VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Sarah de Vries: 1 of 20 women for whose murder Pickton will never be tried
BY SUZANNE FOURNIER, THE PROVINCE AUGUST 5, 2010
Sarah de Vries.jpg
Photograph by: Handout, PNG Archive
Sarah de Vries, a vibrant, beautiful woman known on the Downtown Eastside as Black Sarah, was the poster child for Vancouver’s missing women.
She took care with her appearance, dressing well if flamboyantly, and poured out her sensitive soul in poetry and diaries.
She began fleeing her upper-middle-class West Point Grey home for the Downtown Eastside before even turning 13. For more than 14 years she was a common sight, blithely rollerblading through the drug-infested streets. She vanished in 1998, and her DNA was found at Robert “Willie” Pickton’s farm. Her murder falls in the 20 counts for which Pickton will not be tried.
De Vries could be found chatting or teaming up with other working women, or plying her trade alone in her short, short skirt on the corner of Princess and Hastings streets.
When a TV crew sought out women on the Downtown Eastside for a documentary, de Vries was a natural choice.
Her gaze was direct, her words emotional. She appeared intent on engaging the other side, telling the camera there are only three ways off the street: “You go to jail, you end up dead, or you do a life sentence.”
She was articulate, had many friends, two children and kept in touch with her adopted family, showing up for Christmas and always calling home on her mother’s birthday, April 17.
De Vries’ disappearance without a trace in the pre-dawn hours of April 14, 1998 spooked her friends. They felt that if the predator they all believed was out there could snatch de Vries and get away with it, no one was safe.
The story of de Vries’ disappearance has been told and re-told by Wayne Leng, a former customer. He says he gave de Vries the $27 he had in his pocket and dropped her off in the Downtown Eastside, where she met up with a friend named Sylvia Skakum.
She and Skakum fixed heroin and went to work at Princess and Hastings. Skakum got a trick, rode around the block with him in his car and got out back on her corner when they couldn’t agree on a price.
De Vries had vanished.
De Vries’ sudden disappearance galvanized her adopted sister Maggie de Vries into searching for her and pressuring the Vancouver police, who appeared to care no more about de Vries than any of the dozens of other prostitutes who had disappeared.
Wayne Leng, her former customer, plastered the streets with posters, set up a 1-800 tipline and created a website. It became an international focus for the media and the grieving relatives of the women who were gone.
Leng’s pursuit drew the interest of NBC’s America’s Most Wanted, which did a story on de Vries’ disappearance and the dozens of other drug-addicted sex-trade workers who had disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Maggie has written a book about her sister, called Missing Sarah, based on de Vries’ life and her personal diaries.
Maggie chose not to attend the preliminary hearing or to find out how women died at Pickton’s hands, preferring to focus on the engaging parts of de Vries’ personality and the feelings she expressed in her journals, which seemed to be addressed directly to an audience.
As a child, de Vries was bright, engaging and always reaching for her crayons.
She scribbled words to express her thoughts, a habit she kept up all of her life, maintaining a diary in some form no matter how transient or troubled her lifestyle became.
From a spacious Spanish Banks home, poised on tree-lined streets above miles of beach, de Vries lived out her life on the dangerous Downtown Eastside, almost predicting her own death in her diaries.
Adopted at 11 months into the family of Pat and Jan de Vries, de Vries was the youngest of four children.
Her adoptive mother was a busy professional head nurse. Her father, a University of B.C. science professor, appears to have adored de Vries, but called her “his little chocolate drop” and “nigger girl,” according to some of her friends who cite passages in the journals she kept all her life.
Her parents separated when she was nine, and de Vries told friends later she didn’t like being required to spend time alone with her father. Pat was busy in her job as a head nurse.
De Vries may have been given the music, ballet and riding lessons typical of a privileged upbringing but she repeatedly fled her home in favour of a Downtown Eastside “family” of addicts and a boyfriend who was soon her pimp.
Of mixed aboriginal, Hispanic and black heritage, de Vries was an adorable child with warm brown skin and curly black hair, but she faced racial prejudice as soon as she went to school in the wealthy, mostly white westside of the 1970s.
De Vries once told a friend that all she knew of her Mexican-born birth mother was that she was beautiful and loved taking risks, like skydiving.
De Vries’ life became a descent into extreme risk-taking.
Every day she faced the danger of the Downtown Eastside low-track sex trade, where predators carried out brutal assaults with seeming impunity, often barely escaping with her life. She became infected with HIV and hepatitis C.
Ken Craig, a retired longshoreman who also adored deVries and says she often came to his home for a bath and rest from her difficult street life, shows some pieces of paper from her journal that she left behind with him.
De Vries left behind portions of her diaries that say her father called her his “chocolate drop” and his “nigger girl.”
She wrote poems and diary entries in which she poured out the anguish of being a drug-addicted hooker, vulnerable to vicious predators and physically dependent on a merciless drug craving which ruled her every move.
Some of her writing seems to try to educate the public about the humanity and vulnerability of sex-trade workers like her, who somehow know that their life is even more fragile because society doesn’t appear to value who they are.
Together with her chilling narrative about an assault by a violent predator in which she barely escaped with her life, running naked along a highway only to be picked up by a propositioning truck driver and then by a well-dressed man who dumped her, the pessimistic tone of de Vries’ own writing suggests no one would notice or protest her death.
Her family and Wayne Leng believe she died in terror at the hands of Robert Pickton.
But some of her friends point out that very little of her DNA was ever recovered at the Pickton farm.
They say that de Vries was murdered by someone who felt that if he couldn’t have her, no one could.
Just before she disappeared in the early hours of April 14, 1998, de Vries had returned to an old boyfriend.
Her friends say it would have been quite easy for a killer other than Pickton to plant de Vries’ makeup bag, which she carried everywhere but often had to replace after loaning or losing it, at the Pickton farm.
A trace of de Vries’ DNA, matched to pap smears obtained by the RCMP forensic labs and to the DNA of her children and their biological fathers, was found on the end of a lipstick in a makeup case found in Pickton’s stash of women’s belongings in his workshop.
If de Vries did die at the sordid Pickton farm, it was a tragic end for a girl whose charisma, beauty and spirit would have carried her far in any career but the high-risk sex trade of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Her mother Pat de Vries took Sarah’s children Jeannie and Xxx into her Guelph, Ont. home to raise them.
© Copyright (c) The Province
Updated: August 21, 2016