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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Lost Girls: New Look At Old Profession

Having dialed 911, and banging frantically on a few doors in a 72-home Oak Beach development, Shannan Gilbert ran off into the nearby marshland in the early morning hours of May 1, 2010, never to be seen alive again.

The search for the 24-year-old Gilbert inadvertently led to the December 2010 discovery of four female homicide victims who had been dumped off of Ocean Parkway, more than 15 miles east of Jones Beach, although Gilbert’s remains wouldn’t be found until December 2011. The Suffolk County medical examiner was unable to pinpoint Gilbert’s cause of death so Gilbert is not believed to have been the victim of a serial killer, although the other women were, investigators theorize.

In his just-published first book, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery (HarperCollins) New York Magazine contributing writer Robert Kolker offers a riveting look at how Gilbert and the four other women — ladies of the evening who did not know one another — lived before they turned up dead in one of the most desolate parts of Suffolk County’s Town of Babylon. No one has been charged in any of the deaths. The author will be discussing Lost Girls on Tuesday, Aug. 20, at 7 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble in Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove.

“They weren’t angels. They weren’t devils. One was the aimless dreamer of her family until the pressures of adult responsibility became impossible to ignore,” Kolker writes. “Another was both adored and feared by all factions of her warring family, but she placed her hope for the future in the hands of her boyfriend. A third was raised by an older sister, also an escort, whom she worshipped and, at times, tried to free herself from. Another wanted to be a success, and coming home from New York anything less than that would have meant admitting defeat. Another was a self-made woman using her money to win a place back in her family.”

Two of the four women discovered in December 2010 had been missing for a substantial amount of time, such as Maureen Brainard-Barnes (since July 2007) and Melissa Barthelemy (July 2009). Megan Waterman (June 2010) and Amber Costello (September 2010) were declared missing persons only months earlier. The common threads between them: they were all 20-something-year-old sex workers, and they grew up in places far from Long Island. Brainard-Barnes, for instance, was from Groton, Conn., while Barthelemy’s formative years were spent in Buffalo. Waterman and Costello were raised in South Portland, Maine, and Wilmington, N.C., respectively. Brainard-Barnes and Waterman were also single mothers.

Kolker’s narrative offers a compelling account of their life stories, as well as that of Gilbert, who was raised primarily by various foster families in upstate Ellenville, even though her mother and two sisters lived in the same community. There were running themes throughout many of their lives: they came from broken families, had limited formal education, were attracted to criminally-minded men, fell into drug addiction and, in Gilbert’s case, suffered from a mental illness. Gilbert was diagnosed as bipolar when she was 12 years old, according to the book.

Keeping track of everyone Kolker writes about required excellent graphics, such as maps, and a detailed list of the book’s real-life characters, both of which Lost Girls helpfully provides. But Kolker’s main revelation is how the Internet has dramatically changed the world’s oldest profession. The sellers can find buyers more easily than ever before, and vice versa. At the same time, the seller can cut out the traditional middleman (i.e., the pimp) from the transaction, a person who not too long ago commanded a sizable commission from the seller.

Neither former Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer nor Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota cover themselves in glory in Kolker’s recounting of this dark tale. Commissioner Dormer, who retired almost two years ago, snapped at the media near the end of his tenure, telling reporters the investigation into these homicides is not like an episode of television’s CSI. That’s true. CSI’s fictional characters solve high-profile crimes.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: