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Community still struggles after deaths

By IRWIN LOY -- Sun Media

June 1, 2007

When Robert Pickton went to trial in January, accused of being the country's worst serial killer, Wayne Leng breathed a sigh of relief.

"It was a long time coming," says Leng, whose friend, Sarah de Vries disappeared from the streets of the Downtown Eastside in 1998.

Pickton is charged with de Vries' death, but his current trial is focused on six other alleged victims.

"We thought we'd never have answers to what happened to Sarah or any of the women," Leng says. "So to me, the trial means a lot."

But more than four months into a trial expected to last many more, it's not clear what the trial means to the average person.

"I can see there's a lot of disinterest in it. I think people are tired of it," Leng says. "I had hoped the trial would focus more attention on the plight of people like Sarah, and hopefully there would be some changes somewhere along the line. Obviously, these women end up out on the street, not by choice."

Leng wonders if the disinterest is a reflection of the public's attitude towards the women, many of whom were sex-trade workers and drug addicts.

"That's the thing that's really troubling for me," he says. "There's people out there that just want to believe [the women] got what they asked for. It's like, what did they expect, you know, putting yourself in harm's way?"

Initially, the public seemed to recoil as the most gruesome evidence was revealed early on.

And as public interest in the trial slipped, so did the media's. Gradually, the TV cameras withdrew. These days, there are only a half-dozen or so media organizations that cover the trial on a daily basis.

For Ann Livingston, who works with the drug-user advocacy group VANDU, that's meant that even finding a morsel of coverage in the news has been rare.

"Each one of those women had an average of two children and two parents and three sisters," Livingston says. "It's an astounding number of British Columbians that are affected. And yet we can't follow the trial because it upsets somebody? Is that what it is?"

Livingston says she doesn't accept that the testimony is at times too horrifying for the public to hear.

"I think it's a luxury we can ill afford, to have our stomachs turn at breakfast to hear about a case that went on under our noses for many, many years, without action from citizens," Livingston says. "I'm very sorry it's upsetting your digestive system. What else can you say? If it's upsetting enough that it's ruining your breakfast, maybe we could start pulling together a little to make sure these upsetting things don't happen."

Still, for some, the fact the trial is finally underway provides a spark of hope. Sex workers have been meeting with the police, community centres, residents and business groups to talk about making sex work safer for everyone involved. It's the first time the seemingly disparate interest groups have worked together in this city.

"There is this hope that we would see action from various levels of government," says Susan Davis, a sex-trade worker and advocate. "I think we're starting to see that now. Rather than playing the blame game and pointing fingers, the community has engaged in a reasonable fashion."

But in this neighbourhood, it seems there are as many setbacks as there are steps forward.

At the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre, organizers have been forced to open up as an emergency shelter at night, a role that was never envisioned for the centre.

"We're not thrilled that we have to operate an emergency shelter," says centre coordinator Cynthia Low. "It's shameful. For us, we're not proud that we have 45 women sleeping on the floor at night."

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Sereena Abotsway

Born: Aug. 20, 1971

Reported missing: Aug. 22, 2001

Abotsway said in June or July 2001 that she was "going to the country with a friend."

Marnie Frey

Born: Aug. 20, 1973

Reported missing: Dec. 29, 1997

The first of the six to go missing. She was in rehab months before her disappearance.

Andrea Joesbury

Born: Nov. 6, 1978

Reported missing: June 8, 2001

Joesbury was known to visit the WISH women's drop-in centre on a nightly basis.

Georgina Papin

Born: March 11, 1964

Reported missing: March 4, 2001

Papin's close friend Evelyn Youngchief recalled last seeing her in January 1999.

Mona Wilson

Born: Jan. 13, 1975

Reported missing: Nov. 30, 2001

In 2001 Mona received more than 270 prescriptions, many for methadone treatment.

Brenda Wolfe

Born: Oct. 20, 1968

Reported missing: April 25, 2002

Drug addiction dramatically changed her appearance from 1996 until she vanished.

Copyright 2007, Canoe Inc. All rights reserved.

 

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Updated: August 21, 2016