From Jack the Ripper to HBO’s “Making a Murderer,” unsolved true crime—the more blood-soaked, the better—makes for good copy and, increasingly, for popular mainstream entertainment. Even more so when viewers can feel a connection to the case.
A new series to premiere this weekend on A&E will hit home for local viewers, and will urge them to connect with the case in a tangible way: by joining cyber-sleuths online to see if a malicious phantom known only as the “Long Island Serial Killer,” or LISK, can be crowd-sourced into custody.
“The Killing Season,” which premieres Saturday at 9 p.m. on the cable network, is a documentary series that focuses on 11 sets of human remains found along Ocean Parkway, in a stretch straddling the Suffolk County and Nassau County border, not far from Gilgo Beach, which gave the grisly discovery its name.
Four bodies were found in late 2010 during a search for a New Jersey woman, believed to be a sex worker, who disappeared in the area. The body of that woman, 23-year-old Shannon Gilbert, actually was not discovered until nearly a year later, in a nearby marsh, with investigators concluding that she drowned—a conclusion her family rejects. By the time of that discovery, in late 2011, another six sets of remains had been found in the same 15-mile stretch of Ocean Parkway, between Jones Beach and Oak Beach.
The shock of finding a “dumping ground” was one thing, but the bigger shock might be that some investigators believe the makeshift graveyard is not the handiwork of LISK alone—it might be two or more serial killers, and they might be staking out their turf.
Five years later, the case remains unsolved, and documentary filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills took on that mystery as the topic for “The Killing Season,” which will be an eight-episode “docu-series” on A&E. Its first two episodes were previewed at the Hamptons International Film Festival in October, in part because the story has an Eastern Long Island connection: Body parts of one victim, 20-year-old Jessica Taylor, found in Gilgo Beach in 2011 were linked by DNA to a torso found in a patch of woods in Manorville eight years earlier.
“It was one of the more stunning things to happen in that period, the spring of 2011,” said journalist Robert Kolker, whose 2013 bestseller, “Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery,” told the stories of the victims and the case. It was stunning, he noted, because Ms. Taylor, who had been a prostitute in Manhattan, had disappeared so much earlier than the other victims found along Ocean Parkway.
Mr. Kolker—who appeared with the filmmakers at HIFF to discuss the documentary series he participated in—noted that the Manorville connection is important because it suggests a killer with a very different modus operandi. The first four bodies found were intact, wrapped in burlap and spaced nearly equidistant along the highway—laid out, possibly, to allow the killer to revisit the trophies. But a killer who would scatter body parts in different places “suggests someone who is working a little more like Joel Rifkin, perhaps, leaving parts of remains in different places”—or someone who has been killing so long his technique has evolved.
The reference to Mr. Rifkin, a serial killer who was convicted of nine murders in 1994, is appropriate both because he preyed in part on sex workers, and because he was known to dump bodies in remote sites on Long Island, including on the East End.
Not long after “Lost Girls” was published, Mr. Kolker said, he was contacted by Mr. Zeman and Ms. Mills. The former is a veteran filmmaker who is best-known for the 2011 true crime documentary “Cropsey”; he and Ms. Mills, also a film veteran, teamed up after “Cropsey” for an anthology series, “Killer Legends,” for NBC Universal, which has been popular on iTunes, Netflix and Hulu.
The pair told Mr. Kolker they wanted to continue the work of journalists chasing the stubborn case of LISK in some documentary form; either a feature film or a series, they weren’t sure. “But they wanted to get to work,” he said. They enlisted renowned documentarian Alex Gibney as executive producer
The resulting miniseries took some three years to put together, and it expands the topic beyond LISK and Gilgo Beach to the general issue of sex workers being the target of serial killers throughout the United States—the filmmakers go to Atlantic City, Daytona Beach and other communities where similar crimes have occurred. The problem has grown as online listings have become a popular way for “escorts” to find clients. Many times, they are men and women “living off the grid,” Mr. Kolker noted, and thus often not immediately missed, nor easily identified; in fact, the remains of three women, a man and a baby found along Ocean Parkway are still unidentified five years after they were discovered.
At HIFF, Mr. Zeman talked about the key moment when A&E brass allowed him and Ms. Mills to expand the story from LISK to other cases. “We were concerned about doing a show about sex workers,” he said. “Was it too dark? Was it too depressing? Would people really care about these women who didn’t have any justice?”
“They are, unfortunately, the perfect victims for serial murderers out there,” said Ms. Mills at HIFF. But she added that she was struck by how so many of the victims and their families were so recognizable—the differences between her life as a filmmaker and theirs, as the subjects, was separated by addiction, violence and other factors that led them down a different path.
Throughout, the filmmakers adopt a style first seen in “Cropsey,” in which Mr. Zeman explored a longstanding urban legend involving murders on Staten Island by involving himself in the search for answers, appearing on camera and becoming something of a character in the film. The same is true of both him and Ms. Mills in “The Killing Season,” as they find themselves in “dicey situations,” as he put it, while pursuing loose ends that appear to have been left dangling by police investigators.
Another element of drama is the Suffolk County Police Department’s investigation itself, which has been accused of “dragging its heels,” as Mr. Zeman put it, in part because of then-Chief James Burke’s desire to keep the FBI at arm’s length, although his detectives wanted their help. The reason for the chief’s wariness became clear with his arrest on federal charges late last year; he was sentenced last week to 46 months in prison for a series of misdeeds.
The department’s lack of progress on the case is an element of the mystery. Addressing the matter at the HIFF presentation in October, Mr. Zeman said, “Some people say it’s incompetence, and some people say it’s more. Which one is it? ... When we started, we thought, it’s just incompetence. And then, slowly, things start to seep in … you know, I don’t know. I thought it was just incompetence—now I’m starting to think maybe there’s something.”
Mr. Kolker agrees that the purposeful delay in involving the FBI “lost valuable time, and I believe the department is still reeling from that.”
Thomas K. Hargrove, an investigative journalist featured in the series, has founded the nonprofit Murder Accountability Project to track unsolved homicides throughout the United States. At HIFF, he noted that FBI resources are focused more on terrorism, and the infrastructure for exploring serial killers is “on life support.” The result: More than a third of homicides nationally go unsolved, and he believes several serial killers are stalking victims in many communities, including on Long Island, at any given time.
“Long Island is a nice microcosm for what is broken with homicide all over the nation,” he said in October. “The reporting is bad, so we don’t know how many unsolved cases there are out there. That’s literally true on Long Island—we have no idea how many of the 775 murders that have been committed in the last 35 years are solved. We don’t know that. The police are not reporting the data.”
The filmmakers thus hope that this “suburban horror story,” as Mr. Zeman terms it, can be solved—not necessarily by the police, or the filmmakers, but by viewers. A large part of the story focuses on the website websleuths.com, where the case has been a focus of amateur and professional criminologists from around the world, chasing down leads and documenting elements of the case. In fact, the filmmakers are actively encouraging viewers to take their observations, theories and questions to the website as they watch “The Killing Season,” not just to improve their viewing experience but, possibly, to provide a breakthrough.
“I think all the attention on the case could be helpful in identifying the unidentified remains,” Mr. Kolker noted. “It’s something I really hope happens.”