Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, a terrific investigation into the serial killer who strewed his victims in the dunes of Gilgo Beach, located on a remote New York barrier island, begins early one morning in May 2010. A young escort named Shannan Gilbert batters the door of 86-year-old Gus Coletti, screaming for help. By the time the police arrive, she has vanished into the salt grass and sumac. “There was no public outcry, no crush of camera crews,” Kolker writes. “The police didn’t come back to search after that first morning, either.”
The disappearance of a prostitute was treated as no big deal. Shannan’s mother, Mari, later said, “I think they look at them like they’re throwaways.” It wasn’t until December that a police cadaver dog discovered four bodies (and, in time, at least six others) in the marsh. That’s when Nancy Grace got hold of the story, and it exploded in the media.
Kolker’s book doesn’t center on police work but on Gilbert and her fellow victims: Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Walterman, and Amber Lynn Costello. Talking to family and friends, he pieces together their lives, looking at the societal forces that led all five to end up as escorts. The result is vivid and moving: These women had families, passions, plans, interests, children.
Whether Kolker intended it or not, Lost Girls is a powerful argument for legalizing and regulating prostitution. Regardless of how you may feel about the profession, it’s never going away — and keeping it illegal marginalizes the women who work in its scary underworld. “No good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don’t exist,” Kolker writes. “This is, after all, what the killer was counting on.” A-