Searching for justice for the Lost Girls

Lost Girls (Netflix, 2020). Directed by Liz Garbus, screenplay by Michael Werwie, based on the book Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker.


Late one night in May 2010, a young woman made a frantic call to 911. She was calling from Oak Beach, an affluent residential area in rural Long Island. Visibly distressed, she spent 23 minutes on the phone with emergency services, all the while running through the neighbourhood, frantically banging on doors and screaming for help. She was seen by multiple witnesses, with at least one member of the community attempting to assist her, before she disappeared into the darkness.


The woman was 24-year-old Shannan Maria Gilbert. A New Jersey native who sometimes worked as an escort, Shannan was visiting a new client in Oak Beach on the night she disappeared. Though the exact details are still unclear, it seems that something happened while Shannan was inside the client’s house that caused her to become deeply distressed. She phoned the emergency services before fleeing the house and was seen by several members of the community before she disappeared.


The search for Shannan Gilbert would lead to the uncovering of one of the most baffling unsolved crimes in recent American history. A few months after her disappearance, the bodies of four young women were found dumped along the Ocean Parkway area of New York, a short distance from where Shannan was last seen. Although Shannan was not among the deceased, all four women bore a striking resemblance to her. Like Shannan, they were all sex workers who advertised their services on Craigslist and were all petite women in their early to mid-twenties. The four women were identified as Maureen Brainard-Barnes (25, missing since July 2007), Melissa Barthélemy (24, missing since July 2009), Megan Waterman (22, missing since June 2010), and Amber Lynn Costello (27, missing since September 2010). The police immediately suspected that all four women had fallen victim to a serial killer. The unidentified suspect became known as the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK) or the Gilgo Beach Killer. Over the next few months, more human remains were found in the nearby area. However, there was still no sign of Shannan Gilbert.


It wasn’t until December 2011, over a year after her disappearance, that Shannan was finally found. Her body was discovered in a dense marshland only half a mile from where she was last seen. In a bizarre turn of events, the police almost immediately ruled her death an accident, determining that she likely died by drowning or exposure to the elements. This finding has been fiercely contested by Shannan’s family, as well as several independent experts, who believe that she had also fallen victim to the still unidentified Gilgo Beach Killer.


“She didn’t run away. She’s missing. Now, I have been hung up on, dismissed, and ignored, but one thing I won’t be is silenced.”

Mari Gilbert Lost Girls (Netflix, 2020)

Amy Ryan as Mari Gilbert in Lost Girls (2020) [Image:]

In two previous articles*, I looked at how drama offers an opportunity to look at the issue of violence against women from the perspectives of the victims and their families. I believe that Lost Girls has much in common with films like Murdered by my Boyfriend and television dramas like Five Daughters and Unbelievable. These dramas are effective in showing the devastating impact of violence on the individual and their families, while also looking at the tragic consequences of the failure of the authorities to take victims and their families seriously.


Lost Girls tells the story of Shannan’s disappearance from the perspective of her mother Mari. The film is a compelling and often disturbing exploration of the challenges faced by the families of victims of crime. When Mari reports her daughter missing, she encounters the indifference and apathy of a police force unwilling to take the disappearance of a sex worker seriously. Shannan’s occupation and history of mental illness, prejudice her in the eyes of the police. Judging Shannan to be an unreliable individual with a reckless lifestyle, they fail to react to her disappearance with the urgency and diligence it required.

Lost Girls (2020) [Image:]

In Lost Girls, Mari Gilbert is portrayed by actress Amy Ryan. On the surface, Mari is not a very likeable protagonist. She is rude, temperamental, abrasive and impatient. She is confrontational, prone to arguing with not only the police but also most of the people she comes into contact with. She even sometimes displays a hostile and dismissive attitude towards the families of the other victims. However, it is often Mari’s more unappealing characteristics that make her an effective campaigner for Shannan and the other victims. Her unwavering determination and unwillingness to be dismissed helps her to maintain the attention of the press and police.


When we first meet Mari, she is a woman struggling to cope with her demanding life. She works several low-income jobs to provide for her two younger daughters. Mari’s relationships with her children are fraught with difficulties. Mari had felt compelled to put Shannan in foster care as a teenager when she was unable to cope with her mental health issues and erratic behaviour. Her youngest daughter Sarra has also begun to show early signs of mental illness, requiring medication and psychiatric help. Mari often finds herself in conflict with her daughter Sherre. Mari becomes angry when she discovers that Shannan was in an abusive relationship and Sherre knew about it. She is also critical of Sherre’s increasingly close relationship with the families of the other victims, thinking that they are ‘brainwashing’ her. Sherre is disturbed that Mari knew Shannan was working as a prostitute and was accepting financial help from her. She is also furious when she learns that Mari voluntarily put Shannan in foster care, having believed all her life that the state took her sister away. Mari’s sense of inadequacy as a parent is manifested in her relationship with Kim, a sister of one of the victims. Despite the trauma of her sister Amber’s death and the obvious danger involved, Kim has continued to work as an escort. Mari sees a lot of Shannan in Kim, causing her to take on a somewhat maternal role to the younger woman, trying to offer the help and advice she feels she failed to give her daughter.


Gabriel Byrne as Commissioner Richard Dormer in Lost Girls (2020) [Image:]

In Lost Girls, we see Mari become increasingly alarmed and infuriated by the unwillingness of the police to properly investigate her daughter’s disappearance. The first detective she speaks to is opening dismissive towards her, failing to take her or her concerns seriously. He shows a total lack of concern for Shannan’s wellbeing and is quick to make judgements about her character. He assumes that Shannan’s erratic behaviour on the night she disappeared was as a result of drug use. He is also quick to conclude that, despite the strange events on the night Shannan was last seen, she simply ran away. We also see the police use Mari’s troubled relationship with her daughter against her. When the detectives find out that Mari had placed Shannan in foster care in her early teens, they use this information as another excuse to dismiss Mari as an unreliable troublemaker.


It becomes clear to Mari that the investigation into Shannan’s disappearance was marred by failures and lost opportunities from the start. She is horrified by the slow response to her daughter’s 911 call, with the emergency services not reaching Oak Beach until almost an hour after Shannan phoned for help. She also learns that the police failed to obtain CCTV footage from the area where Shannan was last seen. The investigators also seemed to overlook many potential suspects in the case, including a local doctor who displayed suspicious behaviour in the aftermath of Shannan’s disappearance. The fact that Oak Beach was a fairly affluent, apparently respectable community, seemed to deter the police from conducting a thorough investigation into its residents.


What about our girls? Who’s talking about them? And when they do it’s ‘prostitute’, ‘hooker’, ‘sex worker’, ‘escort’. Never ‘friend’, ‘sister’, ‘mother’, ‘daughter’. They don’t care. They blame them. And it’s our job, as mothers, and sisters, to make sure these girls are not forgotten.”

Mari Gilbert Lost Girls (Netflix, 2020)

In Lost Girls, the audience sees how this sense of frustration is shared by the families of the other victims. In one scene, Mari and her daughters Sherre and Sarra, meet with family members of the four Gilgo Beach victims. The mothers and daughters of the murdered women express their dissatisfaction with the lack of interest the police showed in looking for their missing loved ones. They are also deeply upset by how their family members are being treated by a media that is quick to label the deceased women as simply ‘prostitutes’ with substance abuse problems. Like Mari, they feel that they are being partly blamed for their loved one’s fates as several of the girls came from troubled backgrounds and had difficult relationships with their families.


Mari becomes increasing exasperated by the poor conduct of the Long Island police. Incensed by the lack of respect shown towards her family, and the families of the other victims, Mari begins to put more and more pressure on the authorities. She starts stapling flyers with Shannan’s picture, one for every day she remains missing, to the walls of the police department. She frequently finds herself in conflict with Police Commissioner Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne), going against his advice by speaking directly to the media and visiting the community where Shannan was last seen. She urges the other families to become more outspoken and defiant, showing them that they should not just accept the poor conduct of the police and the blatant disrespect shown towards their families.


” As much as today is about Shannan, it’s not just about Shannan. It’s about all of us, everyone of us and our friends and family that were affected by this. The police failed us. They failed everyone of our girls. They failed to keep them safe when they were at risk. They failed to take their disappearances seriously, and they failed to go after the people who took advantage of our girls. Some of them may even be those people. And they ignored me, just like they ignored Shannan the night she called for help, and waited an hour for them to arrive. Why are our girls to blame at the exclusion of everybody else? It’s time for accountability, and I’m starting with myself.”

Mari Gilbert Lost Girls (Netflix, 2020)

Lost Girls (2020) [Image:]

Mari’s perseverance pays off when she finally convinces Commissioner Dormer to search the marshland near where Shannan disappeared. It is there, over a year after she was last seen, that Shannan’s badly decomposed body was finally found. However, Mari is greatly disappointed when the police label her daughter’s death an accident and fail to hold anyone responsible for what happened to her.


In the years after Shannan’s remains were found, Mari continued to campaign for justice for her daughter and the other murdered women found in Long Island. However, in a sad postscript to this story, Mari would meet a sudden and tragic fate. In 2016 she was killed by her younger daughter Sarra. Sarra, who suffered from schizophrenia, fatally stabbed her mother during a psychotic episode when Mari tried to intervene. In the years since Mari’s untimely death, her daughter Sherre has continued to act as an advocate for her sister Shannan and the other Gilgo Beach victims. As of this date, no one has been arrested for the murders of these women and the Gilgo Beach Killer remains unidentified. 


*The Victim’s Voice in Netflix’s Unbelievable: 24th September 2019

*Five Daughters and Murdered By My Boyfriend: Giving a human face to the victims of crime: 4th January 2018

Credit for cover photo to

Other photos to,,


“Dateline 2017 The Long Island Serial Killer.” Part of the 48 Hours Investigates series, posted by Jon Irvin, 7 March 2017. Accessed 20 August 2020.

Gajanan, Mahita. “The True Story Behind the Netflix Movie Lost Girls.” Time, 13 March 2020. Accessed 25 August 2020.

Garbus, Liz. Lost Girls. Netflix, 2020.

“LISK: MIDWEEK MYSTERY.” True crime channel, posted by Georgia Marie, 12 June 2019. Accessed 27 August 2020.

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