Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery

3.5 42
by Robert Kolker
     
 

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Award-winning investigative reporter Robert Kolker delivers a haunting and humanizing account of the true-life search for a serial killer still at large on Long Island, in a compelling tale of unsolved murder and Internet prostitution.

One late spring evening in 2010, Shannan Gilbert, after running through the oceanfront community of Oak Beach screaming for

Overview

Award-winning investigative reporter Robert Kolker delivers a haunting and humanizing account of the true-life search for a serial killer still at large on Long Island, in a compelling tale of unsolved murder and Internet prostitution.

One late spring evening in 2010, Shannan Gilbert, after running through the oceanfront community of Oak Beach screaming for her life, went missing. No one who had heard of her disappearance thought much about what had happened to the twenty-four-year-old: she was a Craigslist prostitute who had been fleeing a scene—of what, no one could be sure. The Suffolk County Police, too, seemed to have paid little attention—until seven months later, when an unexpected discovery in a bramble alongside a nearby highway turned up four bodies, all evenly spaced, all wrapped in burlap. But none of them Shannan's.

There was Maureen Brainard-Barnes, last seen at Penn Station in Manhattan three years earlier, and Melissa Barthelemy, last seen in the Bronx in 2009. There was Megan Waterman, last seen leaving a hotel in Hauppage, Long Island, just a month after Shannan's disappearance in 2010, and Amber Lynn Costello, last seen leaving a house in West Babylon a few months later that same year. Like Shannan, all four women were petite and in their twenties, they all came from out of town to work as escorts, and they all advertised on Craigslist and its competitor, Backpage.

In a triumph of reporting—and in a riveting narrative—Robert Kolker presents the first detailed look at the shadow world of escorts in the Internet age, where making a living is easier than ever and the dangers remain all too real. He has talked exhaustively with the friends and family of each woman to reveal the three-dimensional truths about their lives, the struggling towns they came from, and the dreams they chased. And he has gained unique access to the Oak Beach neighborhood that has found itself the focus of national media scrutiny—where the police have flailed, the body count has risen, and the neighbors have begun pointing fingers at one another. There, in a remote community, out of sight of the beaches and marinas scattered along the South Shore barrier islands, the women's stories come together in death and dark mystery. Lost Girls is a portrait not just of five women, but of unsolved murder 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.

Editorial Reviews

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
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)
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.”
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.
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.”
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-”
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.”
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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780062183675
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
07/09/2013
Sold by:
HARPERCOLLINS
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
416
Sales rank:
3,079
File size:
981 KB

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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Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 42 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting take on this very controversial murder mystery. If you know about the case, give this a try.
nausetsunriseKR More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A first-rate, moving rendering.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Detailed account of the unsolved murders in the Long Island area. Great read but tragic story. Truly puts a human face on an issue we'd all like to disregard and assume it only happens to "other" people. These woman were loved, they were mothers, daughters, friends, etc and I hope justice is served. 298 pgs.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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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bookchickdi More than 1 year ago
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.
gqb01 More than 1 year ago
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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