Author Robert Kolker Talks the Long Island Serial Killer, ‘Lost Girls’

What is now deemed the ‘Long Island Serial Killer’ case dates back as far back as 1996, when two female legs are found on Fire Island. This is just the horrific beginning of what we may someday call America’s Jack the Ripper case.

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Over the course of the next fourteen years, more bodies — or parts of bodies — would be discovered along the Ocean Parkway, and the identities themselves were difficult to ascertain due to the extreme violence visited upon the victims.

Then, in 2010, a young escort named Shannan Gilbert flees into a swamp near the dumping site where previous victims had been found. What is fascinating about her disappearance is that it leads to the discovery of several new bodies, but not hers. Turns out, she may not even have been a victim of LISK, but her death ultimately served a dark purpose in the history of this case.

There’s also the complication of there possibly being more than one killer. The original victims found in the 90s and early 00s are believed to be victims of a possible original (or second) serial murderer in the area. The disparity between the timelines just off Ocean Parkway lead some to speculate that one killer ran into a rival and stopped when he realized his territory was being taken over.

Though farfetched, it is not unprecedented for two serial killers to work the same location, up to and including on Long Island. In the 1980s, Joel Rifkin and Robert Shulman operated within miles of one another, scattering the bodies of their victims in the area until they were later arrested and convicted for their heinous crimes. They were the original versions of the Long Island Serial Killer.

But the LISK case represents something else entirely, even beyond the savage nature of the crimes. It is the method employed that separates it, too. The killer used a site called Craigslist in order to carry out his dark purposes, which represents a new kind of threat for sex workers.

It used to be that a woman could walk up to a john’s car and eyeball the situation, use street smarts to decide whether or not it’s safe to get in the car. The internet is very often not like that. Prostitutes have to trust their instincts in order to get involved, and it can get real messy for those who are unlucky enough to wander into the arms of a violent sociopath.

This is where Robert Kolker comes in. He was a roving reporter and investigative journalist for New York Magazine at the time and became interested in the Long Island Serial Killer case as the bodies began to be uncovered from the Ocean Parkway beaches.

However, he wasn’t interested in doing a straight-up crime story, so he opted instead to interview the friends and families of the victims and piece together a basic timeline of what happened to these women. It was a huge risk, writing a human interest piece with a crime slant instead of the other way around. We may be a little spoiled by personal true crime stories like Making a Murderer, The Killing Season, and Serial, but at the time Kolker began his exploration, true crime was not necessarily a sure thing, especially with the way he was planning on writing it.

The calculated bet paid off, given the outcome. His book, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, became a bestseller and a New York Times 100 Notable for 2013. He is considered THE source on the Long Island Serial Killer case, and it was a pleasure having him on the podcast. He’s a wonderfully articulate writer, and he’s even more engaging in person, if that’s possible.

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