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In December 2010, the remains of four missing women were found just outside a secluded community on the south shore of Long Island. As more bodies were uncovered, Suffolk County police began to suspect that a serial killer was targeting prostitutes online. The ensuing investigation pitted families against police, and neighbor against neighbor, as the authorities struggled with an increasingly unwieldy case.
Lost Girls gives a detailed account of the victims, the investigators, and the community. Relying on exhaustive interviews with those who knew and loved the victims, Kolker creates a sensitive portrait of each woman. He offers insight into how prostitution has changed in the Internet age, and the high costs we continue to pay by ignoring the sex workers who take part in a ubiquitous, if unseen, profession.
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Summary and Analysis of Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery
Based on the Book by Robert Kolker
By Worth Books
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Gilgo Beach is secluded, and located on the Jones Beach barrier island along Long Island's south shore. In the early hours of May 1, 2010, Michael Pak, a driver who frequently worked with prostitutes, drove Shannan Gilbert inside a gated community called Oak Beach. She had a date lined up with a new client inside this small neighborhood just east of Gilgo Beach. A few hours later, Oak Beach resident Gus Coletti heard Shannan banging on his door and screaming for help. Moments later, she ran off and disappeared. Gus called 911 while Michael tried to find Shannan, but she was never seen again. Seven months later, the remains of four other escorts were discovered buried along Gilgo Beach. These women were all missing persons, but the police had not been looking for them.
Need to Know: Although the friends and families of the missing women had been searching for them — some for several years — nobody else seemed concerned about finding them. The fact that they were prostitutes who advertised online made them easy targets, ones who were not worth looking for. It was only their involvement with a serial killer case that made them seem important to the police, to the media, and to the public.
Maureen Brainard-Barnes grew up in the industrial port town of Groton, Connecticut. Her mother, Marie, worked long hours at the nearby casinos, leaving Maureen and her younger brother and sister alone for much of their childhoods. As a youngster, Maureen was introverted and bookish, but as she grew older, she became more interested in dating. In 1999, at the age of 16, Maureen got pregnant, left school, and married her boyfriend, Jason Brainard-Barnes. The marriage quickly fell apart, and Maureen took on a series of service-industry jobs. She wrote poetry and rap lyrics, and dreamed of having a career in music. To advance her career, she began to look into online "modeling" sites, which turned out to be nude modeling and escort services. She quickly realized she could make more money by posting her services directly on Craigslist.
Need to Know: Maureen was a soulful individual who used her writing — in notebooks, rap lyrics, and MySpace posts — as a way of expressing herself. She struggled to make ends meet and find fulfillment through her music. She saw sex work as a quick way to better her life.
Melissa Barthelemy was born on April 14, 1985, in Buffalo, New York. Her mother, Lynn, was only 16 when she got pregnant, and Melissa spent most of her childhood living with her mother in her grandparents' home. When Melissa was 9, her half sister Amanda was born, and though Melissa grew into a wild teenager, she always loved doing her sister's hair. By the time she was 16, Melissa had begun skipping school, staying out late, and getting into trouble. Though she was tiny — under 5 feet tall and weighing around 95 pounds — she never let anybody tell her what to do, including her parents. All of Lynn's efforts to set Melissa on the right path seemed to fail, though eventually Melissa did move out, finish high school, and attend beauty school. After graduation, however, she couldn't find a good job as a hair stylist, and she began dating a man her family did not approve of. In 2006, she moved to New York City with her boyfriend after telling her family she had been offered a job cutting hair.
Need to Know: Melissa was always an independent, feisty girl. She was a talented hair stylist, but found her opportunities limited in Buffalo. Without options in her hometown, she felt compelled to leave, though it was clear that she was not moving to New York to work in a salon.
Shannan Gilbert had a tumultuous childhood. The eldest of four girls, Shannan was placed in foster care at the age of 7, even though her sisters continued to live with their mother, Mari. Shannan spent her childhood bouncing between foster homes in and around Ellenville, New York, occasionally returning to her mother's house. According to Mari, Shannan was too volatile to keep at home, but her sisters tell a different story, one in which Mari chose her boyfriend over her daughter. At 12, Shannan was diagnosed as bipolar. Mari was a largely absentee mother, even to the daughters who lived with her, and Shannan spent her youth craving her mother's love. After graduating from high school, Shannan had difficulty holding a job or staying in one place without getting bored. She decided to move to New York City to make money. She planned to return to Ellenville with enough money to support her family.
Need to Know: Having been exiled from her mother's home so young in her life, Shannan yearned to feel loved and accepted by her family. She was drawn to material things, and believed that if she earned enough money, she could buy her mother's and sisters' affection.
Growing up in Portland, Maine, Megan Waterman never cared what anybody thought of her. She was a reckless, uncontrollable, even violent child. Her grandparents took over custody of Megan and her brother when it became clear that their mother, Lorraine, was unfit to look after two small children. As a teenager, Megan frequently got into trouble with the law and was placed in a juvenile detention facility. She struggled with feelings of low self-worth, which alternated with a grandiose sense of entitlement. At 17, she dropped out of school and continued to get arrested on petty offenses, until she got pregnant. After giving birth to a daughter in 2006, Megan seemed to find some peace. But she wanted a better life, both for herself and for her daughter.
Need to Know: Like Maureen, Melissa, and Shannan, Megan was a rebellious teenager whose family struggled to keep her out of trouble. Although she had people looking out for her, it wasn't enough to stop her self-destructive behavior.
Kim and Amber Overstreet were born six years apart, with Kim the elder sister. Shortly after Amber's birth in 1983, the family moved to the working-class town of Gastonia, North Carolina. At the age of 5, Amber was raped by a 26-year-old neighbor. The entire family was traumatized by the rape, which left Amber unable to ever have children. When Kim was 19 and a sophomore at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, their parents suffered health setbacks that left the family short of money. To cover her bills, Kim became a dancer for Coed Confidential, a service where girls could make up to $500 on one call. Sex was not an official service provided by the dancers at Coed Confidential, and Kim always made sure to toe the line.
When Amber joined, she had no such reservations. In fact, Amber had begun having sex for money with neighborhood boys when she was 16. According to their peers, Amber and Kim were in many ways a lot alike: both "skinny little chatterboxes, brash and sassy," but Kim was more independent and less emotional than her sister. Amber was kind, spiritual, and needy. Drug use was rampant at Coed Confidential, and both Kim and Amber began using heroin and crack.
Need to Know: Perhaps as a result of her childhood trauma, Amber had no reservations about selling her body. To her, sex was meaningless. This attitude, combined with her desperate neediness, left her vulnerable to exploitation.
Sara Karnes met Maureen at a telemarketing job in Groton, Connecticut, in 2007, and the two became good friends. After the job ended, both struggled to find regular work, but Maureen claimed to make money giving private "massages." Maureen soon invited Sara to New York, where they could make money by posting services on the "adult" section of Craigslist. Maureen had been listing her services under the name "Marie" since 2004, though she had taken a break after giving birth to her son. Maureen showed Sara her system: She had a programmer who constantly refreshed her ad, and she rented a hotel room in Manhattan to use as a base. She had security rules as well: Always bring a chaperone on a call (who could wait outside), and never go on a call outside of Manhattan.
Sara and Maureen began making frequent trips to New York. Maureen saw prostitution as a way to make quick money to pay her rent and help support her two children, but she never intended for it to be a regular job. In July 2007, they made a trip to help Maureen raise money for rent to avoid eviction. At the end of the weekend, they hadn't made enough money, and Maureen decided to stay in New York without Sara and their chaperones.
Need to Know: By 2007, Maureen was a savvy veteran of Craigslist. She showed Sara the ropes, and clearly knew how to protect herself, so it was uncharacteristic for her to break her own rules and stay in New York alone on July 9 — the last time she was seen alive.
When she walked the streets of Times Square, Melissa Barthelemy went by the alias Chloe. In 2006, she met Kritzia Lugo, another streetwalker, who became her closest friend. Melissa drank heavily, and though Kritzia warned her not to take a drink from a date, Melissa seemed to "trust everybody." When Amanda came to visit her big sister, she realized how Melissa was making money, but didn't report back to her family in Buffalo. Melissa told her family she had a new boyfriend, Johnny Terry, who was, in fact, a pimp known on the streets as Blaze. When she realized Blaze didn't provide much protection for her, Melissa struck out on her own. By 2008, she was mainly working off of Craigslist, where she could keep most of the money she made for herself.
Melissa was last seen on July 12, 2009. Blaze later said he knew she had a thousand-dollar date lined up that night, but she was no longer working for him, and he had no further details. When she stopped returning texts and phone calls, Melissa's parents filed a missing-persons report, but the police failed to investigate until a strange man called Amanda using Melissa's phone. Phone records showed that on the night of her disappearance, Melissa had been in Massapequa, Long Island.
Need to Know: Streetwalking is grueling work, and, after several years on the streets, Melissa turned to the Internet as an easier method to sell her services. Melissa was trusting, and she didn't use security, which perhaps made her an easier target. After her disappearance, her killer made taunting phone calls to her sister, which helped publicize the case in her hometown.
Alex Diaz met Shannan while working as a driver for the escort service World Class Party Girls. After moving in together, Alex learned about Shannan's violent mood swings. When Shannan would go home to Ellenville for a visit, she splurged on her mother, Mari, and her sisters. They knew what she did for a living, but were happy to take her money. After World Class Party Girls was shut down, Alex and Shannan began to fight, and one night he hit her, breaking her jaw. She had to have a titanium plate grafted to the bone.
Soon Shannan, now working under the name "Angelina," met a new driver named Michael Pak. She began working with him privately: he drove her to calls while she posted to Craigslist in the backseat. On a call on May 1, 2010, Michael drove Shannan to a john in Oak Beach, Long Island. After three hours, the john, Joe Brewer, came out to the car and told Michael he needed to come inside to remove Shannan. Inside, Shannan sat alone in a room and seemed out of her mind. She screamed, "You guys are trying to kill me!" and called 911. She ran from the house, and Michael tried to follow her in his car. Gus Coletti, a resident of Oak Beach, approached Michael's car and threatened to call the police. Unable to locate Shannan or reach her by phone, Michael drove away.
Need to Know: Even one of Shannan's old friends remarked on how much better her relationship with her family was now that she was making a lot of money. Shannan's family knew about her job as a prostitute, but didn't question it. She was able to act as the provider rather than the needy child, and bought lavish gifts for her mother and sisters.
Megan wanted to be able to provide for her daughter, Lili, and she felt confident she knew what she was doing. After she fell in love with a drug dealer and pimp named Vybe, whom she saw as a savior-figure, their story followed the "Romeo pimp" narrative: Vybe presented himself as a hero to seduce Megan into prostituting for him, but he eventually became violent. With Vybe arranging calls for her in downtown Portland, she earned as much as $1,500 per night.
In the spring of 2009, Vybe and Megan began posting ads for "Lexi" on Craigslist in Suffolk County, where she could earn more money. On their trips to Long Island, Megan often encountered trouble, getting robbed and arrested at different points. On June 4, 2010, they checked into a hotel in Hauppauge. Security footage shows Megan returning to the hotel at 8:30 p.m., alone. At 1:20 a.m. on June 5, she spoke to Vybe on the phone; ten minutes later, she left the hotel and disappeared down a service road. The next morning, Vybe found she hadn't returned to the hotel, and contacted both the police and Megan's grandmother. Vybe seemed to have useful information, but he was soon arrested on drug charges and refused to talk. Megan's disappearance made national news, and her mother, Lorraine, seized the spotlight.
Need to Know: Although she was a sex worker, Megan was not some anonymous victim: she had family who cared about her, and her disappearance was reported immediately. Megan's family was always deeply concerned about her, but they were powerless to stop her from making her own decisions. After her disappearance, her mother, who had been ruled unfit to raise her children, saw a chance to be portrayed as a "good mother" by the media.
In the fall of 2009, Long Island native Dave Schaller met Kim Overstreet, who by then had six children and lived with her boyfriend a few towns away. They began an affair, which was how Dave started speaking to Amber on the phone. Amber was living in Florida, and told Dave stories of "drug deals gone bad, mounting debts, and dangerous men." Kim seemed not to want to have anything to do with her sister, but Dave sent Amber money to come live with him in West Babylon.
Amber showed up emaciated, with track marks and missing teeth. Dave got her into rehab, where she befriended Björn "Bear" Brodsky. Dave, Bear, and Amber all moved into Dave's cottage. Kim and Amber began listing themselves as escorts on Craigslist, although Kim often relied on Amber, or "Carolina," to make money for both of them. Amber and Bear began shooting heroin again, and soon Dave was hooked as well. Amber was their main source of income, bringing in about $4,500 per week. Nearly all of the money went to drugs. When Bear decided to get clean, Amber felt abandoned. On September 2, 2010, she made a date for $1,500, and was last seen getting into a car in West Babylon.
Need to Know: Although he brought Amber to Long Island to help her, Dave eventually succumbed to the same addiction problems that plagued both Kim and Amber. The situation in Dave's home rapidly deteriorated, and Amber prostituted herself to support everybody's drug habits.
Interlude: Oak Beach, 2010
Oak Beach, Long Island, is a secluded, gated community of 72 homes that longtime residents like Gus Coletti viewed as idyllic. It is managed by the small but powerful Oak Island Beach Association, which leases the homes from the nearby town of Babylon. Peter Hackett moved there in 1990, and became active on the association's board. A doctor who worked in emergency services throughout the '90s, Hackett frequently got himself into trouble by exaggerating his heroics. Hackett and Coletti controlled the board, which became the center of community infighting after Hackett's appointment — for instance, when they tried to evict the Scalise family for personal reasons, which created bad blood between neighbors.
Joe Brewer, who liked to hire escorts for his small gatherings, had moved into his mother's house in Oak Beach, and was known as a vulgar figure in the community. Shortly after Shannan ran from his house on May 1, 2010, her boyfriend, Alex, showed up, demanding an explanation. Alex and Joe tried to file a report, but the police didn't take them seriously. When Alex returned the next day, he met Peter Hackett, who wrote down the entire story, including details about Shannan, and promised to help. Later, Hackett called Shannan's mother, Mari, and said he had taken Shannan in on the night of her disappearance. Mari recalls that he claimed to run a rehab for "wayward girls" out of his home.
Alex, Michael Pak, and Shannan's family pressed the police to find her, without success. The police only asked Gus Coletti for his security footage eight months after the incident, by which time it had been taped over. Officer John Mallia of the Suffolk County police canine unit, however, took his dog, Blue, out to search Oak Park. On December 11, 2010, Blue sniffed out a skeleton, wrapped in burlap and buried alongside Ocean Parkway on Gilgo Beach.
Excerpted from Summary and Analysis of Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Worth Books. Copyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
Cast of Characters,
Direct Quotes and Analysis,
What's That Word?,
About Robert Kolker,
For Your Information,