The serial killings on Long Island have become a national media sensation. But the cameras and microphones miss a larger story that unfolds in "Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery," one of the best true-crime books of this young century.Robert Kolker, a writer with New York Magazine, wants to know who killed five young women and why they died. But the murders are only part of his focus. Kolker seeks to understand the lives they lived, the struggles they endured and the motives that drove these working-class women to become prostitutes in the Internet era.The serial killings on Long Island have become a national media sensation. But the cameras and microphones miss a larger story that unfolds in "Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery," one of the best true-crime books of this young century.
The result is a grim but revealing inside look under the surface of American society. The murderer or murderers remain free, but Kolker captures other culprits – personal failures, callousness, incompetence – in the intricate web of his narrative.
I was interviewed by The Crime Report, a national website about crime trends published by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
"Class played a part. When most people think of a Craigslist escort they don’t think of someone whose story is going to be followed on CNN day after day or week after week. It became a widespread assumption among people covering the case that if the victims had been a little richer (and) more educated, their disappearances would have been all over the media before they even became part of a serial killer case. Instead they were stigmatized; and that stigma made it harder for a lot of people to take their disappearances seriously.
"My goal here was to take an unflinching look at all these women’s lives and to try to be non-judgmental and present things at face value. These are people who are written off and still widely blamed for being murdered. It’s quite astonishing. You can blame them for putting themselves in harm’s way; but you should also blame their drivers or pimps or johns, [who] don’t seem to get the blame the way these women do."
Robert Kolker's true-crime story "Lost Girls" (Harper, $25.99) has been drawing some terrific reviews since it came out last month. It was an Amazon "Best Book" for July, and Mimi Swartz in The New York Times called it "a gothic whodunit for the Internet age."
The book tells the story of a possible serial killing on Long Island. In December 2010, the corpses of four missing women were found wrapped in burlap and buried in dunes near Ocean Beach, N.Y. The remains of a fifth woman were found a year later in a nearby marsh.
All five women had been prostitutes in their 20s. All five had advertised their services online on Craigslist or its competitor, Backpage. Police suspect a serial killer is involved, but no arrests have been made.
This Big Apple tale has a local angle: One of the dead women was Amber Lynn Overstreet (later Costello), a former Wilmington resident.
Although born in Pennsylvania, Overstreet spent much of her childhood and teen years living in Carolina Beach – which Kolker describes as a "redneck Riviera" – and later in the Nesbitt Courts housing project. Sexually molested by a neighbor when she was 5, she grew up troubled.
When she was still a teenager, an older sister to whom she was close recruited her to work in an "escort" agency, entertaining bachelor parties at golf clubs and on Bald Head Island. The money on a good night was much better than either girl could make in a week waiting tables.
Much of that money, however, went to drugs, which were an integral part of the lifestyle. Amber Overstreet ended up addicted to heroin. She tried to kick the habit, and at one point moved to Florida, joined a church, married and planned to have a family. Then she backslid, re-entered the lifestyle and headed for New York. She was last seen alive on Sept. 2, 2010, leaving her home in North Babylon, N.Y., to meet an unknown client.
Kolker, a contributing editor for New York magazine, chose to tell his account through the victims' eyes, interviewing dozens of families, friends and others who knew the dead women. (Disclosure: I emailed Kolker some material on the history of Nesbitt Courts and got a half-sentence worth of credit in the acknowledgements.)
"Lost Girls" will add fodder to the current debate over human trafficking and whether prostitution should be legalized. One thing is clear, though: These five victims will never be faceless again.
"There are no easy good guys and bad guys here. The issue of blame is a trap. It keeps us from understanding in a way that dehumanizes them. If you say, 'Oh it's okay that they got killed because they are prostitutes,' it dehumanizes them. If you say, 'Oh they became prostitutes because they had a horrible childhood,' that dehumanizes them. If you say, 'Oh they got killed because the Internet is a scary place,' that's a very superficial way of looking at it too. I hope the book goes a little deeper than that."
I was the subject of a one-hour interview with Longform.org about Lost Girls and my work in New York magazine. The interview covers how the original magazine story was developed into an idea for a book, and how the book was conceived, reported, and written (and rewritten).
Saturday night's episode of 48 Hours (10pm on CBS) has new information about how and why law-enforcement fell short when Shannan Gilbert disappeared, as well as a focus on Lost Girls, which investigates the case and helps readers understand all the Long Island Serial Killer's victims, showing how they have been poorly served. Here, correspondent Erin Moriarty and I discuss the case on CBS This Morning.
The website Tits and Sass ran a Q&A with me and writer Susan Shepard.
"I did come away feeling that predators target people who are vulnerable, and what made these women vulnerable is that they worked in the shadows. The Internet might have put them on the grid, but ironically it also isolated them, so they hid what they did from view. No one close to them knew where they were at different moments, because their whole lives were so secretive. I think that for generations, we’ve tried stigmatizing sex work and we’re tried (many of us) pretending it just doesn’t exist and the people who do it don’t matter. None of that seems to have had any impact on demand for commercial sex. And that attitude turns women like this into targets for violence."
Kolker joins the cast in the second half to facilitate movement between different points of view: He meets with the families, who reward his dedication with intimate disclosures. He knocks on Hackett’s door and is invited in for a seemingly candid interview. Gilbert’s john, Joe Brewer, asks to be paid to tell him the truth. Barthelemy’s friend Kritzia takes him on a streetwalker’s tour of Times Square at night. “I end up entering the book exactly when I enter the story, as low profile as possible. I really didn’t want this book to be about my journey. All I wanted it to be about is the case and the families,” he says. In the initial draft, he was visible in Section 1, too, but revisions revealed that the women’s stories could stand on their own. This is a testament to Kolker’s researching and reporting. He counts himself a “huge fan” of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Alex Kotlowitz, and Lost Girls similarly fulfills the promise to move disadvantaged subjects from marginalization to the center of the page.
- Interview with Megan Labrise, KIRKUS
Slate has published an excerpt from Lost Girls concerning Melissa Barthelemy's life in New York in the years prior to her disappearance. The hosts of Slates's Double X Gabfest spoke with me at length about the book (click here; interview starts at about the 21-minute mark).
Columnist Nina Burleigh wrote about Lost Girls and prostitution, reviewing the book and interviewing me:
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.”
Lost Girls has been chosen by the editors of Amazon.com as one of its top ten best books for July 2013. Reviewer Neal Thompson calls the book "an impressive and impassioned work of investigative journalism, and a chilling commentary on the entangled influences of economics, race, technology and politics on sex and murder in the Internet age."
"In the two years I’ve spent learning about the lives of all five women, I have found that they all defied expectations. They were not human-trafficking victims in the classic sense. They stayed close to their families. They all came to New York to take advantage of a growing black market — an underground economy that offered them life-changing money, and with a remarkably low barrier to entry. The real temptation wasn’t drugs or alcohol, but the promise of social mobility."
Robert Kolker, "The New Prostitutes," THE NEW YORK TIMES
I'm delighted to have spoken with the great Michelle McNamara for her amazing website, True Crime Diary. And very flattered that she said of Lost Girls: "The whodunit aspect of the story was compelling enough, but the vivid portraits of the victims and their families are what stayed with me.... The book’s greatest achievement, I think, is the delicate balance it strikes between compassion and suspense. The book’s quality instantly elevates the true crime genre; more importantly, I think it’s an important work of social commentary."
Interview with Robert Kolker (True Crime Diary)