Robert Kolker Talks Lost Girls and the Long Island Serial Killer CaseS

Robert Kolker's Lost Girls, a book about the victims of the Long Island serial killer, covers the standard true-crime territory: the potential suspects, the police investigation, and the details about the crimes themselves. But more importantly, the book, through exhaustive reporting, details the lives of the women killed — all of whom were prostitutes from poor, "downwardly mobile, working-class communities” as Kolker put it in our phone interview yesterday. Instead of describing them as anonymous victims secondary to the spectacle of the unsolved crimes, Kolker builds the book around the women, portraying them as the daughters, mothers, sisters, and friends that they were to the dozens of people who still mourn them.

The book also discusses the relatively new world of online escort sites like Backpages and the now defunct Craigslist adult services page, innovations that almost overnight changed the prostitution business, and explores the small, secluded Long Island beach community where one woman went missing two and a half years ago under unusual and mysterious circumstances, a disappearance that would eventually lead to the discovery of four decomposed bodies hidden nearby.

I spoke with Kolker over the phone yesterday about Lost Girls, which was published last week to excellent reviews, and the on-going investigation of the case. Our interview is below.

At 1 pm, Kolker will join the comments to answer questions.

How did you decide to write about the Long Island murders? It was a New York Magazine story first, right?

When the first four bodies were found along Ocean Parkway in December 2010, Jon Gluck, my editor at New York Magazine, and I talked about doing a story on it. At that time, I said no because the Craigslist killer had just happened less than a year earlier. He was found very, very quickly, and I figured if there were four victims this time, the police would find the killer four times as quickly, so by the time I would get going I wouldn't have any police sources. I'd be scooped before I could get started.

But there was another reason why I said no, and that's because it never once occurred to me the victims were worth writing about. As soon as the police said they were most likely prostitutes that advertised on Craigslist, I immediately thought they were outcasts with no families and no stories of their own. That they were dead long before they were dead.

Some time went by and winter turned to spring, and they started to find more bodies along the highway. My editor came to me and rightly said, “We can't ignore this anymore.” So I searched for a way to tell an original story about this in the magazine. By that time the victims' families had started to perk up a little bit in the media, and it became clear that these women weren't outcasts, that they had close relationships with their family. They were from downwardly mobile, working-class communities, places that the media doesn't write about as much. And all the family members were dealing with the same horrible crisis in public. They all had loving but ambivalent relationships with their lost loved ones, and now they were all coming together. Long story short, that became the cover story for New York Magazine.

When I did that story, I thought the key to a book about the subject would be about this new wave of prostitution and about women making risky choices that they might not make before the internet took over prostitution. And about the world's they come from, tough areas where people are making risky choices to make money. I thought the woman's lives would be a window into something bigger.

But that was a very unorthodox idea. A murder mystery with no killer. A grim subject with no real answers. It was a risk, but I decided it would be a meaningful book.

What was the reporting process like for the book? You spoke with and got to know so many people.

It was a tremendous reporting challenge. I kind of conned myself into thinking it might be easy. I thought, “Well, it will be like five magazine stories about five different women and their lives. And then a sixth magazine story about the crime and the criminal case. I can write six magazine stories and lump it into a book, no problem.” But then there was as a problem and that's that I had barely done any reporting on these women's lives aside from what I'd done for the magazine story. I was starting not with nothing but with next to nothing. I needed to develop and maintain relationships with the families and that was extraordinarily difficult. They all were, eventually, very generous with me, and I'm very grateful to them. But more than that, these women, the victims were children. They were in their 20s, so I needed to speak to their friends and to their contemporaries and other escorts and their drivers and johns. I didn't want it to just be about their childhoods. I wanted it to be about how their lives evolved.

Were the families reluctant to speak with you at first? So many of their stories involve addiction, abuse and other painful, very personal histories. I imagine some people weren't thrilled to talk about it.

It was tough. Not all family members were happy with the magazine story, though that did give me a certain amount of credibility because they knew that I was for real and wasn't necessarily going to go away. This part of it, the reporting and speaking with vulnerable people who never signed on to become subjects of a media product, is part of it I'm accustomed to because that's the work I do at the magazine. The advantage of them speaking to me is that their lost loved one can be remembered as more than just as more than just the victim of a serial killer. And the world can understand why these women were loved, and why they were taken too soon.

But the risks they were taking with me were considerable, and I had to be very sensitive to that, so it was a very difficult process. What I find often in situations like these is that the more time you have the better it is, because the family members and friends may take months before they say yes. But in that time they are thinking to themselves, almost rehearsing what it is they want to say. And so when the time finally comes for them to say yes, there are often one or two very long interviews... it's a gusher of emotion and of information that they're offering. That's how it went with almost all of the people there.

The internet plays a large role in the book. From online escort sites like Backpage and the adult services page on Craigslist dramatically changing the business side of prostitution to Facebook bringing the family members of the victims together to the online message where armchair detectives compared their conspiracy theories. How did that effect research for the book?

It's a very good point you're making about how the internet kind of pops up in three different ways in the book. And in each case it's a double-edged sword. There are a lot of sex workers out there and people that call themselves sex-worker activists who argue that the internet is possibly a tool that could make sex work safer, that you could use it to vet your clients and communicate with other escorts and share information. But at the same time, for the women in this book, it was something that isolated them more and made them anonymous and vulnerable. So, you know, I didn't set out to turn the internet into the bad guy of the book, and I don't think it is, it's just the world we live in right now. And the thing with the families coming together, communicated regularly on Facebook, but it doesn't prevent that natural and understandable misunderstandings and alliances and fallings out that happened over time although many of them are still very close to each other.

And then the web sleuths world is a very interesting part of the internet that I only dipped my toe into in the book. Again it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand you get to pull together information that the police might not realize are linked to each other because they have tunnel vision on their own jurisdiction. On the other hand, you get a lot of name calling, a lot of fights, a lot of people accusing other people of being sock puppets, a lot of crazy agendas. There is a lot to wade through before you can get information, but I don't want to belittle the web sleuths people because there is plenty of information in Lost Girls that comes from those conversations.

There is a moment in the book when a neighbor at Oak Beach — where Shannon Gilbert disappeared — develops conspiracy theories about what happened and then quite independently of him, there is a fellow on the internet who goes by the name Truth Spider, who I interviewed in the book, who developed the same suspicions and very much on his own starts digging into a person he considers a suspect, trying to find out more about that person's background. So it's an interesting moment where two different people have decided the same person is hiding something or might even be responsible for what happened. I tried my best to give the floor to them in the book and let them make their arguments, but at the same time, give those arguments and claims a lot of scrutiny.

Along those lines, so many of people you interviewed – from family members to former co-workers of the victims to people living in Oak Beach – seemed to have their own agendas and, because of that, gave sometimes contradicting information about events. Was that tough to sort out?

Absolutely. A lot of the rewriting concentrated on very small moments where we were trying to figure out something specific about one person's childhood and there are many, many conflicting points of view. Megan Waterman from Maine is one example. Her mother says one thing, her grandmother says another thing, her aunt says a third thing, her brother says a fourth thing. And I had to sort of adjudicate all of that. The sections about her and her childhood, I rewrote those a zillion times before I was comfortable with what was in there.

Oak Beach, the town where one of the women went missing and where five bodies were eventually found, comes across as such a eccentric and isolated community-What was gaining access and spending time there like?

The plan from the very beginning was to make sure the book had a sense of place, that people would understand the area of Oak Beach and Ocean Parkway, where both the bodies were found and where Shannon Gilbert disappeared, and they would also understand the places where each of the women were from. So there is a lot of the book that narrows in on Oak Beach and in a kind of In Cold Blood kind of of way, looking at it as an environment as a community and as a place where people behave from one another in surprising ways. For me, the big take-away about Oak Beach is that it's not the millionaire's row that the media has portrayed it as. It's something far more peculiar. It's so far away from convenience stores or anything, so the people who live there are people who want to be left alone and when something like a criminal case happens at their front door, it's probably the worse possible thing that could happen to them, and they all shut their doors and circle the wagons.

Were there more surprising or shocking moments reporting Lost Girls than your typical magazine piece?

Yes, I did have more surprising moments reporting this than I have in my regular work, I think it's probably because of the amount of time I was spending with each subject, I was going a little deeper with them and talking about things with them that I might not have budgeted the time for if it was a magazine story. And there is this uncomfortable moment in Times Square where it happens so quickly that there wasn't enough time for me to freak out about it at the time, but in retrospect, I was really alarmed.

The book ends on a somewhat optimistic note, in some ways at least. Was your feeling that things were coming together for the relatives of the victims?

I guess my thought on the way the book ends, even if there is no closure, there is still very much the desire for a happy ending among all the people in the book, they want things to get better, they can loose ends to be tied up, and they're ready for good things to happen to them and to me that became every bit as meaningful as a Hollywood ending.

Have any of the victims' family members read the book yet? If so, what were their reactions?

The reactions have been all over the place and I was ready for that because it is a tremendous amount of visibility for all of the folks to endure. I sent copies of the finished books about a month before it was published, and some of them were extraordinarily happy and grateful and very excited about the book. Others were uncomfortable and not sure if this is going to be a good thing for them for the reasons I just described. Suddenly if the whole country is aware of you and your family, you feel a loss of control over your own story, and I find that completely understandable. What I try to tell them all is that I did my best to write as sensitively and respectfully about their lives as possible, and that their love for their lost loved one is the engine that drives the book and that hopefully it will be the first book that helps people understand the lives of women like this and that might all come to some good. Oh, I should mention that some of them have changed their minds. One person started by liking it and now doesn't, another person started skeptically and now liked it. It's a process, I think they're going to keep on talking about and thinking about the book for a while.

Have there been any updates about the actual case since you finished the book? And do you think there's any chance that it will be solved soon?

I'm concerned that this might a case that's resolved five or ten or fifteen years later after someone confesses. That seems to happen a lot in serial killer cases. I don't get a sense from the police that they have any real strong leads, but I don't know everything the police are doing so I can't say that for sure. But I certainly am hopefully that there will be an arrest, I really do hold out hope.

The interview was edited for length and clarity. (And a disclosure: Last winter, I worked for several weeks transcribing interviews for Lost Girls.)

Update: Kolker has signed off. Thanks for all your questions!