VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
'We never thought she was dead'
Friday, June 23, 2006
Marie Lands believed her sister, one of 67 women missing from the drug-infested Downtown Eastside, was dead.
Today, Marie is flying with Mary Florence Lands' three children -- all in their early 20s -- to Saskatchewan to be reunited after 15 years.
Marie Lands and her common-law husband, Brian Rafferty, are happy that her sister, Mary Florence, has been found. Photograph by: Sam Leung, The Province
It turns out Mary Florence is living a simple and peaceful life with her husband in rural Cochin, Sask., about 30 kilometres north of North Battleford.
Marie and her common-law husband, Brian Rafferty, met with The Province yesterday to share their astonishing story.
"It's a miracle. It's truly a miracle," said Marie, who last heard from her sister in 1991, when Mary Florence called from Calgary.
Mary Florence was reported missing in 2004 by her daughter and was added to the RCMP Missing Women's Task Force poster.
"I'm never gonna let her disappear on me again -- it's just too painful," Marie said. "I'm gonna hang on tight."
Mary Florence ended the years of silence with a note posted on a community centre bulletin board.
She had called the Carnegie Centre on Main Street earlier this week and left a message for her sister to get in touch. The sisters used to visit the centre together.
On Wednesday morning, Rafferty picked up the note. "I thought it was a cruel joke, so I called the number right away to check it out."
Mary Florence picked up.
The 42-year-old woman told Global B.C. she was "shocked and bewildered" that her family thought she was dead.
"It must have been absolute torture for them to go through this and think I was dead and died horribly to boot."
Marie thought her sister was among the dozens of victims of alleged serial killer Robert Pickton. She even went to court to see him.
"I heard awful stories of how the victims were tortured. I though my sister was one of them," she said. "I was just crying my eyes out."
Marie said her sister was involved in drugs and alcohol and "did the odd trick" -- prostitution -- but was a good mother.
Mary Florence's three children are Michael Lands, 24, Stuart Panko, 22, and Jeannie Panko, 20. She also has two young grandchildren.
The children were in and out of foster homes throughout their childhood, but had a good relationship with their mother, according to Michael.
He said his mom left town after she lost her visitation rights.
"We never thought she was dead," Michael said last night, speaking on behalf of his siblings.
"It's been an overwhelming emotional rollercoaster."
Michael said he was angry his mom was linked to women missing from the Downtown Eastside. "This has all totally tainted her name."
On June 8, Marie received a letter from the Crime Victim Assistance Program and was granted the maximum $5,000 for pain and suffering related to her sister's supposed death.
"The Missing Women's Task Force identified [Marie's] sister, [Mary Florence], as a victim of homicide," the letter said.
"They just assumed she was dead," Marie said. "I couldn't believe it. I didn't want to believe it. I was praying and crying for her every night."
She wants to know why the task force was unable to locate Mary Florence, since she was not trying to disappear and didn't change her name while living in Saskatchewan.
RCMP Cpl. Tom Seaman of the task force didn't have the answer.
"That's a good question and we'll be looking into that . . . When people disappear from an area and don't want to be found, they can do so fairly easily."
Rafferty said Mary Florence has heart problems and diabetes.
He said she has been unable to work and has been receiving disability cheques from the government.
"I don't understand how the police can say someone is dead, but the same person is cashing government cheques. It's absolutely unacceptable."
Mary Florence Lands is the second woman missing from the Downtown Eastside to surface this month.
Linda Louise Grant, originally from Port Moody, learned she was on the list when she was searching the Internet for information on Robert Pickton on June 5.
She said she didn't know her family had reported her missing when she left the Lower Mainland in 1983 and settled in the U.S.
Pickton has been charged with murdering 26 missing women.
© The Vancouver Province 2006
Woman who vanished found alive in U.S. - June 7, 2006
Updated: January 01, 2007