The remains of five young women were found in the marshes alongside Gilgo Beach, a remote spit of land on the south shore of Long Island, between December 2010 and March 2011. Parts of five more bodies were discovered in the same area the following month. Detectives theorized the murders were the work of a serial killer but turned up no suspects. The cases went cold and stayed cold. Police were accused of obfuscation and corruption, charges that would later prove true.
But there was something else, perhaps, hindering the investigations. The first five victims were identified as escorts, women who advertised their services online. Did police slack on solving the cases because they considered sex workers culpable for their own murders? How do you square a TV crew member, reporting on the search at Gilgo Beach, being overheard to say, “I can’t believe they’re doing all this for a whore”?
In 2013, Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills were wrapping the documentary “Killer Legends,” about several notorious murderers across the country. Zeman had also made 2011’s “Cropsey,” about children who’d disappeared from the Staten Island neighborhood where he grew up.
“After dealing with the families of those missing kids, I honestly wanted nothing to do with anything that glorified serial murder,” said Zeman, who nevertheless found himself heading to Gilgo Beach on weekends, wondering why, after two years, police were no closer to naming a suspect, and why the second set of bodies had not even been identified.
“It became very apparent this case wasn’t getting solved, yet there were still all these women escorting in Long Island, right in the killer’s hunting ground,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine the life and death choices these women had to make on a daily basis, that any john could be their last.”
Zeman started to research sex for sale on sites like Craigslist and Backpage. He also read “Lost Girls,” Robert Kolker’s deeply compassionate investigation into the dead girls’ lives. In the book, Kolker commemorated the women not only for the terrible circumstances of their deaths, but as the daughters, sisters, and mothers they also were. To do otherwise, Zeman knew, would be to re-brutalize them.
“So often in true crime reporting you get these ‘cheerleader gone wrong’ portrayals or blatant victim-blaming, especially in the case of sex workers,” he said. “While Bob [Kolker] has done a masterful job of focusing on the victims, we wanted to focus more on why, after five years, this case still hadn’t been solved.”
Zeman and Mills began to shoot footage for what they thought would be a feature documentary that focused on the Gilgo Beach murders. Instead, they wound up looking into potentially hundreds of murders, to make the eight-episode A&E series “The Killing Season,” which premieres November 12. As one cluster of murders led to another, as the fear they were chasing not one but two or more serial killers looked to become a reality, the filmmakers worried their material was too dark. On the contrary, executive producer Alex Gibney (“Going Clear”) told them that they needed “to lean into the pain,” Zeman recaled. It was Gibney who also convinced them they had a larger story on their hands.
“Alex was the one who told us not to shy away from the ugly truth, that most victims of serial murder are sex workers,” Mills said. Evidence of this was too easy to find: The bodies of dead women in drainage ditches in Atlantic City, on mesas in New Mexico, golf courses in New Jersey and truck-stops along the Eastern seaboard. Some victims were identified but a vast number were not, as their remains matched no information in any database or reported disappearance, and they were known instead by the designation “the missing-missing.” The filmmakers were haunted by this: How do you look for a killer if you don’t know who’s been killed? Was anyone still looking? And do people who kill sex workers know they can easily get away with it?
“We started digging into this underground world and found all these broken systems that helped foster these crimes,” Zeman said. “That’s when we realized just how horrific the problem really was out there, and that we were looking at a systemic issue of murder that was far beyond just one case.”
“The Killing Season” breaks from A&E true crime mainstays such as “Cold Case Files” and “American Justice,” where murders are solved in 44 minutes, with authoritative narration by a bespoke Bill Kurtis. Zeman and Mills are not bespoke. In the series, they wear drab clothing and get rained on a lot. They spook and stumble through crime scenes and dark woods. They betray not so much authority as an obsessive need to know, to unearth clues that might reveal a killer. Their search has them repeatedly turning to the source by which the women made their living and lost their lives: the Internet.
Asking the public for help solving crimes has come a long way since “America’s Most Wanted” offered tipsters a toll-free number in the 1990s. Crowd-sleuthing websites feature forums where people can share information and innuendo. Unlike police, who almost uniformly refuse to speak with Zeman and Mills, posters on sites like websleuths.com are eager to offer what they know and think they know, in the hopes that hive-mind can accomplish what the authorities have not.
“One of the places where crowd sleuthing really can work is in identifying the unidentified,” Zeman said. “That’s where we’ve seen the most compelling success and that’s something we tried to do in the Long Island case. We have five victims who are unidentified. That’s five potential clues that could lead to the killer or killers.”
Zeman and Mills interview possible suspects, DAs, pimps, video vigilantes, serial killer groupies, and an inmate who claims he’s killed dozens of sex workers. They web-chat with amateur profiler Peter Brendt, a chain-smoking German who pegs the Gilgo Beach killer as a “trophy collector” because of the way he necklaced his victims along the same strip of road, the way a hunter might mount taxidermy. (Brendt cautions the filmmakers not to conflate two killers, that a set of hastily dumped bodies in New Jersey cannot be the work of the killer at Gilgo Beach, who takes his time to “enjoyably dismember,” the first time those words may have been spoken sequentially.)
Midway through “The Killing Season,” as Zeman and Mills cross the country looking into other murders, the viewer wonders if they have left Gilgo Beach too far behind, if there are too many victims for us to hold in our minds. Girl after girl, raped, strangled, mutilated, discarded. It can be a grim journey, one that often works best when the filmmakers hone in on a moment, as when they stand at night on a bluff, the site of at least one girl’s murder. You can see the glow of Atlantic City in the distance, and you wonder if the lights and outlines of the casinos were the last thing the girl saw before dying, safety near but not near enough.
The longing of a different girl shows what else is lost. Eight years ago, Alyssa Gage was 10 when her mother, who had fallen into drug addiction and prostitution, was murdered in Daytona. She tells Zeman and Mills that she will help them in any way she can. She just wants to know what happened to her mom, and the police have never been able to tell her anything.
“Police are notoriously tight-lipped and look, we’re dealing with serial homicide which is one of the hardest types of crime to solve,” Mills said. “That being said, there is no reason why, let’s say every six months, a detective can’t call up a family member and say, ‘Sorry, we are still working the case but right now I don’t have anything to tell you.'”
And so Alyssa, in a pretty dress, rides along with Zeman and Mills. She is composed, and while they do not uncover any new clues, there seems to be some succor for the girl, to know her mother has not been forgotten.
“Some people might think we were sensationalizing these crimes, but they didn’t sit and talk with these families,” Zeman said. “Almost all felt, in some way the police hadn’t done their jobs to the fullest, or that the public, because of the victims’ addictions or sex work, had cast aside these women as less than worthy of justice.”
Documentarians who delve into murder narratives are sometimes accused of voyeurism, of manipulating audience reaction, of exploiting victims in order to sweeten the work. Critics of “Making a Murderer” saw the series as trivializing the brutal murder of a young woman in order to demonstrate the innocence of the man convicted of killing her, and “The Jinx” appeared to play fast and loose with the timeline in order to cement its position that Robert Durst was guilty.
Zeman and Mills mostly steer clear of these hazards, in large part because of their guilelessness, their willingness to follow dead ends and stumble through those dark woods if it will help bring the killings to an end, to be, as Zeman said, “compassionate and entertaining at the same time.” And while “The Killing Season” uses hallmarks familiar to true crime TV — jangly background music, the “viewer discretion is advised” warning — the viewer does not feel steered to conclusion so much as invited to come with Zeman and Mills as they try to resolve these harrowing cases, in hopes of saving the next girl from the next killer, or the same killer.
“The Killing Season” airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET on A&E.