Friday, July 19, 2013

*Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, by Robert Kolker

Harper, 2013
399 pp


"If the victims had been from middle-class homes in gated beach communities, the response, they assumed, would have been different." 

Five young women are the central focus of this excellent book, five "lost girls" who went to work one day and never returned.  All worked as escorts, advertising their services on Craigslist; four of them ended up as bodies wrapped in burlap hidden near the main road of Jones Beach Island (NY),   close to the small gated community of Oak Beach.  The body of the fifth young woman was located almost a year to the day after the other four.  Lost Girls offers no solution, no grisly details of how these murders were committed, or any of the usual true-crime components, because as the title reveals, the mystery behind the deaths of these young women has not yet been solved.  Instead, the author reveals a) the lives of these  women up to the very moment when they were last seen alive, b) some speculation about some of the residents of  the small, gated community of Oak Beach where one of these women was last seen running through the streets, c)  the events behind the discovery of the bodies and the lax attitudes of the police and other officials who ran the investigation, and finally, d) the aftermath of the girls' disappearances among the families and friends they left behind, as well as the crazy media circus after the discoveries of the bodies.  Most pointedly, however, he examines how each and every one of these "lost girls" and their families were failed by the system due to officials' indifference toward them, primarily based on what they did for a living.  Lost Girls is simply one of the best works of  true crime/reportage I've ever read.  Once I picked up the book, I stayed buried in it for the entire day until I'd turned the last page. 

The book begins with a prologue that starts with the disappearance of Shannan Gilbert, who  was last seen running through the streets of the Oak Beach community  in the wee hours of  a May morning in 2010. Evidently,  something had scared her enough to bolt from her client's home screaming, after the client had come to get her driver waiting outside in the car.   Shannan had called 911, but couldn't give a precise location.  The next call to 911 came from an elderly man  whose door Shannan had come to but left after he told her he'd phoned the police. Another neighbor calls, but it's still 45 minutes until the cops show and by then, Shannan has disappeared. Police take a report, but that's about it. Seven months after this bizarre incident, four bodies were located about three miles away from where Shannan had last been seen, and the police figured that one of them was probably her.  They were wrong.  As he notes, the bodies belonged to 
"Maureen Brainard-Barnes, last seen at Penn Station in Manhattan three years earlier in 2007, and Melissa Barthelemy, lsat seen in the Bronx in 2009.  There was Megan Waterman, last seen leaving a hotel in Hauppange, Long Island, just a month after Shannan in 2010 -- and, a few months later that same year, Amber Lynn Costello, last seen leaving a house in West Babylon, Long Island." 
Kolker examines the lives of these women through interviews with family, friends, and acquaintances in the first two sections of this book. Their home lives as young girls are detailed under short chapters (one for each girl) revealing very different backgrounds -- some of these girls had no father figure, some had tempestuous and negative relationships with their mothers, one of the girls had been raped at a young age, drugs were a factor in many homes, etc. -- but in most every case, financial hardship was part and parcel of their background. While some of these girls had dreams -- one wanted to be a singer, for example, -- things just didn't end up the way they planned.  In another set of short chapters, this time headed by their street names, the author looks at how they came to work in the sex industry and to use Craigslist as well as its competitor, Backpage,  and what it was that made them go out on their own that one last and final time. The personal focus is the best part of this book, but what follows also makes for compelling reading, especially the speculation by locals and others interested in the case as to who may have been guilty for at least one of the deaths, and the way in which these girls were written off by police just because they were prostitutes.

This work draws on conversations from family, friends, pimps and co-workers in the sex trade, boyfriends, police officers and others, and it's obvious that Robert Kolker has spent an immense amount of time doing his research.  Pulling it all together, he doesn't rely on simulated dialogue, nor does he try to sensationalize any parts of this story or pad it with the sort of titillating tidbits so prevalent in modern true crime books.  He has a writing style that hooks you on the first page and keeps you invested until you find yourself speculating along with the others about all the theories he lays out pertaining to Shannan's disappearance -- and the deaths of all of the others as well. He goes through several possibilities, leaving room for doubt, never claiming to have an answer -- because there isn't one yet -- but in an effort to be thorough,  he interviews some of the people who others feel may have been responsible.  Best of all, he does all of this without ever becoming judgmental about these women and what they do for a living.  Au contraire -- no matter what anyone else may think, he points out that these were young girls with lives and people who cared about them -- and that their deaths deserve to be taken as seriously as anyone else's, with just as much official attention as would be given anyone else. As he notes,
"The demand for commercial sex will never go away. Neither will the Internet; they're stuck with each other. It may no longer even matter anymore whether the sale of sex among consenting adults is wrong or right, immoral or empowering. What's clear is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don't exist.  That, after all, is what the killer was counting on."
This is such a haunting book -- and the fact that this stretch of island was also the dumping ground for other prostitutes' bodies (and a toddler)  makes the reality  even more sad. Even worse -- these bodies had been there for some time, and no one came looking for them.

I loved this book from beginning to end, so I have pretty much nothing negative to say about it, but there are a couple of issues.  First (and this is a very minor one), Sanibel Island is not part of the Florida Keys, although the author states this.  Second -- where the heck are the photos? I mean, photos to give the victims a face instead of having to rely on descriptions would have been the perfect touch -- I sat with my Ipad on my lap to get visuals of these "lost girls."  It's a stunning book, and I most highly recommend it to anyone who may be interested.

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