Why So Many Sex Worker Murders Go Unsolved

From Long Island to New Mexico, A&E's new documentary series 'The Killing Season' dives into this marginalized population's epidemic of terror

The filmmakers started by looking into the Long Island Serial Killer, but found the problem was much more widespread. "We had no idea how horrific it was." Credit: A&E

At one point in The Killing Season, A&E's upcoming documentary series about a rash of unsolved murders of prostitutes, filmmakers Joshua Zeman (Cropsey) and Rachel Mills (Killer Legends) worry that one of their sources may be in grave danger. Zeman and Mills had agreed to act as drivers for an online escort who goes by the name "Super," in exchange for her providing them a firsthand view into modern-day sex work. Super, like many independent escorts, connects with johns on the internet before meeting in person, and has a safety check system in place: She will call or text a trusted person waiting outside the location of her appointment to let them to know how long the date is expected to last. If she doesn't return by that time, they will know something may have gone wrong. But on one date, she doesn't return at the expected time; nor is she responding to texts and calls. Mills and Zeman were already likely breaking the law by agreeing to drive Super, and for a little while they are concerned that she might be in real trouble. Super eventually makes it out of the hotel, but the incident underscores just how quickly these surreptitious meetings can turn sinister.

Produced by Alex Gibney (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief), the eight-part investigative series starts by looking into the Long Island Serial Killer investigation – which began in December 2010 after the bodies of four prostitutes were found near Gilgo Beach, just 35 miles from Manhattan – but The Killing Season is not just about LISK. While the filmmakers spend several episodes exploring the bizarre and frustrating intricacies of that case, the show eventually takes us far away from New York as Zemen and Mills follow a trail of murders to New Jersey, Florida, Oklahoma and New Mexico, examining an epidemic of terror for a maligned and marginalized community: Women with shadow lives and the predators who follow them into the dark. Zeman and Mills began their investigation with the LISK case, but found there are likely many, many more predators who have been able to keep their killings sprees unnoticed.

"These guys aren't getting away with murder because they are such geniuses," Mills tells Rolling Stone. "They have identified the perfect victims. They know that those are the types of people that maybe they should go after because they don't leave as much of a trace as a soccer mom who posts on Facebook."

Mills and Zeman interviewed some of the families of the presumed LISK victims, along with the family of Shannan Gilbert, whose disappearance led to the discovery of four bodies near Gilgo Beach, but who police will not confirm was a victim of the same serial killer. (Gilbert's remains were found a year after the "Gilgo Four" were discovered, and her cause of death remains undetermined.)

The Gilgo Four may not have been soccer moms, but some of the victims were mothers and had people waiting for them to return from their final date. Gilbert's family, and the families of three of the victims who disappeared between 2009 and 2010, contacted the police about their loved ones' disappearances. Still, some of those interviewed for The Killing Season say they had a hard time convincing law enforcement to take their concerns seriously. Lorraine Ela, the mother of LISK victim Megan Waterman, says in The Killing Season that it took a month for the police to look into Waterman's disappearance, despite her mother's certainty that something was amiss. Waterman's cell phone and wallet were found in her hotel room. "When I called Suffolk County Police Department, they should have gone to her hotel room that day," Ela tells the filmmakers. "They don't care about the sex world. They just think they're dirty, scummy people."

But the problem of identifying murder victims goes beyond law enforcement's skepticism or apathy towards a prostitute's disappearance. The Killing Season explores one of the biggest challenges in homicide cases: the difficulty in connecting missing persons' reports to unidentified bodies. "We have this idea that law enforcement is putting this information into supercomputers, but that's completely untrue," Zeman says. "The public sector is so far behind the private sector when it comes to data management."

In the series, Gilbert's late mother Mari Gilbert talks about the difficulty she and her family had in filing a missing persons report for Shannan, who lived in New Jersey at the time of her disappearance, but was last seen in Oak Beach, Long Island, where she made a 911 call from the home of a client. "We were pinged back and forth" between New Jersey and Long Island, Ms. Gilbert said. The filmmakers note that it took four months for law enforcement to connect Gilbert's 911 call to the missing persons' report filed in New Jersey.

The Killing Season examines the deep-seated issues within law enforcement that prevent these kinds of murders from being solved. The show features Thomas Hargrove, a retired investigative journalist who has since created the Murder Accountability Project, an algorithm-driven initiative meant to identify clusters of unsolved deaths that may be the work of serial killers. Hargrove is frustrated by the low solve rate of homicides in the United States and the lack of meaningful cooperation between local police departments and the FBI – according to his data, there are over 222,000 unsolved murders in the U.S. since 1980 – something he came to understand as a critical problem when he was working for the Scripps Howard News Service. Hargrove says he and his Murder Accountability Project colleagues, who work on a volunteer basis, believe "the failure to solve murders is a failure of political will to apply the necessary resources to solve them." Hargrove, like The Killing Season filmmakers, points to the institutional breakdown of communication as one of the biggest contributors of unsolved homicides in the United States.

"The FBI has been begging police departments to report their unsolved cases, and a tiny fraction of them are represented in the FBI database," Hargrove tells Rolling Stone, explaining that a coroner is supposed to report any unidentified bodies to the FBI, but that it doesn't always happen. "Less than a third of unsolved murders are in their files, and far less are being reported with a level of detail that would be useful."

The Murder Accountability Project was incorporated in 2015, based on some of the findings Hargrove had discovered in a 2010 investigative reporting project, but the case data goes back to 1976. Hargrove believes there could be far more serial killer dumping grounds throughout that country than law enforcement is aware of – and his data indicates the problem in Long Island could be much larger in scope than what we already know. "[If] the coroner was not able to determine the cause of death, it usually means the body was not in good shape," Hargrove says, adding that his data shows there are "too many of this type in Long Island," and have been for a long while. 

Until the Gilgo Four were found in 2010, the police didn't know they had a serial killer on their hands. If they had the kind of data Hargrove now has, he believes the killer could have been discovered much sooner. Hypothetically, Hargrove says, "If you were calling me in 2009 before any of those bodies were found, I would have told you there was a serial killer in Long Island."

The Killing Season also taps into a growing community of amateur investigators who intensively research unsolved murder cases and post their leads in online communities like Websleuths. While these can often be unwieldy, the filmmakers believe that law enforcement could benefit from taking some of these crowdsleuths more seriously. "A lot of police departments are run by older men," Mills says, noting that they may be resistant to the idea that someone like Peter Brendt, an amateur profiler featured in series, could develop a viable theory that might actually aid the investigation. Brendt has taken a close look at the Long Island Serial Killer case, and believes the bodies found along Ocean Parkway were the work of more than one killer.

In another instance, a crowdsleuther brought to Zeman what the filmmaker initially saw as a "conspiracy theory" about the Suffolk County Police Department blocking the FBI's involvement in the LISK investigation. But as The Killing Season shows, former police chief James Burke, who is now in prison on unrelated charges, may have done just that. "When certain things like that are true, you begin to question everything," Zeman says.

From the beginning, the filmmakers make it clear they didn't set out or expect to solve the Long Island Serial Killer case. Whatever doubts they may have had about the integrity of the early investigation, they understand that it's the job of the police, not filmmakers or journalists, to catch evasive killers. Or at least to try.

"What we were trying to do was to show how these cases are so difficult to solve," Zeman says. "And we were trying to show the real threat that is out there, that exists not just in Long Island. And honestly, we had no idea how horrific it was. We had no idea how bad it is out there."

"The Killing Season" premieres on A&E on Saturday, November 12, at 9 p.m./8 p.m. Central.