VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Missing Women inquiry hears from victim of serial killer Robert Pickton
BY NEAL HALL, VANCOUVER SUN FEBRUARY 27, 2012
VANCOUVER - The Missing Women inquiry heard for the first time Monday from one of the victims of serial killer Robert Pickton.
A five-minute video was played at the inquiry showing Sarah de Vries shooting heroin and talking about her $1,000 a day drug habit.
The video was shot by CBC-TV in 1993, at a time when there had been a number of heroin overdose death in Vancouver.
In the video, de Vries stated matter-of-factly that she knew the heroin might kill her and warned others to stay away from the drug.
Inquiry Commissioner Wally Oppal also heard a number of writings by de Vries, which were read out by her sister, Maggie de Vries, an author who teaches creative writing at the University of B.C. and wrote an award-winning book about her sister, Missing Sarah.
The older sister recalled Sarah was adopted when she was 11 months old and was one of four children who grew up in wealthy west Point Grey.
Their father was a UBC professor and their mother was a head nurse at Vancouver General Hospital.
Maggie recalled she didn't realize it at the time, but Sarah, who was part black and part aboriginal, suffered overt racism.
Sarah felt she was a "loser loner," her sister said, reading out some of Sarah's journal entries, which said she was kicked and punched in school and had rocks thrown at her while walking home.
"I knew Sarah felt alienation that she was the only black child in our white family," recalled Maggie.
Sarah called herself "the literal black sheep of the family," her sister said.
Maggie de Vries was one of three people to testify at a panel Monday about their overlapping experiences involving Sarah de Vries, who disappeared on April 14, 1998, when she was 28.
Pickton was charged with the first-degree murder of Sarah de Vries after her DNA was found during an exhaustive forensic search -- the largest in Canadian history -- at the Pickton farm in Port Coquitlam after the serial killer's arrest in 2002.
At the time Sarah disappeared, Vancouver police denied that a serial killer was preying on women
The force kiboshed a draft press release that VPD Det.-Insp. Kim Rossmo wanted to issue in 1998, which included a public warning that a possible serial killer was on the loose.
Maggie de Vries said police had a duty to warn the vulnerable women of the Downtown Eastside (DTES), where dozens of women disappeared but police maintained the women were transient and would eventually show up.
High-ranking Vancouver police officers testified earlier that nothing would have changed if the warning was issued because the street sex trade workers were so drug addicted that they would not have changed their behaviour.
"You're blaming the victim," Maggie de Vries said of the police rationalization for not issuing the warning to survival sex workers.
"Women should have been given that choice," she said. "It's their job to warn us if we're in danger."
Instead, she said, "He murdered women after woman after woman. A warning might have given him pause . . . It might have saved one woman's life."
"The women didn't know," added Jamie Lee Hamilton, who joined de Vries and Wayne Leng for a panel discussion Monday about how to improve communication and trust between police and street prostitutes working the DTES.
"They didn't have access to computers, they don't buy newspapers," Hamilton added. "They're in survival mode."
She added: "We owe it to marginalized communities to assist them in any way we can."
Wayne Leng, a car mechanic, recalled meeting Sarah one day while he was out for a drive and stopped at a grocery store near Princess and Hastings, the corner where Sarah worked.
"Wow, this is one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen," Leng said he thought when he first saw Sarah in 1994.
During the next four years, they developed a deep friendship, he said, with Sarah often staying weekends at his apartment in Vancouver.
He recalled she often became "drug sick" and he'd give her money to buy drugs to stave off the sickness that comes with the powerful withdrawal symptoms.
Leng saw Sarah the day before she went missing.
"Be cool, my friend," Leng told her. He said Sarah replied: "I'll call you."
When she didn't call, he knew she was missing. Leng said he also talked to Sarah's drug dealer, who thought she was dead.
Maggie de Vries reported her sister missing to police and helped Leng put up missing posters.
The sister saw other missing posters in the DTES and felt police weren't doing enough to investigate the cases.
Hamilton testified that the displacement of the sex trade from Vancouver's West End to darker industrial areas of the city made it more dangerous for women working the streets.
The women were pushed out of the West End during a "Shame the Johns" campaign, which resulted in an injunction to stop prostitution in the area.
The women were first pushed into industrial areas of the city's Mount Pleasant district and later north of Hastings, east of Main Street.
She also recalled women worked in clusters, to look out for each other, but police later discouraged clustering, which made things more dangerous and the women more vulnerable.
She said women also became more reluctant to report violence and abuse to police because of police harassment and the women not being taken seriously.
Hamilton recalled she had set up a safe place, Grandma's House, for sex trade workers in the downtown eastside.
She said police shut down Grandma's House, despite former Vancouver police chief Terry Blythe saying he was supportive of Grandma's House.
"If they were supportive, they wouldn't have shut us down while a serial killer was roaming the streets," Hamilton told the inquiry.
Maggie de Vries recalled that Sarah was badly beaten one time by a customer who took her to Port Moody.
Sarah escaped half-naked and went to the Port Moody police station, where she was ridiculed by male officer.
Sarah left and tried to hitchhike back to the DTES, but the driver of the car grabbed her and tried to sexually assault her, so she got out of the car and caught a cab.
Maggie said it may have been the only time her sister went to police on her own volition and asked for help.
"Instead they humiliated her and sent her back out, where she faced further violence," Maggie said.
She said police should have given Sarah a blanket, found somewhere where she could sit and found a female officer to help with her.
Pickton was convicted of six murders at his first trial in 2007. After he lost all appeals, the Crown decided not to proceed on a second trial on another 20 murder counts. The murder of Sarah de Vries was among the charges stayed. Pickton, now 63, confided to an undercover officer after his arrest in 2002 that he killed 49 women.
The inquiry is probing why police didn't catch Pickton sooner.
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Updated: August 21, 2016