Relatives Await Word on Vancouver's Missing Women
For a few hours on March 11, Sereena Abotsway's life mattered more than the sad mystery of her murder. Her foster parents, Anna and Bert Draayers, her extended family of foster- and half-siblings, friends and fellow travellers gathered at Vancouver's Holy Rosary Cathedral for a poignant memorial service that said as much about the society she tried to live in as it did about the woman herself.
In life, Abotsway, a 29-year-old, drug-addicted prostitute, existed on the largely invisible fringe. She worked Canada's deadliest red-light district - the part of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside known as the Low Track. It took her murder to bring her some notice. In death, she's part of one of the largest criminal investigations in British Columbia history: the disappearance of at least 50 women, most of them addicts, from the bleak district. The cases date back to 1983, but the majority of the women have vanished since 1995.
A joint RCMP-Vancouver police task force was formed last year to investigate the disappearances. It was boosted to 30 members late last year, and has since been expanded to 85. While the investigation has several fronts, the primary focus for more than a month has been a junk-strewn pig farm in suburban Port Coquitlam, 35 km from Vancouver. Robert William Pickton, an owner of the farm, was charged on Feb. 22 with two counts of first-degree MURDER in the deaths of Abotsway, who vanished last summer, and Mona Wilson, 26, who disappeared last November. Police won't say what led to the charges, but the spectre of a suburban killing field has drawn international attention. The disappearances, as one British newspaper put it, are "Vancouver's dirty secret."
Many of the women's families agree. Most feel an earlier missing persons investigation by the Vancouver police was half-hearted and understaffed. But calls for a public inquiry have been rebuffed as premature by Vancouver Mayor Phillip Owen. The women were street-level prostitutes, and many had mental health problems. A significant number were, as Abotsway was, of aboriginal descent. Many were transient and estranged from their families, leaving them vulnerable, and - from a police standpoint - difficult to trace.
Above all, says Deborah Jardine, whose daughter Angela was one of nine women who disappeared in 1998, Vancouver seemed determined to protect its image. Racism and the low social status of the women made it easier to ignore the disappearances, she notes. "I would imagine delegating funds toward locating missing prostitutes was not high on the agenda," says Jardine, who lives in the East Kootenay region. "I'm sure if these women were from any other part of Vancouver we would never have seen such incompetence or secrecy."
It was only last year, as the disappearances continued at an alarming rate, that the Missing Women Task Force was created. Police have moved quickly since then on the investigative front, and to repair relations with family members. Task force officers met on March 10 with about 80 relatives to brief them on the investigation and to ask for their assistance in identifying shoes, clothing and jewellery assembled from unnamed locations. It was emotional, concedes Vancouver police spokesman Det. Scott Driemel, who says he is "cautiously optimistic" the exercise advanced the investigation.
For the Draayers, the glare of publicity brought a welcome chance to educate. They allowed the media to attend Abotsway's memorial, determined that her story would no longer be ignored. The Draayers spoke lovingly of a four-year-old already scarred by physical and sexual abuse when they took her in as a foster child. "Sereena did not choose to live the life she did," her half-brother Jay said in an emotional eulogy. "Circumstances chose it for her."
She left home at 17, spending much of the rest of her life on the street. Yet she was fiercely protective of the brood of foster children raised by the Draayers. She phoned the family daily and attended church regularly, singing hymns loudly, if off-key. Last year, she wrote a short, sad poem about Vancouver's missing women, some of whom she knew and worked alongside, among the predators on the Eastside. They vanished one by one, and Abotsway had no illusions about their probable fate. "You all were part of God's plan," she wrote. "He probably took most of you home/But He left us with a very empty spot." Knowing the danger didn't loosen the grip of her addiction, which she continued to fund by working the streets. "In memories of my sisters" was published last June in a pamphlet of poetry written by sex-trade workers. By August, Abotsway, too, had vanished.
Even now, the Draayers don't know the circumstances of her death. "All the information that we have is that they found definite evidence," Bert says, his voice shaking. "DNA evidence that Sereena and Mona are not any more."
The Draayers gave copies of Sereena's poem to many of the 200 people who attended her memorial. They took some comfort that her life mattered to so many. "It shows," Bert says, "that there's still some love around."
The pig farm on Dominion Avenue is shrouded in a grey curtain of rain. The muddy 11-ha site is sealed off by new chain-link fencing and yellow crime-scene tape. A police car idles at the entrance gate. If there is forensic activity today, it occurs out of sight, in the tired yellow farmhouse, in the barn, which has been emptied of animals, or far from the street in a scruffy trailer, almost hidden by heavy equipment, junk and piles of fill.
Suburbia creeps close. Across the road is the back wall of a Home Depot. New homes are under construction on the farm's fringe. The Pickton family - Robert, the accused, and his brother David - sold part of the original 22-ha site for development in the 1990s. That area is now covered by single-family homes, condominiums, a park and an elementary school. But even the remaining farm is an investigative nightmare. Much of the land is buried under thousands of truckloads of fill, piled as high as 10m above street level.
As well as the farm, the Pickton brothers run several other businesses from the site and from other properties in the region, including a home demolition and building supply business. They've also contravened local zoning laws by operating Piggy's Palace, a party hall, at a nearby property - a rumoured magnet for prostitutes and motorcycle gangs.
Robert Pickton was charged with attempted murder in 1997 after a prostitute was found close to death on a nearby roadside, bleeding from multiple stab wounds. The charges were stayed in 1998, though the reason has not been made public. Now, the entrance to his farm is an impromptu shrine of flowers, notes and photographs of missing women. "Forever Young. Forever Missed," reads a dedication to Catherine Gonzalez, who went missing in 1995. "I am so sorry!" reads an anonymous note to Diana Melnick, who also vanished in 1995. "There are so many if onlys!"
Many of the same names are on a poster of the missing women taped to the door of WISH (the Women's Information and Safe House), a haven for sex-trade workers located in a Vancouver eastside church. There are no photos of three of the women, not even police mug shots. It's as though they passed through life without leaving footprints.
WISH workers serve a hot meal six nights a week to many of the women working the Low Track. They hold safety seminars and run literacy programs, they sponsor health clinics and sometimes a "Beauty Night" to repair the ravages of street life. The women arrive nightly with tales of thefts, beatings and rapes. The information is passed to the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society, which distributes a "Bad Date List," describing violent johns and vehicles to be avoided.
A hundred women or more will seek refuge at WISH during a single night. The room is full of thrift-store couches and overstuffed chairs, and many visitors will catch a few hours sleep in the sanctuary. The hardest part of the job, says WISH executive director Karen Duddy, comes at 10 p.m. when the centre closes. The women are roused and sent back to the street. "Keep yourself safe," is Duddy's message. "That's all I can say. I mean, what else can I say?"
It is a quiet Tuesday morning and D'Arcy Good, 32, is on the Low Track, flashing a smile at the few cars cruising Jackson Avenue. She's worked the Vancouver stroll for two years, long enough to see the missing women's list jump to 50 from 27. "They're dropping like flies," she says, "at the hands of people taking full advantage of their situation." Her eyes are a startling clear blue, but heroin has mottled her skin and ravaged her blond good looks. Her habit costs her $100 a day, but it's a slow morning. Over a coffee and a plate of French toast at a local café, she has time to talk.
She is articulate, congenial and convinced she's controlling the risk she faces daily. Good considers herself lucky by the standards of the street: loving family; prosperous Toronto home; no childhood history of abuse; a year's study at York University. But there's also a heroin addiction, developed four years ago in Toronto. "I never thought I could do something like this," she says. "You know, never say never."
She signed over custody of her two children, now eight and 11, to her mother, and fled to Vancouver. "I had to put distance between the people I loved and this addiction," she says. "I had access to stealing money from my family, and I would have in desperate times. I couldn't live that way, you know?" Sometimes she is scared, she admits. Her friend, Patricia Johnson, also a mother of two, vanished a year ago. It was months before she was added to the list. "They could be anywhere," says Good, who didn't notice for a month that her friend was gone. "First you check the hospitals, the jails, the detoxes - and then you worry."
She has rules for keeping safe. She won't jump into a car until she's taken a measure of the john. "We're very clear on what the arrangement is before I even get into the car," she says. "That's very important, that you make clear what you're willing to do and for how much." She doesn't rip off personal effects or extort extra fees as some women do, she says. Above all, she trusts her radar. She once turned down, for that reason, an invitation to the pig farm, which had a reputation, she says, for drawing working girls to drug-filled parties. "I didn't want to go out that far. I got a bit of a funny vibe, and I really trust my instincts." Instincts and, she concedes, "also luck."
Good talks gamely of cleaning up and leaving Vancouver behind. "It's just so scary," she says, "life without heroin." She drains her coffee, offers a demure handshake and heads out the door. "Be safe" is such a lame goodbye, but she smiles regardless. Really, though - what else can you say?
Maclean's March 25, 2002