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Long Island serial killer case: Who let down the lost girls?

"Lost Girls" by Robert Kolker
"Lost Girls" by Robert Kolker HarperCollins

Guest blogger Robert Kolker is the author of "Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery". The opinions below are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of CBS News.

The neighbors' silence in the days, weeks, and months that followed Shannan Gilbert's mysterious disappearance in Oak Beach never ceases to be troubling. And when four bodies in burlap were found nearby along Ocean Parkway, no neighbors came forward to offer sympathy. To me, that spoke volumes about this remote, secluded community, where outsiders are viewed with suspicion and contempt.

The police may not have behaved much better. "Lost Girls", my book about the Long Island serial killer case, is a comprehensive investigation of the case, featuring exclusive interviews with Joseph Brewer, Dr. Peter Hackett, and dozens of neighbors, family members, friends, and acquaintances of the killer's victims. My interviews with then-commissioner Richard Dormer and then-chief of detectives Dominick Varrone revealed a troubling bias against the victims. On May 5, 2011, at a meeting of the Public Safety Committee of the Suffolk County Legislature, Varrone called it a "consolation" that the killer didn't appear to be "selecting citizens at large -- he's selecting from a pool." On Dec. 12, 2011, in an interview with me, Varrone said of the victims: "[G]reed 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." In that same interview, both Dormer and Varrone have a laugh at the expense of the victims' families -- people who have been struggling for answers ever since their loved ones became part of this case.

In "Lost Girls", I show how this case was hobbled from the start because the initial disappearances weren't taken as seriously by law enforcement as they would have been if these women weren't written off as prostitutes. I tell the story of how all five women were failed by the criminal justice system not once but three times. The police failed to help them when they were at risk. They'd failed again when they didn't take the disappearances seriously, severely hobbling the chances of making an arrest. And they failed a third time by not going after the johns and drivers.

Read an excerpt of "Lost Girls"
Video: "48 Hours": Long Island Serial Killer

"Lost Girls" also is the first examination of what made the victims so vulnerable to predators. I have visited the hometowns of each woman and interviewed their loved ones. Readers can see how they were so much more than what the police and many Oak Beach neighbors assumed they were. I also show in detail how five young women were drawn into the choice to become an escort. One major enticement, of course, is the money -- so much more than what they could make in their struggling hometowns, where the economy has never recovered.

The other reason is the Internet -- its ease and its anonymity. As I write in "Lost Girls", "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."

The lives of Shannan, Maureen, Melissa, Megan, and Amber as recounted in "Lost Girls" tell us an important lesson about the hard choices many face in America, and the way our society sometimes lets down those who need our help the most.

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