VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Vanished - Jennie Furminger
Courtesy of The Vancouver Courier
By Chris Miller
The last time Noel Paris saw Jennie Furminger, she was standing near the corner of Cordova and Dunlevy on a cold night two days after Christmas.
Paris gave her a key to their building—Furminger, a prostitute and his live-in girlfriend, was always losing keys—and kibitzed with her a minute before leaving. As he walked off, a police car rolled up. Over the car’s loudspeaker, a voice said, "Good evening, Jennie. How are you?"
Paris kept walking, but glanced back to make sure nothing went wrong. If the cops searched Furminger and found drugs, they could arrest her for possession. He saw Jennie talking with the police, but nothing seemed amiss.
Paris walked a little further, cutting across Pigeon Park towards their hotel, then turned back again. This time, a building cut off his sightline; he couldn’t tell if she was still with the police car.
But closer by, on Cordova Street, he saw a girl leaning in towards a car pulled to the side of the road. Though it was too dark to identify the woman, Paris assumed it was Furminger because he hadn’t seen any other working girls in the area. When he looked back a few moments later, the car and the girl were gone.
He went home, watched Jay Leno’s monologue on TV and went to bed. When he awoke the next morning, there was no sign of Furminger.
That’s Paris’ version of events. What’s known for certain is that 28-year-old Furminger disappeared last December. When she hadn’t turned up by the end of March, Paris went to police. After an exhaustive search, police added her to the list of Downtown Eastside missing women in October.
Paul Haythorne, a security guard at Carnegie Community Centre, said he spotted Jennie Furminger a few months ago, long after she supposedly disappeared. "I’ve seen her since then," Haythorne said, glancing at a picture of Furminger. "She was looking better—healthier."
Standing in the community centre’s bustling lobby, Haythorne—tall and stout, with a sober demeanour—recalls speaking to her once, years ago. She seemed quite bright, he said, though he couldn’t remember what they talked about.
After squinting over her glasses at Furminger’s picture, centre volunteer Barbara Gray insists she’s seen her, too. So do some of the working girls in the area, who are sure it’s her, they say, because they once spoke with her about TV shows at the Women’s Information and Safe House, or got high with her on the street.
Police Det. Lori Shenher, who’s working on the missing women case, doesn’t bat an eye when she hears these reports. Callers used to repeatedly claim that Angela Jardine, another missing woman, had reappeared on the streets. Each time, Shenher would rush from the police building at 312 Main St. to find her. Each time, she came face-to-face with another street prostitute who was a dead ringer for Jardine. It became a running joke.
Shenher thinks the working girls, most of whom have severe addictions, may be mistaking another girl for Furminger, who police first noticed on the streets in the early 1990s.
Furminger’s gone missing before, but only for short periods. Shenher doesn’t think she ran away; she was too far on the skids to pull herself back so easily.
Paris and Furminger’s boyfriend in Abbotsford were the last people to see her. At first, police thought the Furminger case might have stemmed from a love triangle gone wrong, but found no evidence to support this theory.
Neither man is a suspect in Furminger’s disappearance, said Det. Rob Faoro, who commented that both seem genuinely concerned about her.
Following Paris’s suggestion that Furminger might have gone back to Ontario, police checked with her family and the Ontario welfare system. They didn’t find anything.
Nor did she turn up on the Canadian Police Information Centre database, which covers all the provinces.
"There’s nothing," Faoro said. "She’s disappeared from the face of the earth."
Paris, who worked in the construction industry until he was disabled by a circulatory problem, met Furminger about 11 years ago. He worked in East Vancouver and would often stop by the Patricia Hotel for a meal before visiting a friend who lived in the area.
En route, he frequently ran into Furminger working the streets.
"She used to razz me," recalled 56-year-old Paris, who was born and raised in the East End. "‘Where you going?’ ‘To see Gordie, to see my buddy.’ ‘Where you going?’ ‘To play some poker in the East End.’ ‘Why don’t you take me?’ ‘Jesus Christ, you’re not old enough....’"
Paris, who has two grown up children from a previous marriage, is sitting at a Dairy Queen on East Hastings. About five-foot-eight and broad-shouldered, Paris uses a cane and walks with a pronounced limp because of circulatory problems in his legs. He wears light blue jeans, a cap and a black jean jacket with a red Guess sweatshirt underneath.
His hair’s grey and white and a day’s growth of stubble protrudes from his chin. When he speaks about Furminger, he leans across the table and his stares into space.
One miserable December day, Paris spotted Furminger on the street corner, dressed in flip-flops and a skimpy outfit. She said her boyfriend had left town, locking all her clothes inside his house.
Paris took her home, where he gave her clothes to keep warm. He left his phone number with her, too.
She must have kept the number, because she called on her 21st birthday in 1993. Paris took her out for a beer to celebrate.
"We stayed friends and [our relationship] would come and go," said Paris. "I’m not a possessive man and I knew what she did. I’m not naive."
Furminger and Paris grew closer. She moved into Paris’ home for a few days after she fell out with a boyfriend, then Paris adopted Furminger’s cat when the boyfriend threatened to get rid of it. Furminger would drop by from time to time to play with the cat.
"She was genteel," Paris said. "She was very feminine and playful and she was very, very mellow. Jennie’s idea of a good time was to sit cross-legged on the couch and read a book."
When she was over, Furminger sometimes revealed happy memories from her past—of fishing with her father in Ontario, or seeing her son, who lives in the Lower Mainland.
Paris couldn’t pry details from Furminger if she wasn’t in the mood to talk, though. As long as he knew her, she retained an independent edge. "She wasn’t very big or very tough," Paris said. "She just had a real indignant streak about not taking any crap from anybody. She would just turn and walk away."
Furminger had a dark side, too. She was a serious drug addict who used up to $300 worth of heroin and cocaine a day, balancing the downer with the upper. Shortly before she disappeared, she told Paris she would never stop doing drugs because she enjoyed the high too much. Paris initially said Furminger’s drug use didn’t bother him, but later contradicted himself. "It bothered me she had to prostitute herself," he said. "It bothered me that she had a drug habit that needed to be fed and that she had to do what she did to feed her drug habit."
Paris said his home became a safe haven for Furminger. He bought her clothes and make-up, washed her clothes and cooked for her. She could always find food in the fridge and a warm bed. When she woke up, he would bar the door until she’d brushed her hair and her teeth.
In the summer of 1999, Paris and Furminger moved into the Marr Hotel together, but she rarely came home. Eventually he confronted her. "I said, ‘This is not my idea of living together.’ I said, ‘You know what I do for you. I’m off work. I’m here for you, but six days of the week, you’re not here.’"
Run down on drugs, Furminger returned in November and settled into domestic life for several weeks. She spent Christmas with her other boyfriend in Abbotsford, then returned on Boxing Day.
"She came up and gave me [a jab] in the back of the knees," Paris said. "She said, ‘I’m home.’"
After two and a half years on the case of the missing Downtown Eastside women, Det. Lori Shenher says she’s no closer to finding out what happened to them.
Some prostitutes believe sailors kidnapped or killed girls after taking them back to their ships to party. Others maintain one or more serial killers are at work, luring the girls away in a vehicle, killing them, and dumping their bodies in a remote spot.
Shenher suspects the murderer may be a repeat customer who charms the girls, then kills them on a subsequent date when their guard is down. That, at least, is what happened in Poughkeepsie, NY, where a middle class man abducted and killed eight street prostitutes over a 22-month period, hiding their bodies in the rafters of his family’s home. Like the women in Vancouver, the prostitutes in Poughkeepsie disappeared without a trace—only testimony from a prostitute who escaped led to the bodies’ discovery and the arrest of Kendall Francois in 1998.
The local task force is still reviewing clues from the brutal, unsolved murders of four Vancouver prostitutes in 1995 to see if they’re linked to the missing women cases. One of the bodies was found in North Vancouver off the Seymour Parkway, while the others were discovered in a wooded area near Agassiz.
"Here are four people who fit our victim profiles who have been found," Shenher said. "Was that the beginning of something by somebody and did they change their method of body disposal [afterwards]? Those are the kinds of things we’re looking at."
Police are also keeping abreast of the case against Robert Lee Yates, an accused prostitute killer who operated out of Spokane. But at this point, there’s no evidence Yates was ever in Vancouver, Shenher said.
The missing women poster once included 31 names. Four were located before Furminger went missing. Two died of natural or drug-related causes, while the other two left their street lives behind. But Shenher said the women found alive were only recreational drug users and part-time working girls, unlike the others on the list.
In addition to having serious addictions, a majority of the missing women—including Furminger—had children or families they kept in touch with before they went missing. None has picked up social assistance cheques. Some saved money in bank accounts, and those assets are also untouched, Shenher said.
The missing women’s faces stare—some happily, others defiant or blank—from a glossy police poster announcing a $100,000 reward for a tip leading to an arrest in the case. Including Furminger, whose face isn’t on the poster yet, 23 of the 28 women went missing between 1995 and the end of 1999.
Detectives have found no blood stains, body parts or eyewitnesses and have only a rough idea of when most of the girls disappeared. A once bustling police investigation has slowed to a crawl.
Police first reduced the nine-member task force looking into the disappearances to six members, then to four as leads dwindled. Now, after reviewing the case, the task force is sending it to the province’s unsolved homicides unit for assistance.
Shenher insisted police won’t drop the case, but wouldn’t speculate on what they will do if the unit doesn’t turn up new leads.
Most of the girls on the street have bad date horror stories. Beaten black and blue. Choked with a chain and raped. Escaped a john who kept a noose beneath the pillow.
Some, like Crystal Lowley, wonder if they’ve seen the killer and escaped with only verbal abuse or a beating.
"I just had a bad date, and the guy threatened me, like, ‘Do you want to die tonight, bitch?’" said Lowley, a pretty young Native woman with short brown hair.
Now Lowley said she only dates regulars and works the same spot along Hastings Street. Traffic may be better on side streets, where it’s darker and there are fewer police cruisers, but it isn’t worth the risk, she said.
"The cops are pretty protective," Lowley said. "They aren’t assholes."
But other girls are critical of the police effort.
"They don’t really take too much concern when they’re addicted working women, you know what I mean?" said Kim Point, who knew about 10 of the missing women. "And a lot of these women are Natives, too."
That makes a difference?
"Sure it does."
Though she’s an addict, Point won’t work when she’s high because it clouds her judgement. She notes some crack and powder addicts turn tricks in return for drug fixes, putting themselves at risk by fixing with johns.
Twenty-four-year-old Marcelle West admits she’s terrified by the string of disappearances. One of the missing women, Michelle Gurney, was West’s next-door neighbour at a Downtown Eastside hotel. West didn’t even realize Gurney was a working girl until she saw her face on the missing women poster months afterwards.
West said she carries a switchblade because it’s better than bear spray. She hasn’t used it, yet. "You go off in a car like that with a stranger, especially down here...." West said. "People think it’s hard [to get away with murder]. It’s easy. You’ve just got to be cold enough to do that."
When Jennie didn’t turn up the day after Paris gave her his key, he checked the jail. No sign of her there, so he returned home, hoping she’d simply gone back to Abbotsford. When she didn’t return by New Year’s, Paris became anxious. She had promised to spend the day with him, and she never made a promise she couldn’t keep.
Paris said he hit the streets for weeks, contacting service agencies and Furminger’s friends and acquaintances in the Downtown Eastside. After he learned through the grapevine that Jennie’s social assistance cheques were unclaimed—a sure sign something was wrong—he reported her missing to police. By this time it was March 30.
Paris said he didn’t come forward earlier because past experience has taught him not to trust police, and because he thought she still was alive, and didn’t want to get her in trouble. "It would be just like her to turn up tomorrow," Paris said. "I hope to God she’s not dead."
Maybe she went to Toronto, as she had always planned, Paris said. Maybe she’d shacked up with one of her clients, a high-roller with a grow op.
Now, he said, his life has stalled. He goes outside each day to see if Furminger has returned to her street corner.
A prostitute with red hair in pigtails stands a block from where Jennie Lynn Furminger used to work.
She needs to make money, and Cordova and Jackson is as good a place as any to set up shop on a chill November night. She doesn’t look old, but she’s a veteran of these streets. Police interviewed her for the documentary Through a Blue Lens, she notes proudly, revealing a line of missing front teeth.
After scanning a photocopied picture of Furminger, she politely says she doesn’t recognize her and can’t talk about the other missing women. Time is money in this neglected pocket of the urban jungle.
She resumes her business stance, glancing at the traffic flashing down Cordova, past Pigeon Park, where drug dealers in ballcaps stand like sentinels in the dark. Like every other girl working the streets, she’ll use her instincts this night to avoid the date that could be her last.
Anyone with information about Furminger should call Det. Faoro at 717-2517.
Updated: August 21, 2016