If you set out to find a serial killer based primarily on the speculation of an amateur internet forum, you might get as far as tracking down a couple of leads, but you probably wouldn’t be able to dedicate your time, money, and energy to following those leads as far as you could go. And you probably wouldn’t get a sweeping eight-part documentary series out of it.
But that’s just what Cropsey director Josh Zeman does in his new eight-episode true crime series for A&E, The Killing Season, which premieres Saturday night. Zeman’s attempts to solve the mystery of the Long Island serial killer based mainly on word-of-mouth interviews and amateur detective work leads him on a sprawling road trip across America to visit one potentially linked crime scene after another. Unlike his previous documentaries, which dealt with urban legends, this story is real. And many of America’s families are still living the journey.
The Killing Season begins as, ostensibly, an attempt by Zeman and his producer Rachel Mills to solve the Long Island serial killer (LISK) case on their own. The LISK murdered his first victim — that we know of — in 1996. The killer, or, as many theorize, killers, buried her along a strangely desolate stretch of Long Island, where sex workers are numerous. He then killed silently and invisibly for more than a decade.
In 2010, a sex worker named Shannan Gilbert ran from an Oak Beach property screaming into the night that “they” were trying to kill her. After Gilbert spent more than 20 minutes on the phone to 911, her call dropped and she vanished into the night. The search for her resulted in the discovery of four horrifically dismembered bodies wrapped in burlap and buried along Long Island’s Gilgo Beach. Eventually that body count would climb to 10, ranging from a badly beaten transgender sex worker to a mother killed along with her small toddler; Gilbert’s body would be found in the marshes a year later.
LISK may have continued killing until at least 2013. The perpetrator has never been caught, and despite numerous potential suspects, the local police, embroiled in a corruption scandal, have been frustratingly tight-lipped. Despite intense publicity, police appear to be nowhere closer to catching the serial killer than they were in 2010.
This is where Zeman, along with Mills, who joined Zeman onscreen in their previous documentary Killer Legends, pick up the investigation. Using largely word-of-mouth leads and speculation developed on the popular online crime-solving forum Websleuths, they attempt to track the killer wherever their trail might take them. And the trail takes them across the US, from serial killings along the East Coast, through the South and Midwest, and ultimately to another notorious serial killer dumping ground out West.
It largely seems like terrible detective work, but through it, an important narrative emerges about marginalized voices in America: why the missing are missing, and why so many dead women across America’s cities and heartland have found no justice.
The Killing Season eventually becomes an important social drama, but it starts out as schmaltzy tabloid stuff
“We can be certain that there are far more serial killers than we ever imagined in our nightmares,” investigative journalist Thomas Hargrove says at one point in the first episode. This is the documentary’s thesis statement, but it takes several episodes to remember it. Over the series’ eight episodes, Zeman’s narrative, tone, and editing style shift from annoying theatrics and frustrating leaps from one unsourced hypothesis to the next into what it should have been all along: a sober, mostly straight-faced attempt to answer a much larger question about class and crime among America’s underprivileged communities.
This picture, however, emerges mainly through a lot of gimmicky storytelling tactics early: dramatic sound effects, dark insinuations made based on little evidence, and grand statements made with little nuance. Viewers of Zeman’s earlier documentaries might be familiar with these traits — Zeman used them to good effect in Cropsey and Killer Legends, both of which focused on the potentially true origin stories behind urban legends.
Zeman grew up on Long Island and turned to it for the subject of Cropsey, so it makes sense that the mystery of LISK would have drawn him and Mills back to the area. But he and Mills seem wholly unequipped, even uninterested, to actually dig into the evidence and details of the LISK case. Instead, they focus on the community most affected by the serial killer: Long Island’s sex workers.
This could make for a really compelling first few episodes, but the filmmaker’s introduction to the world of sex work is mired in drama and hand-wringing. The documentarians are baffled that sex workers continue to post online after the bodies are discovered — each of the first four victims advertised on Craigslist — and that they continue to operate within the killer’s “hunting grounds.” They speculate that perhaps it’s “the lure of easy money” that draws the women in; they wonder if the women “knew the dangers they were facing.” After they’ve procured a real live sex worker who agrees to let them accompany her through her weekly routine, the filmmakers dramatically film her entering a well-lit, well-trafficked hotel, then freak out when she doesn’t return immediately.
“Out here, any decision she makes could be one of life or death,” they declare. They’re not wrong — serial killers notoriously prey on prostitutes because they are available and less likely to be missed. But painting sex workers as naive, vulnerable women blindly wandering into certain death gives the documentary a touch of histrionics — and, given where it finally takes us, one might even say concern trolling.
So, too, do the innumerable scenes where the filmmakers choose to visit potentially dangerous locations at night instead of broad daylight. Early on, several scenes like these seem like they were awkwardly staged for dramatic effect.
Even though they’re making a documentary that seeks to understand sex workers and the working class, the filmmakers indulge, again and again, in easy condescension, generalization, and stereotyping that undermines their eventual conclusions. They even, at times, display what seems to be a callousness about what impact their camera might be having.
At one point they misgender a transgender sex worker and speculate that her killer might have beaten her to death because he felt “tricked.” One lead, which goes nowhere, involves them tracking down and visibly revealing the whereabouts and identity of a woman who states, on camera, that she moved out of another state to avoid a specific suspect who had physically assaulted her in the past. If this is true, it’s odd that the filmmakers cavalierly showed exactly where she lives now.
At another point they imply, both without evidence and without apparently doing anything with their suspicions, that a working-class Florida family is hiding deep secrets on their salvage-filled property because they didn’t sell the place after bodies were discovered there. This assumes, of course, that leaving was even an option for a poor family living under the eye of the police, or that the only reason one would have for staying on a property for decades after a serial killer dumped bodies there must have been nefarious.
The Killing Season relies primarily on amateur sleuthing to find what story it can
This kind of lazy narrative dogs the filmmakers at every turn throughout its first half, and makes the series a frustrating watch up until about episode five. It’s all unnecessary melodrama, especially when there are so many other fascinating aspects of the LISK story the documentary team could have chosen to work through instead: the strange behavior of potential suspects around the crime, alleged police cover-ups, the possibility of multiple killers working together, the role of mental illness, and lingering questions about what happened the night Gilbert disappeared.
Instead, absent much cooperation from the Long Island police, the narrative relies heavily on speculation from Websleuths. This popular internet forum has spawned a massive community of amateur internet detectives, many of them professionals or retired members of law enforcement or related fields, who use their powers to identify missing persons and generate leads and suspects in unsolved crimes. The community has been remarkably successful at doing its work, and has even attracted the attention of suspects themselves. In particular, The Killing Season relies on tips from a self-professed amateur profiler named Peter Brent. Brent wonders if maybe the erratic pattern and inconsistent circumstances of the recovered bodies indicate two serial killers in competition with one another, a theory the series pursues without gaining much traction.
At other points, Zeman and Mills seem to spend time on wild goose chases, like time spent pursuing a lead based on a Wikipedia edit. The investigation proceeds through a series of in-person interviews and following increasingly more far-fetched (both logically and geographically) word-of-mouth leads that take them across the country. One Websleuths tip sends the filmmakers off to Daytona Beach, which in turn sends them spiraling down a rabbit hole of crime and sex trafficking. For anyone waiting to see how any of these tangents connect back to LISK, the answer is: not very well.
Conjecture without substance runs rampant throughout much of the documentary. The documentary insists that there’s a “pattern” linking the Atlantic City serial killer with the Long Island serial killer because the location of a possible killing site looks kind of like the dumping ground of Long Island. (“Same reeds,” says Zeman.) This observation is hailed as a clue, and nothing is said about the obvious context that anyone looking to dump a body would choose somewhere remote and desolate like a rundown stretch of overgrown marsh.
Occasionally the filmmakers make giant deductive leaps and illogical conclusions, zooming from point A to point C without stopping to explain the trajectory through point B. A former producer for America’s Most Wanted claims to have discovered the identity of someone the filmmakers believe could be responsible for a series of serial killings in Atlantic City — but the documentary doesn’t tell us how the producer came to that conclusion, or how the producer was able to capture the man’s photo.
Whatever fact-checking they do rarely makes it on camera. Each witness is treated with equal credulity; even a final-episode lead that appears to have merit is simply dropped by the documentarians without any follow-up. Throughout the series, lead after lead goes nowhere or dries up due to what seems to be the filmmakers’ inability to either gather or conduct any real forensic research.
The narration insists, again and again, that incidents are dramatic without spelling out why. At one point Zeman and Mills insist the LISK has made a mistake in revealing too much to the friends and family of victims to whom he placed calls after the murders, but this assertion is pure conjecture and never plays a satisfying role in what is, by this point, the duo’s halfhearted attempt to pretend the documentary is still attempting to solve the LISK murders.
The documentary is at its best when it contextualizes its crimes
In both Cropsey and Killer Legends, Zeman successfully places urban legends in the context of larger American anxieties, painting a picture of horror emerging from an evolving nation. Early on, notably in Atlantic City, he does that in The Killing Season as well. But it’s not until the team travels to Daytona Beach that the tone and focus of their narrative finally shifts away from their narrative’s frustrating superimposed drama and illogical amateur crime-solving theatrics into something more meaningful.
In Daytona, they meet a woman who has been mourning the death of her best friend for years, keeping her ashes in her living room at her feet by the couch. In a beautifully filmed scene at a local bar, she describes her own feelings of guilt for allowing her friend to wander into the path of a serial killer. And just like that, The Killing Season has something real to say, and real work to do: allowing the real stories of countless dead sex workers and their grieving communities to be told in their own terms.
Armed with this new direction, the second half of the series is markedly different in both tone and focus from the first half. The filmmakers take us across America, stopping at Oklahoma City for a look at the grueling lifestyles of cross-country truckers and the women who do highly dangerous sex work at truck stops. And finally they end up in Albuquerque, where an outraged community has never gotten over the still-unsolved, notorious West Mesa murders.
At turns, the documentary touches on the important work being done to combat the serial killings, like the FBI’s Highway Serial Killer Initiative and the Murder Accountability Project. It also draws attention to the underfunding, understaffing, and systemic inadequacy of federal and local departments attempting to deal with the epidemic of murdered women across the country. Investigator Hargrove, who created the Murder Accountability Project, points out that the nation’s solved homicide rate has declined to only about two-thirds of all reported murders. Mark Safarik, former FBI profiler, notes that the FBI only has eight profilers available to work on federal investigations after 9/11. The implication that the agency, along with other federal agencies, had all its resources redirected toward terrorist surveillance, at great cost to its domestic policing, is clear.
Ultimately, The Killing Season unfolds a story of tremendous power about an underclass of voiceless communities across the country. That story is at its best when it drops its largely ineffectual true crime trappings and focuses on the much broader story at its heart: the social context of a nation full of women who have largely been abandoned by the system put in place to protect them — or, at the very least, give them justice after it’s failed to keep them safe.