On the afternoon of Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010, a determined detective and a well-trained police dog came upon the skeletal remains of a human being wrapped in burlap and buried beside a highway near Gilgo Beach on New York’s Long Island. Two days later, police found three more skeletons nearby, also shrouded in burlap. The remains proved to be those of four young women who had worked as Craigslist escorts in the New York City area. Even more remains were later found not far away. The presumed serial killer — or killers — remains at large.

Robert Kolker, who writes for New York magazine, has carried out monumental research to give us true-crime reporting at its best. If there is a problem with his book, it is that his story lacks the classic simplicity of, for example, Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” which focused on two killers and their four victims. Kolker’s complex story involves five young women and their extended families, friends and lovers, and it’s not always easy to tell Maureen from Melissa or Megan or Marie or Missy. Nevertheless, he rewards the diligent reader with an in-depth look not just at the five victims but also at how thousands of young women live today, and at the forces that drew these five to prostitution.

The victims were all white, the children of lower-middle-class America. Some had graduated from high school, some had not. Two had children. Most had worked at minimum-wage jobs, often at fast-food establishments. One had been a hairdresser for a time. Their backgrounds variously involved broken homes, foster families, alcohol and drug abuse, trailer parks, and children handed over to parents or grandparents. The reason they embraced prostitution is no mystery: money.

One story introduces the sisters Kim Overstreet and Amber Lynn Costello. As a girl, Costello was allegedly raped by an older man. A few years later, Overstreet, the older sister, was a college student in North Carolina when she met an enterprising fellow student who ran Coed Confidential, which advertised “entertainment” for men. In theory, its services stopped with stripping and dancing, but when the women went on a call, they were free to make lucrative side deals.

“The girls were making $800 a night or more, just like that, while their friends were working eight or ten hours a day for ten dollars an hour,” Kolker reports. Later, the sisters made their way to New York. At one point, Kolker says, Costello was earning $4,500 a week and spending $3,500 of it on heroin. After Costello vanished — even after her remains were found — Overstreet kept turning tricks. The money, Kolker notes, was as addictive as the drugs.

The murders went undetected until an escort named Shannon Gilbert was driven to see a man in the small, nearby community of Oak Beach. She fled the house in hysterics, eluding both her client and her waiting driver, and raced into the night. Eventually, her remains were found in a nearby marsh, near the home of a colorful, controversial doctor. Suspicion fell on the doctor, but, despite gossip by his neighbors and thunder on the Internet, no charges have been filed. It was Gilbert’s disappearance that inspired the searches that uncovered the burlap-wrapped remains of the others.

The final half of the book deals with the police investigation, such as it was, and with the families. Grief brought them together for meetings and vigils near the crime scenes, but friction developed as some mothers were thought to be too fond of expressing themselves in the media.

Kolker details the changes that the Internet has brought to prostitution. Previously, escort services and pimps might have provided at least some protection for the women, although they also tended to wind up with much of the money. With the Internet, women can freelance, dealing directly with customers, but they usually have only a telephone conversation to guide them before they go alone to meet a man who may be drunk or homicidal, or both.

The moral I draw from this richly detailed, terribly sad book is that, since prostitution will never be eliminated, it should be legalized. If people who work as prostitutes were employed by well-regulated brothels, like those that exist in Nevada, they would be far safer, sexual diseases would be minimized and taxes would be paid. But our puritanical, hypocritical society — acting through lawmakers who proclaim “family values” but are not infrequently caught with their pants down — chooses to keep the oldest profession in the shadows, where predatory men kill foolish, often troubled women, often with impunity.

Anderson regularly reviews mysteries for Book World.


An Unsolved American Mystery

By Robert Kolker


399 pp. $25.99