Getting Away With Murder on Long Island

"I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed," Mr. Ridgway said in his statement. "I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught."

-- Gary Ridgway, the "Green River Killer," who admitted in 2003 to killing 48 women (quoted in Silja J.A. Talvi's Nov. 13, 2003 AlterNet story)

A terrible story has been unraveling on Long Island since last December. That's when the remains of four bodies, disposed of in separate burlap bags 500 feet apart on a scant quarter-mile of beach, were identified as belonging to young women in their 20s who advertised themselves as escorts on Craigslist. Just weeks ago, six more victims were found nearby.

It's not yet clear whether one killer or multiple killers are responsible. No suspects have surfaced. But that's not what makes this story really tragic. Some of those 10 people might be alive today if it hadn't been for the lackluster response of law enforcement and the press coverage of the case -- much of it sensationalist and dehumanizing -- all because of the first victims' sex-worker status.

"There's a certain voyeurism in this kind of coverage -- a sense that you don't have to worry about violence because it only happens to these kinds of women," notes Melissa Gira Grant, a writer, activist, and former sex worker. Asked to select the worst recent example, she chose a New York Daily News cover that read "Hooker Slay Exclusive: Web of LI Sickos" and its accompanying inside story, "Internet sex forum wanted 'revenge' vs. Long Island hooker later murdered, dumped in burial grounds." My own pick in the Asking For It category comes from WPIX, which quotes the neighbor of Amber Lynn Costello, one of the victims: "With the people she was hanging around with, who were coming here, it was obvious something was going to happen to her." Best Candid Moment goes to the neighbor National Public Radio quotes without comment who frets about the recent discovery of more unidentified bodies: "It could be more than just prostitutes."

This kind of press about the Long Island murders makes it possible to see how a man as sick as Gary Ridgway, the Green River killer, could feel so confident about getting away with murdering nearly 50 women.

Ridgway was only halfway right when he speculated that no one would care about his victims. Both in Green River and on Long Island, the problem wasn't that no one noticed the victim's disappearance or that the victims had no connection to family or friends. It's that, as Newsweek euphemizes, "When people living in such precarious circumstances suddenly disappear, they are not necessarily the highest, immediate priority for the authorities." In short, titles like The New York Times' April 7 "Prostitutes' Disappearances Were Noticed Only When the First Bodies Were Found" are true only if the subject of "noticed" is the police.

Of the four young women whose remains were discovered in December -- Megan Waterman, 22; Melissa Barthelemy, 24; Maureen Brainard-Barnes, 25; and Amber Lynn Costello, 27 -- three of their families had filed missing persons' reports with the police. Brainerd-Barnes' sister was told, "Your sister ran away and doesn't care about anyone." The police traced calls to Barthelemy's sister, Amanda, from a man who claimed to have killed Melissa, but for some reason, gave up upon tracing the calls as far as cellular routers in mid-Manhattan. Mari Gilbert, the mother of a fifth young woman, Shannan, whose body has still not been found, frankly states that the press and public did not initially take her daughter's disappearance seriously. Shortly after her daughter's initial disappearance from a date with a john in a nearby gated community in May of 2010, police stopped searching.

In fact, the initial discovery of four bodies along Ocean Parkway off Giglo Beach in December 2010 wasn't part of an organized search: A lone officer out on a training exercise with his cadaver-sniffing dog stumbled upon them, and no attempts to further search the area took place until late March of 2011. It was then, when an entire police team combed the area, that they discovered six more sets of unidentified remains. That's when talk of yet another serial killer targeting women in the sex industry on Long Island began -- and when the press and public finally took notice. (The area has already served as a stalking and burial ground for two such serial killers in the late 1980s and early 1990s.) Police found themselves in the national spotlight, squeezed on all sides by the press, public, advocates, and victims' families. Then the FBI, the Black Hawk helicopters, and the national press arrived.

For nearly a month since, the public has been subjected to a dazzling display of good intentions and limited understanding on the part of the police and press. When the law criminalizes sex work while the press treats "these women" as careless, sinful, titillating, or inconsequential "others" -- and never as daughters, sisters, mothers, or friends -- it forces women whose lives include transactional sex into more dangerous situations while rendering them less human in the eyes of those of us who work in less demonized professions.

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer's request for sex workers to come forward with information related to the disappearance of colleagues is no doubt sincere. But casting police as the protectors of sex workers and reassuring the sex workers' community, through a police spokesperson, that those who come forward "will only be arrested if they have been caught offering to have sex with a member of law enforcement or soliciting sex for money" is pretty cold comfort. Police may signify safety and protection to people whose activities aren't criminalized, but people involved in sex work are more likely to have experienced officers as predators and steer clear. As Grant notes:

In a University of California at San Francisco study published in 2009, 22 percent of San Francisco adult female sex workers surveyed reported having police as paying customers. Fourteen percent were threatened with arrest if they did not have sex with a police officer.

Audacia Ray, a former sex worker and program director of the Red Umbrella Project, is trying to bridge this gap in the form of a campaign that calls for the Suffolk County authorities to offer amnesty for all prostitution-related offenses in the area until the killer is apprehended. It's a great idea as ideas go (a similar campaign was successful in the UK) but one that still requires sex workers to take considerable risks. Grant, who firmly supports the campaign notes, "The moment the killer is caught, any sex worker who came forward with information is likely still going to need to do sex work and will once more be a target for law enforcement."

The myth that the safety of sex workers lies in their taking better precautions or that sex work's dangers are inevitable perpetuates a blaming-the-victim model while ignoring the role that culture rather than nature plays in the equation. Dormer can intone all he likes that women in the escort business "should be careful with their contacts." But so long as sex work is broadly criminalized, women like the four whose bodies were found in his county will be driven to do their work in darker, more deserted, and more isolated places. They'll be forced to make decisions about whether their johns are safe quickly in order to get off the street, and loath to report the rapes, assaults, and robberies that are a routine part of their lives to the police. Fear of arrest will keep their friends from following the safety plans that so many sex workers put into place, which include bringing someone along on an "outcall" to wait outside the hotel or home or to call the police if they don't come back from a date at an agreed-upon time. (In another curious press moment, Newsweek describes Amber Lynn Costello as "casting aside caution" the very paragraph before it describes the three-point safety plan that she and her roommate follow.)

"You always see victim blaming in lots of writing about women who have experienced violence, but it's so interesting how that plays out in writing about sex workers," says Ray. "When a reporter asked, 'What can sex workers do to prevent violence?' I said, 'Well, maybe people could not kill us.' On the one hand, we do precautions; on the other hand, we can't take responsibility for the way the world works."

Grant and Ray both emphasize that the best way to keep women safe is not finger wagging, police "protection," telling women to be safer, or urging women who currently make their living in the sex industry to accept low-paying "respectable" work. It's about offering genuinely viable economic alternatives to women who are trying to pay the rent and buy their kids birthday presents like the rest of us. "As much of a proponent as I am of decriminalizing prostitution," Grant says, "we still have to deal with the fact that economics are the driving force behind what you do and how much power you feel like you have to bargain for yourself. It's this larger question about economic justice." Adds Ray, "The reason the sex industry becomes an option for so many low-income people is because there's a lot of wage inequality. The only way you can make that much money is through the sex industry. You need to be able to offer people other options that pay just as well."

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