Director of new film ‘Lost Girls’ hopes that it will help keep discussion of the unsolved Gilgo Beach murders alive

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Liz Garbus (left) directed “Lost Girls” which will premiere on March 13. (Screenshot via YouTube (left), Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

A new film set to premiere on Netflix next week hopes to shed light in a massive Long Island crime spree that has yet to be solved.

“Lost Girls” tells the story of Mari Gilbert, whose daughter Shannan, 24, was reported missing on May 1, 2010 and originally believed to be a victim of the Long Island serial killer. Often referred to as LISK, the Gilgo Beach Killer or the Craigslist ripper, the Long Island serial killer is believed to have murdered 10 to 16 women who were associated with the sex industry and left their bodies along Ocean Parkway near the towns of Oak Beach and Gilgo in Suffolk County, and near Jones Beach State Park in Nassau County. 

Police believe that the killer had been active between 1996 and 2010, based on the remains that were found, and could have continued their crimes through 2013. 

It was the missing person’s case of Shannan Gilbert that led police to find the first set of bodies. Gilbert had been last seen in the Oak Beach area running from a client’s house, screaming for help and banging on neighbor’s doors before calling 911. Gilbert’s body wouldn’t be found until Dec. 13, 2011 – she was found in the marsh half a mile from where she disappeared.

The Suffolk County PD ultimately determined that Gilbert was not a victim of the Long Island serial killer, saying that she died of accidental drowning in the marsh, but her mother Mari disagreed, saying that she fit the profile of the other victims of the Long Island serial killer.

While “Lost Girls” gives a broad overview of the Long Island serial killer case, it hones in on Gilbert’s story in particular. The film, which is based off of a book of the same name written by Robert Kolker, tells the story from Mari Gilbert’s perspective and highlights how the disappearances are virtually ignored by the Suffolk County PD because the women made money as sex workers, and how Gilbert and the other women banded together to seek the truth.

The film was directed by documentarian and two-time Academy Award Nominee, two-time Emmy Winner, Peabody Winner, Grammy Nominee, DGA Nominee, BAFTA-nominated director Liz Garbus, who like many people only knew what the press had been releasing about the case.

“I, like many New Yorkers, only heard what the press was saying about the case. They would say ‘missing prostitute,’ referring to Gilbert, like her profession made it understandable that she went missing,” said Garbus, who hails from Brooklyn. “It struck me as sexist – Shannan was also a full-time student, why not say missing student? It seemed like they were diminishing these human lives.”

It wasn’t until Garbus read Kolker’s book that she got more of an understanding about what went on during this case.

“It’s an extraordinary story about young women whose lives were taken and later disregarded,” said Garbus. “I think it’s also a great story showing how this community of women came together and fought for answers.”

The film began pre-production in August 2018 with production starting in October 2018. However, years before making the film Garbus had an opportunity to meet the real life Mari Gilbert, who died in 2016. 

“Meeting Mari brought a tremendous amount to the film. She was so full of energy, she never stopped moving,” said Garbus. “She was hopeful that the film would bring attention to this case. Mari knew what it took to get the police to pay attention, and that was the media.”

Garbus also reflected on Mari’s ability to “play the game” with the media to make sure she was heard, which plays a heavy part in the film.

“Mari was a real study about the process of the media, it was her understanding that the police wouldn’t act unless there was pressure from the media,” said Garbus. “So she did her part to make sure the case was talked about. For example, she never smoked anywhere near a TV camera. She could smoke all day if she wanted to, but if a camera was around she wouldn’t. She couldn’t appear as a woman that the media wouldn’t want to pay attention to – she knew how to play the game.”

Actress Amy Ryan, known for her roles on “The Office,” “Gone Baby Gone,” and more, plays Mari Gilbert in the film, and Garbus said that Ryan fully embodied the emotional journey that Mari went through during the events of this film.

“Amy is an extraordinary actress, a national treasure in my opinion,” said Garbus. “She felt so deeply for this part. [Ryan] said that when she gets home after a shoot, she can separate herself from her character – this was the only role that she couldn’t shake off. It was emotionally hard for her, she put so much care into her performance.”

Ten years since the first bodies were found, no arrests have been made in the case. There are still victims in this case that have yet to be identified. The latest update in the investigation came in January 2020 when Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart released photos of a belt found at the crime scene with the letters “HM” or “WH” (depending on which way the belt is looked at) embossed in the black leather. The belt had originally been found at the crime scene and is believed to have been handled by the killer.

 The press release revealing this information took place on the same day that the “Lost Girls” trailer dropped online.

“I thought it was an amazing coincidence that the trailer dropped on the same day as the press conference,” said Garbus. “Since the evidence was there so long ago, I’m a little cynical about the timing but I’m glad they did it. I’m hoping it will get more people interested in the case and keep the discussion going.”

When asked what she wants people to take away from this film, Garbus said that she wanted not just to give viewers an the story, but also to restore dignity to the victims and their families.

“I want to bring the dignity back to these families. There are talks about paving over the last resting places of these women and turning into a bike path,” said Garbus. “There had previously been crosses placed there which have since been removed. How would these families had been treated if these women weren’t working in the sex industry? The last resting place of these women should be respected.”

“I want everyone to hear these families and support them,” Garbus added.

“Lost Girls” will premiere on Netflix and in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles on March 13.