lawsuit against a Long Island doctor claiming he had opened his home to Gilbert but failed to keep her safe. The doctor has denied the allegations, and much of the lawsuit was dismissed due to the statute of limitations.

A judge has twice ordered Suffolk County police to turn over the tape of the call, as well as others made by neighbors around the time of Gilbert's disappearance. In an October ruling, Judge Sanford Berland said the police department failed to provide "the slightest intimation" of how or why giving Gilbert's family access to the tapes would "compromise any aspect of their protracted investigation."

Berland added: "No criminal prosecution is pending nor, so far as can be discerned from the police department's bare assertions, is it anticipated that a criminal prosecution will be brought within any time frame that the police department is currently willing, or able, to articulate."

The Suffolk County Police Department has appealed the ruling. It declined to comment when reached by NBC News.

Six years after Gilbert's disappearance, a new tragedy befell her family. Gilbert's younger sister, Sarra, fatally stabbed their mother, Mari Gilbert, in July 2016. Sarra was convicted of murder in April 2017 and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

In an interview, the lawyer representing Gilbert's estate said her surviving family members want to hear the 911 tape for reasons that go beyond the police investigation.

"The family has the right to hear the voice of their sister," Ray said.

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