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Netflix’s Lost Girls: this new true-crime film about the Long Island killer is a tale of police negligence

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Elena Chabo
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AMy Ryan as Mari Gilbert in Netflix true crime film Lost Girls

Netflix’s new true-crime movie Lost Girls once again lays bare police bias and failings, as a determined mother’s investigations lead to the uncovering of more than a dozen cases of murdered sex workers.

Netflix’s hugely successful Unbelievable, released last year, told a harrowing tale of police negligence and misogyny. Recent documentary Don’t F*ck with Cats showed that viewers’ thirst for true-crime wasn’t going anywhere as audiences watched a Facebook group of amateur sleuths track down a killer before he even attacked. Again with repeated dismissal from police.  

The streaming service’s latest true-crime offering is another dark tale, but one we’re sure will be just as compelling a watch. Based on a still unsolved case and the New York Times bestselling book of the same name, drama mystery Lost Girls follows the mother of missing 24-year-old Shannon Gilbert. When police fail to take proper action to find her, her mother Mari Gilbert takes matters into her own hands in the hunt for her daughter.

Her tireless investigating and refusal to let the situation be ignored leads to the uncovery of the murders of at least 14 more women and a tale of police negligence and misconduct that is becoming depressingly familiar.

Here’s everything we know about Netflix’s Lost Girls (warning: this article contains some spoilers).

Official synopsis

Netflix’s official description of the show says that, after her daughter Shannon Gilbert disappears one night, Mari Gilbert “embarks on a dark journey that finds her face to face with hard truths about her daughter, herself, and police bias”.

The synopsis continues: “Determined to find her daughter at all costs, Mari Gilbert retraces Shannan’s last known steps, driving her own investigation to an insular gated community near the desolate outer banks of Long Island. Her discoveries force law enforcement and the media to uncover more than a dozen unsolved murders of sex workers, young lives Mari will not let the world forget.”

What real crime is the film based on?

The killer at the centre of Lost Girls, who remains unidentified to this day, is thought to have murdered between 10 and 16 women over 20 years, leaving their bodies in areas on the South Shore of Long Island, New York. He’s commonly referred to as The Long Island serial killer but other names include LISK, the Gilgo Beach Killer, Seashore serial killer or the Craigslist Ripper.

His victims were found in burlap sacks along the Ocean Parkway, near remote beach towns of Gilgo and Oak Beach, and the area of Jones Beach State Park. The remains of four women were found in December 2010 and six more were found in March and April 2011. Police stated their belief that one person was responsible for all 10 deaths and almost certainly from Long island. 

Of the 10 sets of remains, the four discovered in December 2010 have been identified and were all missing sex workers who advertised their services on Craigslist. Another was identified using DNA analysis and had also worked as an escort. The other five remain unidentified. Three were women, one was the infant child of one of the unidentified women and one was an Asian male found in women’s clothing who police believe was living as a woman.

There are at least six other possible victims including Shannon Gilbert, whose death police controversially concluded as not related.

Amy ryan and cast in netflix true crime film Lost girls
Netflix Lost Girls: Amy Ryan as Mari Gilbert, second right, who became an activist in her mission to uncover the truth.

How was Shannon’s disappearance handled?

Shannon was reported missing on 1 May 2010, she had been working as an escort that evening and gone to a client’s house in Oak Beach, Long Island. Her last call was to 911 at 4.50am where she can be heard saying someone was ‘after her’ and that ‘they’ were trying to kill her. She was last seen around that time banging on a resident’s door and screaming for help. 

Dismissed as a runaway, Shannon’s mother fought for police to pay attention to the case to little avail, they didn’t begin looking for her till six months after her disappearance. Joseph Brewer, the client she visited that night through Craigslist, said she began behaving erratically shortly after arriving and fled. With no evidence of wrong-doing he was quickly cleared as a suspect. Shannon had been missing for seven months when the other victims began to be discovered.

Why is the police conclusion as to what happened to her questionable?

Shannon’s remains were found 19 months after she was reported missing, in a marsh just half a mile from where she disappeared; some of her clothes and possessions had been found a week earlier in the same vicinity. Suffolk County examiners ruled that she accidentally drowned in the marsh and police believe that her fleeing and 911 call were due to a drug-induced panic. 

After a law suit from the family in 2012 and further controversy, famed forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden conducted an independent autopsy of Gilbert’s remains in 2014. Baden found damage to her hyoid bone, suggesting strangulation, toxicology reports found no drugs in her system,  and her body was found face-up, which is not common for drowning victims. “It’s extremely rare for a young woman to die of drowning yards away from where four young women have clearly been murdered,” Baden noted. “The statistics don’t go along with that.” Her death is still listed by police as an accident.

Why is there suspicion of police cover-up?

The FBI only officially became part of the investigation in December 2015. This was a day after former Police Commissioner James Burke, who had resigned two months prior, had been indicted for alleged police brutality and other issues.

The FBI said that in 2012 Burke brutally beat a man who had swiped a bag from his car containing pornography and sex toys. Burke then conspired to cover up the incident. He pled guilty in February 2016 to charges of a civil rights violation and conspiracy to obstruct justice. He was said to have obstructed FBI involvement in the LISK case for years. In 2016 another escort came forward and she said she partied with Burke at an Oak Beach home in 2011 and engaged in cocaine consumption and “rough sex”.

Two days after Shannon’s disapearance, Dr Peter Hackett, former director of emergency services, and a neighbour of Brewer, called Mari Gilbert and according to her, said he was taking care of Shannon Gilbert, and that he “ran a home for wayward girls.” Then he called again days later to deny any contact or the previous call. Investigators confirmed through phone records that Hackett called Mari twice. Hackett has since admitted the calls but insists he called as a concerned resident. Police ruled out Hackett as a suspect in the deaths of Gilbert and the LISK victims.

There are more questionable lines of investigation and inconsistencies and the general poor policing standard has lead people to question whether it was intentional obscuring of the truth.

Lost girls Netflix poster starring amy ryan
Netflix Lost Girls

What happened to Mari Gilbert?

After years pushing forward relentlessly with the case and holding the police accountable. Mari Gilbert was fatally stabbed in her daughter Sarra’s home in Ellenville, New York on July 23, 2016. Sarra, who suffered from Schizophrenia, was arrested and charged with second degree murder.

Previous film and TV coverage

The case has already been the subject of numerous TV shows and films, so if you want to dive deep into the case there’s plenty of material to get stuck in to. These include:

48 Hours: Long Island Serial Killer (1-hr documentary airdate 12 July 2011)

The Long Island Serial Killer (2013), also known as The Gilgo Beach Murders, an independent feature directed by Joseph DiPietro

People Magazine Investigates (2016): The Long Island Serial Killer: The Lost Girl, Season 1 Episodes 1 & 2

The Killing Season (U.S. TV series): The Most Dangerous Game (airdate November 12, 2016), Season 1, episode 2

Crime Junkie, episode 21: SERIAL KILLER: L.I.S.K

Who stars in Lost Girls?

It stars Amy Ryan as Mari Gilbert, though Sarah Paulson was originally cast in the role.  Thomasin McKenzie plays Shannon, with Reed Birney as peter Hackett. The cast is also made up of Lola Kirke, Oona Laurence, Dean Winters, Miriam Shor, Kevin Corrigan and Gabriel Byrne.

When will Lost Girls land on Netflix?

It is scheduled to be released on March 13, having had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan 28 2020.

Images: Netflix

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Elena Chabo

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