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MISSING EASTSIDE WOMEN 6

Lowman holds in his hands a list of Vancouver women’s last names. Beside each is the date the woman vanished or was murdered and, if known, the cause of death. The words “multiple stabbing,” “strangled,” “throat cut,” “mutilated” reappear every couple of names. Beside one woman’s name are the words “dismembered with chainsaw.” Almost every woman on the three-and-a-half-page list is a street prostitute from the Downtown Eastside. None is the name of the hundreds of Vancouver women who regularly work the city’s well-lit, upscale High Track stroll along downtown Richards and Seymour Streets. And of the women who work for the city’s 100 or so escort services, three have died of drug overdoses and none has vanished like the Low Track women. There is, Lowman believes, a reason for this anomaly.

In 1975, in what became one of the most celebrated trials in Vancouver’s history, the Philliponi family, operators of the infamous, hooker-filled Penthouse Cabaret, were charged with a number of prostitution-related offences. The night-club was locked for more than two years. Apprehensive of similar charges, the owners of other Vancouver lounges and clubs evicted their resident hookers.

This was the beginning of serious prostitution in the city. It is also, Lowman knows, the beginning of a murderous crime wave – unparalleled in Canadian history – against street hookers.

In the first 75 years of this century, Vancouver’s newspapers reported, in total, two prostitute murders. In the decade following the 1975 closure of the Penthouse, as women were often forced by the police and politicians into ever-darker Vancouver side streets and bleak warehouse districts, 16 prostitutes were killed. Since 1985, there have been an incredible 40 additional Vancouver prostitute murders. Almost all worked the Downtown Eastside. Curiously, as the number of bodies of dead prostitutes has declined in the last four years, the number of missing Low Track prostitutes police are investigating has gone up: four in 1995; two in 1996; seven in 1997; eight in 1998; and one, so far, in 1999. (Two prostitutes reported missing have subsequently been located alive.)

SAYS LOWMAN: “THE police, the politicians, actively created the problem they’re now trying to fix. The rhetoric of the ‘80s and early ‘90s was: ‘We’ll get rid of the prostitutes.’ I call it: The Discourse of Disposal. The idea of eliminating prostitution in Vancouver has translated tragically into really getting rid of prostitutes. We chase them from one area to another. They find themselves in dark streets in defenceless situations. There are no eyes there. But there are predators misogynists, serial killers, men who get off on violence. They see the women’s vulnerability.”

Lowman suspects, based on the staggering number of deaths and recent disappearances, that there are three or four serial killers who have been operating in Vancouver over the last 15 years. Forty deaths, 31 missing women: it can’t be random. A similar pattern of disappearances has not been noted in Calgary or Toronto. Lowman believes the police have waited far too long to react to the ever-growing number of vanished women, dismissing the appeals of friends and families of the prostitutes by saying, in effect: “They’re drug addicts. They’re transients. They’ll come back.”

But the prostitutes did keep in regular contact. Sarah deVries used to phone her daughter Jeanie, now nine years old, but hasn’t phoned once in 19 months. Janet Henry, last seen drinking in the Holborn Hotel on June 25, 1997, would always call her sister Sandra Gagnon in nearby Maple Ridge whenever “Kissing Rain,” a tune by French singer Roch Voisin, came on the radio. Gagnon has heard the song a dozen times in the last two-and-a-half years, but in all that time the phone has never rung.

This is the fear of the families and friends of the missing women: That they will have to live in the limbo of not knowing. They knew that Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen had shown no interest in discussing the link between the rising toll of street prostitute deaths in his city through the early ‘90s and the absence of a safe place for prostitutes to legally play their trade. And when the women began disappearing in 1995, their friends and families became tired of getting the runaround from the Vancouver Police. One couple asked to see the police file on their daughter, reported missing, but were repeatedly refused.

They suspected the police had done nothing. No one among the complainants at the Missing Persons desk was informed that theirs was not an isolated case, that the number of deaths and disappearances was incredible. Families began to speculate that the police were uninterested or, worse, incompetent.

It is this that drove them recently to act. As the figures on the dead and missing piled up – and as the police and local politicians continued to turn a blind eye to the scale of the unfolding tragedy – Jamie Lee Hamilton, an articulate 44-year-old prostitutes’ rights activist, decided to confront civic authorities. During her six years working the city’s dark streets, she’d seen the business end of a knife and a gun. She felt the city was being hypocritical, charging $6,924 a year in licence fees for body rub parlours and $818 for escort services – widely known as safe, indoor means to meet prostitutes – and then ignoring the slaughter of the drug-addicted street hookers on the city’s Eastside.

In early 1998, Hamilton dumped 67 pairs of stiletto-heeled shoes, the signature footwear of most working women, onto the steps of Vancouver City Hall. There was one pair for every Vancouver area prostitute murdered, by her tally, since 1975. She subsequently commandeered a City Council meeting, claiming Mayor Owen had made a $100,000 reward available for information on a series of high-profile Vancouver home invasions that had frightened well-off Westside residents – and an additional $100,000 reward on a second series of Westside garage robberies – but the mayor seemed oblivious to the fact that poor Eastside prostitutes were dying and disappearing by the dozen.

To provide a sanctuary for the Eastside prostitutes, Hamilton set up Grandma’s House, a late-night, back alley drop-in center located in the midst of Low Track. She also arranged, through an anonymous donor, that pre-programmed 911 cell phones be distributed to street prostitutes for emergency use. As well, she joined others in starting Safelink, a prostitute registry listing sex-trade workers and their current whereabouts – so authorities might know more quickly when a woman goes missing.

Hamilton compares the situation in Vancouver to the famous unsolved case of 49 Seattle-area prostitutes who went missing or whose bodies were found along Washington’s Green River in the early ‘80s. The fact that 31 women could vanish here – without a clue or body – is reason enough, says Hamilton, to believe a meticulous serial killer is behind the disappearances.

ELM STREET-Vancouver's Missing Prostitutes
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Updated: August 21, 2016