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Crime News Serial Killers

How Does 'Lost Girls' Differ From The Real Life Gilgo Beach Murders?

Netflix's "Lost Girls" is inspired by a string of actual unsolved murders in Long Island, but there are some parts of the feature film that have been dramatized. 

By Jill Sederstrom
The Long Island Serial Killer Case, Explained

On a dark desolate road, a woman runs screaming in terror as the headlights of an approaching vehicle ominously light the path ahead. With a cell phone clutched her in hand, the frantic woman spends her final moments in terror as she desperately tries to find safety.

The haunting opening scene in the new Netflix feature “Lost Girls” depicts what is believed to be the last few minutes of Shannan Gilbert’s life.

Shannan, a Craigslist escort, disappeared May 1, 2010 after leaving the Oak Beach home of her date and placing a frantic 23-minute 911 call to police where she told the dispatcher, “They’re trying to kill me.”

Mari Gilbert Ap N

During the search for the missing escort, police discovered the bodies of four other women wrapped in burlap along Ocean Parkway. By 2011, 10 bodies had been discovered in the area, many of whom were believed to be sex workers.

The killings, known as the Gilgo Beach murders, remain unsolved.

“Lost Girls” explores the murders through the perspective of Shannan’s family — primarily focusing on her mother Mari’s dogged attempts to get police to thoroughly investigate her daughter’s disappearance.

But just how different is the dramatized movie from the real-life investigation of the Gilgo Beach Murders?

It depends on who you ask.

Robert Kolker, the author of the 2013 book “Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery,” which the movie is based on, told Oxygen.com that most of the movie was “really true” with a few significant exceptions.

While a central aspect of the movie is the heated face-offs between Mari Gilbert, portrayed by Amy Ryan, and the weary police commissioner investigating the murders portrayed by Gabriel Bryne, Kolker said those face-to-face exchanges never happened.

“I don’t think she ever really had any one-on-one contact with the police commissioner, but I think it makes sense for the movie to have it come to life that way,” he said.

In one of the scenes in the film, Ryan’s character demands that the police commissioner drain the marsh near where Shannan was last seen alive before his approaching retirement.

“Search the marsh or I am going on the news,” she tells him before walking out of his office.

But Kolker said that aspect was “fictionalized.”

It’s unclear why then-Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer made the decision to search the marsh where Shannan’s body was ultimately discovered.  

“What the movie is doing is it’s jumping off from the speculation that Dormer wanted to try to do one last thing before he left to help the case,” Kolker said.

Shannan’s body was discovered three miles away from the others in the marsh not far from where she disappeared — but investigators are not sure whether she stumbled into the marsh herself or she was killed. They have said the cause of death was “inconclusive,” according to the Associated Press.

The level of Mari’s involvement in the investigation is also somewhat disputed.

Kolker told Oxygen.com that Mari was willing to question the police in a way “other family’s victims were afraid to do” as she sought justice for her daughter.

“She was a naturally combative person,” he said. “So, she was comfortable with a little bit of conflict… most of us aren’t, but she was willing to… fight and ready to fight even to people closest to her."

But attorney John Ray, who represented the Gilbert family, told Oxygen.com that Mari was not heavily involved in her daughter’s case until after Shannan’s body was found.

“Shannan disappeared and Mari did go looking for her and it was actually the sisters who really put the time in and devoted themselves to upturn their sister,” Ray said. “Mari certainly stayed in touch with police, but it was more that police stayed in touch with her.”

He said she became “more involved in chasing down who did this” once Shannan was found dead.

“She became more involved to try to find out the cause of the death and she wasn’t on top of her game in that regard at all,” he said. “It was pretty much we were carrying the ball for her and yeah, she’d show up when we needed her but she wasn’t easy to get cooperation from.”

Mari was killed in 2016 by her daughter Sarra Gilbert, a schizophrenic who had been hearing voices, according to local station PIX.

Ray went on to represent Sarra in her criminal trial and said he got a “different perspective” of Mari.

 “The portrayal of Mari as a heroine is not all that accurate,” he said. “The real story isn’t that story. The real story is quite different actually. The real story is that Mari had a very difficult life and she herself had a very troubled past and her family was completely exploded over the course of years because of her conduct in raising her daughters and that includes Shannan who was in foster care for a good part of her life.”

Melissa Cann, the sister of victim Maureen Brainard-Barnes, told Oxygen.com that the effort to bring awareness to the case was also more of a group effort by all of the victims’ families rather than a solo mission.

“I know in the movie it portrays that Mari is the one that is in the forefront, but it really wasn’t,” she said. “We all did it. We all formed and reached out to each other and wanted to know each other and support each other because ultimately, we were this type of sisterhood that was unspoken because you really couldn’t talk about this case to other people. They wouldn’t understand or would criticize you.”

While individual details, like the timeline of when the families met or their exact conversations, were fictionalized, Cann said the overall message and impact of what the families went through was true to life.

Much like the movie, she said police initially appeared to be unconcerned by the disappearances.

“I don’t think that they realized how much their words were actually hurting the families,” she said. “When they called them prostitutes it was like they didn’t matter, they were unrelatable. They were dehumanized.”

In the feature film, the Gilbert family is also portrayed slightly different than reality.

Mari had four daughters, Shannan, Sheree, Sarra, and Stevie. Stevie doesn’t appear in the film at all and Kolker said the two sisters who are in the movie are a “slight bit younger” than they were in real life when Shannan disappeared.

The movie portrays the siblings as teenagers, while Kolker said they were actually in their early 20s at the time. Stevie had been a teenager, he said.

He said most of the movie “really is accurate,” including Mari’s frequent communications with Oak Beach neighbor Joe Scalise, who pointed suspicion in the film toward fellow resident Dr. Peter Hackett and met with Mari to look at Hackett’s shed.

“I don’t know if she physically went to the shed to look for burlap, but Joe insisted that there was burlap in that shed and he did communicate with Mari a ton about that stuff and they did meet personally,” Kolker said.

He added that Hackett also “really did get tripped up on the details” of his involvement in the case like he does in a scene with the police commissioner.

“I doubt that Dormer visited Hackett personally, I sincerely doubt it, but they are just doing a shorthand for the movie,” he said.

Police have said that they do not consider Hackett a suspect in the killings, according to The Long Island Press.

Whether all the details mirror reality exactly or not, “Lost Girls” humanizes the victims and their families and highlights the initial real-life struggle to bring attention to the case.

“Lost Girls” begins streaming on Netflix on Friday.

Gina Tron contributed to this report.