To most travelers, the barrier islands of Long Island are just a featureless stretch between Jones Beach and Fire Island--a narrow strip of marsh and dune, bramble and beach, where the grassy waters of South Oyster Bay meet the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. The main artery of the barrier islands, Ocean Parkway, is long and straight and often empty at night--a drag racer's dream. A driver can see little more than the beach heather or bayberry tangled thick and high on the shoulders of the highway. Fifteen miles of darkness surrounds passing vehicles like a tunnel, and the headlights of other cars are visible for miles down the straightaway. You can tell when you're alone.
Late on a warm night in May 2010, just after one a.m., Michael Pak weaved his black Ford Explorer around the traffic circle surrounding the elegant brick spire marking Jones Beach and shot out the other side on Ocean Parkway. From Manhattan, he was heading east on the straightaway, passing right by the best-kept secret of the barrier islands, Gilgo Beach: a surfing mecca in the sixties, until erosion ruined the waves. Just before he reached the Fire Island turnoff, his GPS guided him off Ocean Parkway and down an unlit, unmarked side access road. The sign on the turnoff read OAK BEACH. In the backseat sat a young woman with chestnut hair streaked blond. Her name was Shannan Gilbert.
They moved slowly now in the dark. The narrow road was overgrown with Virginia creeper and shining sumac and poison ivy. Outside, the air was spongy and salty, and the hum of the car was drowned in the whir of insects. Through some pine trees on the left, they both could see the rushing glow of cars speeding by on the highway. Through the brush on the right were the lights of a house--the only indication that anyone lived at the end of the road. After half a mile, Michael pulled up to a white gatehouse decorated with a wooden model of a lighthouse and, a few yards beyond the gate, a blue wooden sign that read OAK ISLAND BEACH ASSOCIATION EST. 1896 in the kind of gold cursive lettering you might find on the side of a sloop. Where the gatehouse once had an attendant was now a metal box with a keypad. Michael didn't know the code. Neither did Shannan. Michael dialed a number on his phone and, a moment later, another SUV--this one white--approached the gate from the other side.
The driver's door opened. Out stepped a middle-aged man with a potbelly and a wavy mess of dark hair. The man waved, jogged a few feet up to the gatehouse, and punched in four digits, smiling over at them.
The gate swung up. The Explorer rolled through, and Michael waited for the man to get back in his car before following him down a path he hadn't seen, back toward the house with the light.
* * *
Gus Coletti is shaving. He is eighty-six years old, a grandparent, long retired. He and his wife, Laura, are up early in their small wood-frame house in Oak Beach to head upstate to a car show. He hears pounding on his front door. He opens up and sees a girl with chestnut hair. In her hand is a cell phone.
The girl is shrieking. The only word Gus can make out is "help." Those who have heard the 911 recording say it sounds as if Gus never let her inside, though he will later insist that he did. In any case, all it takes to send her running away is Gus saying he's going to call the police.
The girl trips down the porch stairs. Gus heads outside, staying on the porch, watching as the girl beats on a few more doors, then finds a hiding place behind the small boat just outside his house. Both he and the girl see the lights of a truck coming down the Fairway toward them. When the car stops, he can see it more clearly--a black Ford Explorer with a young Asian driver.
The SUV slows to a stop. Gus comes down from the porch to talk with him. As soon as the girl sees that the driver is distracted, she bolts out past the headlights, across the road, and into the darkness.
Gus's driveway is just a few dozen yards from the Oak Beach gatehouse. The way out of the gated community is just yards away, but the girl doesn't head in that direction. Instead, she runs down another road, Anchor Way, to knock on another door--that of Wanda Housman--but again, there is no answer. She keeps on running, a hundred more yards, to a street called the Bayou. Barbara Brennan hears the knocking, and she even sees the girl, notices her frantically fiddling with her cell phone. She calls out, but the girl doesn't respond, and Brennan doesn't open the door. Instead, like Gus before her, she calls 911. The girl runs.
When the police finally arrive--about forty-five minutes after Gus Coletti's and Barbara Brennan's 911 calls--the officer talks to the neighbors but doesn't get much of anywhere. It isn't the least bit clear what has happened here or what is to be done. Both the car and the girl are gone.
* * *
Seven months later, over three rainy days in December, police uncovered the bodies of four women in the bramble on the side of Ocean Parkway on Gilgo Beach, three miles from where Shannan Gilbert disappeared. Detectives thought at least one of them had to be Shannan. They were wrong. There was Maureen Brainard-Barnes, last seen at Penn Station in Manhattan three years earlier in 2007, and Melissa Barthelemy, last seen in the Bronx in 2009. There was Megan Waterman, last seen leaving a hotel in Hauppauge, Long Island, just a month after Shannan in 2010--and, a few months later that same year, Amber Lynn Costello, last seen leaving a house in West Babylon, Long Island. Like Shannan, they all were petite and in their twenties. Like Shannan, they all came from out of town to work as escorts. Like Shannan, they all advertised on Craigslist and its competitor, Backpage.
It had seemed enough, at first, for some to say the victims were all just Craigslist hookers, practically interchangeable--lost souls who were dead, in a fashion, long before they actually disappeared. There is a story our culture tells about people like them, a conventional way of thinking about how young girls fall into a life of prostitution. But that story, in the Internet age, is quickly becoming outmoded. Shannan, Maureen, Melissa, Megan, and Amber took part in a modern age of prostitution in which clients are lured with the simple tap of a computer keyboard rather than the exhausting, demeaning ritual of walking the streets. The method is easier, seductively so, almost like an ATM--post an ad, and the phone rings seconds later--but also deceptive about its dangers. They each made the decision to have sex for money for intensely personal reasons: acceptance, adventure, success, love, power. They kept working, often, for reasons even they didn't comprehend. And they traveled in worlds that many of their loved ones could not imagine.
When they disappeared, only their families were left to ask what became of them. Few others seemed to care, not even the police. That all changed once the bodies were found on Gilgo Beach. Then, a few miles from where Shannan had last been seen alive, the police flailed, the body count increased, the public took notice, and the neighbors began pointing fingers. There, in a remote community out of sight of the beaches and marinas scattered along the South Shore barrier islands, the women's stories finally came together, now all part of the same mystery.