VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Blood On The Track
Courtesy of The Independent on Sunday, 18 June 2000, The Sunday Review, by Julie Wheelwright
Vancouver is one of the world’s most prosperous cities. But it has a dark secret: a downtown district from which women have been going missing by the dozen. Julie Wheelwright reports.
Laid between Canada’s Coast mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Vancouver is a jewel among cities. As you drive through its downtown core from the West Side under a gleaming spring sky, pink blossom floating from the cherry trees, it all seems to sparkle. Sun glints off its smoked glass towers and off the snow-crusted mountains just beyond. Countless inlets of deep grey sea intersect the cityscape, and are intersected in turn by stately bridges, edged by empty beaches and manicured parks of giant cedars. And the postcard-perfect residential streets glow with prosperous contentment. No wonder an international marketing firm recently voted this the most desirable city in the world.
But travel a little way east, just past trendy Gastown and along Hastings Street, and you will discover a less familiar Vancouver. Here bodies slump in urine-soaked doorways and men with leathery faces tip paper-wrapped bottles of rice wine into their red-rimmed mouths. The local needle-exchange hands out about 2.4 million needles each year – more than any other centre in North America. The neighbourhood drop-in centre for sex-trade workers estimates that 80 per cent of its clients are HIV-positive. On Wednesdays, the price of drugs and booze soars, when the dole cheques come in; and the price for sex is scarcely more stable.
As dusk falls, the streets are suddenly thick with women, bending towards car windows on bruised legs, wearing tiny skirts and care-worn expressions. Some are as young as 14, and a few even less. This is Vancouver’s Low Track stroll, where a blowjob costs about 2 pounds and life, it seems, is just as cheap.
Until recently, the clichéd image of peaceful, comfortable Vancouver flourished despite the presence at its heart of Canada’s most impoverished postcode. But in recent years its sleazy other-life has been casting an increasingly dark shadow over the middle-class idyll. Since 1978 at least 31 women, mostly sex-trade workers, have disappeared from the half-dozen blocks that comprise the Low Track area, most of them since 1997. No trace of any of them has been found, and there is now a reward of $100,000 on offer for information leading to the discovery of the women’s whereabouts. Over the past few weeks, there have been two possible leads. Barry Neidermeyer, a 43-year-old pimp from the neighbouring province of Alberta, with a string of convictions for assaults on sex-trade workers, was identified by police as a "person of interest". And on 18 April an American helicopter pilot, Robert Yates Jr, was arrested in Spokane, in nearby Washington state, and charged with the murder of 16-year-old Jennifer Joseph. Yates has also been mentioned in connection with the killings of 12 other sex-trade workers in the area – and with several others around the world.
But no evidence has yet come to light linking either Neidermeyer or Yates with the Vancouver disappearances. And two chilling facts remain. First, there is no hard forensic evidence relating to any of the disappearances: no bodies, no witnesses, no reports of women being dragged screaming into cars. And, secondly, Niedermeyer and Yates are just two among many possible suspects who can be linked to the Vancouver area. For, in the age of Internet sex, Vancouver has acquired a global reputation as a "hotspot" for paedophiles and other sex criminals. Indeed, it is not uncommon for johns to be stopped on Low Track with "kill kits" – knife, rope and plastic bags (none of which are illegal) – stashed in their car boots. The Vancouver serial killer could be one person, or two people, or many people, and no one is quite sure which possibility is worse.
One indication of the seriousness of the problem has been the involvement in the investigations of an English policeman, Neil Trainor. Detective Sergeant Trainor is a geographic profiler – Britain’s first – at the National Crime Faculty. His past experience includes working on the Frederick West case in Gloucestershire – he organised a major debriefing at the end of the case – and this experience was considered to be highly relevant when he spent part of last year working with fellow profilers in Vancouver.
Now back in Britain, Trainor sees many parallels between the West case and the Vancouver disappearances. "The police don’t really know how many women are missing and how many are possibly dead," he says, "and that was very similar to the West case. Once you have a body then you can search for others. If they find one body that will unravel a lot of mysteries."
Trainor has spent eighteen years in homicide, but it is clear that his experiences in Vancouver have made quite an impact on him, both negative and positive. His office in Bramshill, Kent, features a photograph of the view from the Vancouver Police Department office where he worked, looking on to a dazzling, sunsplashed cityscape beneath the Coast mountains. "I’d go back there in a minute," he says.
He was impressed by the Low Track prostitutes he met. "A lot of them were a lot more switched on than I would have thought," he says. "They looked out for each other, even the new ones, and I haven’t seen that here."
But he fears that Vancouver may be faced with a highly competent killer. If the women’s bodies had just been randomly dumped, for example, in the forest or streams that surround Vancouver, some of them would almost certainly have been found by now. And if the women had simply gone to ground, then at least a few, he believes would have remained in contact with their children, or perhaps retained part of their real names. But the Vancouver women have simply vanished, leaving behind uncashed cheques, children whom they loved, unopened Christmas presents.
The last time anyone saw 27-year-old Angela Jardine, she was wearing a floating pink ballgown and swanking around as a "participant" at a day-long conference of drug experts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (entitled "Out of Harm’s Way") on 20 November 1998. By late afternoon, however, she was itching for a fix. She borrowed $5 from the hotel manager, drifted from the conference room on unsteady feet, headed towards Powell Street and disappeared without a trace.
Exactly one year later, her parents wrote a thank-you note to all who had helped in the search for Angela and posted it on the official website of Vancouver’s missing women, of whom Angela officially became No 27. "Angela vanished under suspicious circumstances," Deborah and Ivan Jardine wrote in their anniversary posting. "To this day, there have been no clues regarding her disappearance."
Drug-addicted, learning-disabled and a prostitute, Angela was always a candidate for a tragic end: she hadn’t the resources to start a new life and kick her habits. Her friend Deb Mearns, who runs a drop-in centre, has no doubt that her disappearance involved foul play. "She was like a big kid," says Mearns. "She was all excited that her mother was sending a package down to her for Christmas. She was mentally about the age of 12 and not someone who would have disappeared."
Marcie Crieson, aged 20, with little street wisdom and less education, was the next to go. She vanished on 27 December 1998 after being released from the local prison on charges of prostitution, failing to appear in court and drug possession. At the time of her disappearance, her mother, Gloria, was waiting for her in her flat a few blocks away, along with a roast turkey, unopened presents, her boyfriend and other relatives. Her friends later said that they had Her friends later said that they had seen her working the corner from the Drake Hotel in the Downtown Eastside – and then nothing.
Meanwhile, the list continues to grow. On 30 March this year, 28-year-old Jennifer (Jennie) Lynn Furminger was reported as missing from the area of Cordova and Jackson, a corner that women like Marcie and Angela knew well. Details of Jennie’s disappearance are as sketchy as information about her life on the streets; she was 5ft 7in, weighed 8st 11lb and had a tattoo of a cat on her right shoulder. "The really vulnerable women are the ones being targeted here," says Deb Mearns, who has been working with the Vancouver police to teach sex-trade workers how to keep safe on the city’s meanest streets.
Relatives of the missing Vancouver women cling to fast-fading hopes that their daughters will return. Michelle Pineault, for example, whose 21-year-old daughter Stephanie disappeared from the Hotel Patricia in the Downtown Eastside three years ago (and who now looks after Stephanie’s baby son, Stephen), still searches crowds whenever she travels through the area and has been known to jump off buses on seeing a woman whose hairstyle or gait matches her daughter’s. But, she adds, "Now I think, ‘God, would I even know what she looks like?’ You see a young girl down there who looks not half bad, then the next month she’s barely recognisable.""
But for Pat deVries, the 62-year-old adoptive mother of Sarah deVries, who went missing in April 1998, the Downtown Eastside has become a no-go area. "The sight of the area, seeing all the misery there, just carved me up inside," says Pat, who now lives in rural Ontario with Sarah’s two children, Jeanie and Ben. "I got to the point where I didn’t want to go downtown to a movie and if I needed to shop I went to the suburbs. I had a frozen area in me, which is how I coped with the whole business."
Like many of the missing women, Sarah – who became No 5 on the official list –had been working the Low Track since she was in her teens, and was drug-addicted and HIV-positive. "She started on drugs early, and I’ve been waiting all my life for a phone call from the police saying they’ve found her body," says Pat deVries. "It was a very dangerous and rough life she was leading."
Sarah’s diary, found in a friend’s flat after her disappearance, gives some idea of how rough and dangerous. One entry near the end describes waiting outside the Astoria Hotel one evening until a car pulled up. "I got in, pulled the door shut and agreed on 40 [dollars] for a BJ [blowjob]," she wrote. "His name I don’t remember or maybe I just don’t want to. Anyway I told him my name Sarah, and it all started at that moment."
The man repeated her name and asked her questions about her age and where she was from. "Sarah this and Sarah that, it started to scare the hell out of me, it was like he was trying to [psyche] himself up to do something." He had paid and "acted like he was the nicest people on Earth’ but was driving as Sarah gave him oral sex. Terrified, she realised that she couldn’t escape from the car because he had removed the inside door handles and "booby-trapped" the car. When he finally stopped on a road "in the middle of nowhere", Sarah escaped but was caught, badly beaten and left for dead.
According to Detective Constable Lori Shenher, who heads the Missing Persons Review Team and has worked undercover as a prostitute on the Low Track, such attacks are commonplace in the area. "This stroll over here, the Low Track, there’s a perception of anonymity, it’s unbelievable to me the guys I saw there." As the chilling evidence of those "kill kits" suggest, some men seek out women to abuse, and Vancouver’s relatively lenient justice system, combined with its favourable climate and its drug scene, has made it a popular destination for sex tourists. "These people are looking for the weakest and most vulnerable people you can find," says Shenher. "These women on the Downtown Eastside have got very little personal security. If someone’s got a wish to harm a woman, they’re going to find them."
But when it comes to identifying the person or people responsible for Vancouver’s "disappeared", Shenher is less confident. In fact, she says, it is impossible to know whether the missing women were even murdered.
One possibility is that the answer – and perhaps the evidence – may lie out in the Pacific Ocean. Ships’ crews in Canada’s busiest port provide a big source of income for local prostitutes. And, says Shenher, "It’s not uncommon for a cab driver to get a crew a woman to work on a ship where you could hide somebody. Could you toss a body once you got past Point Atkinson? Yes, you could."
Dina Anderson (not her real name), whose 19-year-old sister Elaine Allenbach went missing in 1985, believes that Elaine, a prostitute, may have been murdered after working aboard a ship. One of Elaine’s regulars was a Chinese businessman who would hire her along with other women for a night aboard a ship. What she saw on the ship was "horrifying enough to scare her into leaving" the sex trade and the city. "It was a huge paying job," says Dina. "But she’d taken a bunch of photographs of the men with their girls which were in her Vancouver apartment and another girl stole them along with her diary." Despite concrete plans to return to Washington state, Elaine vanished on 13 March 1985.
But the really depressing thing about this story is that, in a place like Downtown Eastside, there’s no limit to the number of serial killers who might be at work. In one recent case, for example, a Vancouver man was charged with the attempted murder of a local prostitute and confessed that he had turned his basement into a dungeon, planned on sexually torturing women, blowing off their faces to prevent identification and dumping their bodies in the mountains. "It’s the feeling of a lot of people here that if you did a grid search on the North shore, there would be bodies," says Deb Mearns.
Meanwhile, friends and relatives of the missing must continue to live with an aching emptiness – and an even more painful anxiety. "I’m convinced that Sarah is dead," says Pat deVries. "I hope she’s dead. Because the alternatives, that she was badly abused or locked in a cellar somewhere, are really too gruesome to contemplate."
Michelle Pineault agrees. "If Stephanie’s anywhere being held against her will or being hurt, I’d rather she was dead."
DOWNTOWN Vancouver eastside website.
Updated: August 21, 2016