By Leslie Lindsay
A PUBLISHERS WEEKLY top ten book of 2013 about an infamous Long Island serial killer (LISK).
Award-winning investigative reporter, Robert Kolker delves into the LOST GIRLS like someone writing fiction. LOST GIRLS (Harper, 2013) is deeply researched and backstories of all the girls (who worked as on-line escorts) are explored. For this, I found the writing very compelling and humanizing. Kolker goes back, way back, to the origins of these girls’ lives, namely foster care and other challenging situations. We see how easy it might be to fall into the throes of prostitution: drugs, drama, death, dollars…it seems like an easy way to make a buck.
That would be the first quarter or so of the book. The next half or so is about how these girls–Melissa, Maureen, Megan, Amber, Shannan go missing, end up dead. Is there a serial killer on the loose? Is it just coincidence that their bodies all wash up on the same Oak Beach shore, could it be that death is the fate of sex workers? It’s hard to say. Kolker does an exceptional job of giving a clear and unbiased portrait of each girls’ family.
And then we dive into the forensics of the matter. There are some ‘whodunit’ moments and cast of suspects, but no one seems to be talking.
Please join me in welcoming Bob Kolker to the blog couch as we chat about this deeply researched, yet completely unsettling, true crime tale.
Leslie Lindsay: Bob, it’s great to have you. I know LOST GIRLS is a work of nonfiction about five women connected by the same criminal investigation—a suspected serial killer (or killers) operating in Long Island from about 1996 until about 2010. What struck you about this case that you had to dive in? Is it your geographic proximity, being in Brooklyn, or something else?
Bob Kolker: Thanks, Leslie—I’m glad to have the chance to talk about LOST GIRLS.
I first learned about the five women in LOST GIRLS while covering the case of the Long Island serial killer for New York magazine in early 2011, shortly after the first four bodies were discovered along a desolate stretch of highway near the southern coast. By then, people who followed the headlines knew that the five women all connected by this case were oddly similar: petite, in their twenties, and working as escorts online. But when I started to learn more about these women’s lives, and I saw that everything that society might commonly assume about them was wrong. They weren’t social outcasts. They stayed in close touch with their families—their mothers and sisters, and, in some cases, ex-husbands and children. What they had in common, I discovered, was that they all came from parts of the country the media overlooks—poor, struggling areas where becoming a prostitute might not have been the most desirable path, yet somehow has become a valid, almost normal option.
What started as reporting on crime and murder became also about misogyny and class, and the shocking differences in how our criminal justice system treats the rich and poor. While I hoped the book would maintain visibility for the case, I also hoped the LOST GIRLS would help explain why these women where more than just what the media was painting them as. I wanted to find out why they felt they had to work in the shadows to survive—and to explain how the shadows sadly became the perfect place for a killer to find them.
L.L.: LOST GIRLS is such an intricate web of drugs, death, drama, and yet you find a way for readers to ‘get to know’ these girls, their families of origin, and little quirks about them. Can you tell us what your research process was like?
Bob Kolker: I’m very lucky to have had spent 17 years as a writer of feature and cover stories at New York magazine, where I got a lot of experiencing interviewing vulnerable sources for articles involving a variety of sensitive issues, including sexual abuse, the loss of family members on 9/11, and the police shooting of Sean Bell. In each case, I do what I can to be sensitive and even empathetic in my reporting, while retaining the impartiality and distance that is required for responsible storytelling. That’s a challenging line to walk, but I’m grateful to have a lot of experience walking that line.
When I approached the women’s families about a book, I made it clear that I considered it my responsibility to move beyond the headlines and present complete portraits of each woman. I spent a lot of time in the hometowns of each woman, speaking to friends and relatives alike. I kept coming back to the families in order to demonstrate that I wasn’t just doing a quick take on their lives, but really wanted to take their stories seriously. It took a lot of time, but I’m very grateful to all of the families for their candor and trust.
“[Lost Girls‘s] sense of mastery carries over into Mr. Kolker’s lean but ductile prose. Reading this true-crime book, you’re reminded of the observation that easy reading is hard writing.
– Dwight Garner, The New York Times
L.L.: We should back up a little and say, the women all involved were sex workers. In the late-1990s and early 2000s, the industry shifted a bit with the introduction of the Internet. Now prostitutes/call girls/escorts could lure johns anonymously through on-line ads on Craigslist and also Backpage. Since LOST GIRLS was published in 2013, how do you see that Internet sex world evolving? And do you believe the investigation would have been handled differently if the women weren’t sex workers?
Bob Kolker: You’re totally right that the Internet has revolutionized sex work. There’s no need to walk down a dark street anymore to be a sex worker, or to have a pimp, or to work for an escort service that takes most of your earnings. You don’t ever have to leave your own house. And so more women who lead more or less normal lives are often drawn into it because it promises an economic freedom they feel is unavailable to them otherwise. All five women I wrote about grew up in families where, in the social sense, prostitution was not seen as a move up. And yet for each of them, the decision felt like an entrepreneurial one: Rather than surrender their financial fate to a minimum-wage job with no benefits and no future, they decided to go into business for themselves.
Since LOST GIRLS was published, the sex work conversation has gone mainstream, with cover stories about legalizing prostitution in the New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. I’ve seen the coverage of serial-killer cases skew more toward treating the victims as real people and not stock characters in some police procedural. And the inequities of the criminal justice system are getting a lot more attention now, from media outlets like The Marshall Project. If LOST GIRLS played some part in that, I’m of course very happy.
But to answer your question: Yes. I absolutely believe that if these women came from a different social strata, the police would have taken their disappearances more seriously and worked to find them and solve their murders more aggressively. That aspect of the mystery is, at least to me, not unsolved. It’s crystal clear.
L.L.: There are new developments in the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK) case. In 2016, Shannan Gilbert’s younger sister killed her mother in cold-blood, it appears. The sister was also diagnosed with schizophrenia and pleaded insanity. Shannan was believed to be bipolar. Does mental illness factor in to this case at all?
Bob Kolker: I continue to follow the case closely, and while there are still no suspects, there’s always something new happening. I didn’t think I could be shocked anymore, but I certainly was brought low by Mari Gilbert’s [Shannan’s mother] murder. Mari is a major character in LOST GIRLS, which of course reflects how large she loomed in real life. She had worked so hard to get justice for her daughter Shannan, and for the police to treat all of the victims with respect and dignity. That her mentally ill daughter Sarra ended up killing her while experiencing delusions seems worse than unfair. Many have suggested that mental illness was something that Sarra shared with Shannan. I’m concerned that might be too pat an explanation for why Shannan disappeared: Just saying Shannan was crazy lets a lot of culpable people off the hook.
I’m also paying special attention to the case of James Burke, the police official in Suffolk County who was jailed recently after rising up to the department’s top spot, even though it was widely known just how jaw-droppingly corrupt he was. It seems clear that Burke worked to keep the FBI away from the LISK case, presumably because the feds were investigating him for various abuses and he didn’t want them anywhere near him. Imagine if the FBI had been able to help earlier. Maybe we’d have a suspect by now. There’s no telling what effect the corruption of the Suffolk County justice system had on this case.L.L.: There’s also the mystery of Dr. Peter Hackett, and his involvement in Shannan’s disappearance. According to the investigation, Shannan knocked in his beach cottage door demanding help. He denies this. But then he’s also called her mother offering condolences. It seems he’s hiding something. He’s since moved from Long Island and is living in Florida. It seems to me that the authorities would have their guy if bodies stopped piling up on Oak Beach now that he’s not there. But perhaps it’s not that simple?
Bob Kolker: The police never seemed to take Hackett serious as a suspect, but he certainly seems to be at the center of the events at Oak Beach on the night of Shannan Gilbert’s disappearance. I have an exclusive interview with Hackett in LOST GIRLS, and you can see in our conversation how he seems to dissemble even when asked the simplest, most verifiable questions. I am convinced that Hackett and other neighbors at Oak Beach are hiding something important about what happened to Shannan that night. I think we’d have much to learn from what they know.
As for the overall serial killer case, I’m as astonished as anyone that the police don’t have stronger leads, though that may well be because no one took these women’s disappearances seriously when they first vanished. I’m concerned that this might be a case that’s resolved five or ten or fifteen years later after someone confesses. That seems to happen a lot in serial killer cases. But it’s terrible that the perpetrator is still out there. I hope for an arrest as soon as possible. And I also hope for a greater understanding of what made these women so vulnerable to a predator. Their case is still very much alive, and readers can keep that in mind as they sift through all the clues themselves in LOST GIRLS.
L.L.: I could ask questions all day about the case, but I want to know more about your next book, HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD about a mid-century family who has a virulent string of schizophrenia in their family. How did you stumble across this find and what message do you hope to impart?
Bob Kolker: I’ve been very privileged to be interviewing a large family about everything they went through as mental illness tore through their lives at a moment when even less was known about mental illness than is known now. This family’s case was significant enough to be studied by NIH, but no one has told their story before. Along the way, I’ll also be telling the broader story of science’s search for the causes of schizophrenia. I hope this book does a little of what LOST GIRLS did, which is to offer readers a pathway into a world not quite like their own.
L.L.: What’s obsessing you these days? It doesn’t have to be literary.
Bob Kolker: My family just adopted a puppy. We did it kind of on impulse, which is very unlike us. None of us have had a dog before, either, so we’re freaking out and delighted all at the same time (shhh, it’s nap time). On the literary side, I’ve loved Megan Abbott’s YOU WILL KNOW ME and Adam Sternbergh’s THE BLINDS.
L.L.: Bob, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have? What you had for breakfast, what’s on your wish list this holiday season, your favorite book, or something else?
Bob Kolker: Once I stop researching my current book, I can’t wait to read KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON by David Grann.
For more information about the book, to connect with Bob via social media, or to purchase a copy of LOST GIRLS, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Kolker is the New York Times bestselling author of Lost Girls, named one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books and one of Publisher’s Weekly’s Top Ten Books of 2013. As a journalist, his work has appeared in New York magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ, Oprah, and Men’s Journal. He is a National Magazine Award finalist and a recipient of the Harry Frank Guggenheim 2011 Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, here:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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[Cover and author image courtesy of R. Kolker and used with permission. PEOPLE magazine image retrieved from author’s website, girls in case retrieved from Boston Globe books in a row from Amazon, ‘reading is my superpower’ from L.Lindsay’s personal archives, all on 11.18.17]