VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
The 'killing fields' of Edmonton
By KATHERINE HARDING
ROLLY VIEW, ALTA. -- Aellie Ansorger shakes her head and scrunches her nose recalling the stench wafting through the warm May air near her family farm in 2003.
"It was the rot of death," she said quietly, "but I thought it was animal.
"How was I supposed to know what it really was?"
Two years ago last month, a woman's severely decomposed body was found on the edge of a field close to her property near the hamlet of Rolly View, about 25 kilometres south of Edmonton. Discovered by a neighbour about nine metres from a gravel road, according to a source, the bottle blonde was naked and curled in the fetal position.
"There are lots of places to hide things out here, but this body was left out to be found, no doubt about it," Ms. Ansorger said.
The chilling observation has haunted Ms. Ansorger and her husband, Nelvin, ever since the dead woman, later identified as Katie "Sylvia'' Ballentyne -- a 40-year-old Edmonton prostitute and mother of four -- was found.
And it's a pattern the other residents of the unlit rural roads and tiny villages on the eastern fringes of Edmonton have witnessed too often in recent years. So often in fact, that a local tabloid newspaper now calls the bucolic area "the killing fields."
Since 1997, at least 12 female bodies, most of them sex-trade workers, have been dumped in local fields and ditches. A few more bodies dating back to 1988 were discovered, but police have yet to give a definite number of the murder cases linked to the area.
Even the discovery last month of a female body in a ditch on the city's northern edges further frayed nerves here, though it was widely assumed the body was that of a missing 29-year-old pregnant woman. "Not again," was the worried collective refrain before Liana White was positively identified and her husband quickly charged with the murder.
It has been a month and a half since an RCMP-led task force probing dozens of unsolved homicides went public with what has long been suspected: a male serial killer is at work.
The revelation was accompanied by a $100,000 reward for information. But since then, little else has come from police, prompting many to wonder if the massive investigation is sputtering or, even worse, stalled.
The task force, which has been dubbed Project Kare, is officially investigating 41 unsolved murders, which date as far back as the 1930s, but officers will not say how many of those cases they believe are connected to the serial killer.
Fifty full-time officers are on the case, which is morphing into one of the most complicated investigations in the province's history. The province has spent $6.3-million on the task force, which began operating in November 2003. Members are using a sophisticated computer-tracking system to sort through clues and tips.
Not much has been said about whom the police think they are looking for. Officers have divulged only that they suspect he has a connection to the rural area east of Edmonton; that he likes to hunt, camp, fish or farm; that he drives an SUV or truck; and that he may clean his vehicle often or at odd hours.
The fact that many of the bodies have been left in easy-to-find places could be a telling detail about what type of person police are seeking, according to Elliott Leyton, a Newfoundland-based forensic anthropologist and expert on serial killers.
"It's just a contempt for what they are dumping, a contempt for the police and tremendous respect for themselves," he said. "That's a significant part of the kick these guys get out of this is the cockiness: the feeling that they are fooling and taunting the authorities. The whole 'Look, I did it again, you morons.' "
The latest victim, Ellie May Meyer, 33, was found in the northeast of the city as a farmer tilled his field in May. A busy four-lane highway is not far from where the prostitute was discovered.
Steven Egger, an international expert on serial killers and a former homicide investigator, said these types of police investigations are the hardest because most forces are rarely confronted with them.
He points to the case of serial killer Dennis Rader, who recently admitted in a U.S. court that he had strangled, stabbed and shot more than 10 people to satisfy his sexual fantasies.
"Does he look like a serial killer? Does Ted Bundy look like a serial killer?" asked the University of Houston-Clear Lake criminology professor. "And that's the problem -- they blend [in]. They look like everybody else."
Mr. Egger said serial killers, such as the one police in Edmonton are chasing, are particularly hard to catch because they traditionally choose victims from the low social strata, such as prostitutes and the homeless. When the victims turn up dead, he said, it often isn't a high priority for police departments.
Mr. Egger, who with his wife has compiled a database of 1,400 serial killers, said prostitutes and the homeless are the victims in 75 per cent of the cases.
And because such victims often have few or no links to the greater community and their killings appear random, police forces are usually slow to realize that one person might be responsible. A public outcry often is not heard until the bodies start piling up in a way that can no longer be ignored.
You could hear the frustration in RCMP Inspector Mike Sekela's voice when he was asked about public criticism that police had been too slow to respond to the Alberta slayings.
The team commander of Project Kare said that while the task force did not officially start operating until the fall of 2003, its work really began a year earlier when police across the Prairies began to pull unsolved murder and missing-persons cases together. It was in direct response to the "Vancouver experience," he said.
In 2002, Port Coquitlam, B.C., pig farmer Robert Pickton was charged with the death of numerous Vancouver prostitutes. Before that case was cracked, the police investigation also had attracted major criticism for being too slow to react to reports that dozens of sex-trade workers had been disappearing from the streets of Vancouver since the 1970s.
Mr. Pickton currently is charged with 27 murders. If convicted, he would be the worst serial killer in Canadian history.
Insp. Sekela would not reveal much about the Edmonton investigation, but did say a "deliberate strategy is in place," including the decision to go public with its theory that a serial killer is preying on women.
"We can't react every time some expert goes on television and says that so-and-so is happening," he said.
Kathy King, mother of one of the dead women, appreciates that police are taking the murders more seriously, but is starting to lose hope that they will solve them.
"The investigation is starting to almost become a bad joke. I mean, how many RCMP does it take to solve this?"
On Sept. 1, 1997, her only natural daughter, Cara, was found at the edge of a canola field. A bustling factory was nearby. (Police have asked Ms. King not to disclose information from the autopsy for fear of jeopardizing the investigation).
Cara was a 22-year-old "free spirit" and animal lover, according to her mother, but extremely impulsive. From a middle-class family, she started struggling with school in junior high. After hanging out with a rough crowd, she began experimenting with drugs and got hooked on cocaine; later she worked the streets to pay for the habit.
Ms. King copes with her loss by carefully documenting all the women who have gone missing or turned up dead in and around Edmonton since the 1970s, even if they did not belong to the sex trade. "I guess I'm looking for my own answers," she said.
Like the police, Ms. King is desperately searching for anything to bring her closer to her daughter's killer.
She wonders why most of the dead women were petite and why many were found with few or no clothes; does that mean the killer is taking trophies?
She is also confused about why at least two of the women were burned while the majority, including Cara, were not.
According to Mr. Egger, the U.S. criminologist, that piece of information tells him the task force could be looking for at least two killers because of the different ways the bodies have been left. Project Kare has never ruled out that possibility.
To avoid developing tunnel vision, the task force also has purposely taken on a large number of cases. Besides the 41 homicide cases involving people leading "high-risk lifestyles," they also are probing the disappearance of another 31 people. Police have refused to release names or the time period over in which most vanished.
Police departments across the province have been asked to forward all unsolved cases of missing persons and suspicious deaths among women who lived high-risk lives, but those officers also are reluctant to talk about cases that have become part of Project Kare.
An RCMP spokesman has suggested 14 cases in the Calgary region are now linked to the task force. The Calgary Police Service denies the number is that high, yet will not provide a list. However, two unsolved Calgary homicides involving prostitutes in 1991 have been tied to Project Kare.
Police with experience probing major crimes say the Project Kare investigation is particularly daunting. "One of the big things you're working against of course is Father Time," said Staff Sergeant Jeff Cove of the Lethbridge Regional Police Service.
Witnesses move or die. Some witnesses are reluctant to talk or will talk only if police pay them. Forensic evidence may not be available.
"Generally speaking, it's one lucky break that you look for," said Staff Sgt. Cove.
The size of the investigation is enormous, he said. That is partly because the victims were in the sex trade and may have encountered hundreds, if not thousands, of people -- from johns to other prostitutes to drivers and store clerks -- around the time they disappeared. Each becomes a "person of interest" police need to interview for evidence and to determine whether they are suspects.
"I shudder to think what the pile of persons of interest is beginning to look like. The fear we all have is eliminating someone or putting them on the back burner who might be the bad guy," Staff Sgt. Cove said.
Back in Rolly View, Alta., Ms. Ansorger said that while she is not yet overly concerned about her own safety, she does look over her shoulder even when walking down the lane to get the mail. "He seems to be getting away with this. What if he gets bolder and just grabs anyone he can find?"
Several kilometres east of the Ansorgers, farmer Danny Johnson worries about his 17-year-old daughter. In 2003, a hiker on his property found the skull of Debbie Lake, a 29-year-old Edmonton woman -- who police say was a prostitute. Several months later, more of her skeletal remains were found in a nearby ditch about nine metres from a busy road leading to Camrose.
"I watch my property as best I can, but there is only so much you can do," Mr. Johnson said. "Look at this place. How would I even know if there is someone behind those trees over there?"
Since 1997, the bodies of murdered women have been found on Edmonton's fringes.
Cara King, 22
Sept. 1, 1997: The prostitute's body was found at the edge of a canola field in Sherwood Park.
Joyce Hewitt, 22
Oct. 19, 1997: Body found at 17th Street and 89th Avenue, then a farmer's field.
Kelly Dawn Reilly, 24
Jan. 27, 2001: The prostitute's body was found behind a gravel pit in the area of Range Road 264, north of secondary Hwy 623.
Edna Bernard, 28
Sept. 23, 2002: The burned body was found in a field east of Leduc in the Range Road 245, 1.5 km north of Hwy623.
Monique Petrie, 30
Jan. 8, 2003: The frozen was found on the edge of a field south of Fort Saskatchewan in the area of Range Road 222 and Township Road 540.
Melissa Munch, 20
Jan 12, 2003: Body was discovered in a farmer's field near Range Road 220, south of Hwy 16.
Debbie Darlene Lake, 29
April 12, 2003: The skull and remains of the former prostitute were found near Hwy. 623, near Miquelon Lake Provincial Park.
Katie Sylvia Ballentyne, 40
July 7, 2003: The body of the sex-trade worker was located near Range Road 235, 15-16 km east of Leduc and just north of Township Road 500.
Rachel Liz Quinner, 19
June 11, 2004: The body of the Edmonton prostitute was found on the edge of a small wooded area northeast of Sherwood Park at Township Road 540 and Range Road 224.
Samantha Tayleen Berg, 19
Jan, 25, 2005: The snow-covered body of the teenage sex-trade worker was found in a parking lot on Edmonton's North Side. Cause of death is still unknown.
Charlene Gauld, 20
April 18, 2005: Her burned remains were found near Camrose, 70 km southeast of Edmonton. The drug addict and prostitute was waiting to get into a drug treatment program when she went missing.
Ellie May Meyer, 33
May 6, 2005: The body of the sex-trade worker is found near Sherwood Park.
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Updated: August 21, 2016