In late 2010, police found the bodies of four young women wrapped in burlap on a desolate stretch of Long Island coast called Gilgo Beach.Their names were Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, Maureen Brainard-Barnes and Amber Lynn Overstreet Costello.
Suffolk County cops had been poking around in the weeds and poison ivy for months searching for another young woman, Shannan Gilbert, who was last seen by startled home-owners in a nearby hamlet called Oak Beach. She had been banging on doors in the predawn twilight and screaming that someone was trying to kill her. Ms. Gilbert ran off before police arrived and was never seen again. Her body was eventually found in the area.
The women—all prostitutes who advertised on Craigslist, all poor, white and in their 20s—didn’t know each other. Whoever killed them remains at large. Had Shannan Gilbert not pitched a public scene before her own death, it’s quite likely we would never have heard of them at all.
In an engrossing new book titled Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, New York magazine writer Robert Kolker has put real lives behind the dolled-up selfies these women posted online. Theirs were the brutish lives of Americans born into the misery of economically and spiritually gutted small-town mid-Atlantic America. Their own mothers scraped and struggled to get by, working at Sears, casinos, Dunkin’ Donuts, motels. Fathers were absent. Grandparents, neighbors, foster parents stepped in to fill the care gap.
They suffered from domestic chaos, emotional problems, childhood abuse, unplanned pregnancies, bad boyfriends. The hallmark of their brief adult lives was the relentless pressure to bring in money to keep a roof over their own heads and the tiny heads of the babies they produced long before they were ready.
Each of them found a way to a modicum of financial stability through Craigslist, becoming “providers,” in john-speak—selling sex to make ends meet.
This is a car-crash of a story, but the most disturbing aspect is the way authorities couldn’t have cared less about these women. The inescapable impression one takes away from Lost Girls is that police rank Craigslist prostitutes somewhere below lost dogs.
It took days, weeks, sometimes months for police to start looking for the women—even though their friends and families knew within hours of their disappearance that something was wrong and called the authorities for help. Their bodies were only found, up to three years after they died, because a fifth victim—Ms. Gilbert—raised an alarm.
In each case, once police knew what these women did for a living, they either delayed looking into the case or refused to do so altogether. Ms. Gilbert herself called 911, as did several of the homeowners whom she begged for help, and it took around 45 minutes from the time of her first call for police to show up.
By humanizing the women, Mr. Kolker has produced a subtle indictment of the sex trade. But he says that was not his intention. He got into the story when he learned that the families of the girls were meeting together and he joined them in New York. He expanded a magazine article into the book.
“I didn’t have a strong feelings about prostitution pro or con,” he said. “I wanted to write this book because the women surprised me. Their home lives were unstable, but no more unstable than those of thousands of other people in struggling parts of America.
“Their lives were a window not just into a new era of prostitution, but also a struggling segment of America that just doesn’t get written about often. There’s a level of despair in working-class communities around the country that we tend to overlook. These are places where prostitution might still be frowned upon but is nevertheless becoming a highly attractive option.”
There is little doubt that the five dead women were murdered by a john who found them on the Internet. Statistically, prostitution is an extremely dangerous job: besides being prey for serial killers, escorts are vulnerable to routine violence and to long-term harm from drugs and alcohol that some consume to self-medicate.
Two opposing camps are at war over how to help women working in prostitution in America. Those who call prostitutes “sex workers” or “providers” seek to decriminalize it and unionize the women. On the other end is the Demand Abolition movement, which equates prostitution with slavery, calls prostitutes “trafficked women” and aims to criminalize men who pay for sex.
In the New York area, authorities have begun arresting johns more frequently in response to a campaign by groups like Demand Abolition. Last month, Suffolk’s Long Island neighbor, Nassau County, announced that a sting tactic using fake Backpage ads and hidden cameras had hauled in 104 men, whose names and photographs were published. Before that sting, dubbed Operation Flush the Johns, Nassau County police had arrested fewer than 40 johns in the last 10 years, authorities said.
The NYPD arrested 5,834 people for patronizing a prostitute from 2008 to 2012. In January 2012, the city police ran “Operation Losing Proposition” and arrested 186 johns in a few weeks. Unlike the Nassau authorities, New York cops didn’t publicize suspects’ names or photos.
Norma Ramos, director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, has been pushing police departments across the country to arrest johns rather than what she calls “trafficked women,” and she applauded the Nassau County arrests.
“So many people have romanticized notions about the johns, seeing them as hapless, well-intentioned men, when in fact they are buying women and girls in prostitution to act out pornographic sex on their bodies.”
After I finished reading Lost Girls and before I started writing this, I signed up for The Erotic Review, the largest consumer guide to prostitution, according to the tech and gadgets page at NBC.com.
A little button in a corner informed me that 14,646 users were also online, and that total reviews were just shy of one million.
I clicked on New York and was confronted with a dizzying array of discussion boards, rankings and a come on to sign up for VIP membership to find out the real goods: whether the girls were willing to “bring a second provider” or open to “cum in mouth,” among other special services. A small box illustrated with a locked diary enticed me: “Become a VIP member. Get access to all her secrets.”
That VIP membership won’t unlock the big secret that five dead girls took down with them on the beach. But Lost Girls opens their sad little diaries.