- - Thursday, August 15, 2013

LOST GIRLS: AN UNSOLVED AMERICAN MYSTERY
By Robert Kolker
Harper, $25.99, 416 pages

The bones of the burlap-wrapped bodies lay along a stretch of deserted beach. They were found three years ago, and their killer remains unknown and at large. What is known is that they were young women who made their money from prostitution, advertising their services on the Internet.

In “Lost Girls,” Robert Kolker exhaustively investigates the tragedy of five girls who fell victim to the allegedly victimless crime of prostitution. His grim chronicle sounds a warning that the pimp patrolling the street may seem no more of a menace than the invisible murderer who chooses his next victim from websites such as Craigslist and Backpage.

The story of Melissa Barthelmy, Megan Waterman, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Amber Overstreet Costello and Shannan Gilbert — the “lost girls” of Mr. Kolker’s book — exploded in 2010 in news accounts and led to increased police presence around deserted Gilgo Beach in Suffolk County, N.Y. The women, all of them pretty and less than five feet tall, disappeared without a trace, and, likely owing to lifestyle and profession, they were simply identified as “missing persons.” The author, who is a contributing editor at New York magazine, where he first wrote a riveting investigative article about the lost girls, considers the consequences of growing online transactions in personal services. He writes, “Thanks to the Internet, it was said, prostitution could become a means of economic empowerment for an entire swath of society. The women and men who walked the street could come in from the cold, becoming free agents, liberated from the system of pimps and escort services that had exploited them for so long.”

However, Mr. Kolker reminds readers, few considered how the Internet’s anonymity stood to make escort work more dangerous than ever. Nearly half of the New York City online escorts surveyed by a group called the Urban Justice Center said they had been forced by a client to do something they did not want to or face punishment.

The Craigslist killer, Philip Haynes Markoff, made headlines in 2009 and gave the public its first taste of the danger. Mr. Kolker writes, “The bodies on Gilgo Beach only reinforced the point; a killer used the convenience of the Internet to select his victims and took advantage of the anonymity of the technology to evade capture.”

Not even the alerting of law enforcement had improved the situation, he writes, because escorts didn’t stop advertising even after Craigslist shut down its adult-services category in the wake of the welter of publicity about the missing women. Escorts met the new challenge by “posting on the sly” in other categories.

Mr. Kolker emphasizes the need to understand that the desire for commercial sex will never disappear “and neither will the Internet. They’re stuck with each other.” It doesn’t matter whether the sale of sex among consenting adults is right or wrong, immoral or empowering. He writes, “What’s clear is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don’t exist. That, after all, is what the killer is counting on.”

“Lost Girls” is an often brutal portrayal of the kind of child who becomes the kind of woman who turns to prostitution and only sees it as a source of wealth that will enhance her image. When she goes into the night to do her work, her only protection is the driver who waits for her. The more stops she makes, the more money she will make, and when she doesn’t return to the car and driver, the cold fact of what she does for a living takes hold. She may leave a grieving family behind her — parents, sometimes orphaned children — tortured by feelings of guilt over how they might have contributed to her dreadful fate.

Mr. Kolker has done a superb job of interviewing relatives, keeping the memories alive of missing loved ones, fully aware they may be lost forever. The police are still searching desolate places such as Gilgo Beach, still interviewing possible suspects and still seeking evidence, but nothing they do will be enough for the women’s families. They are hoping for a serial killer to be captured, but so far, he’s still out there, checking the Web and waiting to strike.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.