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Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker

Lost Girls
Robert Kolker

This is a good and brave book and one that, if you're anything like me, will make you hate yourself just a little bit.

I'm a news reporter. From time to time, I report on crime. It can't be avoided.

Every day, my e-mail inbox piles up with press releases from police departments across the country.

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The majority concern missing-persons cases. Toronto alone can send up to 10 missing-persons reports a day.

For the most part, I ignore them. And so does everyone else. Usually, the missing turn up within 48 hours. Often the press releases refer to "high-risk behaviour," meaning they're probably a drug addict or a prostitute or both, so, wink-wink, this isn't out of the ordinary. Just folks on the margins of society who haven't checked in lately.

Robert Kolker's Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is the story of how that apathy can empower a serial killer.

On Dec. 10, 2010, a Suffolk County Police officer searching for a missing prostitute named Shannan Gilbert discovered a set of human remains along Ocean Parkway, a scenic highway stretching the length of Jones Beach Island located off Long Island's southern shore. Two days later, police found three more skeletons in the same area, but there was no Shannan Gilbert among them. They hadn't even been looking for the four women they found that week. No one had, aside from a few family members whom everyone ignored.

Despite clear evidence of a serial killer, or killers, using the area as a dumpsite for dead women, Suffolk County Police seemed reluctant to continue the search for Ms. Gilbert, the one woman they knew for sure had disappeared in the area. She was a prostitute.

Prostitutes lead transient, high-risk lives. She could be anywhere, dead or alive. Let's all just move along.

When, on Dec. 6, 2011, they sent one last phalanx of searchers into a briny marsh armed with dogs, metal detectors and weed whackers, a TV crewman waiting on the proceedings crudely summed up the attitude of many involved: "I can't believe they're doing all this for a whore."

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Gilbert's body turned up a few days later. The truth did not. The case remains open. Utter indifference on the part of multiple law enforcement agencies doomed it from the start. Missing persons reports were dismissed. Leads were not followed.

This may sound a little familiar. If you live in Vancouver or Prince George or Edmonton or Winnipeg or any of a hundred other North American cities where cases of missing and murdered woman have been ignored, you know there is a chronic problem not just with protecting marginalized women from harm, but with seriously investigating once harm strikes.

The rise of websites like Craigslist and have mitigated some dangers of the job while amplifying others, argues Kolker, a New York magazine contributing editor.

The Internet is replacing middlemen in many facets of the sex trade, freeing prostitutes from the abuse and enslavement inherent in those relationships.

At the same time, the brutal old way of doing business offered some shred of a safety net. Word of missing women or violent customers travelled across of a network of sex-trade workers, just like office gossip spreads across any other workplace.

A prostitute's handlers could put the boots to aggressive clients, send out search parties for missing girls.

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Now, "escorts can work from a hotel with a laptop, or in a car on a smartphone. Alone," Kolker writes. "A missing girl is missing only to the people who notice."

Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews, Kolker retraces the lives of the five women whose bodies were found on Long Island – their personalities, their loves, their silly habits, their addictions. His ability to animate their lives is bedrock of this book, more a work of victim analysis than police procedural.

It is a noble approach, and one that can easily bring out the worst in readers. For me, the five women began to blend, their individuality lost in tale after tale of neglected upbringing, abuse, shattered dreams, addiction and ignorance.

Sad, tragic lives; sad, tragic deaths. Such a cavalcade of sorrow tests our compassion. I began ignoring details, scanning over pages, demonstrating the same sort of dismissiveness as the bungling investigators.

Luckily, Kolker is not so callous. His tireless reporting has done for the Long Island case what Stevie Cameron did for the Robert Pickton murders: created a full, agonizing account of a horrible murder case involving neglected women that tells us bad things about ourselves.

It also offers an implied argument for the regulation of prostitution, so that government could mandate the humanity that society seems so incapable of.

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Until something changes, laws and mores will force them to continue seeking out the technological margins, out of our sight, out of our minds – exactly what the killers count on.

Patrick White is a reporter for The Globe and Mail.

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