Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery (Hardcover)
A Globe & Mail 100 Selection
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.
“Kolker is a careful writer and researcher...[he paints] a far more nuanced picture of each young woman than any screaming headline could.”
“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.”
“Robert Kolker unflinchingly probes the 21st-century innovations that facilitated these crimes… ...An important examination of the socioeconomic and cultural forces that can shape a woman’s entry into prostitution.”
“Beautifully and provocatively written.... [Lost Girls] 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.”
“Robert Kolker’s LOST GIRLS is reportage at the highest level; it’s miss-your-bedtime storytelling… It’s a wonder.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“Some true crime books are exploitative…others grasp at serious literature. Robert Kolker’s new book falls into the latter category.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“Rich, tragic...monumental...true-crime reporting at its best.”
“Engrossing...a car-crash of a book...By humanizing the women, Mr. Kolker has produced a subtle indictment of the sex trade.”
“A heart-chilling non-fiction tour-de-force...terrifying and intensely reported.”
“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.”
“Riveting and often heartbreaking...a lashing critique of how society, and the police, let these young women down.”
“Immensely evocative...we are left with is a visceral understanding of the lives of the victims and why they should have mattered more.”
“Terrific...vivid and moving...Grade: A-”
“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.”
“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. ”
“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.”