VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Lost, Not Forgotten
After a scathing audit, investigators who track down the missing are winning accolades
Saturday, December 02, 2006
It was one of 3,698 files to come across the desks of Vancouver's three missing persons investigators this year: A distraught woman reporting her brother had disappeared just before midnight on May 10, 2006.
CREDIT: (Glenn Baglo/Vancouver Sun)
Vancouver Police Department Missing Persons Unit: from left; Det. Const. Greg Ralla, Det. Const. Henry Wolf, Sgt. Ron Fairweather, coordinator Emer Fitzgerald and Det. Const. Cal Traversy.
The man had not been seen for three days.
He had not shown up for work at a Richmond hotel, where he had a good job.
He made no contact with his friends and family, and would not answer repeated cellphone calls. It was uncharacteristic behaviour.
And then his sister's car disappeared and, suspecting her brother had taken it, the worried woman called Vancouver police.
Patrol officers searched the man's house, contacted his friends, and a missing person report was issued.
The next morning at 6 a.m., Det. Const. Cal Traversy sat down at his desk in the Missing Persons Unit and phoned the sister to get more information.
During the phone call, the woman received a text message on her cell phone from her brother; it was a mass message to all his friends and relatives, saying he planned to end his life.
Traversy alerted his partner, Det. Const. Greg Ralla, who contacted security at FIDO, the company that provides the man's cell phone service.
By 7:40 a.m., FIDO had determined the man sent his message near a cellular site on Othello Road in Hope.
Vancouver police contacted Hope RCMP, who drove through the area and spoke to residents.
A car was spotted parked on a side road in the area. A hose was running from the exhaust pipe into the trunk. The windows were covered with condensation.
The driver, police said, was sweating and suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.
He had been breathing the fumes for nearly two hours, with the intent of killing himself.
The man was treated in hospital. He survived.
"That was literally in the nick of time, because if we hadn't got to him who knows what would have happened," Ralla said.
"If you find someone missing, alive, it's a success story."
Later, on May 11, 2006, the head of the missing persons unit, Sgt. Ron Fairweather, sent an e-mail to senior officers praising the teamwork between the VPD, the RCMP, police dispatchers and FIDO for making "a significant difference today not only in the life of one man, but also in the many lives of his family and friends."
It was a success story for Fairweather, who took over the beleaguered unit a year ago, and for his new team of three full-time investigators and a civilian coordinator.
However, until recently, accolades were rare for the VPD's missing persons unit, which was criticized in the 1990s for its response to sex-trade workers vanishing from the Downtown Eastside.
The list grew to as high as 69 women who vanished between 1978 and 2001. Port Coquitlam pig farmer Robert (Willie) Pickton has since been charged with killing 26 of those women.
Fourteen months ago The Vancouver Sun obtained a scathing internal audit of the missing persons unit, written in October 2004, which found that understaffing, inadequate supervision and shoddy record-keeping compromised the ability of the squad to solve cases.
There was criticism of the leadership provided by the former head of the unit, now-retired Sgt. John Dragani, who was suspended in April 2005. (He has since been charged with one count of possessing child pornography and one count of accessing child pornography.)
John Schouten, the retired VPD inspector who conducted the audit, made 50 recommendations to improve the unit, which Fairweather said were all addressed by May 2006.
Fairweather, an outspoken and hard-working 26-year veteran of the department, said he and his team are now turning things around in the unit, which had been the "wart" of the major crimes section.
"It [this unit] was the laughing stock. It was the place that was known that burnt-out, soon-to-be retired members would come and punch in, and do very little. It's very different now," said Fairweather, who took over missing persons after running the VPD's recruiting section.
"No way we can refute [previous criticisms]. But that's how it was in the past, that's the black eye that we do wear. But that's the commitment -- that that's not to happen again."
The changes, he said, began with addressing the 50 recommendations in the audit. Fairweather said those include:
nThe number of investigators in the unit has been increased from one to three: Traversy and Ralla look for missing persons, and Det. Const. Henry Wolf is the coroner liaison;
nAll active cases are handled by the three investigators. The audit found in the past several investigations slipped through the cracks because they had been assigned to officers who had retired or been transferred;
nMissing persons files are now investigated by a patrol officer as soon as reports come in, and those primary investigations are more thorough than they were in the past. They are then referred to the missing persons unit, which operates six days a week. The audit found that some missing person reports previously sat idle for as long as 84 hours, due to long weekends or holidays, before anyone looked at them;
nImprovements were made to the computer system that tracks files and to the unit's relationship with the Missing Women Task Force, which is investigating the Pickton case. (Traversy spent three years with the task force before transferring to the missing persons unit two years ago.) The audit found the VPD did not index cases it sent to the task force, leading to confusion about the status of some files -- including one that was "closed" even though the person was still missing;
nThe unit has improved its relationship with other police departments and agencies, such as search and rescue outfits, so they can better work together. And the B.C. missing persons centre has been created by Mounties and municipal police to write new policy for missing persons investigations;
nThe unit developed new policies to deal with chronic run-away youths -- which represented almost 95 per cent of its missing person reports -- and is working more efficiently with group homes, the Ministry for Children and Families, and other caregivers. Between August 2005 and August 2006 there was a 23- per-cent drop in missing person reports, which is attributed to the changes in handling runaways.
Emer Fitzgerald, who has been the unit's civilian coordinator for five years, said she spoke in 2004 to Deputy Chief Doug LePard, who leads the VPD's investigations division, about her concerns that missing person files were not being investigated properly back then.
Fitzgerald, who has the street-smarts of a seasoned investigator, says there is no comparison between what was done then and the work done now to find missing people.
"It's the people that have been brought in here that has made all the difference. We didn't have a sergeant. We were the poor cousins to homicide," she said. "Now every file is taken seriously. Every file is completed."
However, in this line of work, not every file has a happy ending.
In September 2005, Will Exner, a 24-year-old UBC graduate, disappeared while walking to his Vancouver home over the Granville Street Bridge. He was the long-time boyfriend of the daughter of Canadian Labour Congress president Ken Georgetti.
Traversy recalled working with other police units, such as the dive team, and other agencies to try to find the young man's body. The publicity generated by that case had his phone ringing off the hook with tips.
In the end, Exner's body was located in False Creek 11 days after he went missing. How he fell into the water remains a mystery, although an autopsy ruled out foul play.
In an interview this week, Georgetti said the unit didn't have enough staff to run the massive search organized by family and friends, but the officers gave "good sound advice on how to deal with [a missing person] and cope with it."
"We were extremely pleased with the help they gave us," Georgetti said.
After The Sun published stories in September 2005 about the critical audit of the missing persons unit, the search manager of North Shore Rescue wrote a letter to the newspaper also complimenting the work done by Traversy and Fitzgerald on the Exner file.
"A clear action plan was set for the areas North Shore Rescue was to search and the resources required," wrote Tim Jones, a long-time member of the volunteer search group. "It is not my place to comment on the audit of this unit, but it is my place to say that the two members I worked with deserve praise for their work and compassion towards Exner's family and friends."
However, there will not be satisfaction from everyone on how each case is handled.
In January, 14-year-old Alicia McCallum was reported missing after not coming home all weekend. Her mother, Myrna McCallum, complained to the media that police didn't do enough to find her native daughter.
"Look at the city we live in. Look at all those native women who went missing on the Downtown Eastside and no one ... cared," she said at the time.
Alicia was found unharmed after five days in a house in Burnaby -- which Myrna McCallum told police her daughter may have gone to with a friend.
Fairweather initially apologized that the case was not dealt with "in a satisfactory manner," but the next day said he reviewed the file and thought officers did what they could to find the girl who did not want to be found: Vancouver police asked Burnaby RCMP to check out the home the day Alicia was reported missing but she wasn't there; a Vancouver police officer visited the home three days later but a woman refused to say if Alicia was inside; and Fairweather went to the home the next day and, after "soft-shoeing" his way in, found Alicia.
Kate Gibson, executive director of the WISH (Women's Information Safe Haven) drop-in centre for sex-trade workers in the Downtown Eastside, said the department's efforts to improve the unit should be commended.
"It's a great thing that they're doing, that they've made that commitment," said Gibson, who has been with WISH more than three years. "It shows that they want to move forward and they want to make a change."
She said WISH has a good relationship with Vancouver police, who issue missing person bulletins that the agency posts in its drop-in centre and in a van that provides services to women on the street.
Modern-day files of sex trade workers going missing remain with the VPD, but any new reports of disappearances before Pickton's 2002 arrest are handled by the Missing Women Task Force.
Fairweather said all the sex-trade workers who have recently disappeared from Vancouver have been found, and that there are no outstanding files with the VPD. And he's quick to point out that the unit doesn't categorize missing people according to occupations.
"Whether she's from here [the Downtown Eastside] or from the West End of Vancouver, everyone gets the same treatment," added Ralla, a 20-year VPD veteran. "We don't pick and choose who we look for."
He showed The Sun an inch-thick file from an investigation last week into a missing woman -- a sex trade worker and intravenous drug user whose boyfriend said it was out of character for her to vanish.
Ralla said they interviewed her boyfriend, other sex trade workers, and the staff at a hotel where she had turned a trick. They also tried to find her last customer.
Posters were sent to all patrol officers and were about to be given to the media when the woman surfaced, saying she had taken off because she was mad at her boyfriend.
Ralla has hung a poster of the 69 missing women above his desk in the Main Street police station. "That's the reminder right there that I need to do everything I can for a file," he said.
One of the key recommendations in the audit was to review the more than 140 historical, unsolved missing person files in Vancouver since the 1960s. About half have been looked at again, and the rest will also be re-opened to seek new clues to the disappearances.
Of the 77 cold cases reviewed so far, many could not be solved but most people were glad to know police had not forgotten them. "People are happy that you call them. Some people were never called after they made the initial report," said Traversy, a 16-year VPD veteran.
Later this month, the VPD plans to list details of all its unsolved missing person cases on its website the way other agencies, such as the Los Angles Police Department, have done.
The number of unsolved cases in the city is not growing as quickly as it has in the past.
In 2005 there were 4,428 missing person files and only three remain unsolved. So far in 2006, there have been 3,698 and all but the most recent cases have been solved, Fairweather said.
Over the past two years, there were 610 and 530 sudden death files respectively. Wolf was brought to the unit in May to liaise with the coroner on those files, and to track down and notify next of kin.
Since his arrival, not one body has been sent to the public trustee because police were unable to find a relative.
That wasn't the case in previous years. In fact, one of the first things Fairweather did when he took over the unit was apologize to a family because they were never told their son had died a year earlier and his body had been lying in the morgue unclaimed.
As the coroner liaison, it is Wolf's job to not let that happen again. It sometimes requires global searches -- the unit recently used Interpol to find a father of a dead person in the Ukraine, and the ex-wife of another person in the Czech Republic.
Fairweather says Wolf, who joined the unit in May, has a "gift" for the terrible task of delivering bad news to families.
Wolf said the key is to write down for grieving people all the details they will need in the coming days: where the body is, who to contact, where the deceased's personal possessions are.
"You're compassionate, but what you really need to do is make sure they have all the information they need when the shock wears off," said Wolf, who has been with the VPD for 25 years.
LePard said it became apparent to him, not long after being promoted to deputy chief in late 2003, that there were "performance concerns" about the unit, so he ordered the audit be done and the 50 recommendations be acted upon.
"I have not had any complaints about a missing person file since Ron Fairweather took over the unit. Not a single one," LePard said this week.
He acknowledged there could still be a "certain perception" among the general public about how the VPD conducts missing person investigations, but said the department gets high approval ratings and many thank-you notes from the people to whom it has provided service.
"It was unfortunate there were problems in the unit, but it's an example of us identifying a problem and conducting an audit and addressing the recommendations," LePard said.
"I am very pleased with what is going on now."
© The Vancouver Sun 2006
Updated: August 21, 2016