Serial killers have long targeted prostitutes—from Jack the Ripper, an uncaught murderer who terrorized streetwalkers in late 19th-century London, to the Long Island Serial Killer, an uncaught murderer whose last confirmed victim disappeared in September 2010 after advertising sex work on Craigslist.
Other killers, apprehended, have given investigators more detailed stories of their motivations. Robert Hansen, who came to be known as the Butcher Baker, said he thought prostitutes were evil, so he kidnapped them from Anchorage and then hunted them in the Alaskan wild. The so-called Torso Killer, Richard Cottingham, professes to have acted on a sociopathic sadistic sexual impulse.
“I’ve probably done anything a man would want to do with a woman,” Cottingham told one interviewer.
[Watch The Killing Season, a docuseries about the Long Island Serial Killer, on A&E Crime Central.]
But the sex worker serial murder victim isn’t just a stereotype—it’s a dominant demographic reality. According to a recent study, 22 percent of confirmed U.S. serial murder victims between 1970 and 2009 were known prostitutes. And those numbers are climbing—over the last decade, 43 percent of victims were sex workers. Considering that prostitutes make up just over 0.3 percent of the nation as a whole, those numbers are staggering.
“It’s such a dangerous profession to get into,” says Eric Hickey, a social psychologist and the author of Serial Murderers and their Victims. “Being a prostitute increases your chance of being murdered by 200 times,” he says, with killers perhaps coldly calculating that “they’re easily disposed of, and they’re not going to be missed.”
One reason a serial killer might target prostitutes? Because he believes the police won’t look as hard for a missing sex worker as they will for a more “respectable” victim.
He wouldn’t be wrong. In his book Lost Girls, journalist Robert Kolker explores how multiple police departments failed to investigate the disappearances of several sex workers whose remains were later discovered buried near one another on Oak Beach in Long Island, New York. The “Long Island Serial Killer” quickly became national news, bringing immense pressure on the Suffolk County Police Department investigating the case. But the missing women were still isolated cases, and police gave scant work hours to solving their whereabouts.
That’s because police departments “work by volume,” Kolker tells A&E Real Crime.
“There’s a tremendous amount of crime out there. They’re never going to solve everything, and so they play the numbers… They look at a woman who is over 21 years old and who is missing and is a sex worker, and they think that person leads an itinerant life and may not even be in trouble,” he says. “Meanwhile, there are 16 other cases staring them in the face that they have a better chance of solving.”
Hickey agrees, adding that police antipathy for sex workers further frays the lines of communication. Because sex work is illegal (in most of the country), prostitutes are far less likely than the general population to report victimization of themselves and their colleagues to the police.
“Generally, police are not real fond of prostitutes, because there tends to be other kinds of crime going on when there’s prostitution in the area,” he says. “And so when someone goes missing, maybe one of their friends who is also a prostitute might go and report it… but usually, from the stories we hear, there are two or three prostitutes who disappear before they start to get a little nervous.”
With the Long Island Serial Killer case, Kolker notes that when the last victim—Amber Lynn Costello—disappeared, neither Costello’s sister nor her close friends reported her missing, because they too were involved in sex work and didn’t wish to call police attention to themselves.
“It’s a major factor, and something that everyone knows,” says Kolker. “Including the killers.”
Crime of Opportunity
In planning their murders, serial killers often try to bring their victims to a location beyond police detection or Good Samaritan intervention. Here, too, many prostitutes are vulnerable—especially those who don’t work from a brothel, but instead go to secluded locations with their johns.
And because of the nature of their work, there’s also an obvious sexual component to the relationship—often a key motivator for serial murderers, says Hickey. “About two-thirds of all male serial killers are sexually involved with their victims in some way,” Hickey says. Prostitutes, he adds, are “low-hanging fruit.”
To target people who aren’t sex workers, serial killers often have to scheme: They might feign injury to garner sympathy, as Ted Bundy did, or spend weeks stalking their victim to detect vulnerabilities in habits. But when killers target prostitutes, it can be as simple as negotiating a fee from across a car window.
“It just takes a lot more planning to go after someone who is more educated, more socially savvy,” Hickey says. “A prostitute is streetwise, but only to a certain extent.”
The Disposable ‘Other’
Prostitutes are also regularly dehumanized—in the eyes of the law, in the eyes of the public and in the eyes of the killers themselves.
At his sentencing hearing, Gary Ridgway, the so-called Green River Killer who was convicted of more than 48 murders, summed this up when he said, “I picked prostitutes as my victims because I hate most prostitutes… I also picked prostitutes because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew that they would not be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”
In the Long Island Serial Killer case, Kolker notes that one alleged victim, Shannan Gilbert, ran around Oak Beach for hours on the night she went missing—calling 911, knocking on neighbors’ doors, begging for help. There was video monitoring in that gated community where she was killed. As is often the case with video-surveillance systems, the tape automatically deletes and records over itself after a day or two. Had someone in the community thought to keep the footage—or had police thought to ask for it—the Long Island Serial Killer’s identity might have been revealed.
Kolker says that tape would’ve certainly been saved “if it were somebody in the community who was running around screaming,” Kolker says. “They were looking at the woman who went screaming as the ‘other,'” says Kolker. “That’s a version of something we all do. I live on a street. I know my neighbors. If someone is screaming on the street and seems to be in genuine distress, I might call 911 or I might not call 911. But I will check to see if it’s someone I know first.”
That neighborly indifference gives space for sadistic killers to play out their darkest desires.
“It’s about fantasy,” says Hickey. “I think that men who focus serially on women like that, there’s a fantasy: ‘I can have sex with them. I can do whatever I want.'”