VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
KIN DIGGING FOR LOST DREAMS
THESE WOMEN WERE SO MUCH MORE THAN THEIR EPITAPH ON THE MISSING WOMEN POSTER: KNOWN DRUG USER AND SEX TRADE WORKER
The Toronto Sun
By: Michele Mandell
Sunday, October 20, 2002
PORT COQUITLAM, B.C. -- Kerry Koski came home for Christmas with
a promise to her sister that she was going to get clean. One last march in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside's drug parade and she was coming home to her three kids.
She is number 28.
There are 63 missing women on the list now, 63 women who sold their wasted bodies on corners in postage stamp mini-skirts and stacked heels, waiting for the trick that would pay for the next speedball, the next rock of crack. Kerry had only just joined the chorus, she had only been out there for two months.
But that was long enough to disappear.
In two weeks, the preliminary hearing begins for Robert "Willy" Pickton, the pig farmer now charged with murdering 15 of those missing women.
"You would have liked my sister," Val Hughes says, smiling.
Kerry could dance, and she had a smile that would light up a room. And she had a talent for picking every bad character who could ruin her life. One lover beat her, one committed suicide and the next told her heroin would dull her pain.
Now her three children don't know where she is and her big sister stands watching the police dig for missing women's remains here on a muddy pig farm.
Hughes slips into the family healing tent erected across the road from the pig farm. It is a peaceful refuge filled with books of condolence and donated artwork as well as a quilt that is being made in memory of the missing women. On a bulletin board are smiling faces that seem so distant from the rough mug shots that have appeared on TV, a reminder that these women were so much more than their epitaph on the Missing Women poster: Known drug user and sex trade worker in the Downtown Eastside.
Outside the tent, Hughes lights a stick of incense and places it in the small glass shrine her brother-in-law had built for the missing women. Beside it are more photos, poems and flowers melting in the fall rain.
To my daughter Tanya from Dad. Ruby Anne Hardy -- missing since 1998, we miss and love you, Mom. In loving memory of Diane Rock, loving mother to Melissa, Donnie, Carol Abb, Darren and Justin, loved daughter of Ella Marin.
Hughes, a strong woman with a kind, round face, has been here countless times and still the horror across the road brings on the tears and the anger. So many died, she believes, when they could have been saved. She went to the police back in 1998, just after Kerry went missing. She told them something was wrong, that this was not like her sister to simply vanish.
They ignored her, she says. Told her that prostitutes are transient people, that maybe she wanted to disappear and start a new life. Maybe she was just off partying.
There was no body. No crime scene. Nothing to investigate.
And then Hughes heard of Sarah de Vries, that she had gone missing from the Downtown Eastside just three months after Kerry and that her distraught sister Maggie was also being stonewalled by the police.
The two sisters joined forces, began compiling a list that kept growing until now it stands at 63 names.
"In 1998, that's when this list should have ended. Every name after that year -- who's responsible for their deaths? Is it just Pickton and his accomplices?" she alleged. "Look at my sister's name and Maggie's sister's name and realize that every name after that didn't have to die."
More than 20 women might still be alive.
When Kerry had come home to her middle-class family in Coquitlam on Christmas Day 1997, they were shocked to see how heroin and the street life had gnawed 30 lbs. from her tiny frame. "I'm sorry," Kerry whispered to her big sister. "I don't know how this happened."
Hughes remembers folding her into her arms. "I just held her and told her we're going to fix this."
They arranged to meet after Christmas. Hughes thought she had time on her side. She was wrong. Kerry was last seen Jan. 7, 1998. Her sister has searched ever since.
It's been more than four years of anguish and frustration, of hitting her head against a thick blue wall of police indifference and public apathy, of persisting even when it threatened to jeopardize her marriage. "Why can't you just drop this?" her exasperated husband once asked her.
The answer is simple. When Kerry's daughter, Brianna, was told that her mother had disappeared, she turned to her Aunt Val. "You have to find my mom."
"I looked at her," Hughes says crying, "and I said, 'I will never stop looking, I promise you, I will find your mom.' There were lots of times I wanted to break that promise, when I felt I just couldn' t take it anymore. But then you see your sister's face, your niece' s face, and you get up and go on with your day."
She doesn't want to hear about how poor Pickton might not be able to afford his lawyer. Not when she still anxiously awaits word that some bone has been found, some tooth, some trace of DNA that was Kerry has been uncovered in the pit of misery across the street.
That is all that Maggie de Vries has learned of her sister, a trace of DNA. Now she doesn't even know if she will be allowed into the small courtroom when Pickton's preliminary hearing begins Nov. 4.
Her sister is not officially a murder victim. While Sarah's DNA was discovered at the pig farm this summer and it's understood that she is dead, there is not enough evidence to lay a charge. And so in the courtroom, de Vries doesn't even rank for one of the few seats reserved for the murdered women's families.
She wants to be there, she says, but she doesn't need a murder charge. It is enough to know that Sarah was at the farm. Now she just wants the perpetrators brought to justice because like many of the families, she believes more than one man was involved.
In a Vancouver cafe, de Vries tries without much success to speak with the detachment of an author. The children's book editor is writing Missing Sarah, a book about her adopted sister. In poring over Sarah' s seven journals and her poetry, an eloquent torrent of misery and anger and shame, she now has an insight into Sarah's tortured world that her protective sister had never allowed when she was alive. She now knows her anger at the indifference toward the missing women and her pain at being beaten almost to death. And there is her haunting list of greatest fears.
"One of them was dying without being able to fight back," her sister says softly, "so I hope that she was able to. I think about that, but I don't think about it too much. There was a time that I thought I needed to know exactly what she went through, but I don' t anymore. There are things you don't want in your head or they'll be there forever."
-Like yesterday, Const. David Dickson can still see Sarah de Vries inline skating down Hastings St. "She was a beautiful girl," the 23- year veteran says as he gazes out the window of a coffee shop on the edge of the Downtown Eastside. "She made a point of eating properly and taking her vitamins, which, for a drug addict, is incredible. She always talked about going into a program and if there had been one, she would have excelled."
But cutbacks had meant that treatment programs were rare and waiting lists were long. And in April 1998, the popular single mother of two simply disappeared.
Dickson, 52, is known as a friend to the sex trade workers. When a pimp is hustling them or a drug dealer has ripped them off, they know they can go to him and he will set it right. He knows them all -- and so he was one of the first to sound the alarm when he noticed back in 1998 that they were going missing. He checked with the welfare office and discovered their cheques weren't being picked up. He walked his beat asking if anyone had seen Sarah or Kerry or Tanya or Marnie. No one had. He came up with a list of 31 names and submitted it to his superiors.
Little happened over the next few years. There were "review teams" made up of part-time officers who weren't given the resources or encouragement to pursue a murder investigation. There were tips about a Willy Pickton and a suspicious pig farm, but little was done to follow them up.
And women continued to disappear.
"Most people don't realize what you have to do before you can say a person is officially missing," he says, in a half-hearted defence of his police department. "You have to check indigent burials across North America, you have to check every hospital for a Jane Doe before we can say, 'yeah, something's happened.' "
And then there was another chilling problem. "I remember we had a whole wall of guys and probably every one of them was capable of doing it."
Val Hughes had been told the same thing. When the joint Vancouver Police-RCMP task force was finally set up in the spring of 2001 with a belated admission that a serial killer may be at work, they met with the families and told them the enormity of the task ahead. They had 100 suspects who all closely fit the profile and another 600 in the Lower Mainland who were strong possibilities.
"When Pickton first got charged, I had a few bad weeks," he recalls, stroking his greying moustache. "It's overwhelming when you think about what this guy is accused of doing. I see the names in the paper and I still have a tough time ..."
He knows Sarah will never come skating down the street again. But nothing has changed. Now he worries about all the new Sarahs and new Kerrys taking up their corners and jumping into a stranger's car 30 times a day. And all those 699 potential killers who are still out there.
"I could have a whack of cash and drugs on my passenger seat and an Uzi on my dashboard and they'd still jump into my car," he says. "I don't know what more we can do. They are so vulnerable. There are so many weirdos out there."
Angeline shivers in the fall air and waits for a trick that doesn' t come.
The girls are getting younger, she complains, and she's already 24, a veteran since she was 11. This life has cost her two front teeth and her two kids, but she isn't complaining.
Angeline considers herself lucky to be alive. Three of her relatives are among the missing and the dead. Jaquie Murdoch was her aunt. Dawn Crey and Tanya Holyk were her cousins.
And Willy Pickton picked her up.
She alleges: "He wanted me to go back to his farm but I said no. He said I've got a place we can go to in Coquitlam. But I told him that's a little too far. He said, 'Why not? I'll pay you good.'
'I'LL GET THEM'
"I talked him into taking me to a room," she claims. "For 25 minutes, all he said was, 'I'll get them, I'll get them.' "
Angeline says she wants to get out of here. She plans to go on methadone tomorrow, slay this heroin monkey on her back and go back to her five-year-old daughter, the child her parents won't allow her to see.
In the meantime, could we spare five bucks? She'll go on methadone. Tomorrow.
Kerry Koski's daughter, Brianna, wanted to know why her aunt hadn' t gone and brought her mother back home.
There is not a night that she doesn't hear that young voice asking: "Why didn't you go get her, Aunty Val?"
"I didn't go get her because I understood the process, that you can't fight the addiction, that it has to be their decision to come off. I understood the legal issues.
"I didn't go get her," Hughes continues, choking now with sobs, "but somebody else did. It wasn't the drugs that killed her -- it was a man and his friends."
Hughes looks up, her eyes fierce through her tears. "As a sister, I would tell you, do anything you can to keep them away. Don't assume you can fix it later.
"I'd do anything in the world to have a chance to go and get her."
Updated: August 21, 2016