VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Lessons from tragedy: how Vancouver's missing women changed police
Sunday, January 07, 2007
VANCOUVER (CP) - Sixty-nine pairs of eyes watch over Det. Greg Ralla's every move as he investigates missing persons cases in Vancouver.
Each pair belongs to a woman missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, staring at him from a poster hung as a grim reminder of a time when the missing persons unit at the Vancouver Police Department wasn't the "happyland" its officers call it now.
Last year, Vancouver police solved every single one of the 4,004 missing persons reports filed on their watch.
In the late 1990s, as scores of women were disappearing from drug-infested alleyways and hotels on Skid Row, some family members say they couldn't even get the police to open a report on their missing sisters and daughters.
"They told me 'No, go down to the needle exchange and leave her a message there,' " says Carrie Kerr, a sister of Helen Hallmark.
Hallmark is one of the women on that poster.
Angela Jardine faces smiles out from there as well.
When her mother Deborah Jardine tried to get police to follow up on her daughter's missing persons file in 1998, she was met, she says, with indifference.
Police had never phoned her to say Angela was missing - the report had been filed by the 27-year-old's social worker.
Officers delayed making a missing persons poster of Angela for more than two months, trying to convince Deborah that her daughter would likely return.
It was a refrain often repeated to families and friends of the missing - that the women had just up and left the seedy neighbourhood, or had gone into detox. No one seemed willing to investigate the cases or stop to wonder why so many women could simply not be found.
"Nothing made sense at all about what they did," says Deborah Jardine, whose formal complaint to police about the way they handled her daughter's case was eventually dismissed by the police complaint commissioner.
"I don't even think there is a word for it, to sweep so many missing women under a rug, Because that's what they were doing."
Hallmark and Jardine are among 26 women from the poster who have been declared dead, with traces of their remains found on a pig farm in suburban Port Coquitlam, B.C., co-owned by Robert William Pickton, who is now charged with their murders.
Pickton is to stand trial for six of those deaths starting on Jan. 22.
The rest of the women on the poster are still classified as missing.
Searching for them now: 50 police officers working on the investigation full-time, say the RCMP, who oversee the Missing Women's Task Force, formed in April 2001.
Searching for them then: One part-time and one full-time officer.
"The guy that was originally in charge of the file, who was basically a more retired guy, just kept saying the people were just missing," says Mark Townsend, executive director of the Portland Hotel Society, which provides housing on the Downtown Eastside.
"We were just being silly, overly assessing our importance, that these people have left and they don't want us to know."
Public outcry over the way the cases were handled prompted an audit in 2004 of the missing persons unit, which uncovered numerous flaws. Among them: that some investigations were assigned to officers who had retired and cases were listed as closed even though the person was still missing.
But in the years since, all 50 recommendations from the audit are now in place, says Sgt. Ron Fairweather, a 26-year veteran of the police force who was brought in to run the unit in 2005.
Staff has doubled to two full-time investigators and one full-time liaison with the coroner's office.
The detectives now follow up on each report as it comes in - first points of contact are always with the individual who filed the missing person's report and then the family.
Better co-operation between various police agencies also means files don't languish on desks as officers think someone from another detachment is looking into it.
"We return every call," Ralla says. "We don't pick and choose who we call back."
Ralla and Fairweather are quick to dispel the myth that someone must wait 24 or 48 hours before filing a missing persons report.
And though friends of the missing women say they weren't allowed to file missing persons reports because they weren't family - the officers says that's not true either.
Another lesson learned from the disappearances was the need for a provincewide protocol on what it means to be missing and how missing persons cases should be investigated.
As a result, the B.C. Missing Persons Centre was formed to draft official policies on how to handle investigations - including a definition of what it means to be missing.
Police generally agree on several types of missing people - the chronic runaways who take up most of their time, the overdue travellers, the wandering seniors and then, the hardest cases - the people who just don't want to be found.
Four of the 69 women on the poster were among them.
They have turned up in other cities as investigators continue trying to track all of the women down.
Most recently, Vancouver police found Wendy Allen, who had been reported missing almost 30 years ago.
"This woman had a life under another name and did not want to have anything to do with the family that had reported her missing," says Cpl. Pierre Lemaitre, who speaks for the RCMP in B.C. "Sometimes it's not that easy."
As he rifles through a folder of clippings highlighting missing persons cases from the last few years, Fairweather is proud of what his team has achieved.
Their corner of the police station in the Downtown Eastside sports a poster reading "Welcome to Happyland: The happiest place in the VPD."
And with the eyes of the missing women watching over him each day, Ralla says, it will be impossible to ever forget how hard he needs to work to keep it that way.
© The Canadian Press 2007
Updated: January 01, 2007