Vancouver's Lost, Never Found
Clues Are Scarce in Disappearances of 49 Prostitutes
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 11, 2002; Page A01
VANCOUVER, B.C. -- They were standing on the corners of these stained streets, selling their bodies for a Canadian $10 bill. Then they were gone. Forty-nine women vanished. No blood. No saliva. No screams heard. No bodies. Just working aliases left behind, entangled with fragments of sad stories.
"How can no one see 49 women?" asked a woman who works these same streets today, some of the most vile streets in Canada, an underworld of drugs, heroin ghosts, prostitution, needles and violence.
"Like, where did they go?" asked the woman, who gave her name as Ann Bravo, 36. "Like, what happened to Laura, Laura, the one who had low blood pressure? What happened to Jennifer? Jennifer was the one who [gave birth] on the corner. What happened to Sara? Girls have disappeared and nobody has seen anything. This is really scary."
This is Vancouver's downtown Eastside, one of Canada's poorest postal codes, Vancouver's low track, as they say. People used to believe that those who ended up on these streets couldn't go any lower. They believed this until the mid-1980s, when prostitutes started vanishing.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Vancouver City Police say that if the same person killed all the missing women, the crime would rank among the largest serial killings in history.
Recently, police here began comparing notes with police in the state of Washington to find out whether a man charged in the so-called Green River deaths there also may be responsible for the 49 women missing in Canada. Gary Ridgway, 52, has been charged in four U.S. slayings after police discovered DNA evidence linking him to bodies found in or near the Green River, south of Seattle.
"He's been charged now with four murders of sex-trade workers. We have 49 missing. The natural assumption is he is a good suspect. But he is one of many suspects, and we have many good suspects," said Sgt. Wayne Clary, who works in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's unsolved homicide unit.
Still, in the 19 years since women started disappearing in British Columbia, no one has been arrested in the cases. Without bodies, police have little evidence to trace.
Investigators acknowledge that they don't really know how many bodies to look for. The transient lifestyle of prostitutes makes it hard to track them, and some of the 49 may still be alive and perhaps have moved to other cities, entered detox centers or taken new identities to leave their old lives behind. Still, authorities say that the pattern of women here one moment, gone the next, makes it clear that many if not all are dead.
The investigation goes on. "All we really have is a starting point: that area," Clary said. "They were last seen there. That's it. The place they call skid row."
They are targeted by "sexual predators," he said, the crime made easier because the women often work alone, without pimps, desperate for money to support heroin and cocaine addictions.
"They are the most vulnerable women," said Deb Mearns, coordinator of the Downtown Eastside Neighborhood Safety Office, which provides support to crime victims. "If you want desperate women or a kid, this is the neighborhood. There are a lot of sexual predators out there."
Out there, outside her storefront office window, is a version of hell: addicts shooting up, threadbare hotels that charge hourly rates for nasty rooms with paper-thin walls, drug dealers doing business in the open, needles carpeting the alleyways, vomit, blood, rubber gloves, used condoms.
"There is hardly a legitimate business left. Most are tied into drugs, money laundering or stolen goods," Mearns said. "One scuzzy hotel room down here costs $325 to $350 a month. If you get $400 a month on welfare, you don't have much left. It's a pretty desperate existence. It's the highest concentration of SROs [single room occupancies] in Canada."
The rooms are at the bottom of the "slide," when addicts "go from using to really using," Mearns said. "A lot started off as children, running away from really horrific pasts. Many will say they are 15 or 16 when they started; by the time they are 30, they look 50."
The faces of the missing women peer out from the posters that police have put up in alleys and hallways. The images seem to be a collage of broken noses, collapsed veins, swollen eyes.
• JOHNSON, Patricia. DOB: 1975/12/02, last seen March 3, 2001. She smiles through what looks like a busted lip. Her eyes seemed to have just been healing from bruises.
• MAH, Laura. DOB: 1943/03/23, last seen Aug. 1, 1985. Her face seems to be lopsided and her cheeks are swollen.
• CRAWFORD, Wendy. DOB: 1956/04/21, last seen Nov. 27, 1999. She presses her lips together and looks into the corner of some unseen room, her skin is red. She is not smiling. Wounds on her face have not yet closed.
"Some of the women, you wouldn't notice them if you stepped on them," Mearns said. "They end up looking quite different from the pictures."
In the beginning, in 1983, when the first of Vancouver's prostitutes went missing, few people wanted to acknowledge the women were disappearing. Then an outcry came from women's groups, applying pressure on the police to take action. Now police put out the posters and a tip sheet for prostitutes about "bad dates," specific men who beat up women.
There is a man out there about 5 feet 6 inches tall, about 55 years old, with short gray hair. He met a prostitute in the "Pat Hotel bar." He took her to an alley, paid $10 to touch her. But when she tried to leave, he started hitting her face and chest. Then he took his money back and threatened to kill her if he saw her again.
There is another man about 5 feet 10 inches tall, 200 pounds, with long red hair and thick, black-frame glasses. He was wearing a green-and-black plaid jacket when he picked up a prostitute and offered her some crack. "He then said he was going to have to kill her," according to the sheet. "He began to suffocate her, when someone came along and chased him away."
Mearns said there are hundreds of predators. Some come in family sedans with baby seats in the back. The women are told whom to look out for, but there is no foolproof method for staying safe. "It upsets the women, but it really hasn't changed much," Mearns said. "The drugs take over and the fear isn't as great."
Dee Cyre, 26, was standing in the rain on the corner of Princess and Cardova. Underneath a candy-green umbrella, her black stockings were ripped. There were scars on her legs where cigarettes had been extinguished. She pressed her knees together, shifted her weight, feeling the cramps of a heroin craving. She stood there waiting for another customer to help feed her $150-a-day habit.
She knew about the missing women, but she stood there anyway. She called it an occupational hazard. "I've been on a couple of really scary bad dates," she said. "They use guns and knives. It's a pretty tough life out there." Her black mascara ran in the rain.
One of her bad dates was in his mid-forties. He had short hair and was clean-cut, but during an encounter in his car he revealed a bad temper. "He had a cell phone and his wife kept calling, asking when he would be home. He kept telling her 10 minutes. And he was sitting with me," Cyre said.
When he hung up, Cyre said, he started hitting her. She grabbed the gearshift, threw the car into park and opened the door. "The next night, they found a girl dead in the same area," Cyre said. "I figure that was him. I was lucky it wasn't me, but it could be next time. Every time you get in a car you are playing roulette. You never know if that is going to be someone that got those other girls."
A car stopped, an old Plymouth. Cyre got in before telling the end of her story.
Katherine Essex looked like a worried single mother standing on the corner. Her hands were in the pocket of her polyester-lined coat. She wore jeans and brown shoes. She and the other street workers down here don't dress up in tights and leopard skin. They are plain. They are the kind of women rejected by escort services and strip joints, a taxi driver says.
Essex said she commutes to this job from the suburb of Barnaby. She has two girls, 5 and 7. They live with her mother. This is the best work she can find. Essex said she knows about the missing women. She has had her own bad dates. "I ended up with one of the guys. He took me out and put a hood over my head and started strangling me," Essex said. "I pleaded with him and told him I had kids. He had taken me out before and he just let me go."
Now, she said, she only gets in cars with men she has been out with before. Better to get hit by a man she knows than one she doesn't, she said.
Ann Bravo stood down the street. Her mouth runs a mile a minute. She said all the women are petrified. Women are disappearing. A friend went to look for a friend and there was no sign of her. "She didn't open her Christmas presents and she didn't open her welfare check," Bravo said.
"Nobody cares," she continued. "Nobody does anything about it. Is this just one guy? Can one guy do such a horrible massacre?"
Her mouth moved fast. She kept turning, looking for customers. "These women were women just like us, except they are not as smart because they are dead."
It was still raining in Vancouver, a consistent rain. The streets were getting washed. One of the posters of the missing women slipped from the building upon which it was pasted. Inside her office, Mearns hung up a revised list of the bad dates next to the poster of 49 missing women.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company