Just as there is no single form of poverty, there is also no clear set of family patterns or life circumstances that lead to the choices these women made. No formula exists to explain what brought them to Gilgo Beach. Human trafficking was a factor for one of them, addiction for another.

But if they had anything in common, it was that they never fell off the grid or lived on the streets, as the TV procedural stereotype dictates. They all stayed close to their families. They all came from cities with dwindling options and were looking for a way out. That’s one way to look at “Lost Girls,” the title of my book about this case, later adapted into a movie: They were only “lost” as much as we — the police, the media, the social safety net — chose to lose. them, deciding that they are worth throwing away.

Serial killers understand this, of course. Jack the Ripper targeted the women he did for presumably the same reason that the Green River Killer and Joel Rifkin said they did: These were women they believed no one would ever look for. And more often than not, unfortunately, they were right.

Now, 16 years after Ms. Brainard-Barnes disappeared, we have an arrest, a suspect: Rex Heuermann, apparently, lived in plain sight, in a Long Island town a short drive from where the bodies were found. He has a wife and children, and a job with a relatively high profile. In a place as densely populated as New York, he is accused of leading a double life that seems hard to contemplate.

His advantage, apparently, was that no one was looking for him either. In cases involving escort work, the men who are clients often seem like footnotes, at least to the public. The police only locked up Mr. Heuermann last year, more than a decade after the four bodies were found on Gilgo Beach.

For Ms. Cann and the other family members, it’s an eternity of wondering and waiting, and feeling just as discarded as the loved ones they’ve lost.

Robert Kolker is the author of “Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery,” the best-selling nonfiction account of the Gilgo Beach murders.

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