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'Lost Girls' author Robert Kolker discusses a mysterious Long Island murder case

In 'Lost Girls,' Kolker examines five young female murder victims and the lives they led, along with the aspects of the case much of the media missed at the time.

By Randy Dotinga / September 13, 2013

'Lost Girls' is by Robert Kolker.

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The serial killings on Long Island have become a national media sensation. But the cameras and microphones miss a larger story that unfolds in "Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery," one of the best true-crime books of this young century.

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Robert Kolker, a writer with New York Magazine, wants to know who killed five young women and why they died. But the murders are only part of his focus. Kolker seeks to understand the lives they lived, the struggles they endured and the motives that drove these working-class women to become prostitutes in the Internet era.

The result is a grim but revealing inside look under the surface of American society. The murderer or murderers remain free, but Kolker captures other culprits – personal failures, callousness, incompetence – in the intricate web of his narrative.

Q: What about these women drew you into this story?
 
A: While they never knew one another, they all came from parts of America that the media tends to overlook.

They're the struggling parts that haven't recovered from the recession, where options are narrowing for young people. No matter how well you did in high school, and some got As, the only options seemed to be Dunkin' Donuts or Walmart.

The Internet and Craigslist provided them with an option that they found irresistible. They decided to take a risk and make more money in a night than their friends could make in a couple weeks in their day jobs. That was the real constant.
 
Q: What else did they have in common?
 
A: There were things that one might expect like childhood trauma or addiction or dysfunctional families or poor parenting. But it wasn't consistent.

It was more the promise of social mobility that they shared. They and their families were all in environments where they're trapped. There's no hope of moving up. A chance to make so much money so quickly is a chance to get a leg up.
 
I wanted to investigate the question of why someone makes a decision to become a prostitute. It's a seismic decision to make. The reasons are not always what the stereotype is.

The other goal is to talk about the world they came from. It becomes a story about class and a story about the gap between rich and poor and how people become vulnerable.
 
Q: What are the stereotypes you're talking about?
 
A: I went in with a lot of preconceived notions.

When the first bodies were found, the four women wrapped in burlap, I thought, 'We're never going to learn anything more about them.' I thought they were trafficked in from other countries, that they were outcasts from other countries, that they did it for drugs.

I was wrong about that. What I learned when I got to know the families better is that it's the money that drew these women in. Drugs and substance issues came later.

The thing they shared was that it was about the money and they were from America and from working class families.
 
Q: These women worked in the "escort" business, which is often a front for prostitution. Men found these women online. How has the Internet changed the world of prostitution?
 
A: In the past, women worked anonymously and in the shadows. Then the Internet came along, and suddenly you didn't have to walk down the street anymore. And if you were a man, you didn't have to go to a bad neighborhood anymore.

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