On Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010, a Suffolk County police dog unearthed burlap-wrapped human remains along Ocean Parkway on Long Island. He and his handler, Officer John Mallia, were searching for Shannan Gilbert, a prostitute who disappeared seven months earlier after calling 911 in distress. The skeletal remains weren’t Gilbert’s, nor were any of three additional sets discovered at regular intervals along the sand. Those women— Maureen Bainard-Barnes (disappeared in 2007), Melissa Barthelemy (disappeared in 2009), Megan Waterman and Amber Overstreet Costello (disappeared in 2010)—were also online escorts. Their similarities, differences and victimization are at the heart of Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery.

Kolker, a contributing editor at New York magazine, explored the subject in a 2011 article, “A Serial Killer in Common.” Neither the article nor the book focus on the suspected Long Island Serial Killer, aka Gilgo Killer, who remains at large. “What made the magazine story interesting was that it wasn’t really about the killer in this case, it was about the families grappling with their losses,” says Kolker. “These families belong to a part of America that’s struggling and often overlooked.” Hailing from Groton, Conn., Buffalo and Ellenville, N.Y., South Portland, Maine, and Wilmington, N.C., they are the new working class, facing more debt and fewer choices in education, employment and affordable housing. To navigate a swiftly tilting economy—not to support stereotypical drug habits, though those sometimes came later—the women posted racy Craigslist and Backpage profiles.

The Internet enabled them to solicit johns with ease. Some never had to walk the streets. “Suddenly it becomes an acceptable choice,” says Kolker. “You have an economy that’s causing shocks to the system in some of these women; they can’t make ends meet, and this is the solution. They can either work at the Wal-Mart or they can make more in one night than their friends at the Wal-Mart make in days at a time.” Entrepreneurial escorts could make thousands of dollars per day without having to pay off pimps. Whether this perversion of the American dream is empowering or exploitative is debatable. Certainly, none dreamed of becoming an escort at first. Barthelemy wanted to own her own salon; Bainard-Barnes was an aspiring rapper. Gilbert moved to New York City to be a singer; Kolker writes: “She would build a life that her sisters and her mother could only dream about. She would become an entrepreneur, a self-made woman. She would have the best of everything. She would become their benefactor. And they would be grateful to her. And they would love her.”

Kolker divides the book into two main sections: Section 1 charts the five lives from birth to disappearance. Two picks up from when the first sets of remains were discovered and the ensuing whodunit centered around Oak Beach, an insular community—not part of millionaire’s row but an isolated group of homes built on state-owned land, forever endangered by the possibility that the lease will not be renewed—where Gilbert was last seen alive. Both are based on hundreds of hours of interviews with family, friends, hookers, johns, law enforcement officials, Long Island residents and persons of interest.

The survivors form an uneasy extended family: Some are mourners, some are activists, some are pragmatists. The morning they assemble on Long Island for a first-anniversary vigil, Gilbert’s remains have not been found. (It’s still unknown if she was a victim of the same person who buried the other women, though it was her disappearance that led to their discovery.) Conspiracy theories abound in life and online; most notable is the case built by Oak Beach resident Joe Scalise Jr. for investigating neighbor Dr. Peter Hackett’s involvement in Gilbert’s disappearance. With so many moving parts, it can be difficult to keep people, places and dates straight, but Kolker labors to differentiate one from another. He supplements the effort with maps throughout, as well as two appendices, a timeline and cast of characters.
Lost Girls
Kolker joins the cast in the second half to facilitate movement between different points of view: He meets with the families, who reward his dedication  with intimate disclosures. He knocks on Hackett’s door and is invited in for a seemingly candid interview. Gilbert’s john, Joe Brewer, asks to be paid to tell him the truth. Barthelemy’s friend Kritzia takes him on a streetwalker’s tour of Times Square at night. “I end up entering the book exactly when I enter the story, as low profile as possible. I really didn’t want this book to be about my journey. All I wanted it to be about is the case and the families,” he says. In the initial draft, he was visible in Section 1, too, but revisions revealed that the women’s stories could stand on their own. This is a testament to Kolker’s researching and reporting. He counts himself a “huge fan” of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Alex Kotlowitz, and Lost Girls similarly fulfills the promise to move disadvantaged subjects from marginalization to the center of the page.

“Shannan’s profession had sealed her fate. Even before she disappeared, she ceased to matter,” Kolker writes. Those words should serve as a stinging admonition. She, Maureen, Melissa, Megan and Amber were mothers, daughters, sisters, friends: They mattered to someone. They matter to Kolker. “We’re in a culture that spends a lot of time thinking about mass murderers and serial killers in fiction and nonfiction, and not a lot of attention is paid to the victims,” he says. “If a book like this can make people think more about the people who are victims, then so much the better. I hope it provokes a conversation about why they were vulnerable in the first place, so marginalized that their personal safety became a nonissue.” For the implications of their existence on society and for our humanity, they should matter to us.

Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.