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Missing Prostitutes Worry Vancouver

By DAVID CRARY

July 24, 1999.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) – If a half dozen drug-addicted prostitutes from Canada’s grimmest skid row had vanished, few people might have noticed.

But as the list of missing nears 30, police grope for answers while fears of a murder spree grow.

In the Downtown Eastside – a neighborhood of pawnshops, saloons and run-down rooming houses close to Vancouver’s trendy harborfront – community activists and the remaining prostitutes are convinced at least one serial killer is at work.

Police investigators, unable to find even a single body, won’t quite go that far, but they agree foul play is almost certainly behind many of the disappearances.

“We have no crime scenes, we have no bodies…It’s very frustrating.” Said Ann Drennan, the Vancouver police spokeswoman.  “It’s one of the most difficult files we’ve ever worked, because of the lack of clear evidence.”

Drennan said police are about to add a couple more women to the official list of 27 missing prostitutes.  Six vanished between 1978 and1992, 21 since 1995.

They range in age from 19 to 46; each is described on missing-persons posters as “a known drug user and sex-trader worker” who frequented the Downtown Eastside.

Deb Mearns, who coordinates safety programs for prostitutes in the drug-infested neighborhood, has no doubt most of the missing women have been killed.

“You’re talking about women on welfare who didn’t pick up their last welfare check, who left belongings in a dingy hotel room,” she said.  “It’s not as though they could just jump on a plane and fly to Toronto.”

“If you want to find the most vulnerable women, this is where you come,” Mearns said, “A woman can just disappear, and no one’s going to notice for a while.”

Initially, the police department’s cautious approach to the case infuriated local residents, who said a comparable rash of disappearances from a wealthier neighborhood, would have prompted a massive investigative response.

By now, after repeated protest marches and memorial services for the missing, there is general acknowledgement that police are doing their best in the face of perplexing circumstances.  Half-dozen officers are working full-time on the case, including two missing-persons investigators and two homicide detectives, but so far no prime suspects have emerged.

Working half time on the case is Constable Dave Dickson, who has served 20 years in the Downtown Eastside and three years ago was the first policeman to sound the alarm as the disappearances proliferated.

“We have a feeling something bad has happened, but we don’t know what,” Dickson said.  “It could be one guy, two guys.”

He showed a visitor the latest “bad date sheet” – a sort of newsletter for area prostitutes which describes men accused of assaults and abuse.

“There are a lot of  ‘bad dates’ out there,” Dickson said.  “Where do you start when you’ve got a thousand guys capable of doing something like this?  Some of them don’t come down here for sex.  They come down to beat on the girls.”

Dickson says the remaining prostitutes are upset by the disappearances, but not enough to change their ways.

“If they’re heavily addicted and need money, they’re probably going to jump in the car with a guy no matter what anyone tells them,” he said. 

“They come from such horrible backgrounds, they’ve been sexually abused their whole lives.  They’re not afraid of anything.”

The Downtown Eastside is Canada’s poorest, most crime-ridden urban area, scarred by heroin, cocaine and an epidemic of HIV infections spread by the dirty needles of addicts who openly shoot up in the alleyways.

Due partly to Vancouver’s mild winter, the area is a magnet for runaways, drifters, impoverished Indians and mentally ill people from across Canada.

Deputy Police Chief Gary Greer, former district commander for the Downtown Eastside, said the neighborhood’s street women make easy targets.

“With a prostitute who goes by a street name, who’s picked up by a john, and then another john, whose intention is to be unseen, to be anonymous – for a predator, that’s perfect,” Greer said.

Police also note that Vancouver is flanked by the sea and by mountains – ideal locations for hiding bodies.

“The possible grave sites are endless,” Drennan said.  “If there is a predator out there, he may have a common grave site.  But finding that is so difficult.”

Though most Downtown Eastside prostitutes continue working, many are offering tips to police and about 60 have signed a registry so they can be traced more easily.

“A lot of them are being more cautious now, working by day or with somebody else,” said Mearns, who organizes safety meetings for the prostitutes.  There have been self-defense lessons and sessions with investigators handling the case.

But Mearns said even the best advice wouldn’t have helped a woman like Angela Jardine, who disappeared in November – a 28-year-old with the mental capacity of a 12-year-old.

“She was like a big kid – very naďve, very friendly,” Mearns said.  “It would have been easy for a predator to take advantage of Angela.  She didn’t have street smarts.”

A $100,000 reward is being offered for information leading to a conviction of anyone related to the disappearances.  Police have sent missing-persons data to psychiatric hospitals and welfare offices across Canada and the United States, and the case is soon to be featured on the “America’s Most Wanted” TV show.

In the past, police say, women reported missing from the Downtown Eastside usually turned up within a year or two, sometimes alive, other times dead from suicide or a drug overdose.

“All of a sudden that wasn’t happening anymore,” Drennan said.  “They just stayed missing.  That’s what became most frightening.”

AP-NY-07-24-99

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Updated: August 21, 2016