A serial killer stalks the sex workers of Long Island.
Maureen Brainard-Barnes was last seen alive in July 2007. Soon after, her sister reported her disappearance to police. Their response wasn’t exactly comforting; an officer told Brainard-Barnes’ sister that, “your sister ran away and doesn’t care about anyone.”
Three and a half years later, in December 2010, the remains of four women were discovered on a beach in Long Island, New York. Brainard-Barnes, 25, was among them. Also identified were Melissa Barthelemy, 24, Megan Waterman, 22, and Amber Lynn Costello, 27.
All four women were sex workers. And, it appeared as if all four women were brutally murdered by the same person.
Months later, in April 2011, officials found another 6 bodies. If police officially link these two findings to the same person, the brings the body count up to at least 10. Moreover, Shannen Gilbert, also a sex worker, has yet to be found after disappearing last spring; police are investigating whether her disappearance is related to the case.
There’s an uncomfortable question that has to be asked, then. Could some of these murders been prevented if police had taken Brainard-Barnes’ disappearance more seriously?
It’s a familiar criticism of the mainstream medias’ coverage of missing persons cases: the more white, wealthy, attractive and wholesome a missing woman or girl is, the more likely their disappearance will make headlines. Indeed, “missing white girl syndrome” is enough of a phenomenon to warrant its own Wikipedia page.
Unsurprisingly, major news outlets generally ignored the disappearances of these four women — with one telling exception. In October 2010, the Long Island Press published “Lost Girls: When Women Go Missing on LI Some Matter, Prostitutes Don’t,” detailing the disappearance of Waterman just two months before her body was discovered.
Writer Jaclyn Gallucci compares it to the murder of Leah Walsh, a 29-year-old school teacher who was gruesomely killed by her husband. Walsh’s story “was the subject of almost daily news updates. Her face was on the cover of newspapers; her funeral was covered on the evening news.”
The contrast in media coverage between Walsh’s murder and that of the four sex workers is stark.
But, this “missing white girl syndrome” doesn’t end with the media. Rather, there’s something more ingrained in United States culture — the taboo surrounding sex work. Or, as Nancy Goldstein of the American Prospect so eloquently puts it:
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.
Case in point: when Waterman’s family finally caught the attention of CNN’s Jane Velez-Mitchell Show, they received cruel comments but no tips. Comments like, as Lorraine Ela, Waterman’s mother, details to Gallucci, “‘She was asking for it’ or ‘she was hooking’ or ‘why do you say boyfriend, he was her pimp, come on.’”
When the four bodies were discovered in December, though, the case catapulted into the international news. But the overarching framework of sex workers as “less than human” was still there. The New York Daily News, for instance, referred to the murders as a “hooker slay” on its front page.
Ultimately, it’s hard to argue that the police are immune to the greater cultural taboos surrounding sex work. Indeed, because the victims of these heinous crimes were paid to engage in sexual activities, the police did not initially take disappearances as seriously and the investigations were not a priority.
While officials have repeatedly said that the victims’ profession is not taken into account in their investigation, there is still one major obstacle to overcome. Police have asked other sex workers to come forward with valuable information, but they are not guaranteeing that sex workers will be immune from prosecution. A Nassau County police spokesman told WNYC that “[Sex workers offering information] will only be arrested if they have been caught offering to have sex with a member of law enforcement or soliciting sex for money.” Sex workers, then, will likely be less inclined to provide information if they feel they might be at risk of arrest.
Sex workers that provide information are, of course, engaged in an activity that is illegal in the state of New York. But that doesn’t mean they are any less human, their rights are any less important, and their colleagues’ families and friends don’t deserve justice.
TAKE ACTION: If you’d like to urge the Suffolk County police department to offer immunity to sex workers that provide information about the murders, sign the petition here.
Photo credit: Istockphoto