Melissa Was a Prostitute on Craigslist. And Then She Was Gone.

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July 9 2013 5:42 AM

First Lost, Then Murdered

Melissa moved to New York to cut hair. Then she became a prostitute. Then she was gone.

Prostitutes wait for clients in the streets on April 25, 2013.
Crime-scene tape marks off an area where the bodies of four women, including Melissa Barthelemy, were found along a quarter-mile stretch of beachside road in December 2010 in Babylon, N.Y.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The following is an excerpt from Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker, out now from HarperCollins.

The girls grab at the arms or shoulders first. It’s best to start by touching these guys. They’ve spent all night at a strip club, where the women can’t go too far.

Hey, sweetie, what’s your name? Where are you from?

They answer: Oh, I’m just visiting … This is my vacation … I just came here on business. They’re almost always from out of town.

Really? Yeah? Would you like a nice massage? Hot towels? Lotion?

Sometimes they’re interested. Sometimes they’re disgusted. Sometimes they smile. Some guys play along smugly: “Oh, but why do I have to pay when I can give you the best night of your life?” Melissa and Kritzia would look at them and be like, “Oh, please, fuck you.”

But some guys get excited. That’s when you say you’ll give them a blowjob. Then you touch them again. Then you make the deal.

Melissa Barthelemy is shown in this Suffolk County Police Department handout photograph released to Reuters on April 6, 2011.
Melissa Barthelemy

Photo by Ho New/Reuters

Kritzia Lugo was small and round, with lush lips and big eyes and a gift for gab. In Times Square, she was known as Mariah, a salute to her idol, Mariah Carey. Melissa Barthelemy was known as Chloe. Friday and Saturday nights were slow, too many families clogging up the sidewalks. But almost every other night, Melissa and Kritzia would hang outside Lace, the strip club on Seventh Avenue north of 48th Street—Melissa with a cigarette and Kritzia with some weed; their pimps, Blaze and Mel, standing a safe distance away, across the street or around the corner—waiting for men to come out.

In the new New York—after Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg helped make over the porn palaces into a family­friendly tourist hub—the escorts and their pimps have to be discreet. The girls dress a little more modestly. They’re a little quieter. They walk longer lengths up and down the block so that, technically, they can’t be accused of loitering. The pimps are still there, but at a remove, able to watch the girls work and to bolt if need be.

Times Square at 3 a.m. is a complicated place: volatile and dangerous but also, in its way, like any other workplace, with protocols and procedures and intrastaff dramas. The McDonald’s on Broadway, south of 47th, is like the company commissary. Melissa knew that many of the drunkest guys stumbling out of the strip clubs ended up there. Around the corner, on 47th between Sixth and Seventh avenues, is the break room: a tiny open-air public plaza with a few metal tables and chairs and some slate decor. The girls call it the Batcave. One time Melissa braided Kritzia’s hair while they sat there talking, helping her tighten her extensions and curl them at the bottom with a curling iron. Melissa often boasted about her beauty-school training, like a physician boasting about medical school, and then she’d laugh and threaten to cover Kritzia’s head with bald spots, chasing her around the Batcave with the curling iron.

When she first saw Melissa in Times Square sometime in 2006, Kritzia didn’t talk to her. This skinny white girl, always laughing at something. What’s so funny to you? Kritzia thought. But when Kritzia stared her down, Melissa gave as well as she got. That broke the spell, and they became close friends, sharing the same irreverence and attitude. Then Kritzia saw the risks Melissa took—she’d go with anyone who would rent a room—and she thought that Melissa wasn’t built to last, not even a year.

Melissa proved her wrong. She was in New York for three years, until 2009. When Kritzia heard that Melissa had family in Buffalo, N.Y., ready and waiting to take her home, she wondered why she was here at all. Melissa would say only, “I’m here because I want to be here.” In those moments, Kritzia thought maybe she and Melissa weren’t such kindred spirits.

***

Melissa Barthelemy was brought up in Buffalo’s Kensington-Bailey neighborhood—a neglected part of town that long ago housed a state university campus but crumbled after it closed, becoming a refuge for street gangs. Her family was one of a few white working-class holdouts; her mother, Lynn, was 16 when Melissa was born. As a little girl, she was brash and outspoken and, despite her pixie looks, formidable—quick to shout down someone twice her size just for looking at her the wrong way. Self-defense was a necessary life skill in Kensington-Bailey, and when Melissa’s assertive side first showed itself in elementary school, Lynn’s only rule for Melissa was not to hit first.

Melissa spent a few years as a teenager in Texas with her father and stepmother but returned to Buffalo to finish high school. She wanted to be a hair stylist. Melissa talked about watching Lynn work so hard as a single mom and how that had affected her. She said she didn’t plan on getting married or having kids until she was 35. “I want to take care of you and give you things you never had,” Melissa told her mother. “I want to walk into a store and not worry about a price tag. If I like it, I want to buy it.”

There’s a home video of Melissa beaming at her beauty-school graduation ceremony. When the time came for her to cash in on all her work, though, the best job she could find was at Supercuts. At the location in Williamsville, N.Y., a northeast suburb of Buffalo, she had to sit at a mall for two hours every night after closing just to catch a bus home.

In 2006, Melissa and her boyfriend Jordan took their first trip to New York City. “Jordan’s uncle owns a recording studio,” Melissa told Lynn, who did not like Jordan. They came back a few days later, then turned around and went to New York a few weeks after that. Upon her return, Melissa announced that she and Jordan were going to move there.

“I met this guy,” Melissa said. His name was Johnny Terry. He had offered her a job, she said, cutting hair in a barbershop.

Lynn tried to talk her out of it, but she’d been in this place with Melissa before and had less influence on her now. Part of Lynn felt defeated, as if everything she’d done to stop this from happening had been in vain. She felt like she had seen this moment coming all along. So her protests were perfunctory, thin. “Are you sure? It’s not as easy as you think. The rent is high. It’s so far away.”

The conversation was over before it started. “I can handle it,” Melissa said. “The guy has a place set up for me.”

***

Where you work in Manhattan depends on how you look. The fast-track girls—the ones on Ninth Avenue or the West Side Highway, waiting for guys to pull over—are usually the hard­luck cases, strung out and ragged. The girls who run around Times Square are average, like Melissa and Kritzia. Prettier ones—tall, skinny ones—have better luck on the East Side. Within each of those worlds, there’s a pecking order: The girls with pimps hate the girls who work for escort services; the girls who work for escort services can’t stand the girls who work solo on Craigslist. If you have a pimp, your money isn’t your own, but you have protection. If you’re with a service, you’re often working harder than a lot of hos who have pimps. Strippers are at the bottom, mere geishas, catering to men who aren’t permitted to touch them. The streetwalkers like Melissa and Kritzia play such games for only the briefest of moments, as long as it takes to get a client to say yes. They have sex as soon as they can and as fast as they can, and then they move on. It annoys them that the strippers have the more dishonest job—they’re the biggest teases—and yet are the ones on the right side of the law.

From Kritzia and some of the others, Melissa had learned the parameters of the stroll. You can’t look at other pimps. You can’t talk to other pimps. When there’s a pimp on the sidewalk, you have to walk in the street; if you stay on the sidewalk, they can touch you. If they touch you, that means you’re out of pocket, and if you’re out of pocket, the code dictates that they can take your money.

You aren’t supposed to talk with other pimps’ girls, which is obviously a rule they broke every day. It was insubordination, pure and simple, but Melissa had nerve. The big entertainment of the evening sometimes was waiting to see what nasty things came out of that little white girl’s mouth. She would make fun of strippers: Dance, dance, dance, dance all night long, for next to no money; who would waste their time like that? She would even make fun of her pimp. Like the time she said, “I don’t give Blaze all my money, I keep my money,” and pulled out her credit card to show them all. Blaze thought he controlled Melissa, but for as long as she could remember, Melissa answered to no one but herself.

***

When Melissa would come home to Buffalo for a visit—not often, but never less than once a year—she and her mother and Lynn’s boyfriend Jeff and her aunt Dawn would all go out to a club or a corner bar where they could talk and drink. When the bar closed, they’d come back to Jeff’s parents’ house, where Melissa would sit up on the kitchen counter and keep talking. There was none of the old friction. Melissa was a grown woman, making her own decisions.

They would laugh about old times, and whenever her current situation came up, Melissa would be guarded about how things were in the city. Jeff thought that she wasn’t making as much money as she wanted to cutting hair at her boyfriend Johnny’s salon—not enough to afford to start the business she was planning for, not nearly. That didn’t stop her from coming back with gifts: She sent her little sister Amanda $500 to shop for new clothes for school when all she needed was $100.

Amanda visited Melissa for the first time in the summer of 2007. She saw where Melissa was living. The basement apartment in the Bronx wasn’t exactly legal; there was no real division between Melissa’s room and the upstairs level, where a quiet family lived. Amanda couldn’t believe how many cats Melissa had, too many to keep them straight. Melissa, it appeared, had grown a formidable soft spot for strays.

Amanda also met Melissa’s boyfriend Johnny, though she quickly learned that no one called him that. Everyone called him Blaze.

***

Kritzia thought Melissa was lucky, in a way, to have fallen in with Blaze. Though he wasn’t enough of a fighter to protect her, everyone knew Blaze was close to Mel, Kritzia’s pimp, and no one would ever make Mel angry.

Mel and Blaze called each other brothers and operated like business partners. Mel was the muscle, solidly built, with a reputation throughout Times Square as not just a pimp but a drug dealer. After going through a few bad pimps, Kritzia had chosen Mel. She was as infatuated with Mel as any girl could be with a pimp, but it wasn’t quite like that with Melissa and Blaze. Blaze was flashier and funnier, as well as less menacing. His whole persona—the flyboy, the pretty boy, the player—made him come off as a phony, trying too hard. There were rules for pimps, too, and Blaze ignored a lot of them. Pimps can’t have sex for pleasure. The only girls you can sleep with are the girls who are paying you. But Blaze would go to a club and pick up girls—square girls, not working girls. Blaze might have thought he could do that because he never considered himself a real pimp—he was, he thought, above that kind of work.

Blaze and Mel shared a house on Watson Avenue in the Bronx. Kritzia and Mel had the master bedroom. Blaze had a smaller bedroom that he kept to himself. Melissa begged Blaze to let her live with him, but he said they didn’t have space. The real reason was clear, at least to Kritzia: Another girl, Em, was Blaze’s bottom bitch—the girl with the most seniority. At times the situation got the better of Melissa. She’d lose her temper and scream at Blaze: “I’m tired of you using me up to take care of your wife.” Em knew how to protect her position. She would sob and wail and accuse Blaze of not loving her. The situation never changed.

Melissa had more than enough reasons to leave Blaze. She lived on her own and, most of the time, paid her own rent. Toward the end, Melissa wasn’t giving Blaze anything close to all her money. Why should she, she thought, when she didn’t have a reliable pimp like Mel to protect her? Thanks to Blaze, Melissa had slammed right into the system’s great fallacy: Why should she sacrifice herself to a pimp who spent all her money when he didn’t even look after her?

One day in Times Square, Melissa said to Kritzia, “Mariah, why don’t you come with me?”

Kritzia squinted. “Go with you? Go with you where?”

“Go with me—we’re just gonna go.”

“Where?”

“Let’s go to Buffalo.”

“Hell, no!”

Melissa seemed so sad. Kritzia knew she had been fighting with Blaze. And she had mentioned that her mom was putting pressure on her to come home. The street was getting harder for them both. Melissa didn’t like walking all night. She told Kritzia, “This is not for me. I just can’t be here.” To Kritzia, that was the worst paradox of the life. You had to be strong enough to work hard and long in order to convince so many men to part with their money, but weak enough to be there in the first place.

Kritzia started to see Melissa doing calls without Blaze around.

“Bitch, what are you doing?”

Melissa waved her off. “Oh, Mariah, nobody can do nothing to me.”

Without Blaze knowing about it, Melissa switched almost entirely to Craigslist. She wasn’t the only one. Kritzia had another friend, Fabulous, who did it, too. In the few years since the website had caught on, Craigslist had done more to delegitimize the age-old system of pimps and escorts than a platoon of police officers could. Why sign on with a pimp when it was so easy to take a picture and let a guy call you—way easier than walking the streets and looking for a guy and then trying to convince him and then waiting forever at the ATM while he tried to sober up enough to remember his PIN. With Craigslist, johns came to you, and you didn’t have to share the money with anybody.

Melissa asked Kritzia to join her. Kritzia refused. She was scared. The streets weren’t easy, but you could see a guy first. You couldn’t get to know him well, but at least you could make a snap judgment, look in his eyes, check out his clothes, see his cash, and assess his body language. As far as Kritzia was concerned, with Craigslist, you were completely in the dark. Every time you met a client was another roll of the dice, with only a few seconds on the phone to suggest if the person was for real—not a cop, not a crook, not a psycho.

As Chloe, Melissa advertised outcalls only: She’d only go out to a john’s place. She charged $100 for 15 minutes, $150 for a half-hour, $250 for an hour, and $1,000 for overnight. She was openly breaking her arrangement with Blaze. She made enough money to come home to Buffalo at Christmastime in 2008 and take Amanda and Lynn to a spa for massages. “You deserve to be pampered,” she said. On Christmas morning, Amanda and all the cousins each unwrapped an iPod Touch.

There were consequences. A few weeks after she returned, Melissa got jumped by a group of women with one man nearby. A witness heard the man say something like: “This is what you get for disrespecting me.” He later identified that man as John Terry—Blaze—from a photo the police showed him.

***

On the last night of the Christmas visit, Jeff and Lynn got Melissa so drunk that she got down on the floor and started playing with Emily, his dog, barking at the top of her lungs. They’d been out at Neighbor’s pub on Cleveland Drive, just down the street from Jeff’s parents’ place, and Melissa had been putting away 7 and 7’s. When they came back, she had some beers. Now it was 2 a.m. Jeff tried to shush her, but she wouldn’t stop: “Come here, Emily! Woof! Woof! Woof!”

That night at Neighbor’s, Jeff had tried, as usual, to introduce the idea of Melissa coming back to Buffalo. There seemed to be a little more urgency in Jeff’s view: Melissa wasn’t acting like herself. Something was bothering her. She just was not happy. After the barking fit ended, she lay down on the couch, resting her head against Jeff, and he tried again.

“Come home,” he said. His sister-in-law ran a cosmetology school. He could get her a job there.

“Not yet,” Melissa said. “I’m almost ready, though.”

***

On July 11, 2009, Melissa sent a late-night text message to Amanda to firm things up for another visit to New York. The next day, the security camera of her local bank recorded Melissa depositing $1,000 into her account—the proceeds, it is believed, from a date she’d had earlier that night. She withdrew $100 before heading out the door.

Melissa was seen alive that afternoon, July 12, sitting on the curb outside her building on Underhill Avenue in the Bronx. Her phone records show a call to Blaze that evening, under a minute long. It might have gone to voice mail. Blaze would later say that he knew Melissa had lined up another $1,000 date the next night, somewhere on Long Island. He even said he knew the place and knew of the john. But he said that Melissa was working on her own; he’d offered her a ride that she’d declined.

The next day, when Melissa stopped returning all calls and texts, Lynn and Jeff called off Amanda’s trip and began phoning local hospitals. They tried to file a missing-person report. But for three days, the police deflected them. They said Melissa was 24 years old with no history of mental illness and no psychiatric prescriptions; just because her family couldn’t find her didn’t necessarily mean she was missing. Only 10 days later would the police start to investigate. Only then would they subpoena Melissa’s phone records, canvass the neighborhood, and pull a DNA sample from her toothbrush. That was when they learned that her phone records showed access to her voice mail on the night of her disappearance and that the calls were traced to a cell tower in Massapequa, Long Island. Only after that—nearly two weeks after she went missing—would the police visit two nearby motels, Budget Inn and Best Western, to speak to the staff and review security tapes, and find nothing.

It would be 18 months until, in December 2010, Melissa Barthelemy’s body would be the first of four uncovered close by one another in the sand dunes of Gilgo Beach, Long Island, wrapped in burlap. The Long Island serial killer case remains unsolved even now, and six more sets of remains have been discovered and still await identification. The first four bodies were identified as women in their 20s — just like another woman, Shannan Gilbert, who had mysteriously disappeared three miles from where the four were found. Like Melissa, Shannan Gilbert, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Megan Waterman, and Amber Lynn Costello all took part in a modern age of prostitution in which clients are lured with the simple tap of a computer keyboard. The method is easier than street walking, seductively so, almost like an ATM—post an ad, and the phone rings seconds later—but the dangers are less transparent.

Each of the dead women made the decision to have sex for money for intensely personal reasons: acceptance, adventure, success, love, power. They kept working, often, for reasons even they didn’t comprehend. And they traveled in worlds that many of their loved ones could not imagine. Marginalized worlds the authorities would just as soon overlook.

In fact, in those early days in 2009, long before the bodies were discovered, the police in Buffalo might not have been stirred into action at all if, on the fourth day of Melissa’s disappearance—July 16—Amanda’s cell hadn’t rung in Buffalo. When she saw her sister’s number on the caller ID, Amanda rejoiced. “Melissa?”

Instead of her sister’s voice, she heard another: controlled, comfortable, soft-spoken. Male.

“Oh, this isn’t Melissa.”

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