Monday, 30 July 2018

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery (True Crime) by Robert Kolker

Paperback:  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 Hauppauge, 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, award-winning investigative reporter 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 neighbourhood that has found itself the focus of national media scrutiny - where the police have flailed, the body count has risen, and the neighbours 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 - where the serial killer is still at large (from 1996 to the present day) - of the underside of the Internet, and of the secrets we keep without admitting to ourselves that we keep them.

The narrative is based on hundreds of hours of interviews with the victims' friends, family members, acquaintances, neighbours and members of law enforcement.  No scenes were invented.

About the author:  Robert Kolker is the New York Times bestselling author of Lost Girls, named one of the New York Times' 100 Notable Books and one of Publisher's Weekly's Top Ten Books of 2013.  His magazine journalism most often takes the form of gripping, humane narratives.

Among his subjects: firefighters, recovering from a notorious disaster in the Bronx;  the “Subway Superman” grappling with sudden fame;  a young academic star rising up from the inner city, only to be gunned down in her old neighbourhood;  the most vulnerable victims of Bernie Madoff’s financial crimes;  the children of those killed on September 11, 2001;  the secret history of how the FBI finally tracked down the fugitive abortion-doctor assassin James Kopp;  and the FBI Osama bin Laden expert killed in the World Trade Center attacks.

His 2006 investigation into sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community helped bring an abuser to justice and was nominated for a National Magazine Award.  His exploration of an eighteen-year murder-exoneration case and the police tactics that can lead to false confessions received the Harry Frank Guggenheim 2011 Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Other articles of note include the police shooting of Sean Bell, a close look at New York’s homelessness epidemic, and New York’s cover stories about airport safety and security, cheating at Stuyvesant High School, and Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s Miracle on the Hudson.

Kolker lives with his family in Brooklyn.  Lost Girls is his first book.

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