Couple Behind Doc ‘The Killing Season’ on Uncovering the Serial Murder of Sex Workers

Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills in The Killing Season.

Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills in The Killing Season. Photo via A&E

On a spring evening in 2010, a young woman named Shannon Gilbert went missing after placing a frantic 911 call to police from Oak Beach, an oceanfront community in Long Island. Several months later, four female bodies were found on a stretch of Ocean Parkway in Long Island between Gilgo Beach and Oak Beach. They were wrapped in burlap. The corpses had a deliberate, graveyard staging, spaced evenly apart. None belonged to Gilbert, but they shared with her one very important characteristic: The women, like Shannon, had all made money answering escort ads on Craigslist. The story became national news, and incited a flurry of interest from amateur internet detectives, who posted their theories about LISK (short for Long Island Serial Killer) on the message boards of WebSleuth.com. Over the course of the next several months, more bodies and remains were found in the area, bringing the total up to 10. Despite several promising leads, the killer was never discovered.

In 2013, true crime writer Robert Kolker published Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, about the first five victims of LISK. The book revealed several disturbing details, including instances of corruption and incompetence within the police departments that handled the cases.

Six years later, we’re no closer to finding out what happened to these women, or the identity of LISK, than when the bodies were first discovered. But a new true crime docuseries on A&E, The Killing Season, uses the LISK murders as a starting point to examine the disturbing progression of serial murders of sex workers across  the country. Produced by Alex Gibney (Going Clear), The Killing Season follows two documentary filmmakers, Joshua Zeman (Cropsey) and his partner, Rachel Mills (Killer Legends), as they travel from Long Island to Florida to New Mexico and beyond, searching for answers to this alarming and underreported trend.

I met with Zeman and Mills on the appropriately spooky night of Halloween to discuss The Killing Season and whether they worried that putting themselves on camera could potentially turn them into a madman’s next target.

Observer: I read Kolker’s Lost Girls and found it riveting. Is that what inspired you and Josh to start this series?

Rachel Mills: Such carnage, right? A year passes, two years pass, and you think there’s so many bodies this case would be solved. And it just continued not being solved. As we were doing Killer Legends together, Josh would go on the weekends to Long Island to start working on this story. He thought it was going to be a documentary, like maybe a two-hour documentary. He’s from the area: he was born in Sea Cliff, grew up in Glen Cove and then moved to Staten Island. I think it’s north shore, I don’t think it’s too close.

One of our first interviews was Bob Kolker, who wrote Lost Girls. We started with that, but then we started to see these eerie connections, these eerie similarities to cases across the country. One-hundred and twenty miles away is Atlantic City and another four sex workers are found behind this seedy motel. Were these real connections or just strange coincidences? Whenever we would hit a roadblock or thought maybe there was something more to a story, it’d be going back down the rabbit hole to WebSleuths, our partners in this.

Did you have any sort of preconceptions about what kind of person you were looking for—a sort of profile of a serial killer?

RM: I think I was a little naive going into this whole thing. I don’t come into it from a true crime background this Josh does. But as you’ve probably seen a little if you’ve gotten through episode six, we kinda branch out and go a little bit bigger picture with Florida – not even just cases—but the reason why these crimes happen and why they continue to be unsolved.

I think that’s something the public, they’re always looks to make these connections, right? They think that maybe there’s some super serial killer going up and down the East Coast killing at will – and that’s really not the case. These guys are really average, they’re well… they’re really average, really common. The idea of those Silence of the Lambs super-geniuses who play cat-and-mouse games with detectives…that doesn’t really happen that much. I think that was something we really wanted to make sure that we were doing, kind of like cutting through those Hollywood tropes. Because in a way, it’s so much more terrifying that we don’t know what we’re looking for.

The scariest moment in the show didn’t even have to do with a serial killer: It’s the scene where you’re walking around in the backwood swamps of Florida, and a guy comes at you with a machete for being on his property.

Josh Zeman: With Florida there’s a feeling when everyone around you is on meth and you don’t know…shit could just go bad at any moment.

Serial murder cases are, for lack of a better term, super hot right now. Were you interested in tapping into that zeitgeist?

JZ: Well a lot of it was after Cropsey. People would be like “You’ve got to do something on serial murderer, a narrative on serial murderer, serial murderer, serial murderer!” It really upset me because I made Cropsey as a reaction to a lot of the horror films I was seeing, because I didn’t think they were really horrific. I was like, “Oh if you want to see something horrific, I can show you something that will fucking blow your mind because it’s real.”

I didn’t want to do anything about serial murderers. The this case came up. I had this idea that everyone said it was going to get solved, and then when it didn’t, and we heard about all of the political backstabbing, the corruption, the fact that these women were sex workers. I was like “Okay, now we have somebody who needs our help, and we have an opportunity to show really what’s involved in a serial murder case.” It’s more The Wire then it is Hannibal. To me you don’t really see it; either (the killer) is a super genius or depraved.

Right, it’s all these transphobic ideas like, “He’s got mommy issues, or he wants to be a women.” The Ed Gein school of serial murderers.

JZ: Very sexually titillating. ‘Oh he’s so hot, he’s a serial killer.’ And it’s like: it’s neither of those. And then we drove around (an escort named) Super, who was my first interview. And I was just amazed that this woman, every time she went out, she had to make a life-or-death decision about whether she was going to get protection or not. I was glad that she didn’t have to have a pimp, but we were scared for her.

We see in the show that you’re waiting for her to call and check in, and she’s just…not. It turns out that her phone died when she was with a john. Was that one of the scariest experiences of working on the show?

JZ: You know what scares me the most? More than anything? There’s nothing scarier than broken systems at the end of the day. What if you are stuck in a mental institution and you only have MS, but your mind is completely intact, but the system won’t free you. That’s what we all fear at the end of the day: yes it’s the individual, but worse, it’s the broken test.  

Going back to the idea of broken systems, it’s the same thing of chaos. It gets back to the clown thing.

RM: You’re always trying to bring in the clown thing!

‘It’s chaos that’s truly scary. The worst thing that could happen is 80,000 people running down the street and we don’t know why.  You know what I’m saying? That’s our biggest fears. Zombies. Apocalypse. Clowns…Whatever it is, we don’t know. That’s the creepiest thing. The fact that there’s no law enforcement, law enforcement can’t help you, and they can’t track. To me that’s really creepy.’ – Joshua Zeman, ‘The Killing Season’

JZ:  I’m not always trying to bring clowns into it, but yeah, okay: it’s chaos that’s truly scary. The worst thing that could happen is 80,000 people running down the street and we don’t know why.  You know what I’m saying? That’s our biggest fears. Zombies. Apocalypse. Clowns…

Pokémon Go…

JZ: Pokémon. Whatever it is, we don’t know. That’s the creepiest thing. The fact that there’s no law enforcement, law enforcement can’t help you, and they can’t track. To me that’s really creepy. And as someone in our doc says, I think a big thing is that we’re fed this bullshit lie that law enforcement is feeding our information to super-computers 24/7. Every TV show, I can tell you, has that “Super…we got it boss!”

RM:  People think it’s actually real, that you can solve a crime in 30 minutes.  But what’s really crazy is that it’s actually a private citizen that has the largest database of homicide stats in the country. Because homicide data isn’t mandated to be reported…he has gotten information in some cases through suing the State of Illinois for homicide data, compiled it, and through algorithms can detect where serial murderers that no one knows about possibly yet.

I mean that’s the whole thing, a lot of times (police) don’t want to investigate a missing persons’ case if the person happens to be a sex worker, because there’s not a good chance of it getting solved.

And – I’m not blaming the women at all—these women often go missing. They do go off the radar. So I mean one thing is we don’t want to throw law enforcement under the bus too hard—unnecessarily—we definitely want to in some cases.

JZ: It shouldn’t be that hard. It’s very bad out there.

RM: Going into this I really felt that there was a maybe–I guess I was being naive–one national database was about all the homicides data all the missing persons.

Right? I mean, what’s the point about being paranoid that Big Brother is reading all our email and knows all our geo-cache data, if no one is actually paying attention or using that information? That’s somehow even bleaker of an idea: no one is taking any of this data and finding ways to make it applicable or preventable.

JZ: You want to believe that people are actually smarter than they are. So conspiracy gives credit where, unfortunately, credit isn’t due. Look, a lot of money came in from 9/11: they could have spent it on data entry, they could have spent it on upgrading computers, but instead they bought better weapons. Now at the end of the day you can’t really blame them: Do you want to spend time on data entry or do you want to go shoot guns on the weekend?

RM: Shoot guns.

JZ: We all agree that shooting guns is way cooler.

So how did you get hooked up with Alex Gibney?  

JZ: We created a very dark trailer and sent that around, and sent it to a number of different people, and Gibney saw it and was like, ‘I love this, this is Doc Noir.” Alex is great. I guess I was nervous I couldn’t sell a show about sex workers–like dead sex workers– because it would have been way too depressing. But Alex was like “No no no, make it about the sex worker angle. Go into what’s the hardest”…and that was the hardest entry point.

RM: Well there can be different kinds of serial murder. Children: that’s terrible. But sex workers routinely get murdered…do people want to watch a show about that?

JZ: It was sort of organic. We do the academic stuff and talk about the changing of the world’s oldest profession. That’s crazy to me. We could talk more about what Kolker talked about, like lowering the bars to entry, more women doing it, and as a result of more women doing it because you can just take a selfie and put it up on the web and it’s almost anonymous. You could meet somebody at a Holiday Inn ten blocks away, suddenly, a lot more women were doing it. And so, where serial killers like Joe Rifkin used to have to go, because he would go to the city to pick up women, now he doesn’t have to go to the city. Now he can just go right onto the highway.

RM: I mean the age we live in right now the Internet feels somehow very safe. But there’s not even a vetting system.

JZ: The Internet’s scary.

Do you think the police are at fault for not catching LISK or these potential other call-girl killers, and essentially leaving it in the hands of Internet vigilantes like WebSleuths?

JZ: I think cops are lazy. I think humans are lazy. But, listen, what I will say is out of the 5 cities we looked at, three of those departments were under investigation by the department of justice for civil liberties violations. When I say civil liberties I  mean unjustified shootings and all these other issues. There’s a culture and a set of urban politics that breed a guy out there that’s like, ‘Huh, I wonder if I can get away with it?’ Then there’s a couple of outside systems that give him the message that he can.

I think it was, and that was I think, Long Island, look, you’ve got the police chief who we find has got relationships with prostitutes. “Then you’re like, how can this guy, who everybody knows, become police chief in Atlantic City?”

Atlantic City might be the worst. First of all their selling sanctioned sin, and they’re selling it at  bankruptcy prices. And now you have Daytona, Albuquerque…

I found that there was the individual, and then the urban politics that foster the individual like a greenhouse.

You have a certain docudrama style that isn’t what we’ve seen from Gibney’s Going Clear, or The Jinx or Making a Murderer. You put yourselves onscreen; you, the filmmakers, are part of the story. The show is as much Vice as it is Serial.

JZ: It’s a personal story and showing a personal side—it’s the filmmaker breaking down the walls of artifice—you feel connected. The thing is caring about these women.

RM: I think that’s part of it. It took a long time to gain these people’s trust. To really tell them we’re doing something a little different. And that was hard, to have these relationships, to be texting these people as they’re, you know, going to meet johns.

There’s one episode though, where you are trying to figure out about the disappearance of one young lady, and you track down a biker group that then sends out a recon mission to tape you, taping them. I got the distinct impression that this was a very uncomfortable moment, but how is what they were doing any different than you guys showing up at their bar with a film crew?

JZ: I know my own intentions. When we went to visit the biker gang, it was literally like two months after that shootout in Texas, and the stories that we heard about the outlaws, they’re fucking bad. You know why they call that group the 1 percent-ers?

This is one percent of the biker clubs who kill. They’re very not shy about it, all very bad dudes. And when we connect with them,  And then they send out the girl in the white mustang to record us…they’re sending a woman out to do the dirty work.

I’m like less scared about serial killers than those guys.

Were you guys ever worried about your own safety?

JZ: Oh yeah, I worried.

RM: I used my personal cell phone to talk to a confessed serial killer in prison for the show.  The thing is, we really wanted to find someone who was willing to admit to the crimes who wanted to talk to us. I must have contacted 50 incarcerated serial killers. And we knew that it was better if I made the calls. We knew that if someone saw my name Rachel, they’d want to speak to me because I’m a woman. (The guy we spoke to) was one of the few who would admit to the crimes. And so having my name out there, and having this correspondence with these men who were still in prison, that’s a little terrifying knowing that.

JZ: For me, they’re in jail –

RM: Yeah, but common!

JZ: My bigger fear is that a guy would be like, “She’s out there and we’re gonna try and find her.” After the series.

Are you, worried about that, Rachel?

RM: A little bit. I’m a very open person so he has to constantly remind me not to talk about that or not to talk about this, because –

JZ:Yeah nobody knows my address. My address, you can’t find my address.

RM: It’s a very fine line to walk because there’s an openness about me. I think that’s one reason why we were as successful as we were to get friends and families of victims. But also going back to your point on how we chose to shoot, and our tone and style, I really find myself as more an audience member. I’m happy to be off-screen. And that’s why I feel very vulnerable actually. I mean you see me cry while we’re talking to someone. So I think that’s a very precarious emotional range to have to navigate.

Ever gotten threats?

JZ: Yeah, it comes with the territory. But you can’t do what you do, you can’t go half-assed. And that’s the problem with all these Discovery shows and reality TV shows and shows that talk about true crime…they just do it half-assed. Then it becomes half the story and then it becomes fake.

See, I loved Lost Girls. The problem is it wasn’t enough. What we wanted to do, because there’s so much story there, I was really making the show for people who’d read Lost Girls, and then wanted to know what happened next. And I love to see Kolker write an after series. The book’s great, I love true crime, In Cold Blood, The Journalist and the Murderer, Joe McGinnis’ Fatal Vision. But that’s the thing about the consumption of true crime as a genre: we want to cathartically exercise our fears without really caring. I feel myself working even harder to overcome a lot of the ways the true crime TV shows becomes a way to re-blame the victim. I don’t want to turn into Nancy Grace.

The Killing Season airs on Saturdays at 9 p.m., ET on A&E. You can watch full episodes here.

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