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Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery

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Overview

A Publishers Weekly Top Ten Book of 2013

Award-winning investigative reporter Robert Kolker delivers a humanizing account of the true-life search for a serial killer still at large on Long Island, and presents the first detailed look at the shadow world of online escorts, where making a living is easier than ever and the dangers remain all too real. A triumph of reporting, a riveting narrative, and "a lashing critique of how society and the police let five young women down" ...

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Overview

A Publishers Weekly Top Ten Book of 2013

Award-winning investigative reporter Robert Kolker delivers a humanizing account of the true-life search for a serial killer still at large on Long Island, and presents the first detailed look at the shadow world of online escorts, where making a living is easier than ever and the dangers remain all too real. A triumph of reporting, a riveting narrative, and "a lashing critique of how society and the police let five young women down" (Dwight Garner, New York Times), Lost Girls is a portrait of unsolved murders in an idyllic part of America, of the underside of the Internet, and of the secrets we keep without admitting to ourselves that we keep them.

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Editorial Reviews

Darin Strauss
“Robert Kolker’s LOST GIRLS is reportage at the highest level; it’s miss-your-bedtime storytelling… It’s a wonder.”
Nick Reding
“Lost Girls is a marvelous book, taking a complicated, trying story and making it compulsively readable. Kolker is an outstanding reporter and a sensitive narrator who does justice to a horrible tragedy by paying exactly the kind of attention that no one else did, or would.”
David Grann
“Meticulously reported and beautifully written, Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls is a haunting and powerful crime story that gives voice to those who can no longer be heard. It is a story that you will not be able to forget.”
Mimi Swartz
“A gothic whodunit for the Internet age…nearly unputdownable…[LOST GIRLS is] a horrific, cautionary tale that makes for a very different kind of beach read…Kolker expertly chronicles the sad cycle of poor, uneducated white women faced with lots of kids and few resources.”
Laura Miller
“The absence of the killer is the making of this book, a constraint that allows it to become extraordinary…humane and imaginative…[Kolker] shows the dented magnificence and universal sorrow within ordinary lives, and makes you realize how much more they are worth.”
Washington Post
“Rich, tragic...monumental...true-crime reporting at its best.”
Miami Herald
“Kolker is a careful writer and researcher...[he paints] a far more nuanced picture of each young woman than any screaming headline could.”
New Yorker
“Through extensive interviews with the victims’ families and friends, Kolker creates compassionate portraits of the murdered young women, and uncovers the forces that drove them from their respective home towns into risky, but lucrative, careers as prostitutes in a digital age.”
Newsday
“Kolker indulges in zero preaching and very little sociology; his is the lens of a classic police reporter. And often in Lost Girls, the facts are eloquent in themselves.”
New York Observer
“Some true crime books are exploitative…others grasp at serious literature. Robert Kolker’s new book falls into the latter category.”
Nina Burleigh
“Engrossing...a car-crash of a book...By humanizing the women, Mr. Kolker has produced a subtle indictment of the sex trade.”
Complex Magazine
“A heart-chilling non-fiction tour-de-force...terrifying and intensely reported.”
The Daily Beast
“Readers expecting an SVU-style true-crime story will be disappointed. But through detailed profiles of the victims themselves, Kolker has written a more provocative book—a book that is as much about class and economic pressures as it is about sex work and murder.”
Megan Abbott
“So masterful.”
The Guardian (UK)
“By learning the intimate details of the women’s lives, seeing them as humans rather than victims, we see our similarities…Lost Girls is possibly the realest, fullest picture of what is happening with sex work in the US right now.”
Barnes & Noble Review
“Kolker does not hold back in addressing the fact that there was dysfunction in these women’s lives. They were drug addicts and teenage mothers and petty criminals. They suffered. But he can also see that within those circumstances they had moments of strength and self-assurance. ”
National Post (Canada)
Lost Girls is partly unsolved mystery...[partly]the intimate story of the five women… [and] a case study in the profound impact of the Internet, and particularly Craigslist, on the business of buying and selling sex.”
Boston Globe
“Captivating.”
Slate
“A rare gem of a book that not only tells a riveting story but illuminates something about a slice of America and gets into a lot of very deep issues. Its really great on every front.”
Dwight Garner
“Riveting and often heartbreaking...a lashing critique of how society, and the police, let these young women down.”
New York Daily News
“Immensely evocative...we are left with is a visceral understanding of the lives of the victims and why they should have mattered more.”
Entertainment Weekly
“Terrific...vivid and moving...Grade: A-”
The New York Times - Dwight Garner
Robert Kolker's Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is, physically, a well-made book. Its cover image is crisp and haunting. Someone has paid close attention to this volume's many maps. They are stylish and, a rarity, actually helpful. This sense of mastery carries over into Mr. Kolker's lean but ductile prose. Reading this true-crime book, you're reminded of the observation that easy reading is hard writing.
Publishers Weekly
In stark contrast to the ugliness of the story, Kolker’s sad tale of five young women linked by the tragic circumstances of their disappearances is beautifully and provocatively written. The book opens with a prologue that casts an appropriately eerie pall on the proceedings: after arriving late one spring night at Long Island’s Oak Beach, Shannan Gilbert, an escort who was in the area to see a client, began banging on doors and screaming for help. Her pleas went unanswered, and then she disappeared. That was in 2010. Seven months later, the corpses of four women—also escorts—were found nearby. Kolker, a contributing editor at New York magazine, outlines each woman’s descent into a world “that many of their loved ones could not imagine,” and in doing so renders each as fully fleshed out individuals forced to make tough decisions to navigate a tough world. Just the right amount of detail will make all but the hardest-hearted empathetic. Add a baffling whodunit that remains, as the subtitle indicates, unsolved, and you have a captivating true crime narrative that’s sure to win new converts and please longtime fans of the genre. 10 maps & timeline. Agents: David Gernert and Chris Parris-Lamb, The Gernert Company. (July)
The New York Times Book Review - Mimi Swartz
Robert Kolker, who wrote about the murders for New York magazine in 2011, has produced in Lost Girls a compelling, nearly unputdownable narrative of the case and its attendant issues; a horrific, cautionary tale that makes for a very different type of beach read.
Library Journal
The lack of resolution is a foregone conclusion in Kolker's (contributing editor, New York) book about the serial murders in Long Island from 2007 to 2010 of five sex workers who advertised their services on Craigslist: it's right there in the title. However, Kolker's portrait of the young women and their families will draw readers in despite the frustration they will feel at the book's end. Although all five of the victims profiled were sex workers, Kolker does not condescend or dismiss the women as lost causes. While the author doesn't shy away from the more brutal aspects of the women's lives, he avoids the what-did-they-expect undercurrent that pervades reporting about murdered or injured sex workers. He tells their stories as completely as possible, presenting them as whole people, reminding the reader with the complexity of each woman's story that "the issue of blame itself, in the end, may be a trap. They weren't angels. They weren't devils." VERDICT Readers may find themselves checking in with the case in the future, hoping for some justice for the lost girls. Recommended for all true crime readers, particularly those in the New York area.—Kate Sheehan, Waterbury, CT
Kirkus Reviews
In his debut, New York magazine contributor Kolker delves into the disappearances and murders of five women, all working as escorts in the New York metropolitan area. More than 100 years ago, London prostitutes were targeted by Jack the Ripper, a serial killer whose identity remains an enigma. In our brave new world of Craigslist advertisements, cellphones and escort services, one group of lost girls--Shannan, Maureen, Melissa, Megan and Amber--faced similar threats from the anonymous client(s) who eventually killed them. The author unflinchingly probes the 21st-century innovations that facilitated these crimes, which launched a media blitz that shook the integrity of a secluded Long Island community called Oak Beach. What sets his investigation apart from many true-crime tomes, however, is the attention he pays to the girls' back stories and to the efforts of their families and friends to bring the killer to justice. We know from the title that the crimes are still unsolved, leaving Kolker free to present the bewildering array of theories held by law enforcement, neighbors, online communities and even potential suspects. Nor does the author shy away from the dysfunction that permeated all five girls' lives: foster homes, absent parents, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancies and domineering boyfriends all play prominent roles in this narrative. Fortunately, he includes both a timeline and a list of characters for reference, as the deluge of names, dates and details can prove intimidating. Kolker also does a fine job of describing the girls' lives without patronizing their decisions or unnecessarily inserting himself into the proceedings. Most commendably, he points out inconsistencies and dubious motives on the part of some of his interviewees; one mother, who had little to do with her daughter while she was alive, reinvented herself as a crusader for justice. Still, "[t]he issue of blame itself, in the end, may be a trap," Kolker concludes. An important examination of the socioeconomic and cultural forces that can shape a woman's entry into prostitution.
The Barnes & Noble Review

In most cases, the recipe for a true crime book is very simple: take innocence, add a figure of evil, and stir. In the case described in Robert Kolker's Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, though, none of the ingredients were in the pantry. First of all, as far as identifying the killer is concerned, there is very little to go on: no DNA, disappearances years old, no strange men spotted in trucks. Even local rumor comes up rather short on innuendo and conjecture. All we have is three women's bodies buried in suspiciously similar circumstances, another woman who was last seen running terrified into the night, and a lot of shrugging from the local cops.

Kolker couldn't even rely on the standard device of the crime book, a flat portrait of the beautiful, innocent victim, to give him some cheap pathos. The victims of the putative serial killer at the center of the case were sex workers. And as sex workers, in the world at large, the victims bear the cultural baggage attached to their livelihood — the paradoxical invisibility that comes with it. It's not an accident, as Kolker's book charts quite well, that until the bodies turned up the police were less than enthusiastic about finding these women. The reasoning is somewhere between deliberate indifference and blaming the victim. Lead the life of the disappeared, and don't be surprised when, well, you know.

Yet it's the very invisibility of these subjects that opened their stories to a book-length telling. It is no accident, for example, that we are nearly halfway through the book before we get to the meat of the investigation. Before that point, Kolker's task is to bring into focus the five women who disappeared — Maureen, Melissa, Megan, Amber, and Shannan — and what he manages to elicit from their families and friends is the most nuanced, complex portrayal of prostitution in America I've ever read from a mainstream journalist.

In interviews, Kolker has said that he was unfamiliar with the nuances of the debate about sex work until he began reporting the Long Island serial killer story. I, for one, think that is a blessing. Among feminists the line is stark. On one side you have the kind of anti-trafficking advocate who believes that prostitution is a literal tool of the patriarchy, which transforms the abused and the disenfranchised into a "sex class" perpetually on-call for the powerful. On the other, you have the kind who insists that there is something valuable, liberating, even "empowering" in the work. Each camp tends to rely on the selective use of facts, and for anyone to cross the lines has become extremely rare.

In stumbling out into the no-man's-land without preparation, Kolker is able to hold several opposing thoughts in his head at once. First, he does not hold back in addressing, quite directly, the fact that there was dysfunction in these women's lives before they walked away into the dark. They were drug addicts and teenage mothers and petty criminals. They suffered. But he can also see that within those circumstances they had moments of strength and self-assurance. Dysfunction is not wholly determinative; it didn't have to end this way. There's hope, for example, in the makeshift family Amber cobbled together from a group of recovering addicts. Megan, though in and out of juvenile prison for shoplifting, managed to garner a fatherly affection from her arresting officer. Maureen was close to a sister who wishes she'd answered Maureen's call to pick her up on that last night. Melissa loved making hair into cornrows, and Shannan played Miss Hannigan in high school.

Indelible little details like that aren't just the mark of good reporting; they're the sign of a reporter who actually wants to describe these women as they were, not as ciphers in a story as old as Jack the Ripper, targets waiting to be hit. The rest of the book is vividly drawn too, of course — a local doctor who seems to know too much gives Kolker a character to follow, if not quite a suspect or, indeed, a villain.

It's a sign of how much shape Kolker gives the victims that you rather miss them when they go. At the end, he allows himself a small bit of editorializing. "What's clear is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don't exist," Kolker writes. "That, after all, is what the killer was counting on." It may be little comfort, but with this book, Kolker's certainly offered what he can as antidote: for the 200 or so pages he gives them, those "girls" exist.

Michelle Dean is a journalist, critic, and erstwhile lawyer whose writing has appeared at The New Yorker, Slate, The Nation, andThe Awl.

Reviewer:: Michelle Dean

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062183651
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/6/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 82,404
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Kolker is a New York magazine contributing editor and was a finalist for the National Magazine Award. He writes about issues surrounding criminal justice and the unforeseen impact of extraordinary events on everyday people. He lives with his family in Brooklyn. This is his first book.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 40 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 40 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 9, 2013

    Unable to sleep early this morning, I sleepily browsed new relea

    Unable to sleep early this morning, I sleepily browsed new releases and ordered the electronic copy of Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls.  I read the prologue, and felt my eyes drowsy eyes widen.  After twenty pages, it was clear that I wasn’t going back to bed.  Twenty pages after that, it was clear I wasn’t going to work.  I emailed my boss and finished Lost Girls late in the afternoon.  I regret none of it.

    Lost Girls hooks you with an unsolved mystery.  It leads you gently to unsolved social issues, too.  The book never preaches, though I suddenly can’t stop thinking about criminal and economic justice.  As broad as the societal implications may be, the five women of the title, and their families, are treated with unmistakable individuality.  Kolker skillfully humanizes each of them.

    If you know Robert Kolker’s magazine pieces, you know they usually involve getting a broad circle of people with complex connections to each other to tell their own, often opposing, sides of a story.  To write Lost Girls, somehow, he earned rare candor and trust from families, friends, accusers, and suspects.  None of them wants to stop thinking of this story.  I faked a sick day because I couldn’t, either.

    30 out of 31 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2013

    Never read a true crime book quite like this

    Wow really interesting take on several murders that seem to be related on Lomg Island. Not so much the murders really but the lives of the women involved makes fascinating reading.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    Very interesting take on this very controversial murder mystery.

    Very interesting take on this very controversial murder mystery. If you know about the case, give this a try.

    6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2013

    Though the book was very informative, I felt it lacked the excit

    Though the book was very informative, I felt it lacked the excitement element that should draw you into a book and captivate you. I didn't really learn anything from this that i didn't already learn from newspapers and blogs.Though not totally based on the beach murders, I felt Confessions of the oak beach drifter was a far more entertaining book. In my opinion, I feel this "drifter" who is also mentioned in Lost Girls, is holding something back pertaining to this very mysterious case.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 24, 2013

    Great nonfiction read!

    This book does not "solve" anything and it doesn't conjecture, either. It presents information from a specific viewpoint. The author does a great job of leaving you in suspense, yet in a good way, while avoiding sensationalized writing. At the end, we may have more questions than answers, yet we are also satisfied at having learned more about the situations that face women daily who find themselves with few alternatives after tough family situations.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2013

    Recommended

    I thought the book was well researched and that Robert Kolker did an excellent job of presenting an unbiased account of the murders of these young women. The authors coverage of the lifestyle of these women was very interesting and shows just how the internet can make an another anonymous threat to someones life in the guise of efficient helpfullness, all the while making them alone and vulnable.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2013

    Just ok

    I love true crime but felt like thus book dragged on and on. The different characters were hard to follow and remember throughout the book.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2014

    Serial Killer At Large December 2010, the Police discovered the

    Serial Killer At Large
    December 2010, the Police discovered the bodies of four women wrapped in burlap on a stretch of beach called Gilgo Beach. The corpses were later identified as those of four girls, Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, Maureen Brainard-Barnes and Amber Lynn Overstreet Costello.  A serial killer was on the loose and still at large. In the second half the book it covers the reaction of the families and friends and neighbors to the murders. One of the most interesting and surprising part of this book is when the police are revealed as a bureaucracy and insist that the girls somehow killed themselves and reassure the public that normal citizens have nothing to fear. The author discusses all the police activity and inactivity on the case. A fairly good read, it wasn’t the best but it wasn’t the worst. It starts off intriguing learning about the girls and families lives in the book, from where they worked at to the habits they had. Unfortunately their stories begin to get muddy and very similar. It’s hard to differentiate between them as their stories are being told, they almost all seem to be the same person but with the slightest differences in their lives. There are maps that help you visualize where the different girl were living at but even with that it is hard to keep it straight. Robert Kolker did an amazing job of keeping biases out of the story and really just used the facts that he had to work with to put together this although muddy at times very intriguing and compelling story of the still-at-large Long Island Serial Killer.



    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2014

    The definitive writing on the case

    Mr. Kolker has written an excellent true crime book here. I love that he made the victims come alive and made the reader see them as people. He shows great deference to these women whom many would and do see as disposable entities and "just" prostitutes. These women were someone's daughter, sister, mother, friend, and people need to remember that. I came away from this book extremely frustrated that the police seem to have done such a poor job in investigating these murders, particularly Shannan Gilbert's, the one victim in whose case there were all the pieces available needed to find the perpetrator, but were not used to put the puzzle together. Why was the security tape not seized immediately? Why were her clothes and possessions not tested for DNA? Why was her bone marrow not tested for all drugs, not just cocaine? I think it's painfully obvious that the reason is because she was viewed as a disposable victim because she was a prostitute. The police didn't want to "waste" resources on her. If she was an upstanding, middle- or upper-class woman, I think someone would be in prison right now. I pray that Shannan, Maureen, Melissa, Megan, and Amber may rest in peace and that their family and friends are at peace as well.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2013

    Great

    Fascinating.

    Terrifying.

    Unbeliably true.

    This book has received some phenomenal reviews and it is easy to see why. The author is obviously a journalist and he knows his stuff. He sticks to the 5 W's of Journalism: who, what, when, where and why.

    I knew nothing of this case and I live in New Jersey not far from where it happened! I am not one to follow local news which is undoubtly why. Now I am in the author's debt for educating.

    Well written and easy to read, this books goes down smooth like an extended newspaper article. I could not stop reading it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2013

    TMI

    This book is very well researched but suffers from too much information and poor presentation. I didn't think a book about a serial killer could be dull, but this one is boring in spades. You will be introduced to literally everyone the victims ever knew and will have dozens of unconnected stories to keep straight. Do not expect suspense or even diversion. This book is only for people who have a STRONG interest in details and NO interest in plot development.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 30, 2013

    Great writing. Compelling insights

    A great read that turns a spotlight on a part of our society that we'd grown used to ignoring. So well researched and well written!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2013

    Wow

    Havent read it and not sure i wanna read it

    1 out of 78 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2014

    More of a recital of names and places. A compelling mystery, bu

    More of a recital of names and places. A compelling mystery, but the book is a bit of a maze.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2014

    Great Read

    I really enjoyed this book, but I do wish the author had spent a little more time with his findings to present some sort of theory or sense of closure of his own. Definitely worth reading, and maybe even re-reading for the amature detective who might want to do some digging of their own.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2013

    I want the time I invested reading this book back!

    This book was poorly written, rambled on about 250 pages too long, and was very hard to follow. I found myself skimming it just to get thru it! Not sure how it got so many positive reviews...but it was a huge dissapointment in my opinion!

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 12, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Kolker's book grew out of a New York magazine article he wrote a

    Kolker's book grew out of a New York magazine article he wrote about the disappearance of Shannan Gilbert, a prostitute who ran into the dark of the isolated Oak Beach area of Long Island. Months after her disappearance, the bodies of four other young women, all prostitutes, were found buried in Gilgo Beach and a serial killer was on the loose. The book examines the lives of all five of the women, how they got involved in prostitution and what led them to their deaths.

     Kolker does an amazing job examining this story from all angles. He talks to all of the families and friends, and draws sharp portraits of each of the women. These women had much in common: many of them were born to young women themselves, lived in poverty, dropped out of school, used drugs, had sex at a young age, did not use contraception and ended up having babies of their own at a young age and unable to support them. They turned to prostitution because they saw no other opportunities and because social media like Facebook and Craigslist made it easy.After we meet all of the women, Kolker turns his attention to the place they disappeared and the police investigation. No one has been arrested for these murders, but Kolker interviewed people who lived in this unique oceanfront community, some of whom have been considered suspects at one time.The Lost Girls is a meticulously researched piece of well-written narrative non-fiction. It reads like a good mystery novel and this is one of the best non-fiction books I have read. This year Publisher's Weekly chose it as one of their ten best books of 2013.

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  • Posted October 31, 2013

    I finally finished it. I did like the book, especially all the

    I finally finished it.

    I did like the book, especially all the background information in the beginning. I wish the list of characters and how who the people they were involved with had been in the beginning of the book. I read an e-book version and don't typically skip to the back, where the characters were listed. I had trouble keeping track of whom was whom. Sure would like to know who did it!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2013

    Good

    I havent read this book yet bnt it looks prety good.

    0 out of 23 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2013

    Strip club for big boobs

    Hey

    0 out of 23 people found this review helpful.

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