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.
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.
It's also attractive because it's anonymous. You don't have to be yourself on the Internet, and you don't have to be a social outcast. It opened up the option for people who might otherwise have never considered it.
Q: Did prostitution become less dangerous because women were going directly to homes or motel rooms instead of walking the streets?
A: Almost immediately, there was this notion that prostitution would become professionalized and safer somehow because of the Internet. Some people think the Internet will help them, that they'll be able to tweet to each other and stay in touch.
It's been more of a mixed bag.
The women in "Lost Girls" are isolated by the Internet and as vulnerable as any streetwalking escort is. The killer actually went shopping for just the right victims who'd be vulnerable and matched the physical type he wanted.
Q: There's an intense debate within feminism over whether "sex work" is degrading or actually empowering. What do you think?
A: There are feminists who believe these women don't really have a choice and then there are those who say that in many instances, sex work is a choice and allows the disenfranchised a little bit of economic empowerment.
I don't come on one side or another. I want readers to come to their own conclusions about why these women made the decisions they did. I try to get away from the victim-blaming that went on in this case from those who shrugged it off because they believed the women had it coming.
You can argue that they took a risk, but it's a little strange to say they deserve to be killed because of it.
Q: In the big picture, what did you want to understand about these women?
A: My book drills down into understanding why they were so vulnerable. One is that so few people cared what happened to them. That's when the predators come in.
Q: One of the remarkable things about your book is how you were able to convince the families of these women to trust you, a journalist who comes from the big city and a different kind of background. How did you do that?
A: This is work I do often, so I brought a lot of experience when it came to reaching out to these folks. I'm not prosecutorial. I'm there to listen and tell their stories.
They were very guarded and did have a lot of questions. It took a tremendous amount of time to stay with them and help them understand what I was trying to accomplish with the book.
I have to say I'm very grateful to them for their candor.
Q: Do you think the cases will be solved?
A: I'm concerned that this is one of these serial killer cases where it takes 10-15 years for someone to confess. I'm worried the case is that cold.
Q: Do you think the police know who did it?
A: I don't believe they know. I think they are very close to square one.
Q: What can society do to fix things so this doesn't happen again?
A: People need to stop pretending this doesn't happen and anyone who engages in this doesn't matter, that we shouldn't spend time focusing on those who are at risk or vulnerable.
It's senseless to make the Internet out as the big villain. The demand for prostitution doesn't go away if you suddenly wave a magic wand and make impossible to be a sex worker on the Internet.
Q: What else needs to be done?
A: The police need to stop persecuting this class of people out of proposition to the level of their offense. Imagine a world where prostitutes – escorts and sex workers – actually felt comfortable going to the police if they felt like they were in danger or threatened. In fact, the police seem to be nicer to low-level pot dealers than sex workers.
I'm not necessarily a fan of legalization, but it would be nice to remove stigma from this industry. They need to be brought in from the shadows for all of our sakes.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.