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Wednesdays with Writers: Bestselling author and award-winning journalist Robert Kolker talks about the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK), the evolution of sex work, how our justice system isn’t always fighting, his forthcoming book, and more in his true-crime narrative LOST GIRLS

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A PUBLISHERS WEEKLY top ten book of 2013 about an infamous Long Island serial killer (LISK).

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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. 

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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 BellIn 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.LostGirls_AF

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.download (54)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:

KolkerAuthorPhoto.jpgABOUT 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:

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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] 

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Fiona Barton is back with her much anticipated second book, THE CHILD; what she learned this time around, the images that were haunting her, the fine balance of motherhood and career & so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

“You can bury the story…but you can’t hide the truth…” so begins the hook for the second crime drama/suspense, THE CHILD (Berkley Hardcover, June 27 2017) by Fiona Barton.

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You may recall Fiona Barton’s 2016 summer debut, THE WIDOW at the top of the New York Times bestseller list… a global phenomenon.

She’s back this summer with a brand-new story, but featuring Kate Waters, the investigative journalist we ‘met’ in THE WIDOW. This time, she plays a more central role.

Set in London, THE CHILD encompasses the lives of three women and one baby.
But there’s a twist: the baby is missing or dead or…we don’t entirely know.

Workmen uncover the tiny skeleton of an infant while demolishing an old house in London. It’s been buried for years. For journalist Kate Waters it’s the perfect story. Who is this baby? Why wasn’t s/he given a proper burial? With journalism and newspapers quickly being replaced by more amateur-ish reporting (i.e. Internet/FB/Twitter), it’s a story she feels compelled to investigate.

As Kate digs into the past, she finds there are several grisly secrets rising to the surface.  THE CHILD is a bit more forensic-procedural-crime-driven read, but it has a very satisfying end.

Please join me in welcoming Fiona Barton back to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Hello and welcome back, Fiona! THE CHILD begins with a pretty grisly discovery: an infant skeleton is uncovered in a former garden as workmen are demolishing a building. What did you discover about yourself as you were writing THE CHILD?

Fiona Barton:

  1. How to write a second book. Steep learning curve.
  2. Ability to waste hours of time when should be writing (working on this)
  3. Patience (essential when ideas are cooking)
  4. That, after 30 years of news journalism, invention is the most wonderfully liberating thing.

L.L.: The image of a buried newborn sort of haunted me as I read (I think this is what you intended—so bravo!), and clearly it haunts your character, Angela, whose infant daughter was abducted from the hospital just days old. What was haunting you enough that you wrote THE CHILD?download (26)

Fiona Barton: The same thing. For THE WIDOW, I had the voice of my main character Jean in my head, driving me on but it was an image for THE CHILD. I could see a baby, wrapped in newspaper, being buried secretly and I wrote this scene first because it was so vivid. I remember trying to read it to a friend and having to stop. I’d written it in the first person and it was completely overwhelming.

L.L.: You’re a former journalist and I can only imagine that experience colored the character of your character, Kate Waters. They say journalism is changing; there’s the 24-hour news cycle, more people who claim to be ‘experts,’ and writing about things maybe they shouldn’t…can you talk about ‘good news’ and ‘bad news,’ how we consume current events…

Fiona Barton: Although it is only two years since she broke the story of the abduction of Bella Elliott [in THE WIDOW], Kate’s world in THE CHILD has changed beyond recognition. News is now 24/7, online, visual, powered by social media, algorithms and the multiple news platforms available to the public.download (25)

I think it is fantastic that news and information can reach so many people instantly but the downside is that perhaps we have focused so hard on the technology for delivering news that we have lost sight of the quality of the content. The boast that everyone is a journalist because they are on social media has turned out to be a hollow one. They are not journalists. Journalism is gathering facts, checking the truth of statements, analyzing information and telling the story. The millions on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram et al are sometimes reporting facts but more often, they are giving their opinion. Not the same. And I am convinced it  has opened the door to the horror that is Fake News.

I have addressed this head-on with Kate because it is an issue that affects many journalists of my vintage. In THE CHILD, she is paired up with a new, young online reporter and finds her ideas of accuracy and news values under threat.  Her complaint that news websites rely on “Hate a celebrity, dressed up as news” is a heartfelt one…

L.L.: What I found striking about THE CHILD was the common thread: motherhood. All the mothers in this story are very different. There’s Jude and Emma, Angela, and Kate. Can you talk about how they vary as mothers and who you identified with most (I think I can guess the answer)?

Fiona Barton: The emotions, responsibilities – and the pain – of motherhood are unique to each of us with children. Ask any woman and she will have her own story to tell.

For THE CHILD I chose three very contrasting mothers: Angela, who lost her daughter before she could form a relationship; Jude, who chose to send her daughter away and Kate, the working mother, juggling ambition and family.

Jude was the most difficult to write because her traumatic years with her adolescent daughter, Emma and her decision to throw her out, were so alien to me. But, with Angela, I’d interviewed two or three women who had to give up their babies at birth and I’ve never forgotten their accounts of the pain of those partings.

motherhoodRFD-custom1In confidence, I didn’t have to look too far to write about Kate’s guilt when a story threatens to take priority over her children. But you’ll have to ask my two if I got it right…

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from THE CHILD?

Fiona Barton: The thrill of the ride! Anything else will come from them. We all read in such an individual way that we create our own version of a book. As the famous English writer, Dr. Johnson, said several hundred years ago: “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”

L.L.: What was the last thing you Googled? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Fiona Barton: Wish I could say literary quotes or forensic facts…but it was train times!

 “Fiona Barton has outdone herself with THE CHILD. An engrossing, irresistible story about the coming to light of a long-buried secret and an absolutely fabulous read—I loved it!”

Shari Lapena, New York Times bestselling author of The Couple Next Door

L.L.: What book would you take with you on holiday? 

Fiona Barton: Am collecting candidates and in my beach bag so far are THE ADVERSARY by Emmanuel Carrere, LAST STOP TOKYO by James Buckler and THE GO BETWEEN  by L.P. Hartley. Room for more…

L.L.: Fiona, as always, it was a pleasure. Was there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Fiona Barton: I am writing my next book as we speak. And Kate is still there with her foot in the door.

For more information about THE CHILD, to connect with Fiona Barton via social media, or to purchase your own copy, please visit: 

download (27)ABOUT THE AUTHOR: My career has taken some surprising twists and turns over the years. I have been a journalist – senior writer at the Daily Mail, news editor at the Daily Telegraph, and chief reporter at The Mail on Sunday, where I won Reporter of the Year at the National Press Awards, gave up my job to volunteer in Sri Lanka and since 2008, have trained and worked with exiled and threatened journalists all over the world.

But through it all, a story was cooking in my head.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, by visiting these sites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Berkley/NAL and used with permission. Motherhood image retrieved from the NYTimes, multimedia journalism image retrieved from College of Media and Publishing,