Rachel Mills

The hunt for a serial killer is coming to Jacksonville State University.

Filmmaker Rachel Mills will be the guest speaker for JSU’s Center for Applied Forensics on Monday at 7 p.m. on the 11th floor of the Houston Cole Library to preview an episode of the documentary series "The Killing Season," which she and Joshua Zeman created for the A&E network.

After the screening, Mills will take questions from the audience. The event is free and open to the public

"The Killing Season," which premiered in November, investigates a series of murders in which the bodies of mutilated prostitutes were dumped along an isolated stretch of Long Island, N.Y.

The program is an opportunity to showcase JSU’s Center for Applied Forensics and the forensic scientists the program is churning out, said Joseph Scott Morgan, associate professor of applied forensics.

"We’re here to educate, to create forensic scholars, but really, we’re here to create practitioners, people to send out into the field," he said.

"We like to think that a lot of programs produce lab rats, but we produce field mice. We’re training students how to be investigators; to go out, recognize the evidence, maintain the integrity of the evidence and bring it into the lab."

As one of the oldest forensics investigation programs in the nation, Morgan considers JSU the "gem of the hills." One of his goals is to let more people know about it. Hosting filmmakers like Rachel Mills and the work she’s doing for A&E can only be positive.

"We’ve been doing forensics at JSU way before it was cool," Morgan said. "We’re doing some really cool things here and have some exciting plans for the future – things I can’t really get into yet – and having A&E wanting to be a part of that validates all that we’ve done and all we’re going to do."

"The Killing Season" revolves around the unsolved case of a serial killer. On May 1, 2010, after placing a 23-minute call to 911 and telling the operator, "They’re killing me," Shannan Gilbert, a 24-year-old Craigslist escort, ran screaming from the home of first-time client Joseph Brewer.

Gilbert was heard by several neighbors in the upscale community of Oak Beach, Long Island, begging for help and banging on doors. By the time police arrived, Gilbert had vanished, having seemingly been swallowed whole by the creeping darkness of the isolated beach with its dense marshlands.

Some 19 months later, Gilbert’s skeletal remains were found in a pond of salty water. Her cause of death is undetermined. During the search for Gilbert, more bodies of known prostitutes were uncovered just off Gilgo Beach, an undeveloped coastal park in Suffolk County, N.Y.

According to a Vice.com article, the search produced "the body of a trans woman found with teeth missing from her skull, a female toddler wearing hoop earrings, and unconfirmed suspicions about as many as seven other female victims who have never been verified by police as being part of the same killer’s spree."

It was the suspected work of what became known as the Long Island Serial Killer. In the years since the bodies were discovered, no arrests have been made and no suspects named. It’s into this bizarre and grisly cold case that Mills and Zeman are attempting to breathe some life. And they aren’t doing it alone.

Part of what sets "The Killing Season" apart from the glut of other true-crime programs is audience participation. Where shows like "America’s Most Wanted" asked for audiences to help catch criminals via a 1-800 hotline, "The Killing Season" is using online arm-chair investigators from sites like Websleuths.com to help in the search for unknown or unidentified victims. "They’re using the digital age to solve crimes," Morgan said.

"There’s the thought that people who like true crime are somewhat ghoulish for looking into the dark side of human nature, and I get that, but in their hearts, people really want to help others. That’s what shows like this are all about," Morgan said. "We’re honored to be a part of that."

Brett Buckner is a freelance writer for The Anniston Star. Contact him at brettbuckner@ymail.com.

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