remembered for 'amazing qualities'
Friday February 15, 2002
VANCOUVER - Sarah deVries is a
smile behind the statistic.
de Vries' sister Maggie says
"It's impossible to piece together why she ended up where she
One of 50 women missing and
presumed dead from Vancouver's downtown eastside since 1983,
de Vries fits the mould -- drug addict and prostitute. To many, her kind are
nameless, faceless sellers of themselves to feed their habits,
autobiographers of despair.
But to family and friends --
including her mother Pat de Vries of Guelph -- who for more than a week have
looked to a suburban pig farm for possible answers into her disappearance,
Sarah was a curly-haired beauty with an infectious laugh and a talent for
writing and drawing. A mother. A daughter. A sister.
"Just because someone is
addicted to drugs and living on the street, people tend to think that they
may as well not be alive, that their life isn't worth anything," Maggie
de Vries, 40, Sarah's older sister, said in an interview. "But that's
just not true. Sarah could be a pretty tough and scary person but she also
had amazing qualities."
No road map exists for the journey
that took Sarah de Vries from a childhood in one of Vancouver's more affluent
neighbourhoods to demise on the streets of its poorest.
She grew up in Vancouver's West
Point Grey. Its large homes, tree-lined streets and wide-open spaces are
separated from the grubby rooming houses, garbage-strewn alleyways and
drug-laced culture of the downtown eastside by less than 10 kilometres --
and a monumental divide.
What may have led de Vries from one
to the other nearly two decades ago include adoption, racism and divorced
parents. Money, the desire to feel a part of something and the excitement of
being the centre of men's attention, also could offer an explanation.
"It's impossible to piece
together why she ended up where she did," said Maggie de Vries,
answering a question that she has obviously already asked herself many
As Maggie de Vries talked, the
dining room table of her condominium was covered with framed family pictures
from much happier times. A young Sarah smiles from one. In another, her two
children -- Jeanie, now 11, and Xxx, 5, -- stare out brightly, their smiles
and curly hair making them look like mini versions of their mother.
Sarah de Vries was born in 1969 of
native Indian, black and Mexican heritage and was adopted before her first
birthday. She became the youngest of four children of a professor and his
wife, a nurse, growing up in an upper-middle class household.
"She was a very bubbly,
outgoing little girl," Maggie de Vries said.
"She always had a pen and
paper in hand, drawing and writing poems," Maggie de Vries said about a
passion her sister entertained until she disappeared in April, 1998.
"She was very creative, very melodramatic."
But Sarah de Vries was also
troubled. Growing up as a black child in a totally white neighbourhood in
the 1970s, she was teased and subjected to racist taunts. At home, while her
older siblings and parents could sympathize, they could not relate.
"It was really tough for her,
growing up with nobody who shared her experience on that fundamental
level," said Maggie de Vries, a children's book author and editor.
When Sarah was 9, her parents split
up. As the youngest, she took it hard. By her teens, she was in with the
wrong crowd, using drugs, running away and frequenting the streets. It's
unclear whether she ever completed Grade 8. By age 17, she was gone for
An attractive, dark, petite woman,
Sarah had no trouble finding customers for her body on Vancouver streets.
Never one to rely on a pimp in a dozen or so years on the streets, according
to those who knew her, there was also no shortage of cash to feed
"She was beautiful. She was
sassy," said Wayne Leng, who first met Sarah de Vries in 1994 as he was
coming out of a convenience store in the downtown eastside.
While Leng, 52, admits buying sex
from de Vries thus helping fund her drug habit, he said that that part of the
relationship was soon replaced by a strong friendship. He still fondly
recalls taking her to see her family at Christmas and a summer picnic with
them at the beach. They went to see the movie Titanic not long before she
"Sarah had a very strong
addiction that she couldn't break but she also had dreams," Leng said
in an interview from Los Angeles where he is now an automotive technician in
a dealership. "She wanted a picket fence and a house and children and
that whole shot.
"Near the end, she was just
getting sick and tired of being sick and tired," said Leng, who alerted
the de Vries family to Sarah's disappearance and for months led the search
Those efforts eventually grew into
a Website -- www.missingpeople.net
-- that is dedicated to the 50 women who have disappeared from the downtown
That neighbourhood ultimately
defined Sarah de Vries. On the downtown eastside she became addicted to
heroin and cocaine. She was HIV-positive. She suffered hepatitis-C.
But those close to her say that's
only part of her story. She developed close friendships.
She discouraged young women from
following in her footsteps. She kept in regular contact with her family,
defying police belief the missing women may have just left town.
Sarah de Vries' two children were
born while she lived on the downtown eastside. They now live with their
grandmother in Guelph, a vital link to their mother for her family.
She also continued to write and
In the fall of 1997, a few months
before vanishing, she penned a poem about the beating death of a downtown
eastside prostitute, describing her as "a broken down angel, just a
child with no place."
That poem is one her family and
friends believe was prophetic. They hope for answers from the pig farm in
Port Coquitlam, 35 kilometres east of Vancouver, so they can finally get
some closure, no matter how difficult such a revelation would be.
"It's strange combination of
horror and hope to want them to dig up my sister's remains on that
property," Maggie de Vries said. "But that's what I'm hoping
Whether or not that happens, Maggie
de Vries hopes people realize the life of her sister -- and the other missing
women -- did matter. And, as foreign as their circumstances may seem, people
realize that, in the end, the divide between them and us is not so great.
"Sarah's story shows that it
can happen to anybody's daughter or sister," she said.
B.C. Missing Women - Sarah's street
She's focusing on the living-Dec 6, 2001
Memory of Sarah 1969-1998