VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
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Top Story in APBoneline.com--April 2, 1999--By Robert Anthony Phillips
THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF 20 PROSTITUTES
Police Have No Explanation; Families Fear a Serial Killer
April 2, 1999
By Robert Anthony Phillips
VANCOUVER, B.C. (APBNews.com) -- One prostitute left behind a journal of her desperate and harsh life on the streets, asking if anyone would care when she died. Others left photos of their children atop dressers in cheap hotel rooms. Still others disappeared without taking their welfare checks.
The mysterious disappearance of at least 20 prostitutes here since 1995 has led a coalition of prostitutes and the operator of a safe house for hookers to claim that the women were the victims of a serial killer. In addition, relatives of several of the missing women have criticized police for not doing enough to locate them.
In 1998, eight women vanished from the city's prostitute "stroll" in the poverty-plagued Downtown Eastside neighborhood, police confirmed. However, law enforcement officials said they have no evidence the women, all identified as prostitutes, were the victims of a serial killer.
Is it a serial killer?
But Jamie Lee Hamilton, a former prostitute who now runs an all-night safe house for streetwalkers, believes a serial killer is stalking the city's notorious red light districts. She held a news conference in February charging that the police hadn't done enough to find the women.
While Hamilton admits she has no evidence, she says many of the missing prostitutes had close ties to the city and their families and would not suddenly move away. Several weeks later, however, one of the missing women was found alive in Arizona.
"Two of the [missing] women were mentally ill and they were very vulnerable," Hamilton told APBNews.com. "One of these women had the mentality of an 11-year-old. I used to give her candy on Halloween when she came into a store I owned. Another women had a history of calling her family all the time and now she has vanished."
Others involved with social service work on behalf of prostitutes also said they are surprised at the number of disappearances in 1998.
"I don't know what's more scary -- whether individual johns are killing them or if there are two or three serial killers working," said John Turvey, who heads the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society, which offers social service and health programs to youths and prostitutes.
Cops respond to heat
Police, responding to the public heat the case has generated, have assigned two full-time detectives and a civilian clerk to the missing persons unit in an attempt to determine what happened to the women, the department said.
Police said they also took the "unusual" step Wednesday of holding a press conference to warn women in the Downtown Eastside that a man who they consider to be a "sexual sadist" had been released from prison.
Janice Williams, a media liaison assistant for the Vancouver police, said the man had previously been convicted of assaulting a prostitute.
In addition, police are now investigating whether a man who admitted to his psychiatrist that he planned to abduct, torture and kill prostitutes is linked to cases of missing prostitutes or unsolved assaults in the Downtown Eastside, Williams said.
The nation's highest court ruled March 25 that the psychiatrist's files are not protected by doctor-patient privilege, Williams said.
Detective calls disappearances 'odd'
While Vancouver police downplay the serial killer theory, they admit that it is unusual that the prostitutes, most with severe drug and alcohol problems, disappeared so suddenly.
"These are unexplained disappearances," Detective Constable Lori Shenher, who works in the department's missing persons unit, told APBNews.com. "It is odd. These are women that, despite living transient lifestyles, had family and children they were in contact with."
"Our position is that it is strange," Shenher said. "It's like they dropped off he face of the earth. We're trying to look at other explanations. But there doesn't seem to be any evidence of a serial killer."
The claim that a serial killer is responsible lost some credibility when police learned that one of the missing prostitutes, Ada Prevost, was arrested for alleged crack possession in Arizona and committed to a psychiatric hospital, police said.
Investigators said that following her Dec. 29, 1998 arrest, Prevost gave authorities another name. Law enforcers learned of her whereabouts when she wrote a letter to her family. She had been reported missing from Vancouver on March 3, 1998, Shenher said.
Police said that Prevost was one of the prostitutes who had been in the Downtown Eastside community for several years.
Prostitutes hard to find
Shenher says it is difficult to locate missing prostitutes.
"The problem with a lot of these cases is that we can't even nail down time or date they were last seen," Shenher said. "You really have no evidence or witnesses. Once we get the report we start an investigation to find out who is in their lives; what their patterns were; are they contacting family; have they picked up welfare [checks]?"
Shenher said that six prostitutes are missing since 1997, two since 1996 and four are unaccounted for since 1995. The police department's office Internet site lists 23 sex-trade workers, all missing between 1999 and 1986.
Since adding the extra manpower to the missing person's squad, police said they haven't been able to trace the movements of any of the missing prostitutes since the dates of their disappearances, the department said.
A daughter's painful letter
One of the missing prostitutes, Janet Henry, 37, was last seen in the city's Downtown Eastside stroll on June 26, 1997. Her sister, Sandra Gagnon said her sister would not just disappear.
"Janet used to call me almost every day -- no matter what condition she was in," Gagnon said in a telephone interview with APBNews.com. "If I wasn't here, she'd leave a message that she loved and missed me. She always kept in touch with me."
She said her sister was an alcoholic.
Henry has a 14-year-old daughter, living with relatives, who wrote an emotion-filled letter detailing the pain she felt since her mother's disappearance. The letter was released to the media.
"My mom is an important person in my life," the girl wrote, "even though she did have some problems and wasn't there much of the time."
Gagnon said her sister lived in a hotel room and had paid her rent for the month.
"Everything was in place," Gagnon said. "There was a suitcase packed, as though she was going someplace and a little brown bag with toothpaste, toothbrush and two cassettes. She had called me the night before and made arrangements to go to a restaurant. I reported her missing the next day."
Prostitution problem in city
The city has waged a battle against the street prostitution trade dating back to the 1980s. While prostitution is legal in Canada, "communicating" for the purpose of sex-for-cash is illegal.
The law has led to conflicts in the courts, community and an endless series of government reports and study commissions to try to determine the best way to control or reduce prostitution. Nothing has appeared to work.
Some activists and social researchers believe that prostitution should be fully legalized and that "safe stroll" areas should be established for the street sex-trade workers.
There are an estimated 350 to 500 street prostitutes working several red-light districts in the city, said Detective Constable Oscar Ramos, who works on the vice squad. Many are poor Indian woman, gravitating to Vancouver because of the milder climate, experts in the sex-trade industry say.
However, the city has an extensive escort and massage parlor industry where acts of prostitution are common, Hamilton said. She and other community activists have accused the city of being "the biggest pimp" for allowing the escort services and massage parlors to flourish while trying to chase away the street prostitutes.
She blames the law and the police for driving street prostitutes from the safer residential areas and into dimly lighted areas where "it is easier for killers to get away."
Hamilton estimates that the working prostitution population in the city could be as high as "5,000," including those working indoors in the massage parlors and escort services.
Cell phones for prostitutes
In the wake of the disappearances, Hamilton's organization, Grandma's House, is now going to give prostitutes "cellular phones, with a panic button" so they can be in direct contact with police if the need arises, Hamilton said.
"It's gotten out of hand in terms of the violence," Hamilton said.
A government report on violence against prostitutes revealed that between 1986 and 1995, 50 sex-trade workers were murdered in British Columbia.
The Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society's Turvey said that his group has been publishing a so-called "Bad Date List" in which prostitutes report descriptions of johns who attacked them.
Murder rate misleading?
However, Vancouver police report that no prostitutes were murdered in the city in 1998 or in 1999. They say one murder of a prostitute occurred in 1997; one in 1996; two in 1995; and two more in 1994. All but two cases were solved, police said.
Hamilton said the numbers are misleading.
"They are totally wrong," she said. "All of these missing women have been murdered. The bodies haven't been found. They leave all their worldly possessions, leave their welfare checks and do not contact their families. Some are on medication and didn't even take their medicine with them."
Deborah Jardine, the mother of a missing prostitute Angela Jardine, 27, has charged that the police haven't done all they can to locate her daughter.
Angela Jardine was last seen Nov. 20, 1998, police reported. Deborah Jardine said that her daughter was not included in a Royal Canadian Mounted Police database of missing persons until March 4 and that she wasn't notified that her daughter was missing until December of 1998.
"You would think that the police would interview people who were close to her [my daughter]," Jardine said. She said a missing person bulletin wasn't issued by police for her daughter until January 20.
However, Shenher said Jardine wasn't put into the RCMP database until March because of a "mix up."
"She was reported missing in November, but we weren't told until late December," Shenher said. "After that, we give them a few weeks to show up before we put them into the RMCP database."
Deborah Jardine said that her daughter is mentally ill and drug addicted, having been forced out of her hometown by constant taunts. Shenher, who knew Deborah Jardine, agreed that the missing woman is a prostitute and drug addict "only because of her mental illness."
Last journal entry
Will they remember when I'm gone. Or will there lives just carry on. The same old pattern. The same old rotten [unintelligible] just as if I've never been, would they feel any remorse, would tears fall from their eyes, as they tried to say their good-byes?
That was one of the last entries in the personal journal of Sarah Jean deVries, 29, a prostitute who vanished from the corner of Princess and East Hastings Streets on April 14, 1998.
Wayne Leng, who identified himself as a friend of deVries, said he saw her the night of her disappearance.
"She was at my place that night," Leng said. "She ate, took some cloths and I dropped her off at the corner with her friend. The friend got picked up, came back in a few minutes. When she did, Sarah was gone. She left behind her journals and jewelry in my house."
In her journal, deVries recorded her personal thoughts of a life of prostitution, including a graphic description of a john beating her after she had robbed him of $400.
Teased as child for her color
"There's no easy answer to the question as to what happened to her and how she ended up on the streets," said deVries sister, Maggie.
"She was adopted when she was under a year old. She was the youngest of four of us. She was very happy as a small child... but it was hard for her.
"She was a multi-racial child in a white neighborhood. We lived in a part of Vancouver that was almost entirely white. She was teased at school and even chased and that kind of affected her.
"I don't' really hope for the best," Maggie deVries said. "I really believe she is dead. She just wouldn't go away and not call. She wouldn't. She always kept in touch -- particularly with my mother.
Sarah Jean deVries has two children, ages 8 and 3.
Robert Phillips is an APBNews.com editor (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Updated: August 21, 2016