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How many monsters?

Courtesy of the Times Colonist, Victoria
Sunday, May 27, 2001

Louise Dickson


One monster or seven?

Roberta Jean Elders, whose body was found Jan. 31 in Victoria's Pemberton Park, could be the latest victim in a line of unsolved prostitute killings in Greater Victoria that stretches all the way back to 1986.

Five women who worked Victoria streets have been slain without their killer or killers being found.

Another disappeared without a trace.

Police have no evidence a serial killer is responsible for all or any of the murders, but the possibility can't be discounted.

``I don't know what's worse -- to have one monster running around killing people, or if you've got six or seven,'' said Victoria homicide detective Sgt. Don Bland.

``I guess it's probably worse to have six or seven because if you actually get one guy ... there's still five or six left.''

Police aren't sure if Elders was murdered or died of an accidental drug overdose, but they are treating her case as a homicide.

They don't know yet her cause of death.

Her body was discovered nine weeks after a hiker stumbled upon the beaten body of Carla Slots on a logging road near Shawnigan Lake.

Many people -- especially Victoria sex trade workers -- wondered if the same person was responsible.

They also wondered if these two deaths are linked to the other five victims:

- Nancy Greek, 25, who disappeared Aug, 23, 1991;

- Melissa Maureen Nicholson, 17, whose naked and bruised body was found June 11, 1991 in bushes near Shawnigan Lake;

- Kimberley Gallup, 17, who was strangled in a room at the Colony Motor Inn on Nov. 21, 1990;

- Cheri Lynn Smith, 18, whose partially decomposed body was found Sept. 9, 1990 in underbrush near Munns Road in Saanich;

- Chantall Venne, 21, who was found, half-clothed at the side of Devonshire Road in Esquimalt on Feb. 15, 1986. She had been strangled.

``I don't think anyone in the police world is connecting any of these murders,'' said Bland.

But other police officers aren't so sure. Esquimalt deputy police chief Grant Smith said his homicide detectives have worked with the RCMP and other local police departments, comparing notes.

``There is a possibility that the person who committed Venne's murder committed others,'' said Smith.

And Sgt. Geramy Fields, head of Vancouver police homicide squad, said she is working with the RCMP on Vancouver Island and throughout the province, examining the cases of missing and murdered prostitutes.

``A serial killer is just one theory,'' said Fields, who is investigating the disappearance of 24 Lower Mainland prostitutes since 1995.

``Whether it's a serial killer or a number of serial killers, we don't know.''

Fields said she is looking for patterns or relationships between the women and their customers and the way in which they were killed and the ways in which they've gone missing.

``I get the feeling that most sex trade workers think it's one person and I kind of think the cops do too, but they're not sharing anything,'' said Chuck Heilman, an outreach worker with the Prostitutes' Empowerment, Education and Resource Society.

``Initially, there was a lot of fear and the girls started to take better precautions like pepper spray and having a spotter hiding in the area and taking down licence plate numbers. But the fear is gone for the most part now.''

According to Bland, Victoria has never had a serial killer -- someone who has killed more than two people.

But he believes they nabbed a potential serial killer, Lucien Arthur Leroux, after a prostitute was found stabbed to death in his apartment on Gorge Road East on Jan. 15, 1988.

``We had one guy who killed a prostitute and said he was going to carry on,'' said Bland. ``He said he was going to kill hundreds. He was going to stack them in his apartment like cordwood.''

Police went to Leroux's apartment after he tried to strangle a second prostitute, who escaped and complained to police.

Police found the first victim stabbed to death on the floor. During the investigation, two other prostitutes told police he had tried to strangle them.

``You don't write off a prostitute when they come to you and say, `This guy did this,''' said Bland. ``If they're complaining, you know there's something going on.''

Prostitutes are killed because they are easy targets and they deal with a marginalized part of society, said Bland.

``They get themselves into dangerous situations. Their customers are either drunk or stoned. That takes the edge off them. They think `I'll go pick up a girl and we'll do all the things that I can't get at home,' '' said Bland.

Most murderers of prostitutes, unless they are serial killers, don't set out to kill anyone, he said.

``They don't say, `Hey, I'll go out, have a couple of beer, drive up and down the strip and kill a prostitute.' They think `I'll go pick up a girl and see what happens.' When the girl gets in the car, something gets out of hand. The john gets in a rage. The girl ends up smothered, strangled, beaten.''

In his 27-year career, Bland has seen a lot of violence against prostitutes, violence born out of the customer's frustration that he isn't performing properly or the woman isn't doing what he wants.

The power and control the customer is able to wield over the girl is an integral part of these sexual slayings.

``It's the same as rape,'' said Bland. ``Rape isn't about sex organs. It's all about power and controlling someone. It's about this organ,'' he said, pointing to his temple. ``So rape turns into murder. It's that quick and it can happen in a matter of seconds.''

When the john feels he is losing control or power over the situation, he tries to regain control through violence.

``There's a lot of people who start calling them every name in the book and start smacking them around. It starts to feel good, then the girl is killed.''

Because someone has killed once doesn't mean he will kill again, said the detective.

``It's not like they've got a taste for blood and are going to carry on. A killer can rationalize why they do it. It may not make sense to us, but they can rationalize in their own mind why it happened.''

Saanich Staff Sgt. Doug Oakley agrees that prostitute murders involve a lot of emotion and unpremeditated violence. The murders are often similar because in many cases the girls are beaten to death.

But some people have a hate against prostitutes in general and will kill just for the thrill of it, said Oakley.

``We find if people go out to kill to see what it's like, a prostitute is as good a target as they're going to go for. They are, unfortunately, people who are not valued in our society.''

There is also a perception, said Oakley, that police care less about slain prostitutes than, for example, the child of a successful member of the community.

``The murderer feels no one is going to pursue it as much. The killer is not scared of us. They're scared of what motivates us. As far as they're concerned, prostitutes don't have families. They're not happy anyhow so what's the point. They might as well kill them.''

Most people won't kill over money, said Bland. ``Just because the girl took $50 and things didn't work out, the average person isn't going to kill a hooker over that.''

Prostitutes also are killed because of their lifestyle.

``They're into drugs and criminal activity'' said Oakley. ``It could be drug dealing or drug debt.''

Oakley said when girls such as drug addict and prostitute Mary Anne Ford, who was shot to death Aug. 3, 1998, in the parking lot of St. Luke's Anglican Church in Saanich, take money from a customer, who then discovers she's HIV positive, stinks and is covered with scabs and open wounds, it creates motive.

``I can tell you by the time Mary Ann Ford had her money in her hand and it was going to give her another fix, you weren't getting it back. If you weren't happy with her service, that was your tough luck,'' said Oakley.

James Charles Ryder, 36, has been charged with the second-degree murder of Ford. Ryder, who has has pleaded not guilty, and is scheduled to go on trial Monday in B.C. Supreme Court. The trial before a jury is set for three weeks.

What remains puzzling is why Greater Victoria had a cluster of four prostitute murders in the early 1990s.

Smith, Gallup and Nicholson were killed in a 13-month period. Greek disappeared a few weeks later. Slots and Elders also were discovered two months apart.

Are their murders somehow linked?

There are lots of reasons why certain crimes peak and fall off, said Bland. If a serial killer stops killing there can be two explanations -- he's either in jail or he's dead.

The cluster of 24 missing prostitutes on the Lower Mainland is a very high number, said Fields. She believes one reason for a cluster of murders is a peak in the drug trade, to which most prostitution is tied.

``The more they work, the more they get hooked, the higher risks they will take. And with those risks come the inherent dangers that they could be murdered,'' she said.

``Normally girls take precautions about who they do tricks with. They may get into unfamiliar cars or take chances with bad dates if the drugs or the money are there.''

Some women have never had a bad date because they listen to their instincts, said Heilman.

``But I've also known some women who've had several bad dates over the years.''

Most prostitutes don't live with the fear that the next trick could be their last, said the outreach worker.

``They don't like to think that way. It's a job for them and most work has some kind of risk,'' said Heilman. ``Most encounters aren't that scary. Your typical trick is a fairly normal guy -- usually white, married, kids, the sedan. Some girls are so young, they don't know how dangerous the job is.''

This article is from the Times Colonist, Victoria series (Mysteries of the Prostitute Killings)

Sister's sorrow began when calls stopped-May 14, 2001

 

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Updated: August 21, 2016