The true crime genre has seen a huge boost in popularity recently, thanks to the success of captivating series like Serial and Making a Murderer. Now, A&E is adding a new contender into the mix. This month, the network will debut its chilling new docuseries, The Killing Season, which will explore the eerie unsolved case of the Long Island serial killer (often referred to as LISK). We talked to filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills about their investigation, why they chose this particular case, and whether they believe it will ever be resolved.
The LISK case has drawn international attention since December 2010, when the bodies of four women were uncovered in the marsh along the Ocean Parkway, near the towns of Gilgo Beach and Oak Beach on Long Island. Over the following months, six more sets of remains were found in the same area, including that of four more women, a man in women’s clothing, and a toddler. Notably, a majority of the identified victims were known to be working in the sex industry at the time of their death. Though the Suffolk County Police believe that one person is responsible for all of the killings, no one has ever been charged for the crimes.
Now, just a few weeks before the six year anniversary of the discovery of the first set of remains, The Killing Season is bringing the case back into the spotlight. The series follows documentarians Zeman and Mills as they dig deeper into the LISK case, the police investigation behind it, and potential ties to similar killings across the country.
As a native of Glen Cove, a town about 45 minutes away from Gilgo Beach, Zeman has his own personal ties to Long Island. But what really drew him and Mills to the LISK case in particular was the question of why it remains unsolved.
“In this day and age, we live in this kind of CSI society where you [think] there’s definitely going to be some kind of electronic or physical evidence to get this guy caught,” Zeman said of his initial belief that the case would be solved quickly. “And then year one, no arrest and then year two, no arrest. It starts to raise questions and when you dig deeper, you start to hear talk of police corruption and political backstabbing and if [the cops] bungled the case.”
Both Zeman and Mills have a background in true crime stories. The two previously teamed up for Killer Legends, a 2014 documentary investigating the real-life origins of several urban legends. Zeman also co-wrote and directed 2009’s Cropsey, the acclaimed documentary film examining the disappearance of five children on Staten Island. But what sets the case of LISK apart is the element of sex work, which many of the killer’s victims were involved in.
The Killing Season opens with the case of Shannon Gilbert, an escort who disappeared after allegedly fleeing the home of one of her clients in Oak Beach in May 2010. It was during the search for Gilbert that police ended up discovering the bodies at Gilgo Beach, leading to the idea of a possible serial killer on the loose. In their investigation, Zeman and Mills talk to Gilbert’s family, as well as the relatives and friends of other victims who are still looking for answers.
“It’s important to investigate these crimes because these are the people who are vulnerable. These sex workers are vulnerable,” Mills says. “And serial killers know that.”
For help, Zeman and Mills turned to the one place where several of the victims and many other sex workers found their clients: the internet. The filmmakers spent hundreds of hours going through the forums of true crime discussion site, Websleuths to find clues, establish crime patterns, and turn over new theories.
“One of the reasons why there’s been an explosion of internet speculation about this case is because inexplicably, the Suffolk Police Department stopped giving updates,” Zeman said. “They stopped corresponding with the public. So that lit the digital campfire.”
In addition to putting forth theories of possible suspects, the forums also brought up the possibility of a connection between LISK and reports of other murdered or missing sex workers in various cities, including Atlantic City and Daytona Beach. Throughout the series, the filmmakers travel to several locations across the country to not only explore the potential parallels of other cases to LISK, but also to open up a broader conversation on the susceptibility of sex workers to serial killers.
“We went to where the story was leading us,” Mills said of opening their investigation into other cases. “As we kind of pulled the lens away and looked outside these eerie similarities and eerie connections, what became more relevant were these broken systems. Why are these women being preyed upon? Why are these cases not being solved for years and years?”
It’s a question that remains pertinent as the LISK case approaches its sixth year without a suspect. But though there hasn’t been a breakthrough yet, there have been several notable changes to the case over the last year or so. In December 2015, the Suffolk County Police formally asked the FBI to join their investigation into the murders. Earlier this year, James Burke, the ex-Suffolk police chief who oversaw the LISK case during its early years, pled guilty in federal court to violating a suspect’s civil rights. With a change in leadership and the inclusion of the FBI, both Mills and Zeman hope the investigation of LISK will finally make some strides.
In the meantime, they plan to continue to keep tabs on the case and its status. Both filmmakers will log on to Websleuths after every episode of the show to monitor new discussion about the case. “What’s crazy about this case is that it’s evolving all the time,” Zeman said. “We hope something new will come out.”
The Killing Season premieres on A&E on November 12 at 9 p.m. EST.
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