When Shannan Gilbert was last seen she was in a panic, shrieking in fear for her life. It was May 1, 2010, and Shannon, who advertised as an escort on Craigslist, was fleeing a client’s house in Oak Beach, a small, marshy town of beach bungalows on a barrier island off the southern coast of Long Island, in New York. She disappeared in the dark after banging on doors and screaming for help.
Seven months later, a police officer training his dog discovered a skeleton wrapped in burlap on the side of Ocean Parkway on Gilgo Beach, a few miles from where Shannan disappeared. Three more skeletons in burlap were found nearby. Shannan wasn’t among them. But like Shannan, the victims --- Maureen, Melissa, Megan and Amber --- were all petite young woman in their twenties who, when they’d gone missing, were working as escorts. They, too, had advertised their services on Craigslist and Backpage. The discovery, attributed in the media to the unidentified “Long Island Serial Killer” or “Gilgo Killer,” was big news, even more so when six more sets of remains were found a few months later (it’s unclear if those cases are related). A year later Shannan’s body was found in a marsh close to where she disappeared. Police say she drowned accidentally; her family believes she was murdered.
Robert Kolker, a feature writer at New York magazine, wrote a cover story on the Long Island serial killer case for the May 2011 issue. The article centered on the victims’ families, particularly the mothers and sisters who, battling grief and judgment about their loved ones’ choices, formed a kind of sisterhood of justice-seekers. The article stripped away stereotypes about prostitutes and broken families. Dysfunction existed, but so did tight bonds, along with sometimes-mysterious reasons for choosing prostitution. The whodunit aspect of the story was compelling enough, but the vivid portraits of the victims and their families are what stayed with me.
Now, two years later, Kolker is coming out with a book on the case. I cannot recommend Lost Girls highly enough. The story as Kolker tells it is much deeper than mere “true crime.” He examines in beautifully rendered, gripping detail the lives of the five women, their tough upbringings, their setbacks and small successes, the allure of easy money that comes with being an online escort. The book’s greatest achievement, I think, is the delicate balance it strikes between compassion and suspense. The book’s quality instantly elevates the true crime genre; more importantly, I think it’s an important work of social commentary.
I spoke with Robert Kolker over the phone about Lost Girls.
(In the interview I mention Dr. Peter Hackett and Joseph Brewer. Hackett is an Oak Beach resident who became a figure of speculation and suspicion in the case. Brewer was the client Shannan Gilbert was visiting when she disappeared.)
When did it seem like a book to you?
I resisted thinking about that until the story came out. Then I looked at it, and it was a cover story. I write a lot about crime, but probably because of where I work, I’m encouraged to write about stories that have some sort of second issue running underneath the story itself. A murder story can also be about the hate crime law, or a wrongful conviction story is also about police interrogation tactics, and false confessions. This story from the start wasn’t just about the whodunit, but about the impact of the case on five different families, and how that offered a window into the lives of these women when they were still alive. I’m a huge fan of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Alex Kotlowitz, any kind of journalism that offers a window into a world that no one’s seen before, and that the media doesn’t write much about. Immediately I thought, well this could be a really self-contained book. I’d write about five families, in five parts of the country, five struggling area where the options are changing for young people. What propelled the narrative along is the same thing that propels “Titanic,” or “From Here to Eternity” --- you know how it’s going to end for all of them.
You really get across what it’s like for a certain struggling segment of the population, one that’s rarely portrayed in the media. I was reminded of the book Nickel and Dimed, and some of David Simon's work.
There’s obviously a gap between rich and poor in the country, but what was driven home for me while working on the book was the gap between the middle class and working class. Megan Waterman’s mother works at Domino’s, and Shannan Gilbert’s mother works at Walmart. Melissa Barthelemy’s mother has worked at the same nursing home for 25 years. So you have this unseen world, this Nickel and Dimed world.
Were you familiar with the area where the bodies were found?
No, and that’s something that interested me. The media talked about this as millionaire’s row, this secluded, gated community, but in fact it’s a lot weirder than that. It’s not just secluded. It’s remote. The only people who’d want to live there are people who don’t care that they have to drive 20 minutes over a bridge to get a carton of milk. Most of these people just want to be left alone. It’s nothing like Fire Island or the Hamptons. You go to be alone, or to be a big fish in a small pond.
You seemed to get really close to the victims’ families. Was that challenging?
It was extremely challenging, and I’m very grateful to all the family members who participated. It was wonderful of them to decide to be a part of it. When I first worked on the magazine story it was a perfect time for them all to come together--- the case was heating up, and they were concerned the case would grow cold. They were all very motivated to come together for a magazine story. But that was May 2011, and then by June and July, 48 Hours had done a segment on them, and A & E was following them around for a documentary. They were starting to feel a little beleaguered. Just getting time off of work to be interviewed was hard for some people. By the time I came back around they were feeling a little inundated. Maybe even a little exploited. It became my job to make clear what my intentions were.
What would you say are the obstacles to solving the case?
I really thought they’d solve this case immediately. The original Craigslist killer they found in a couple of days. Here they had four digital trails they could follow. And somehow there’s a problem there. The best I can gather is the women post their cell phone numbers and the men go online, but they’re not actually clicking through anywhere. They’re calling the number. Most of the women have burners. Or they share phones.
The police were looking into former johns, regulars, but they didn’t find anything. Or they did and they weren’t going public with it, and still aren’t. But there’s a larger issue, and that’s they were starting way, way behind. By the time these women had been found on the beach it had been years since they went missing. In many of these cases the police didn’t care when the women went missing. They figured, they’re over 21, they’re escorts, maybe they’re going on a drug vacation. So, by the time it becomes a murder case they have next to nothing to go on. It was cold the minute it broke.
I was surprised there weren’t more tips from escorts about possible suspects. Incidents of violence from weird johns, that kind of thing.
Suffolk County Police Department wasn’t exactly enlightened about dealing with prostitutes as potential witnesses. They didn’t immediately offer immunity to anyone who came forward to talk about what they know or don’t know. So obviously no one came forward to really talk to them.
Was there anything that surprised you in the process of researching the story?
In terms of the murder investigation, working on the book meant I had to get to the bottom of a bunch of gossip that was going around. For instance, a bunch of reporters were saying Dr. Peter Hackett had actually told neighbors he’d seen Shannan.. It was widely assumed that he was caught on tape saying this. I needed to get to the bottom of that. It turns out it’s not true. It was an urban legend. It was a product of the echo chamber of reporting.
How much time did you spend with Joseph Brewer?
He was more elusive. I was on the phone with him more than anything else. And there’s a chapter in the book that’s my big phone call with him. He’s someone who may have more information than anyone on why Shannan Gilbert was frightened that night. Why she ran for her life. And he’s kind of laughing about it. Because he’s trying to play the tough guy. He won’t even admit he was a john. Won’t admit they had sex. And he very quickly blamed Shannan’s family for her becoming an escort. He comes off not so great in my opinion in the book.
Is it possible Shannan’s case is unrelated?
In my mind, there are a lot of big, unanswered questions about her case. Why her belongings are so far away from her body. What made her call 911, which is something an escort almost never does? Why she would say, “they’re trying to kill me?” Why she would be lucid enough to stay on the phone with 911 for 23 minutes, but then somehow crazy enough to run into a marsh? Yet her connection to the other cases isn’t something I’m particularly convinced of either. In the book I explored all the possibilities there and maybe weigh in a little bit on that, but more interesting to me was to watch her own family go back and forth on that issue.
Has the case had an effect on the online escort business?
There are so many different angles on how to approach the subject of Internet prostitution. There are people who are standing up for the rights of sex workers who think the Internet is potentially a terrific tool to professionalize sex workers, to get them off the streets. And then there’s the other side of it --- there’s not just the prostitutes online but the johns as well. There are websites that operate like Yelp for prostitutes. It’s amazing that even though it’s a black market economy, it’s a real economy, and now will have a digital record of some sort.
The question becomes if you shut down Craigslist, or Backpage, first of all there will be a million websites that take its place, and secondly, you could argue that having them at a place like Backpage is safer. It’s immensely complicated.
Do you think the police feel the other bodies are related?
There are conflicting opinions. At the moment they’re throwing out all theories officially. Everyone seems to agree the four women in burlap are related.
It does seem like that area is a perfect dumping ground.
It’s very close to 8 million people, but also very deserted, this highway, very dark at night. I say in the book, you know when you’re alone. You can see headlights from miles away.
Did you come to any conclusions about the strategy of families advocating aggressively for the victims? Is it helpful to do that, or does it backfire?
In this particular instance I saw the police have a fair amount of contempt for those families who were more aggressive. Those who went to the media more they disliked, for obvious reasons. They felt it like it questioned their competence. Some family members would say we need to give the police a break, because they’re working as hard as they can. Others would say they’re terrible. Internal squabbles happened.
Shannan’s mother, Mari, for instance, was very aggressive and angry with the police. Every now and then she would try and give them credit where credit is due. Because she becomes aware it’s not in her best interest to become adversarial. But she feels trapped. The only way to get the case visibility is if she’s a loud voice on her daughter’s behalf. There’s another trap there too, which is the only to get the case visibility is if her daughter becomes identified as a sex worker forever. And she doesn’t want that either. And that tension is more or less every family’s experience. They want the murder solved, but they don’t want their daughter identified as prostitutes.
More than one of them said, you know, “she was only 24, who knows what would have happened to her.”