Lily Waterman’s memories of her mother are out of focus, built largely from scraps of what others have shared as she’s grown. An incomplete patchwork.
“I still wonder sometimes about what her voice sounded like, or her laugh,” said Lily, now 13. “I do remember missing her and always wondering when she was coming back.”
Lily hadn’t yet turned 4 when Megan Waterman disappeared after spending a June 2010 weekend in New York, where she was being trafficked for sex by her boyfriend. Her body was found six months later, inside a burlap bag, partially buried on a remote Long Island beach. She was 22.
Three other bodies were found in the same location and follow-up searches nearby led to even more discoveries. Police believe at least 10 people, some of whom still have not been identified, were killed by the same unknown person, labeled only as the Long Island Serial Killer or the Gilgo Beach Killer. Like Waterman, who grew up in Scarborough and South Portland, many had been victims of sex trafficking.
This month marks 10 years since Waterman’s disappearance, and her death, along with the others, remains unsolved. As the case has gotten colder, numerous conspiracy theories (most alleging police involvement or cover-up) have spread like water on pavement in certain corners of the internet. But it’s still an active case, and the investigating agency, the Suffolk County (N.Y.) Police Department, released new information this year – pictures of a belt found with one of the bodies that they believe the suspect might have handled. Last month, they also identified a previously unknown victim who disappeared in 2000, which could yield more clues.
A spokesman for the Suffolk County Police Department declined a request by the Portland Press Herald to interview a detective assigned to the case and would not answer specific questions.
Robert Kolker, a Brooklyn-based author who wrote a book in 2013 about the killings called “Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery” and still follows updates closely, said he believes the case could still be solved.
“I do think that the pattern with unsolved cases is that something often shakes loose in 10 or 15 years – some witness comes forward with new information,” he said.
Kolker’s book was adapted into a Netflix movie released in late March, also called “Lost Girls,” that has spurred fresh interest in the case. The movie is dramatized and focuses mostly on Shannon Gilbert of New Jersey, whose disappearance spurred the search that led to the discovery of Waterman and others. Kolker said even though the movie doesn’t give much attention to Waterman, the only victim from Maine, his book devotes two full chapters to her, and he spent considerable time talking with family members and those who knew her.
“There was a lot of community sympathy when Megan disappeared,” he said. “Not every (victim) got the same treatment.”
Lily now lives in Washington state with her aunt, Elizabeth Meserve, who became Lily’s guardian after her mother’s death, but they had plans to move back to Maine before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Lily worries that her mother’s story might become a footnote over time or that she’ll be remembered only with a specific label affixed – prostitute.
Now that she’s older, she wants to make sure she has a louder voice in shaping her memory. She conceded that might be hard to do when her own memories are sparse.
“I’m always going to be sad about not getting to know her,” she said.
Akeem Cruz made a lot of promises to Megan Waterman during the short time he was her boyfriend.
“He talked a good game,” said Meserve.
Cruz’s primary game, it turns out, was drug trafficking, but he found another type of trafficking to be lucrative as well.
According to court documents filed in a case against Cruz in New York, he and another man, Robert Blake, were “involved in transporting girls from Maine to New York to prostitute for them.” They used websites like Craigslist and Backpage that were popular (and unregulated) at the time to advertise for services.
It was Blake who first persuaded Waterman to have sex for money, Meserve said, but Cruz soon took over and they became a couple. He told her he loved her and wanted to make a family with her and her daughter, Lily, whose birth father was either not known or not in the picture. Cruz convinced her that if she continued having sex for money, they could buy a house.
Elise Johansen, executive director of Safe Voices, an Auburn domestic violence resource agency, said this type of control is common with sex traffickers.
“A man says ‘I’ll protect you. I’ll take care of you,’” she said. “Then that shifts to coercion: Now you have to do these things for me.”
Waterman became estranged from her mother, Lorraine Ela, although the two later reconciled. Ela did not respond to phone calls or letters from a reporter.
Meserve said Waterman also struggled with substance use, which is likely how she met Blake and Cruz in the first place. Before she disappeared, there were hints that her life might be in danger. Meserve remembers getting a frantic call from Megan one night after Cruz hid a gun underneath Lily’s mattress. She was barely a toddler.
“She just said, ‘I don’t know what to do,’” Meserve said.
Lily said one of her saddest realizations is that she remembers more about Cruz than she does about her mother.
“I can remember him hitting her and just crying,” she said. “He was very powerful, or at least he wanted to seem that way.”
Police don’t believe Cruz had anything to do with Waterman’s disappearance or death. After Waterman’s body was found, he pleaded guilty to promoting prostitution and was sentenced to three years in prison. Cruz has been in and out of prison and is now awaiting sentencing on federal drug charges. He declined to be interviewed for this story, through his attorney.
Around the same time Waterman disappeared, another missing person’s case was starting to get a lot of attention.
Shannon Gilbert, 24, of New Jersey, disappeared in May 2010. Her story formed the backbone of Kolker’s book, and the recent movie, in part because of how hard Gilbert’s mother, Mari Gilbert, pushed police for answers. Police didn’t begin actively searching for Gilbert until December 2010. Instead of finding her, they discovered the bodies of four other women, including Waterman.
Lily said she has a faint memory of coming home from preschool and her grandmother being there. The adults were talking about the discovery of her mother’s remains.
“I was crying but not really listening,” she said. “I just remember feeling so alone. I didn’t understand why people die, what that meant.”
A detective at the time called it a “consolation” that the killer was targeting sex trafficking victims and not “citizens at large,” a characterization that did not sit well with victims’ family members.
Gilbert’s body wasn’t found until a year later, but police have concluded that even though she was being trafficking and was discovered in the same area, she was not a victim of the same killer and may even have died accidentally. Her family disputes that.
Because police have shared so little (not even causes of death), internet detectives have developed their own theories, such as police cover-ups. Kolker is skeptical of that.
“Conspiracies don’t make sense to me because too many people have to keep silent,” he said.
Lily grew up in the shadow of her mother’s death. In school, classmates would always want to ask questions and she shared little.
She heard the word “prostitute” but didn’t know what it meant. It wasn’t until she was in upper elementary school and had access to a laptop that she started to type “Megan Waterman” into the search bar.
“It was hard to read,” she said of some of the stories. “I always knew she was killed. I just didn’t know how or why.”
She still doesn’t.
While Gilbert’s story has continued to generate a lot of attention – most recently with the Netflix movie – her mother and the other victims have mostly been secondary to her story.
“None of them wanted this life,” Lily said. “They deserve to be remembered, too.”
Meserve said some members of their family didn’t want to keep Waterman’s name in the news, because it would always be accompanied by the word “prostitute.”
“I think there was some embarrassment,” she said.
In the years since the gruesome discoveries of Waterman and the other victims, the language and public policies around sex trafficking have shifted, but at the time Waterman and the other victims were reduced to labels.
Meserve remembers turning down an interview with TV news personality Geraldo Rivera because he wouldn’t stop referring to Megan and the others as “hookers.” The narrative included a tacit implication that the victims were partially to blame for what happened to them. Kolker, the author, said the police investigation almost certainly would have been different had the victims been college students or the “daughters of doctors and judges.”
Johansen, the domestic violence resource agency director, said she wasn’t familiar with Waterman’s case but, after reading about it, saw similarities with other victims she has served. She said for years sex traffickers have controlled women in various ways – by introducing them to drugs and making them dependent; by threatening to turn them over to police.
“We still live in a society that thinks it’s OK to buy and sell women’s bodies, that we’re commodities; that we can be owned, traded, used to get things,” she said.
Lily said she doesn’t know if her mother ever tried to get help, or free herself from Cruz’s control.
She still holds out hope that the case will be solved, that someone will be held responsible for her mother’s death.
Now when someone asks about her mother, she doesn’t mind sharing.
“I used to not like to tell the story, but I’ve gotten more confident telling other people,” she said. “No one ever knows what to say, so they just say how sorry they are.”
Lily is sorry, too.
Sorry her mother won’t be there when she graduates from high school or has a child of her own. Sorry she can’t talk to her mother about the minutiae in her life.
“I don’t wish this on anyone, this pain I went through, and go through,” she said.