The new docuseries by Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills reveals the heartbreaking biases that have left the deaths of so many women unknown.
The remains of five young women were found in the marshes alongside Gilgo Beach, a remote spit of land on the south shore of Long Island, between December 2010 and March 2011. Parts of five more bodies were discovered in the same area the following month. Detectives theorized the murders were the work of a serial killer but turned up no suspects. The cases went cold and stayed cold. Police were accused of obfuscation and corruption, charges that would later prove true.
But there was something else, perhaps, hindering the investigations. The first five victims were identified as escorts, women who advertised their services online. Did police slack on solving the cases because they considered sex workers culpable for their own murders? How do you square a TV crew member, reporting on the search at Gilgo Beach, being overheard to say, “I can’t believe they’re doing all this for a whore”?
In 2013, Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills were wrapping the documentary “Killer Legends,” about several notorious murderers across the country. Zeman had also made 2011’s “Cropsey,” about children who’d disappeared from the Staten Island neighborhood where he grew up.
“After dealing with the families of those missing kids, I honestly wanted nothing to do with anything that glorified serial murder,” said Zeman, who nevertheless found himself heading to Gilgo Beach on weekends, wondering why, after two years, police were no closer to naming a suspect, and why the second set of bodies had not even been identified.
“It became very apparent this case wasn’t getting solved, yet there were still all these women escorting in Long Island, right in the killer’s hunting ground,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine the life and death choices these women had to make on a daily basis, that any john could be their last.”
Zeman started to research sex for sale on sites like Craigslist and Backpage. He also read “Lost Girls,” Robert Kolker’s deeply compassionate investigation into the dead girls’ lives. In the book, Kolker commemorated the women not only for the terrible circumstances of their deaths, but as the daughters, sisters, and mothers they also were. To do otherwise, Zeman knew, would be to re-brutalize them.
“So often in true crime reporting you get these ‘cheerleader gone wrong’ portrayals or blatant victim-blaming, especially in the case of sex workers,” he said. “While Bob [Kolker] has done a masterful job of focusing on the victims, we wanted to focus more on why, after five years, this case still hadn’t been solved.”
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