Police expanded their search for bodies Friday on a deserted strip of Long Island, N.Y., in an investigation involving missing prostitutes, skeletal remains, and a possible serial killer.
The circumstances are chillingly reminiscent of the unsolved case of four women, also prostitutes, found slain and dumped in a marshy area just outside Atlantic City in November 2006.
Speculation tying the cases together appears in almost every media account of the bizarre Long Island discovery, but authorities and experts caution against prematurely making a link.
"There's always the possibility, but you would have to connect a lot of dots," said John Krimmel, a professor of criminology at the College of New Jersey.
As of Friday, Suffolk County authorities had found the remains of four unidentified women dumped along Cedar Beach, which has been described as a "desolate stretch" along the southern shore of Long Island. The location is a few miles from Jones Beach, a popular tourist destination.
The causes of death have yet to be determined, and investigators say they believe the victims were killed elsewhere. The deaths appear to have occurred over the last 18 months, the bodies showing varied states of decomposition, according to police reports.
They were discovered Dec. 11 and Monday during a police search for a missing prostitute from Jersey City, N.J., who was last seen in May in the Cedar Beach area.
In the Atlantic County case, the bodies of the women - also in varying stages of decay - were found behind a seedy motel in the West Atlantic City section of Egg Harbor Township. They were floating in one of the marsh areas that lead to the ocean.
Authorities believe they, too, were killed elsewhere. Each woman was placed in the water with her head pointing toward Atlantic City. At least two were strangled, authorities said. The other bodies were too decomposed to determine an exact cause of death.
None was wearing shoes.
The FBI was called to assist in the Atlantic County and the Suffolk County cases. In both, authorities have speculated that the deaths could be the work of a serial killer.
But the question that hangs in the air is whether the cases involve the work of the same killer.
"Most serial killers are psychotic and unorganized," said Krimmel, a former Bristol Township police officer who was an analyst and unit chief in the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice before turning to academia.
"And most don't stray too far from home," he added.
Suffolk County is about 160 miles from Atlantic County, so it is a stretch at this point to link the cases, he and others said.
The bodies all were found at the same time of the year, but that fact may be irrelevant. The same is true of the fact that all were dumped in or near water. (Cedar Beach is a narrow strip of land, about 1,000 yards wide, that separates the Great South Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.)
"We are continuing to investigate the murders of the four women found dead" in West Atlantic City, Atlantic County Prosecutor Ted Housel said in a statement last week. "We have been in contact with authorities in Suffolk County. . . . It would not be fair for us to comment on their investigation."
Authorities in Suffolk County questioned a man whom they identified as a customer of the prostitute from New Jersey reported missing in May.
The man's home is about three miles from where the bodies were found. He has denied any involvement.
The woman, Shannan Gilbert, 24, is one of two prostitutes whose disappearances on Long Island are being investigated by authorities.
Thus far, the remains found in Suffolk County have not been identified. But investigators said Thursday that, based on forensic records, Gilbert was not among the four.
"I don't want anyone to think we have a Jack the Ripper running around Suffolk County with blood dripping from a knife," said Police Commissioner Richard Dormer at a news conference Thursday.
"This is an anomaly," he said, according to a report on Newsday.com. "Don't worry about it."
There is a gap of at least two years between the Atlantic County killings and the death of the first victim on Long Island, but experts say serial killers' crimes sometimes occur sporadically.
The killer could have been jailed or institutionalized, they say, or incapacitated for another reason.
While Atlantic County authorities say their investigation is continuing, the case there appears to have gone cold.
Terry Oleson, a 38-year-old handyman from Salem County, was questioned in 2007 by investigators but never charged. He was jailed for an unrelated crime and has since been released.
Last week, Oleson's lawyer, James Leonard Jr., said his client had nothing to do with the Atlantic County killings and "zero connection to the case unfolding on Long Island."
But Leonard, like others, pointed to the similarities, which he termed "striking."
"We are hopeful that this incident will shed some light on what happened here in Atlantic City four years ago," he said in a prepared release.
Cadaver dogs were being used Friday as investigators expanded their search east and west of the Cedar Beach area trying to determine if there were more bodies.
Four in Atlantic County and four in Suffolk County would be another similarity, investigators say. But is that an indication that the cases are connected - or simple coincidence?