Police in Suffolk County in Long Island, NY came upon a grisly discovery in 2010. They had been searching for Shannan Gilbert, a woman who was last seen running for her life in the waterfront town of Oak Beach. What they found were four female bodies, wrapped in burlap. All the victims had been sex workers. They had arranged to meet their clients through the Internet. The discovery made headlines: was a new serial killer on the loose? But as more bodies turned up, and the police continued to be stymied in their search for the killer or killers, the victims and their families were all but forgotten.
Robert Kolker, a New York Magazine contributing editor, has tried to remedy that. His book, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery explores the lives, hardships and triumphs of the victims, who were all eventually identified as part of the shadowy new world of Internet prostitution. Kolker spoke to The Crime Report's managing editor Cara Tabachnick about why no one took the discoveries seriously at first, the impact of the Internet on the sex industry, and why law enforcement and the justice system should change their approach to modern prostitution.
The Crime Report: You have been writing about crime and criminal justice for a long time—what drew you to do this particular story?
Robert Kolker: When the first four bodies were discovered on the South Shore of Long Island and there was a serial killer suspected, I wasn't exactly sure how I might approach the story differently from the many reporters who were already pushing really hard to cover it. Only after they started finding more bodies and the victims' families started to become visible in the media, did it become clear to me that there were some surprises when it came to the victims. They weren't outcasts, they weren't trafficked in from far away places—they were all from struggling parts of blue-collar America.
TCR: Victims that you profiled were all poor, most of them from broken homes and small towns with little way forward for a career path. They were also all white. Did class or race or gender play into the way the case was investigated?
Kolker: Class played a part. When most people think of a Craigslist escort they don't think of someone whose story is going to be followed on CNN day after day or week after week. It became a widespread assumption among people covering the case that if the victims had been a little richer (and) more educated, their disappearances would have been all over the media before they even became part of a serial killer case. Instead they were stigmatized; and that stigma made it harder for a lot of people to take their disappearances seriously.
My goal here was to take an unflinching look at all these women's lives and to try to be non-judgmental and present things at face value. These are people who are written off and still widely blamed for being murdered. It's quite astonishing. You can blame them for putting themselves in harm's way; but you should also blame their drivers or pimps or johns—(who)_ don't seem to get the blame the way these women do.
TCR: These women were savvy enough to turn to the Internet and use it to promote themselves and their careers. Is the Internet the future of prostitution?
Kolker: The Internet has disrupted a lot of different industries. Sex work and sex commerce have changed completely. While there are obviously still prostitutes who walk the street, anyone new who enters (is likely to conduct) their business online. (Working online) appeals to women who normally may have never entered the field. They can be their own boss, set their own hours. Sometimes they don't need a pimp, and if they stay at home doing calls they don't even need drivers. And they can be their own boss and not share their proceeds with anyone. Most importantly the most attractive things about the Internet is the anonymity: it is possible to have a private life, and you can keep what you are doing secret for a very long time.
TCR: For years sex trafficking advocates have been rallying against sites like Craigslist and backpage.com with little success. Do the Internet companies have responsibility for the fate of these women?
Kolker: Famously a bunch of jurisdictions teamed up to make demands on Craigslist, and in September 2010, the site removed its adult services category. At the time you could argue that Craigslist had become bigger than Times Square in terms of prostitution. And they were allowing illegal things to happen including human trafficking and underage prostitution—which is terrible. But then you have the question of what happens when Craigslist goes away—and what happened was fairly predictable.
First, a lot of prostitutes didn't leave Craigslist at all; they just existed under camouflage–under slightly different categories, such as massage services, instead of escort services. But then most importantly another web site stepped into Craigslist's shoes: backpage.com. Amid calls to close their services they have not succumbed to the pressure. And now the debate has somewhat shifted. People who support legalizing prostitution argue that having one main hub actually gives sex workers more visibility and allows them to be a little less vulnerable to predators.
Not everyone is in agreement that the Internet is the villain. Some sex workers even say it allows them to vet their clients more carefully. So the conversation becomes a bit more complex—because in reality the Internet has now become the place we live.
TCR: Just like the Internet, most likely prostitution will never go away. Do you think it should be regulated in the United States?
Kolker: I'm not convinced there wouldn't be unintended consequences from making prostitution legal. But keeping it illegal is certainly not stopping anybody from making it available and unsafe for everyone concerned. I would advocate bringing it out of the shadows, and try and lift the shadows. First thing law enforcement should become realistic about the roles prostitutes are playing in the criminal world and instead of pretending they don't exist or treating them like second-class citizens or not taking their disappearances seriously. They could in certain instances offer them immunity, if it means learning more about other criminals out there. Right now there probably isn't a place in America where a sex worker feels comfortable going to the police about someone who is a serious threat. That needs to change.
TCR: Should law enforcement or the criminal justice system change their approach to prostitution?
Kolker: I think in a lot of cases they should. If you are a low- level pot dealer and you have information about a high-level drug dealer the police will work with you. But the same can't be said in the world of sex workers. Prostitutes would never come forward to the police because they know they would never get anything but trouble. I think that has to change.
A lot of the advertisements and escorts are fronts for organized crime. One way in would be to stop vilifying the low-level sex workers and make it clear to them that your door is open. My broader point is more about balance. I'm not arguing that prostitutes aren't breaking the law, but I do think they are being stigmatized and marginalized out of proportion to the level of their offense.
TCR: Just recently Cleveland police arrested a suspected serial killer—whose victims are all female—some most likely involved in the sex trade and drugs. The public response is mostly muted.What is going on here?
Kolker: One law enforcement person said on the radio the big takeaway is they got the killer, so the public should feel safer. But the flip side of this is that there is a population out there that is vulnerable to predators and they aren't any less vulnerable then they were last week.
They are vulnerable because they are forced to work in the shadows. Law enforcement pretends they don't exist and we as a society pretend they don't exist. You know the Internet and sex workers aren't going away, so a slightly more realistic look at this industry could make a whole lot of people less vulnerable.
TCR: What role do the media have in covering these sensational cases?
Kolker: Media are drawn to compelling narratives. I don't want to put down the decisions the media makes, but certainly if you are trying to gain people's attention there are storytelling motifs that work. In the book I tried to probe the lives of people who most of the media didn't want to know more about. And I really did feel like that I took a risk by trying to figure out who the (victims) were and what their lives were about. with the hope it would create a greater understanding.
TCR: The Long Island case remains unsolved. Did you find anything that the police, investigators or families missed?
Kolker: The police seemed determined to call Shannan Gilbert 's death an accident, and to say its not connected to other cases. I'm not so sure about the accident part. I think there are a lot neighbors know (what happened) but aren't saying. I have an exclusive interview with Shannan's john and with a neighbor who has become a center of scrutiny in the case. And while I don't come to any major conclusions I do offer a look at what happens when a community becomes the center of undesired attention.
TCR: You wrote about the theories abounding on social media through amateur sleuths as well as how family members' ideas were posted on Facebook. Why was this important?
Kolker: Internet armchair sleuths put themselves into the story long before I was involved and they've played a very interesting role. They have become very good at assembling and compiling data and information about people in these cases, and can draw associations about things that the police are too busy to bother with or can't see, which can be very helpful.
But on the bad side, Internet 'detectives' develop their own tunnel vision after a while and (in effect) start to prosecute people who may be completely innocent. It can be troubling to watch that happen.
TCR: Does it hamper the investigation?
Kolker: Police were overwhelmed. In this case, they didn't have the forensic capability to look at four bodies at once. They needed help from FBI in the beginning to search for bodies. They inherited essentially 11 cold cases at once with bodies in various states of disintegration. They still haven't been able to identify half the victims. And then they have the media demanding immediate answers, thinking police are going to find the killer right away. On top of that you have those Internet armchair sleuths who have decided that they have all the answers. I don't envy all the work the police had to do on this case.
At this point, I think they are having real problems cracking this case and I'm not sure what more they can do. The killer or killers at this point are probably very well hidden. I think going forward police have to be slightly more realistic about this industry. They've also learned their lessons along the way. There were huge open disagreements between the police and the DA's office whether there was one killer or more and they aired all that in public, which was a tremendous mistake. They've stopped doing all that. They don't comment in public anymore.
TCR: You spent years reporting and writing on this book. Can you describe your relationship with the families now?
Kolker: I owe them a tremendous amount of gratitude. These are people who have been caught in a Catch 22. They want their loved ones' murders to be solved, so they want as much attention as possible to the case. Yet they've lost loved ones who have had difficult lives. So to dredge that up and tell the story over and over again is not a comfortable thing to them.I remain in close touch with all of them as they deal with the reactions to the book.
TCR: Did the story change you?
Kolker: I've had a lot of experience writing about vulnerable populations and about ordinary people going through extraordinary things. So that piece of it was something I was prepared for. But obviously this is more monumental than anything I've worked on before. You can read policy papers about how there is a gap between rich and poor in this country, and an even more pronounced gap between the middle class and the working class. And you can read about how a lot of people don't have chances now that they used to have in the past. To spend time with five different families and with their friends and neighbors, in five different struggling part of the country certainly changed me. Before these women got caught up in drugs and alcohol, they had few options. t was the money, the promise of social mobility, that brought them into prostitution.
Cara Tabachnick is managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers' comments.