Netflix's Lost Girls follows in the streaming service's trend of responsible true crime –handling a gruesome murder with care for its victims and how justice was or was not served. In this case, Lost Girls shows how easily law enforcement can dismiss cases involving sex workers. The film focuses on its victims and their families rather than the serial killer – partially because this particular case remains unsolved. The story humanises them for more than their profession while bringing light to the issues escorts may encounter when facing dangerous situations and needing the authorities.
The film begins in Ellenville, New York in 2010. Mari Gilbert (played by Amy Ryan) is shown driving home from work when her grown daughter Shannan calls asking if she can come over for dinner that night. Mari agrees and tells her two younger daughters, Sherre and Sarra, when she gets home. Shannan never makes it to dinner, and after a few days pass with no word from her, Mari involves the police.
It comes to light that Shannan is an escort and was working the night she disappeared. Mari contacts Shannan’s boyfriend, who sends her to Shannan’s driver, who was with her the night she vanished on Long Island while meeting a client. Mari desperately tries to get authorities to pursue the case and find her daughter after they dismiss her upon learning that she was a sex worker. It’s not until a police dog accidentally finds a different woman’s remains (which leads to three more on Gilgo Beach) that the Suffolk County Police Department begins to take Mari’s pleas more seriously.
The film shows Mari continuing to search for her daughter and talk to potential suspects, who include Shannan's client, Joe Brewer, and a doctor who lived in the area, Peter Hackett. The investigators rule both out as suspects, but Mari still believes Dr. Hackett was involved.
A year passes when Mari get a call from Dr Hackett's neighbour, Joe Scalise. Scalise tells her that Hackett has put his house up for sale and packed his car. Mari rushes to Long Island to talk to him one more time, and while Dr Hackett is willing to talk, Mari doesn't leave with any new information. While in the area, she meets with the Suffolk County police commissioner and tells him to search the marsh, the only place they haven't looked in the area. The police drain the marsh, where they finally find Shannan's remains.
The film is based on the book Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, by Robert Kolker. Kolker is a former editor and investigative journalist who took an interest in this case and interviewed families of the victims involved in the Long Island Serial Killer case.
What is the Long Island Serial Killer case?
In December 2010, while searching for Shannan Gilbert, a police officer and his dog found the first body involved in the case, identified as Melissa Barthelemy, according to Rolling Stone. Over the next two days, three more bodies were discovered, identified as Amber Lynn Costello, Megan Waterman, and Maureen Brainard-Barnes. All four sets of remains were found on the north side of Ocean Parkway, each wrapped in burlap sacks and murdered from asphyxiation. Each of the women was a sex worker and had advertised on Craigslist, like Shannan did.
Between late March and early April, four more bodies were found near Oak Beach and Gilgo Beach. Over the following few weeks, more remains were found, and the total body count increased to ten. Police said at the time that they believed it was one killer responsible. They also said that six women were identified, but the other four, including a two-year-old girl, still remain unidentified. Half of the victims were escorts.
Although the police were initially searching for Shannan, they said that her death was unrelated to the serial killer case. The Suffolk County Police ruled her death an accident after they found her remains in December 2011 in a marsh near Gilgo Beach. They said that she likely drowned in the nearby marsh where she was last seen alive. According to the New York Times, her family disagreed and had forensic pathologist Dr Michael Baden conduct an independent autopsy of her remains. He found that a bone in the neck had been damaged, suggesting strangulation. However, after this information was released, her death was still ruled an accident by authorities.
In addition to Shannan, five other victims have been linked to the killer, known as the Long Island Serial Killer, but none have been officially linked by police. Although there have been suspects, the Long Island Serial Killer has not been identified.
What is the book about?
Netflix’s film focuses more on the perspective of Mari Gilbert and her family, showing only small pieces of the families of the other deceased women, but the book focuses on more of the families and victims. Kolker spoke to the families of the identified women who were murdered and compiled a book, turning these women into more than their profession.
The book, published in 2013, digs into the case and takes into account all known facts about the terrible crimes. But beyond that, Kolker includes biographies for each victim, including pieces from childhood through her disappearance; he even follows the story of her family and friends after she's gone. Though Shannan’s case brought the other victims’ cases to light, the loved ones of these other women also fought hard to get police to investigate. When authorities learned they were sex workers, their efforts became noticeably diminished, as outlined in the book and the film.
"The case was exploding, and the media was everywhere, and the local police weren’t saying anything; they even awkwardly were trying to downplay the case, suggesting that no one ought to worry because the victims were just hookers," Kolker said in an interview. "That seemed more than a little cavalier to me."
Kolker also interrogates views on escorts outside of the police department. During the case, he observed that society had a similarly negative perspective on the victims’ professions, with a tendency to blame victims. He examines how police and society let these women down, and how they continue to let women working in the profession down.
Where is the case today?
Although still unsolved, the case hasn't grown cold yet. In January 2020, Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart released a photo of a belt found at the crime scene, according to Rolling Stone. She did not reveal why the department decided to come forward with this evidence after having it for the past nine years, however.
In the same press conference, Shannan Gilbert's death ruling was brought up, and Hart admitted that investigators are “not necessarily certain” that her death was an accident or homicide.
The Gilberts' tragic story unfortunately did not end in 2011 when Shannan was found. In 2016, Mari's daughter Sarra, suffering from schizophrenia, stabbed her mother more than 2oo times and hit her with a fire extinguisher, resulting in Mari's death, according to NBC. Sarra was found guilty of second degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life. Mari's two other daughters, Sherre and Stevie, advocate for sex workers like Shannan, alongside their family's attorney, John Ray.
Mari kept fighting for Shannan until she was killed. She told PEOPLE in 2016, “I hope it will bring awareness to any police department anywhere that regardless of who you are and what you do for a living that you are not judged, and that all cases are handled equally.”
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