Cold Cases

photo by robert kowal

Craigslist sex work doesn't kill people; people kill people

Shannan Gilbert was out on an escorting call in Oak Beach, Long Island, in the early morning hours of May 1, 2010, when she went missing in full view. Her driver, Michael Pak, and client Joe Brewer, watched Gilbert run out of Brewer’s house and into the night. Although Gilbert had been on the phone for over 20 minutes with 911 and woke a neighboring couple by banging on their door, Pak lost her trail and she disappeared. The ensuing search led police, in December 2010, not to Gilbert but to the bodies of four women who had been buried in Gilgo Beach: Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, and Amber Lynn Costello. All four had, like Gilbert, worked as prostitutes and advertised on Craigslist. No suspect has been arrested.

Without a killer, there’s no procedural story, and no resolution. What New York contributing editor Robert Kolker found while working on a May 2011 story was a different serial killer narrative: how the victims all wound up in a very wrong place at the worst time, and how their surviving family members and friends came together around their shared losses. The book that came out of that research, Lost Girls, runs counter to the previously received knowledge that prostitutes are targeted by killers because they won’t be missed; that women enter the sex industry because of seminal trauma or drug addiction; that signing up for prostitution is volunteering for duty in a cadaver-dog training exercise. Instead, Kolker observes that it is police prejudice, economic pressure, social stigma, and the anonymity afforded by the Internet that caused these women to go and remain missing.

Two and a half out of four is batting .625, which is far more than readers can rightfully expect from reporting on the deaths of sex workers. Kolker is accurate to say that criminalization and stigmatization make selling sex dangerous, rather than danger being a natural consequence of prostitution. Economic pressure does affect the numbers of women who enter the sex industry, but considering that these subjects’ economic disadvantages were a birthright and not the result of sudden changes, they may have chosen sex work even in boom times. Kolker’s characterization of the Internet as a more isolating and dangerous way to do sex work is the one total whiff, as it’s both unprovable and contradicted in the book itself.

None of the four victims came from affluent backgrounds, and all saw prostitution—especially the Craiglist-era type, where all you needed was an Internet connection and a phone number to work—as a means to get ahead or stay afloat. Kolker foregrounds their financial struggles to the trauma and addiction among them. It took a large-scale recession to make “earning money” a commonly accepted justification for doing sex work, be it in stories about coeds perusing the sugar daddy site Seeking Arrangement, college students escorting, or strippers traveling during large sporting events. Now that everyone is worried about money, amateur psychology origin stories (sex workers were abused/have problems with boundaries/are working to support drug addictions) can give way to the more pragmatic aspect of prostitution: it quickly delivers cash in hand.

All of these women went to New York to work, then all wound up in a strange, insular Long Island community of just over 70 homes, populated by residents who want to be left alone. The strange enclave of Oak Beach is small and fiercely insular. They possibly could have ended up somewhere with worse law enforcement or prosecution, but it’s unlikely they could have disappeared anywhere where the locals were less cooperative, the law enforcement more casual.

Among the residents are odd characters like Brewer, the local playboy, and Peter Hackett, an emergency doctor with a spotty employment record and legal problems. In a bizarre phone interview, in which he may or may not be seeking payment for information, Brewer tells Kolker he withheld information from the cops. Hackett called Shannan Gilbert’s mother the morning of her disappearance, telling her he had seen Shannan, given her a sedative, and that he ran a home for “wayward girls.” For months Hackett denied to police that he made the call, but ultimately admitted it, although he wouldn’t confess to having seen her. Gilbert’s family has filed a civil suit against him, contesting that he was the last person to see her alive and may have administered drugs to her, contributing to her death.

It was the combination of Oak Beach’s insularity, geographic diversity, and law enforcement apathy that let these women stay missing for so long. Serial killers have said they targeted prostitutes because no one would notice they were missing, but this is patently untrue in each of these cases. Someone damn sure noticed each woman was missing, but either didn’t go to police fearing for their own safety or was met with apathy. While nothing so offensive as the San Diego police’s characterization of sex worker murders as NHI (No Human Involved) was documented, Kolker unsparingly documents law enforcement’s antipathy and prejudice.

Suffolk County police mocked Gilbert’s driver and boyfriend when they attempted to file a missing persons report and told them to file in Jersey City, her city of residence. The Suffolk cops didn’t talk to Oak Beach residents about the night she disappeared until August. Melissa Barthelemy’s family in Buffalo went to the police to report her missing the day after the last time she was seen and were stalled. Their family attorney was bluntly told the police wouldn’t assign a detective to find a missing hooker. When a man used Melissa’s cell phone to make disturbing calls to her younger sister, Amanda, they finally took her disappearance seriously. Maureen Brainard-Barnes’s siblings in Norwich, CT contacted their local police to similarly find them uninterested in looking for a missing escort. Later, a detective would reveal to her sister that one of the last responders to Maureen’s final ad was a cop.

After the four bodies on Gilgo Beach were found and identified, and the occupation of the four women was confirmed to the Suffolk County police, there’s no question it impacted how the cops went about the rest of the case. It factored into how they consoled the public, in the worst way: a public-safety hearing in Suffolk County in early May, Dormer’s chief of detectives, Dominick Varrone, called it a “consolation” that the killer didn’t appear to be ‘selecting citizens at large—he’s selecting from a pool. The girls who used Craigslist,’ he said, ‘are very available, they’re very vulnerable, they’re willing to get into a car with a stranger.’

The chief’s message was clear: If they had been successful and well educated, like the Son of Sam’s victims, all of Long Island might have been in a panic. But these were prostitutes. Of course they’d been killed.

Later Kolker quotes Varrone essentially saying the women died because they were greedy: “And this guy—this killer—is making them an offer that they find very hard to resist. And greed gets the best of them. In fact, most of them are in the business that they’re in because it’s an easy way to make money, and because they’re greedy.” Varrone also seriously confuses “fast” with “easy.” Sex work may often be a quick way to make money, but rarely an easy one, at any level. And fuck him for calling someone greedy for wanting to make money while working.

The public declarations of Suffolk County law enforcement were similarly insensitive and unhelpful. District Attorney Thomas Spota called for women to come forward but didn’t offer amnesty to sex workers until August of 2012, 20 months after the bodies were first discovered. In various press conferences, Spota and SCPD Commissioner Richard Dormer disagreed about whether all the remains found in the area were victims of one killer. Kolker points out that if a suspect is ever arrested, the fact that the D.A. and commissioner couldn’t arrive at a consensus about whether the crimes were committed by one killer or multiple killers would be a boon to the defense.

Dormer’s theory of what happened to Shannan Gilbert’s has the most egregious disregard for reality. He suggested that a high and scared Gilbert had collapsed and drowned in shallow water after bolting from the highway. When her remains were found separately from her belongings, Dormer told local reporters “You know, that’s explainable because she’s hysterical. We know that and she’s discarding her possessions as she moves along. Her jeans could have come off moving in that environment. We’ve looked at this very carefully and that is a possibility, that the jeans came off and she kept running, kept running towards the lights. Obviously, she was disturbed that night.” Kolker found this absurd:

The police explanation of hysteria not only didn’t make sense; it was practically Victorian in its view of prostitutes, as if Shannan had died of sorrow, or fright, or sadness, or heartache. Against all common sense and with willful ignorance of Shannan’s own words that night, the police seemed to be saying that Shannan Gilbert had died because her soul had been rent asunder by a life in the streets.

“Against all common sense and with willful ignorance,” indeed, not just as regards prostitutes, but women writ large.

Unfortunate, then, that the book’s common sense takes a short vacation when it is time to discuss Craigslist advertising (its Erotic Services listings closed in September 2010) and escort review boards. In late June, Kolker published an op-ed in the New York Times titled “The New Prostitutes,” in which he discussed how sites like Craigslist and The Erotic Review changed how prostitution worked—and, arguably, who decided to try sex work. About halfway through, he writes “The great transforming feature of the Internet is its anonymity,” a sentence that echoes one from the book, “The great selling point of Craigslist, and the Web in general, was its anonymity.” Why he claims anonymity for the defining feature of the Internet rather than constant connectivity and the resulting collapse of time and space that allow us to experience everything immediately regardless of location is unclear.

“We all have learned that a person can do practically anything online without even their closest loved ones knowing, from commenting on Yelp or Gawker to selling stolen goods or viewing porn videos,” Kolker wrote immediately after proclaiming anonymity’s status as defining feature of the internet. It feels incongruous with his nuanced observations about the economic pressures and individual circumstances behind each woman’s decisions. Though people do things in secret on the Internet, they also get caught making mistakes online. Kolker himself argues that technology makes it harder to get away with murder:

In [Joel] Rifkin’s day, Craigslist and Backpage didn’t exist. Neither did cell phones with GPS. Common sense dictated that technology would help find this killer. The original Craigslist Killer, Philip Haynes Markoff, left a digital trail traceable through the Erotic Services page of Craigslist in Boston.

What is most dissonant about claiming that anonymity is the transforming feature of online interaction is that Kolker does this and writes about the role Facebook played in the events after the murders. He is Facebook friends with several of the family members, which can’t help but change the relationship between reporter and subject since the language of Facebook is the language of friendship. As the family members come to know each other and a memorial group for the women springs up, drama emerges, and conflicts between various parties online have IRL consequences. This is the exact opposite of an anonymizing effect.

The Internet is as much a source of community and a tool for communication for sex workers as it is for anonymous advertising. It connects members of marginal populations who might not be able to be out in their day-to-day life. Solo escorts working from alt-weekly print ads didn’t have immediate access to that potential support or education. In all seriousness, more than once I’ve thought that these women might still be alive had they been talking to other escorts on Twitter. Bad client lists and screening tools to vet clients, even simply searching for a phone number or email to see if warnings have been posted about him—these help sex workers. There are risks to participating in online communities, most notably of being busted when law enforcement infiltrate escort review sites, but on the whole, online escorting is more, not less, safe than the forms that preceded it.

The sexy convergence of a crap economy and nearly effortless online advertising makes for a diverting conversation about how and why these women got into prostitution. There are few other professions where the why of the choosing would even be of interest. Were a killer targeting nurses, bartenders, or deliverypersons, the question of “What was a nice girl like her doing in a job like that?” wouldn’t come up. It’s a job. She’s doing it because that’s what people do to eat in this society. However, prostitution is almost entirely illegal in the U.S. and prostitutes are stigmatized. While that remains the case, a murder victim’s work—just like ethnicity or socioeconomic standing—is of interest because of the impact on their treatment by the law. “But to suggest they had it coming because they put themselves in a risky situation is disingenuous; no one walks through life thinking they’re going to be killed,” Kolker writes. Save, perhaps, those in the military, but when they die, almost no one says “What did he think was going to happen?”

Naturally, most reviews have focused on the effects of the Internet, rather than noting Kolker’s strong points about the legal and social responses to sex work. “How the Internet changed prostitution” is the hook of the story. It’s just profoundly besides the point Kolker makes when he writes “What’s clear is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don’t exist.” When a book-length work of reported nonfiction asserts that the biggest risks prostitutes face are stigma and criminal penalties, it is progress towards a less Puritanical conversation about sex work. That the angle selling the story is the least relevant one shows how far we have yet to go.