Skip to main content

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker

Title
Lost Girls
Author
Robert Kolker
Genre
Crime
Pages
384
Price
$27.95

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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."

Story continues below advertisement

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 Backpage.com 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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter