Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery takes readers beyond the yellow crime scene tape and onto the front lines in the hunt for one of America’s most devious murderers, the Long Island Serial Killer.
For almost twenty years someone has been dumping the bodies of murdered prostitutes along Suffolk County, NY’s Ocean Parkway, a desolate stretch of beachside highway dotted with parks and private neighborhoods.
Oak Beach is one such community, a locked and gated enclave full of renovated beach cottages and their well-to-do residents, people who value the privacy and relative independence offered by life in this almost-town. It’s not the kind of place one would expect a prostitute to visit, nonetheless to turn up missing, but when one does, the secret uncovered brings Oak Beach’s facade of suburban propriety crumbling to the ground.
On a May night in 2010, police were summoned to investigate reports of a screaming woman fleeing through the streets of Oak Beach. They were unable to locate the woman, later revealed to be Shannan Gilbert, an escort who was in the neighborhood visiting a john who had contracted her services through Craigslist.
With few leads to go on, the police let the matter drop. It was all but forgotten until months later when a patrolman on a training exercise discovered a badly decayed body discarded on a local beach. A wider search of the area turned up almost a dozen more, the majority of them found within miles of Oak Beach, and none of them Gilbert. Four of the bodies were eventually identified as women who, like the missing woman, advertised their services as escorts through Craigslist. Could the exclusive little beach community be harboring a serial killer? If so, were Gilbert’s remains still somewhere within its walls?
Many works of true crime give short shrift to the victims by ignoring their lives to focus on the manner of their death. Kokler avoids this, devoting much of Lost Girls to chronicling the lives of Shannan and the four Craigslist call girls who fell victim to the killer. None of the women knew each other in life, but they had a lot in common: All of them lived troubled lives punctuated all too often by broken relationships, abuse and drug addiction. For women with few other options, the quick money and independence of internet sex work proved too tempting to refuse.
They had their demons, but they also had hopes and dreams for the future. They loved and were loved. They had families and friends who cared for them, and in some cases had children of their own. All of them had reasons for doing what they did, and by telling their stories Kolker makes it difficult for readers to dismiss these women with a puritanical wave of the hand as "just prostitutes" who "deserved" what they got.
While readers will walk away with a greater sense of who the victims were and what brought them to make the decisions that they did, the same cannot be said of their killer(s). Very little is known about the person who killed these women and, even today, authorities aren't sure how many of the other bodies that were discovered were the work of the same person.
Readers looking for a storybook ending would be better off watching one of those television crime programs where the killer is caught, tried and sentenced in an hour, but true crime buffs who can appreciate a real mystery, enjoy complex crime stories and prefer human drama to gore and cheap thrills will love Lost Girls.