VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Puzzle of death haunts kids of lost mother
Two years after Sarah deVries disappeared off the streets of Vancouver, her children still need answers
By Damian Inwood
Pat deVries spends a lot of time explaining to her two young grandchildren how their mother lived, and probably died, as a hooker on the streets of Vancouver.
“I try to tell them why Sarah would have been murdered and what I think’s happened,” said the 61-year-old former hospital head nurse.
“It’s very hard for them. You never know what the next question is going to be.”
Sarah’s life of turning tricks and shooting up heroin must seem like a different world to that of her two kids growing up in an old farmhouse on four hectares in rural southern Ontario.
Family photos of Sarah deVries, who's
--from the Web site <www.missingpeople.net>
Sarah deVries as a young girl: 'She was a
click on thumbnail to increase
Sarah deVries (far right) with members of
It’s been two years since Sarah, then 28, vanished off a corner at Princess and Hastings. She was last seen alive at about 4:30 a.m. on April 14, 1998, when Sylvia, a fellow hooker, got into a car to negotiate a trick. By the time Sylvia came back she was gone.
Sarah wasn’t reported missing for another week, when friends and relatives began searching for her on April 21. DeVries thinks her adopted daughter is dead.
“I’m quite sure she is dead or she has been damaged so much that she doesn’t know who she is any more or she’s locked up somewhere,” she said. “I suppose I would rather think she’s dead than either of those other two things.”
Even before Sarah vanished, Pat deVries had moved to Ontario with Sarah’s daughter Jeannie, now 9.
When Sarah gave birth to Benjamin, now 4, he too went to live with his granny near the small town of Elora, Ont.
Sarah returned to the street.
Hanging in the hall of the old farmhouse, among pictures of family relatives, are pictures of Sarah and her children, some of which are displayed with this article.
DeVries says it’s all the two children have to show where they came from.
“Jeanie knows her father, who lives in the downtown east side,” said deVries. “He’s a Cree Indian. But Ben will never know his father—Sarah didn’t know him.”
DeVries says the kids are looking for answers about death.
“They went and
dug up our dog the other day,” she said. “He died a couple of years ago. Ben
was so excited he ran in saying, ‘Bones, bones.’”
“She said, ‘We just went by Panda’s grave and blessed him,’” said deVries. “We went outside and, sure enough, they had dug him up to look. They are trying to make sense out of death, to see what happens to something that’s been buried.”
It’s been a painful path that’s led to these two young orphans living with their granny and great-aunt.
Sarah deVries was born in Burnaby on May 12, 1969. She was 11 months old and named Sherry when deVries and her university professor husband adopted her and took her to ritzy West Point Grey.
DeVries said Sarah’s father, a farmer, was black and native Indian, and her mother, a secretary, a mixture of native and white.
She hopes Sarah’s mother, if she reads this story, might contact her, so that Jeannie will have another family connection.
“Sarah’s mother’s hobby was skydiving,” laughed deVries. “I didn’t find out until Sarah was 13. If I’d known that earlier, I would have maybe tried to get her into something more exciting because my favorite hobby was to put my feet up and read a book.
“She had horseback riding and swimming, but not skydiving. I should’ve tried that; it might have kept her off the streets.”
By the time Sarah was 13, it was already too late. She had learning difficulties and, as a mixed-race teen growing up in a predominantly white neighbourhood, she had problems fitting in.
“She liked to be the boss—and she was a very strong-willed individual, as are her children,” said deVries with pride in her voice. Sarah was also fun-loving, with a good sense of humour.
When she was between the age of seven and 12, the deVries’ marriage was breaking up.
“Just when she needed a lot of support, none of us had any extra to give her,” said deVries. “She started going downtown. I was working full-time as a head nurse at Vancouver General and I’d go down and bring her back.”
It was the drugs that kept Sarah working as a hooker to pay for her habit.
Her daughter, Jeanie, was born addicted to both heroin and cocaine.
“Sarah tried a few times to give up drugs,” said deVries. “One time when she was in jail, just after she gave birth to Jeannie, she really wanted to come out and be clean and sober and look after her baby.”
DeVries had set up for her daughter to go into an Elizabeth Fry facility.
Sarah got out a day early.
“She told me later that the closer it got to being released, the more powerful the craving got for the drugs,” said deVries.
“When she was released, she went straight back downtown and shot up again. I think I really hit bottom that time.”
Since then, all deVries has been able to do for Sarah is to look after her kids and hope she’d get it together some day.
“But she never did,” she said.
For parents with kids on drugs, life can be almost unbearable.
DeVries remembers the time CBC television was doing a special on heroin users who were dying of overdoses.
“They interviewed Sarah on CBC news,” she said. “She was so articulate. I sat there…watching Sarah shoot up right on the TV screen and be interviewed and talk about what it was like to be a junkie.
“She told it better than anyone I have ever heard. It was difficult but I was proud.”
It was about that time that deVries moved to Ontario.
“Partly why I moved here was to get Jeanie away from Vancouver and the street scene,” she said.
She says she’s given up hoping the phone will ring. DeVries’ birthday is April 17 and Sarah’s birthday is May 12. Sarah always called around that time—and there’s been nothing for two years.
Meanwhile, deVries gets on with bring up two kids whose friends ask why they’re living with their granny.
“Jeanie has severe learning problems,” she added. “She looks like Sarah. It’s hard for her because she has to find her own identity. They are two neat kids and they are fine. They’re having their problems but they’re healthy and happy and in good spirits, and that’s what matters.”
27 still missing
Although May 1, 2000, has been set as the deadline for a $100,000 reward for information as to the whereabouts of more than two dozen women missing from Vancouver’s downtown east side, police say the offer will be extended.
Of 31 women named when the public was first asked for help, the fate of 27 still remain unresolved.
In the time since police established a task force to search for the women, officers have determined that two are dead—Linda Jean Coombes and Karen Smith. Two others were found alive—Patricia Gay Perkins and Rose Ann Jansen.
Updated: August 21, 2016