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MISSING ON THE MEAN STREETS - Part 2

Vancouver Sun
Lindsay Kines

Wednesday, March 3, 1999

The missing: Tragic portraits of women from the Downtown Eastside

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'Who we will not see tomorrow'

Street workers say society is not doing enough to rescue the troubled, young females who end up mired in drugs and prostitution on the Downtown Eastside.  Police say they actively pursue those who abuse the women.  For many women, concern comes to late.

Every night, women stop at the WISH drop-in centre on East Hastings before going out to work the streets.

And most nights, Joanna Russell gives them each a hug and, like a police staff sergeant to departing troops, urges them to be careful out there.

"And every night when they leave the centre, we're at a point, or at least I am," Russell says, "...where we wonder who we're not going to see tomorrow."

With each passing month, the list of the disappeared continues to grow.  Vancouver city police have 20 outstanding files on missing "street-involved" women since 1995--11 from last year alone.

All lived on the Downtown Eastside, and all were involved in drugs or the sex trade.  None of them took personal belongings with them, nor have they picked up welfare cheques or contacted children and family since disappearing.

One of the latest women to disappear, Marcella Helen Creison normally called her mother daily.  She was last seen Dec. 27.

Just what is happening to all these women remains a subject of heated debate.  The police are currently analyzing the cases to see if the numbers of unsolved files are higher than previous years, or whether some of these women can be expected to resurface in another city.

But people and agencies on the Downtown Eastside are convinced that something has gone terribly wrong in their community, and that many of the woman are dead.

"This is the worst it's been in the 4 1/2 I've been there," Russell, coordinator of the drop-in centre at First United Church, says.

"I think it's the obvious.  There are predators.   There are lots of predators out there, and these people are so vulnerable."

John Turvey, executive director of the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society, said women have been going missing for so long, that "it doesn't come as any surprise when people start throwing numbers around that sound like the Green River Killer."

The agencies are calling for a police task force to investigate the missing files, as well as any unsolved murders of women whose bodies have been found dumped in outlying areas.

"If these women were not street involved, there would be an outpouring of concern and immediate action to find their killer," Jamie Lee Hamilton of Grandma's House safe centre for prostitutes, said this week.

"What are the police waiting for?"

Police officials maintain that they have been doing things.   They added a second officer--Detective Constable Lori Shenher--to the missing persons section last summer to focus almost exclusively on the outstanding files.

But Shenher and her partner also carry other missing persons cases, and neighbourhood agencies question whether one, or even two people, can handle a workload that includes liasing with families and the media, attending community meetings, contacting other police agencies and still investigating 20 separate files.

Deb Mearns, coordinator of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Safety Office, praised Shenher's hard work and sincerity.  "But it's fairly overwhelming for one person to deal with, even for two people to deal with," Mearns said.

"I think there has to be a task force put together and some effort put into finding who is doing this," adds Russell.  "These are human beings.  They're daughters.  They're mothers.  They're children.   They're not throwaways."

Sergeant Geramy Field, who oversees the missing persons sections, says police have done extensive work on each of the files.  But detectives have found nothing that links them beyond the fact all were involved in drugs or the sex trade and frequented the Downtown Eastside.

All the cases have been submitted to the RCMP for entry on a national computer system for tracking serial killers and rapists.

The cases have also been entered on the Canadian police information computer and its counterpart in the United States.

Investigators have requested dental charts on all the women, and the vast majority have been entered on police computers.

Field also said investigators have interviewed family members and any known friends or associates of the women, in some cases, more than once.   During a recent sweep of the Downtown Eastside, police found two women who had been missing for several weeks.

In addition, the missing persons detectives have been liaising with vice and homicide squads, the provincial unsolved homicide unit and a number of RCMP serious crime sections.

The police investigation is usually hampered by the fact that many of the women disappeared weeks or, in some cases, months before anyone reported them missing.

This makes it extremely difficult for investigators to pinpoint when or where the woman was last seen, let alone find witnesses.

Further complicating matters is that the women are among the most vulnerable in society.

Sadly, Turvey says, the women are often young and unsophisticated, impaired by drugs or alcohol and work poorly lit industrial areas where there is no traffic and little chance of anyone seeing them get into a car with strangers.   In some cases, they also have a mental disability combined with a drug problem--the so-called "dual diagnoses" all to common on the Downtown Eastside.

"So what predators do is they literally seem to have a profile of what constitutes increased vulnerability," Turvey says.  "And they'll literally cruise the street until they find a potential target who might be really young, drug impaired or alcohol impaired, nonwhite or dual diagnosed."

As much as the term "serial killer" grabs headlines and inspires fear, the truth is that there are numerous predators attacking sex trade workers on a regular basis.

A review of Vancouver Sun files shows at least 25 different men charged with killing prostitutes in B.C. over the past 17 years.

In the past month alone, Vancouver city police arrested two men suspected in a series of sexual assaults against women in the sex trade.  One of the men allegedly kept women chained up in his downtown hotel for hours while he assaulted them.

"We've got a population group that is being chronically murdered and maimed," Turvey said.  "We know they are.  We know they will be in the future, and somehow we've made a choice that their safety is not a priority.

"And the really scary thing is that some place we're comfortable with it.  That's what's scary."

Contact Numbers:

Vancouver Police Department, Detective Constable Lori Shenher: 717-2534

Crimestoppers: 669-TIPS (8477)

Vancouver Sun: Reporter Lindsay Kines: 605-2199 or by email: lkines@pacpress.southam.ca

MISSING ON THE MEAN STREETS-1999

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Email: wleng#missingpeople.net 

Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016