As police on Long Island, N.Y., uncover new leads in their search for the serial killer of 10 people, the family of Megan Waterman of Scarborough prepares to honor her memory on the anniversary of her body’s discovery.

On Dec. 13, 2010, the young mother’s body was found wrapped in burlap, along with those of two other women. For her family, it is a time of sadness and respecting her memory, and of anger at those they see as responsible — both the killer and the person who led her to work as a prostitute, which put her life in danger.

Police also are interested in Akeem “Vybe” Cruz, Waterman’s former boyfriend, who is serving time on a drug charge. They are investigating the Brooklyn native to determine whether he promoted prostitution in multiple states, but they said he is not a suspect in Waterman’s disappearance or her death.

Waterman disappeared during the first weekend of June 2010. She was last seen at a Holiday Inn Express in Hauppauge, N.Y., on Long Island.

Her mother, Lorraine Ela, plans to mark the anniversary of the discovery of Waterman’s body by going to New York. “I want to show my respects and to put a cross where she was found.”

She will gather with family members and a group of supporters from Long Island.

Waterman’s grandmother, Muriel Benner, expects to spend most of Tuesday crying, reminiscing about Waterman and the holidays that Waterman won’t spend with her daughter, Liliana.

“Even though Lily was 3 last Christmas, she’s grown so much and is so much more involved in what’s going on that it breaks my heart,” Benner said.

For Waterman’s aunt Elizabeth Meserve, it is an occasion to refocus on Waterman’s former boyfriend, who could go free in a few months.

Police, seeking to seize Cruz’s laptop computer, say that Cruz arranged for several women to work as prostitutes, advertising their services online on Craigslist.

Meserve says Cruz persuaded Waterman to work as a prostitute, a lifestyle that she says led directly to her death at the age of 22. She wants Cruz charged with human trafficking before he finishes his sentence for dealing crack cocaine.

“My particular interest at this point in time is to see Akeem Cruz stay behind bars,” said Meserve, who shares guardianship of Liliana, Waterman’s daughter from an earlier relationship.

Family members have said that Cruz and Waterman went to New York so she could work as a prostitute, and that they made similar trips about once a month.

Cruz declined repeated requests for interviews. His lawyer, Robert Napolitano, told The Portland Press Herald that he has no information that his client was involved in prostitution.

Napolitano said he met Waterman a week before she disappeared. She came with Cruz to his office. They said they were headed to New York.

“They never said a word” about prostitution, but Napolitano added, “I could certainly read between the lines.” Asked later what he meant, Napolitano said he has had many clients in Maine who he believes have engaged in interstate prostitution and were interested in learning about the laws covering the crime.

Cruz said he was in New York sightseeing, Napolitano said.

Since then, Cruz and his lawyer have spoken little.

“He had called me months ago and said the FBI had gone up to see him and apparently they took his laptop,” Napolitano said. “The last thing I knew, they were investigating him federally.”

According to a police affidavit, Cruz is responsible for promoting prostitution in multiple states by advertising women on Craigslist. The affidavit was submitted in federal court in New York as police worked to seize Cruz’s laptop, which they believed contained evidence of promoting prostitution.

FAMILY SEARCHES ON ITS OWN

After Waterman disappeared, her family and friends fretted. Her brother and her best friend sold possessions so they could afford to go to New York to search for clues on their own. Waterman’s family believed the disappearance got little attention from police.

Then Shannan Gilbert disappeared. Gilbert, who worked as a prostitute, was heard screaming and seen running from a home on May 1, 2010, near Oak Beach, Long Island.

Police who were searching for her initially found one body, about four miles west of where she disappeared. On Dec. 13, they found three more.

Eventually, they found 10 bodies, including one toddler, and a man dressed in women’s clothing.

Police obtained a sample of DNA from Waterman’s family and confirmed Jan. 24 that she was one of the victims.

Still unknown was whether the strip of isolated waterfront parkland was a dumping ground for a criminal organization or for a single person.

Two weeks ago, police announced that they now believe the 10 bodies were left by a single serial killer who lives on Long Island. They also said some of the bodies were dismembered, with pieces found far from each other.

In the past week, police found Shannan Gilbert’s clothing, purse and cellphone not far from where she was last seen. They do not believe she was the victim of the same person who killed Waterman and the other nine, according to published reports.

Even before Waterman’s body was recovered, Meserve enlisted the aid of a private investigator and a lawyer. The website findmeganwaterman.com, created after Waterman disappeared, has been revamped as a tool that seeks to end human trafficking and find the Long Island serial killer.

Meserve has devoted much of her free time to helping groups that fight human trafficking, and counseling families of young women who work in the sex trade. Several such families have contacted her after viewing the website, she said.

Meserve wants Cruz charged under federal human trafficking laws, which make it a crime to compel someone to engage in forced labor of any kind, including prostitution.

LAW SELDOM USED DOMESTICALLY

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act prohibits obtaining the labor of someone by threatening them with harm or restraint. Violations are punishable by up to 20 years in prison and can apply to anyone who benefits financially. It allows for life in prison if someone dies as a result of the violation.

The law has been used to target groups that smuggle women into the country for prostitution, but it is rare for domestic prostitution suspects to be charged federally, say experts.

Under New York law, promotion of prostitution is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Dottie Laster is a national expert on human trafficking who conducts training for the U.S. Department of Justice and who is working with Meserve on Waterman’s case. She said some element of compulsion exists in almost every case of prostitution.

Revisions to the federal anti-trafficking law “made the use of psychological coercion and threats and physical fear the same as putting a gun to someone’s head,” she said. The law also could allow prosecutors to go after anyone involved in the prostitution operation.

“If someone dies due to the trafficking, everyone involved is responsible the same,” she said. She hopes the law can be used in the New York serial killer case, where at least four of the women worked as prostitutes.

“While I do hope and am optimistic they will find who actually killed the women, everyone involved, who either coerced them or profited from the prostitution, is criminally responsible in my eyes,” Laster said.

Napolitano, who has represented Cruz on his Maine charges of drug trafficking, violating bail conditions, criminal threatening and criminal mischief, said Cruz had nothing to do with Waterman’s death. Bringing federal charges linking someone’s death to interstate travel for prostitution would require the government to prove that the violation caused the woman’s death, he said.

Police have said that Cruz is not a suspect in Waterman’s disappearance or death.

Still, Benner said she believes Cruz at least knows something about her granddaughter’s death, and charging him might lead to answers.

Meserve and Benner feel some urgency.

With good behavior, Cruz could get out of the Maine Correctional Center in Windham as early as March 30; he will be released in June if he serves his full sentence.

Cruz has not been charged in connection with prostitution, and U.S. attorneys in Maine and New York say they will not confirm or deny whether an investigation is under way, though police sources have told news organizations in New York that Cruz is the target of a prostitution investigation.

EVIDENCE OF PROSTITUTION SOUGHT

A search warrant affidavit, a copy of which was obtained by The Portland Press Herald, says that agents with the FBI and Suffolk County, N.Y., police seized Cruz’s laptop computer in February, arguing that it contains evidence of prostitution.

The affidavit describes how Cruz is “a pimp who prostitutes women in and around Portland, Maine; Suffolk County, New York; and other locations” advertising on craigslist.com and backpage.com.

It quotes informants and confidential witnesses saying Cruz and an unidentified woman traveled by bus Memorial Day weekend 2010 from Maine to New York and were seen entering a hotel in Hauppauge.

It also says Akeem Cruz of Brooklyn posted several ads for sex with various women at locations in New York. The affidavit does not name any women, though one is identified as Lexxy, a name Waterman used when working as a prostitute, her family said.

It’s not clear whether prosecuting Cruz is a high priority for federal or New York authorities.

They have 10 bodies recovered from along a remote highway on Long Island. Authorities have not released the causes of death and have identified only five of the victims.

That investigation may be viewed as more important in the short run than keeping Cruz behind bars if he isn’t the murderer.

Newsday quoted unnamed police officials as saying the laptop was seized, not as part of the homicide investigation into the bodies recovered, but as part of a separate prostitution probe.

Nikki Haycock, Waterman’s best friend, said she was uncomfortable around Cruz, that he treated women as objects and used foul language. However, she does not know whether Waterman was forced to sell herself.

“She was kind of doing it to please him … he wasn’t forcing her, but at the same time he was about the money — ‘get those calls, don’t turn those down,’” she said in an interview with The Press Herald shortly after the bodies were discovered on Long Island.

THINKING OF HER DAUGHTER

Meserve is pursuing the issue in memory of her niece, and for Waterman’s daughter.

“She’s going to grow up with the knowledge her mom was a prostitute and was the victim of a serial killer,” Meserve said. “If there’s anybody who should be punished, he should be punished, so that’s one less thing Lily has to deal with.”

Family members agree that the most important thing for Waterman’s legacy is that the person who killed her be captured, and that keeping a high profile on the case ensures it will get the attention it deserves.

“It’s extremely important for Megan,” said Ela. “Will it be total closure then? No. I don’t think there will ever be 100 percent closure.

“Just knowing this sick person is off the street and is not going to be able to do this to anybody else. … My worst fear I live with day in and day out: Is this guy is still on the loose? How many more people has he murdered?”

Benner said it is important for Lily as well that the killer be captured.

“Then I can look at the baby and say, ‘They caught the bad man who did this to your mummy. They won’t hurt anybody else.’ “

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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