VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
'If the girls had been dogs the police would have done more'
A pig farmer was charged in Vancouver this week with the murder of two prostitutes. He may have killed at least 50 more. So how could so many disappear from the city without arousing suspicion? Julian Borger reports
Wednesday February 27, 2002
In Vancouver's Anglican cathedral, the names of 50 women have been written on paper rectangles and stuck on a chapel wall - an improvised shrine that grows each day with candles and notes offering the prayers of friends and family. It is a shrine to the city's disappeared, a startling toll of female drug addicts and prostitutes from one of Canada's poorest districts who have vanished from the streets without a trace. For years, the disappearances have been Vancouver's dirty secret but the tale has taken a macabre twist that has propelled it into the world headlines.
On Monday, a pig farmer named Robert William Pickton appeared in a Vancouver court charged with the murders of two of the women named on the cathedral wall, Serena Abotsway, and Mona Wilson. Meanwhile, the police appear confident that many more of the 50 missing will be traced to the Pickton farm. Even before Pickton's arrest on Friday, the families of all the women were permitted to make their way to the squalid and cluttered 10-acre lot in the eastern suburb of Port Coquitlam to hold vigils or leave flowers and other offerings at the gate. A police tent was erected across the road to provide refreshments and counselling while television cameras dug in on a small embankment nearby.
However, neither the Vancouver police nor the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (who are conducting a joint investigation) have said much about the evidence against Pickton. They are reported to have come across DNA traces but there are few details, and in the information vacuum there is inevitably gruesome speculation. Former visitors to the farm remember Willie Pickton (as the 52-year-old farmer is known to his friends) proudly pointing out the vats he used to boil the carcasses of slaughtered pigs. Meanwhile, police forensic scientists have been examining Pickton's recent deliveries to a meat rendering company, which reduced the remains to industrially useful gloop.
The farm is an appropriate setting for nightmares. The main house and barn are in a state of near collapse. The gate is festooned with signs telling would-be visitors to mind their own business. One warns:"Pit bull with AIDS". The dogs, pigs and other animals have all been removed by the authorities, leaving a lifeless wasteland scattered with the remnants of abandoned cars and dark piles of landfill. Much of the property is boggy and prone to flooding but over the past five years, the Pickton family had filled in much of it with gravel, raising it above the water line so that it could be sold off, lot by lot, for suburban development.
The sales made the Pickton family millions of dollars, but it is unclear where the money went, other than to keep Willie and his brother, Dave, in drink. They turned a nearby house into an after-hours bar, christened it Piggy's Palace, and staged frequent drunken parties there. According to neighbours, Willie Pickton would bring prostitutes from downtown Vancouver to provide the female company. Piggy's Palace now stands empty and silent, watched around the clock by a pair of policemen parked across the road.
A neighbour who identified himself only as Eric and who is now trying hard to sell his own house, describes the Picktons as "strange". "They would stage cock fights at all hours on the farm and they would have their dump-trucks going at two in the morning," Eric complains. "Most farmers get up at six or seven in the morning and go to work. They'd start hanging out at seven, eight in the evening. And both of them don't wash. You can tell."
Pickton made no noticeable efforts to clean up for his court appearance. His hair was matted and his hands were grimy as he stood before the judge to hear the accusations of murder. Later, his lawyer, Peter Ritchie, said the farmer had been taken aback by the charges. "He's overwhelmed by all this. He's not familiar with this type of thing at all, and the attention that it's been getting. The case will sort itself out in due time," he says.
That may turn out to be a very long period indeed. There are 85 officers from the local police and the Mounties currently assigned to the case, but the search for remains could take years. Investigators will have to work their way through acres of landfill and may have to tear down a school and several blocks of new homes built on former Pickton land.
The case will inevitably dig up some ugly truths about Vancouver itself. The city and its police stand accused by families and friends of the victims of looking the other way for years as the disappearances gathered pace, rather than admit that such an outwardly attractive tourist destination might harbour such a dark underside. Fifty women have gone missing since 1983, 39 of them in the past seven years, and almost all from 10 impoverished blocks alongside the city's skyscrapers and yacht marinas, known as Downtown Eastside. The people who live, take drugs and sell sex there call it the Low Track.
It is a dismal stretch of pawn shops, seedy hotels and abandoned shops. At its core, at the corner of Main and Hastings streets (known locally as Pain and Wasting), the pavements are filled around the clock with the homeless, the drunk and the hopelessly addicted. There is constant violence. The prostitutes have taken so many beatings that their faces are as scarred and swollen as boxers'.
One of them, Joanne, has spent the last 12 of her 31 years in the district and seen her closest friends vanish one by one. "It took a while to dawn what was going on," she says. "You thought maybe they'd gone home. But when people go home, they come back to visit. These people never came to visit."
The figure of 50 includes only those whose bodies have not been found. The total is much higher. According to police records, another 90 prostitutes in the area have been killed over the past decade in deaths variously categorised as murder, manslaughter or sudden death with foul play suspected. Yet despite this frightening rate of attrition, and the ever-increasing desperation of the families of the missing, the police response appears to have been sluggish to say the least.
Kathleen Hallmark-McClelland's daughter, Helen, disappeared in August 1997, aged 31, after years as an addict and prostitute in the Downtown Eastside. She had long ago drifted away from her parents into the embrace of cocaine and heroin but, as more and more of her friends began to disappear, Helen made a point of calling her mother regularly. "She had nothing to fall back on. There was so much of her that was still childlike. I see the same look in all the girls' faces down there."
At the end of August, the calls stopped. Helen failed to show up for her mother's birthday in November, and at Christmas. Hallmark-McClelland bombarded the local police with desperate phone messages but heard little in return. "The police didn't show up or call. It took a month and a half for the detective to come out to see us. He actually suggested my daughter could have moved to Florida and changed her identity but most of them don't have the price of a bus ticket downtown. If six dogs from the neighbourhood had disappeared, there would have been more done," says Hallmark-McClelland who now works for a community magazine called Lookout, dedicated to tracking down the missing.
The police even appear to have been given numerous specific tip-offs about Pickton. "Farmer Willie" was apparently a familiar figure in the Low Track, regularly picking up women and taking them back to Port Coquitlam. Moreover, he had been charged in 1997 with stabbing a prostitute at his farm. The charges were eventually dropped, apparently due to lack of evidence to corroborate the woman's version of events, but there was no dispute that she had run out of the Pickton farm screaming and covered in blood.
Suzanne Jay, who helps to run a shelter for abused women in Vancouver, says: "We had information about the location of that farm. People called us to say that they had called the police and told them there was something bad going on there."
Wayne Leng, a friend of another of the missing women, Sarah de Vries, says he had an anonymous tip that a prostitute who had visited the farm had spotted a number of women's identification cards among Pickton's possessions. He said he also passed this tip on to the police, with no apparent result.
The Vancouver police spokesman failed to return repeated calls from the Guardian over several days, so it is impossible to present the official response to the allegations of negligence. Press reports portray a harried and underfunded force, overwhelmed by the problems of the Downtown Eastside.
However, a standard report form used by the major crime section of the investigation division seen by the Guardian also casts light on the police perspective. Alongside spaces in which to enter the number of "female victims" and "male victims" there is a third category: "prostitutes". Critics say the form reflects the police view of prostitutes as disposable human beings, a prejudice which they argue is reinforced by racism.
Many of the prostitutes on the Low Track are aboriginal, from the tribes known in Canada as the First Nations. Charges of racism have been vigorously denied by the Vancouver police in the past.
Elliott Leyton, a Newfoundland professor of anthropology, argued that the police faced huge difficulties in dealing with the cases of the missing. He told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that prostitutes "can drift away from the system without being noticed for a very long time, even when nothing may have actually happened to them."
The outpouring of anguish over the missing women suggests that not all were so anonymous. Several, like Helen Hallmark, were in regular contact with their families, or maintained networks of friends and relatives to give themselves the sense of stability they craved.
The parents of the missing have welcomed Pickton's arrest as a sign that progress is finally being made. But the reaction on the streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is far more guarded. "The johns on the street are like the hookers on the street," says Joanne. "For every one that goes there two more that take their place. You can't tell who's crazy. You have to trust your gut instinct."
· Websites run by family and friends of the missing include:www.missingpeople.net; www.lookoutmagazine.ca; and www.vanishedvoices.com
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
Updated: August 21, 2016