VANCOUVER echo--By: Erik Rolfsen,
Easter Sunday, April 4, 1999.
Sarah Jean deVries would have been 30 years old on May 12,
She'll miss the Reunion
Just when you think news from the Downtown Eastside can
no longer shock you, a former classmate turns up on the list of women who are missing and
YEAH, IT WAS HER
Her hair was longer than I
remember, but her eyes, face and skin colour made it pretty clear. It was her.
Sarah deVries was staring out at me from my computer screen, on
the Downtown Eastside Vancouver website. She was hunched over a little bit in the
photograph, a red and grey track suit hanging loosely from her shoulders, and she looked
considerably less happy than she did on a certain spring day in 1983.
On that day, Sarah invited me and a bunch of our friends to her
house for pop and chips after school. I can still remember sitting on her West Side
front porch, basking happily in the sunshine and the euphoria of knowing that six more
months of it lay ahead. The number-one song from that spring, a lament about lost
innocence by The Pretenders called "My City was Gone," reverberated from a tiny
Sarah, whom I once considered a peer, is now a drug-addicted
prostitute who's missing and presumed dead by most.
I had arrived at the Downtown Eastside Vancouver website after
Sarah's name caught my eye while I was reading a newspaper story about the 21 women who
have gone missing from the Downtown Eastside since 1995. I almost missed it--I was
skimming the story, and had to go back a few paragraphs to double-check. I think I
speak for a lot of people when I shamefully admit that newspapers are so full of numbers
and so full of bad news about the Downtown Eastside that "21 women missing"
sometimes doesn't catch my attention any more than "NDP at 21 per cent in the
polls" or "Shareef scores 21 against Dallas."
Then along comes the name of your former science partner and you
start paying attention to what you're reading.
I have two memories about Sarah that stick in my mind. The
first is the sunny afternoon you've heard about. The other happened about six months
later at our Grade 9 Halloween dance.
When I was in school, the summer between Grade 8 and 9 was when
you lost people. The sweet kids who came out of elementary school would pretty much
stay that way until the end of the first year. If anyone was going to turn into
something their parents would prefer they didn't, it would happen after Grade 8.
Perhaps it's earlier these days. I don't know.
But I remember that first dance of Grade 9, and the sight of
Sarah reeling through the hallway in a significantly altered state, half-screaming,
half-crying, with a wild look in her eyes as three friends tried desperately to help her
to her feet and get her out of there without detection by the principal. She was
wearing a jean-jacket and a Mackinaw--a different style than she had worn the previous
spring--and the whole scary incident gave me and my friends the sense that, despite her
inclusion in our Grade 8 circle, Sarah was headed for adventures in which our middle-class
asses wouldn't be joining her.
Turns out we were right.
Sarah was last seen at the corner of Hastings Street and Princess
Avenue on April 14, 1998. She had HIV and hepatitis C. Her two children, ages
seven and two, live with their grandmother in Ontario. I learned all this from a
newspaper story that quoted Sarah's adoptive mother about six weeks after her daughter's
disappearance. It included one quote that made me shudder: "This started
when she was 12."
I'm not patting myself on the back for being an astute judge of
character at the age of 13. Instead I'm wondering, if the writing was on the wall 17
years before Sarah's disappearance, why was nobody able to erase it?