KILLERS ON THE LOOSE
KILLERS ON THE LOOSE
Image by Renegade98
From the book Killers On The Loose,
by: Antonio Mendoza
29 Sex-Trade Workers Missing in Vancouver
Though they have no corpses or hard evidence to back their claims, prostitutes and social workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside suspect a serial killer is responsible for the disappearance of more than 29 local sex-trade workers. Police are less certain. "We have no crime scenes, we have no bodies… It’s very frustrating." Vancouver police spokeswoman Constable Anne Drennan told the press. "It’s one of the most difficult files we’ve ever worked because of the lack of clear evidence."
Patricia Gay Perkins was the first to disappear in 1978, but she was not reported missing until 1996. Six more women vanished between 1978 and 1995. The pace picked up in 1995 with three new disappearances; three more in 1996; six in 1998; and eight more in 1997. As of this writing, two prostitutes have been reported missing in 1999. The victims range in age from 19 to 46. Most are described on missing-persons posters as known drug users and prostitutes frequenting Vancouver’s ravished Downtown Eastside.
The missing women reportedly sold sex to feed their intravenous cocaine and/or heroin habits. Some had HIV, hepatitis or both. They all left behind their belongings, bank accounts, children in foster care, welfare checks. "You’re talking about women on welfare who didn’t pick up their last welfare check, who left their belongings in a dingy hotel room." said Constable Drennan. "It’s not as though they could just jump on a plane and fly to Toronto."
One missing woman, Angela Jardine, disappeared in her bright pink formal gown, leaving in her dingy hotel room an eerie reminder of her possible untimely death — an unmailed Easter card addressed to her parents saying: "Know how much I love you, Mother and Dad? A whole bunch!" Stephanie Lane disappeared leaving behind a child with her mother and an uncashed welfare check. Though having into a life of prostitution and drugs, Lane kept in contact with her mom, always calling her for birthdays and holidays. It’s been three years since she last heard from her.
The issue of the missing women was brought to national prominence in March, 1999 when Jamie Lee Hamilton, a transsexual and former prostitute now director of a drop-in center for sex-trade workers, called a news conference to bring the disappearances to public attention. At the news conference Hamilton and others were highly critical of the police’s lackadaisical attitude towards the missing prostitutes.
At first, friends and relatives of the missing blamed authorities for ignoring the situation. Some families, disenchanted by the police investigation, have hired detective agencies to look into the situation. Six months after repeated protest marches and memorial services for the missing women, local authorities have changed their tune and stepped up their investigative efforts. "You can always say somebody is not doing enough," Drennan said. "We are doing everything literally we can think of that we can do. We’re not afraid to acknowledge there could be a serial killer or multiple killers."
Though during a phone conversation on December 8, 1999 Constable Drennan said emphatically that nothing pointed towards a serial killer being involved: "Nothing at all suggest the existence of a serial killer." When asked for an interview for this book, Constable Drennan said the situation in Vancouver was "not suited for a book on serial killers considering there is no evidence or bodies."
The women on the streets and those closest to them disagree with the Constable’s opinion. "The women here don’t talk about it very much because they’re so scared," said Elaine Allan, executive director of the Women’s Information Safe House, a drop-in center for sex trade workers. Surprised by the Constable’s position, Allan remarked on the fact that no missing women have been reported since the case was featured on America’s Most Wanted. Some women believe its a border-hopper, perhaps even infamous Green River Killer, coming from the United States to satisfy his murderous fantasies. Some think it is a snuff film ring, or a lethal merchant marine crew kidnapping the women and murdering them at sea. Others, according to Allan, try not to think. The alternatives are to grim.
Using the mass publicity of prime time television on both sides of the border, investigators featured the case in the crime-busting TV program America’s Most Wanted. The show aired July 31, 1999, fanfaring the $ 100,000 reward. It prompted over 100 calls to the program’s Washington headquarters. "Only 20 were thought to be useful; the task force is investigating them," said Drennan. Reaching investigative overdrive, the Ministry of the Attorney General and the Vancouver Police Board Authorized a $ 100,000 reward for information leading to the resolution of the case. Adding to the effort one of Vancouver’s largest private detective agencies, CPA Confidence Group, offered four of their "cadaver" dogs to search selected areas, looking for decomposing human remains. There was even an attempt spearheaded by local business leaders to give cell phones to prostitutes with 911 on the speed dial. The idea was quickly dismissed because of fears that the sex-trade workers would use their new toys to conduct their age-old business.
Police say that Vancouver, being flanked by the sea and mountains, is the perfect spot for stashing bodies out of sight. "The possible grave sites are endless," Drennan said. "If there is a predator out there, he may have a common grave site. But finding that is so difficult." Though a more plausible explanation would be a person, like Chicago killer John Wayne Gacy, stashing the bodies in a basement, or someone dumping them in the open sea. "I think it’s a combination." said Elaine Allen. "There’s so many women missing it’s almost ridiculous to think its one person doing it"
John Lowman, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, believes a combination of several factors could explain the mystery. Since 1985, at least 60 prostitutes in British Columbia have been killed by johns, drug dealers and pimps. "It suggests that these missing women may well have met the same fate," Lowman said. It is not unusual for women who sell sex in the street and are addicted to drugs to disappear. They check in for rehab. They leave the streets. They move to another city. They overdose. They commit suicide. They are committed to hospitals. In the past, police say, women reported missing usually reappear within a year or two, dead or alive. "All of sudden that wasn’t happening anymore," Drennan said. "They just stayed missing. That’s what became most frightening." And though all circumstantial evidence indicates foul play, investigators cannot confirm that any of the disappearances are even related.
Police have sent missing-persons reports to psychiatric hospitals, morgues and welfare offices across Canada and the United States. Of the original 31 women reported missing, only two of them were located, both dead. One, Karen Anne Smith, died February 13, 1999 from heart problems related to Hepatitis C in an Edmonton hospital. She was last seen on the streets of Vancouver in 1994. The other, Linda Jean Coombes, died of a heroin overdose in an east Vancouver bowling alley February 15, 1994.
To keep track of the prostitutes two law enforcement agencies have asked them to record personal data on registries that would give police clues if they were to disappear. The registries — which have been signed by 60 prostitutes — include questions about previous bad dates, stalkers, or anything or anyone they were concerned about? It also records who would most likely know if they were missing. The prostitutes are also taking self-defense lessons and have been given special codes and asked to call in occasionally to let authorities know they are still alive. "A lot of them are being more cautious now, working by day or with somebody else," said Deb Mearns, who coordinates safety programs for the prostitutes.
Using a new vice squad computer program, the Deter and Identify Sextrade Consumers (DISC) database, investigators hope to identify more suspects. The program allows officers to index every piece of information they gather about johns, pimps and prostitutes into a searchable database. The information includes regulars in the red-light districts, their nicknames, physical and vehicular descriptions, and even states if they have a specific perversions or tattoo.
Deputy Police Chief Gary Greer, former district commander for the Downtown Eastside, said he believes the street women make the perfect target for a serial killer. They readily get into cars with strangers, not many people notice their disappearance, and fewer still would report them missing. "With a prostitute who goes by a street name, who’s picked up by a john, and then another john, whose intention is to be unseen, to be anonymous – for a predator, that’s perfect," Greer said.
Constable Dave Dickson, a 20-year Downtown Eastside veteran who was the first policeman to notice the disappearances, believes prostitutes still working the streets are upset by the mystery, but not enough to change their ways. "If they’re heavily addicted and need money, they’re probably going to jump in the car with a guy no matter what anyone tells them… They come from such horrible backgrounds, they’ve been sexually abused their whole lives. They’re not afraid of anything."
The Downtown Eastside Youth Activity Society (DEYAS) has compiled a list of bad johns from information obtained from task force, social workers and sex-trade workers, which they distribute every week to prostitutes and police . The list — called the Creep List — already has 50 potential suspects. "There are a lot of bad dates out there," Dickson said. "Where do you start when you’ve got a thousand guys capable of doing something like this? Some of them don’t come down here for sex. They come down to beat on the girls."
Allen says the streets around the Downtown Eastside are dark and isolated, making the women "vulnerable to men who want to get off being violent. They might not be serial killers, but they are still very dangerous customers." At the WISH Drop-In Center, Allen says all the women she sees, "have been beaten up by creeps and face it every night when they go out."
Like the victims in the serial killer cases in Spokane and Chicago, the women disappearing in Vancouver come from the most vulnerable and damaged segment of society. "More than 90 percent of them were abused as kids. A smaller percentage started doing drugs, got into the life and couldn’t get out." Allen believes all her clients are suffering from some sort of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a disorder more commonly associated with battle-shocked veterans and torture survivors.
"Incest abuse victims, if they were in treatment with a psychiatrist, would be getting anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication, sleeping pills, but these women who are not in treatment. They self-medicate. That’s what the heroin is all about. that’s why we’re here. That’s why all these women are here."
Vancouver police have been talking to officers in Spokane and Portland, comparing notes about their recent cases of cluster killings. But with no crime scenes, corpses or any other tangible evidence, Vancouver authorities have little notes to compare. Local officers have also spoken to King County detective Tom Jenson who is the only investigator left working on the Green River Killer case. Being just 117 miles north of Seattle, there is the possibility that a serial killer could be simultaneously working on both sides of the border.
Authorities have also sought advice from Detective Lt. William Siegrist, of Poughkeepsie, New York who investigated the case of Kendall Francois. In 1998 Francois was arrested for serial killing eight prostitutes over a two-year period. Francois stashed the bodies of his victims in his family’s home. In both the Vancouver and Poughkeepsie cases, prostitutes with close ties to the community who were in contact with their families on a regular basis vanished without a trace. In the Poughkeepsie cases Siegrist reported that Francois had sex with more than 50 prostitutes and was well-known on the street. Francois also had a history of committing acts of violence against the women.
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside — which is steps away from the city’s trendy Hastings Street — is a neighborhood of junkies, pawn shops, saloons and run-down rooming houses. It’s known worldwide for its high HIV rate. It is estimated that more than a quarter of the local junkies and 80 percent of Eastside prostitutes have tested positive for HIV. The local needle-exchange center at the DEYAS hand out about 2.4 million needles a year, more than any other center in North America.
Due partly to Vancouver’s mild winters, the area is a magnet for runaways, drifters, impoverished Indians and mentally ill people, many of whom end up living in the streets doing drugs and turning tricks. Whereas in 1998 only 18 people were murdered in Vancouver, 193 died from overdoses of heroin, cocaine or illicitly bought methadone. "We don’t have a lot of success stories," said Allan, whose drop-in center is used by nearly every prostitute in the Downtown Eastside, especially the ones that are ravished by drugs.
Allan knew one of the women, Jacquilene McDonell, one of the last to go missing. "It was tragic," she recalls when she found out Jackie disappeared. "She was young, was articulate, she was nice, she was 21-years-old, had a son, was kind of tripping on her drugs, she was too good for this place." Like the others, Jackie’s existence on earth was surrounded by tragedy. "Their forearms are solidly scared with cigarette burns and deep cut marks," she says of the women she mothers at her center. "They’re signs of being extremely abused from a young age. They have to self-mutilate because the pain in their head is so bad, those are the one’s that are going missing."
"I really hope it is a serial killer," said the Rev. Ruth Wright of Vancouver’s First United Church, a community cornerstone for 114 years which houses the WISH drop-in center for sex-trade workers. The alternative, according to the reverend, "would mean there are 31 separate killers out there and that much evil would be too much." Wright, a veteran of the ravaged Downtown Eastside, has survived the neighborhood’s ballooning AIDS epidemic and the effects of a 1993 lethal batch of heroin that killed 300 junkies. However, this new scourge is what she finds most horrifying.
Allan believes the 29 missing prostitutes could have been killed at sea. Prostitutes are often lured onto ships at the Vancouver harbor with promises of free heroin and eager johns, but end up as sex-slaves in a heroin daze until they are thrown overboard. Authorities see this as a possibility. "Whether the boats could be involved is one of the possibilities we’re looking into," said police spokeswoman Anne Drennan. Allan knows, from conversations with prostitutes at the Safe House, that the ships play a pivotal role in their lives.
"Many of the women I’ve talked to have been on the boats," she said. "Many of these sex-trade workers are heavily into heroin addiction, desperate for their next fix. Also remember, something like 95 percent of all the heroin coming into Canada hits the shore first right here in Vancouver." Sailors make a large percentage of the prostitute’s clientele. Consequently, it’s not uncommon for them to go on a boat. Once onboard the women are kept captive as the ship’s sex-toy. Some escape, others, who knows.
Allen says that usually the younger women whose drug habits raging are out of control are the one’s that end up in the ships. "The lure of the drugs," she says, "the lure of being able to do more dates" gets the women to work the port. Many of those who go on the boats try to have someone "keep their six" — a street expression meaning watching their back. In a story related to Allan at the drop-in center, one woman was locked in a cabin in a Filipino freighter with a big block of heroin and was only let out after her friend "keeping her six" — a Russian sailor — threatened to go to the police with pictures of her getting on board.
"It would be very easy to hide someone on a boat," said Allan. "When you get to open sea and you’re on nightwatch it would be very easy to toss someone overboard." Women working the streets near the docks told the Calgary Sun they believe the sea slaughter is a feasible explanation for the disappearances. Dumped from freighters and international commercial ships far out in the Pacific Ocean, the bodies would forever vanish. Though, if several men were involved, one would eventually talk. Plausibly, it could be a foreign crew coming into town periodically.
On Portside Park, overlooking the harbor, a memorial stone dedicated to all the Downtown Eastside murder victims has been unofficially made into an altar in honor of the missing women. There Wayne Leng remembers with sadness his missing friend Sarah DeVries, a 29-year-old heroin-addicted prostitute who disappeared in 1998. Leng, a 50 year-old automotive technician , was the last person to see her alive. Consumed with finding her, Leng has done everything from plastering posters all over Vancouver’s red-light district to making a web site dedicated to the missing prostitutes.
Warm and friendly, the disappearance of Black Sarah, as she was known by everyone in Vancouver’s red light district, was a particularly hard blow for the Downtown Eastside. Unlike other victims, Sarah came from an upper middle class family who have put the time and energy to bring to attention the enfolding tragedy. DeVries’ sister Maggie, who has been openly critical about the authorities’ attitude, has put a grieving face to the endless cavalcade of unsolved cases. Together with Wayne Leng they have turned Black Sarah into the symbol for the missing .
DeVries, like the 28 other women, was a street junkie and prostitute. Like the others, she was shooting up to $ 1,000 worth of drugs a day in between tricks. She had HIV and hepatitis. Like the others she worked an area known as the Lower Track where $ 10 can buy oral sex. Some might even go cheaper, for a pack of cigarettes and a rock of cocaine.
But unlike the others, she came from an affluent family that got involved after she disappeared. DeVries had a restless mind that she revealed in a journal full of poems, thoughts and drawings. In a strange twist of fate, she appeared in a TV documentary where she appears talking to the camera and shooting-up. "When you need your next fix, you’re sick, puking, it’s like having the flu, a cold, arthritis, all at the same time, only multiplied a hundred times," she said to the camera. Sarah said there are only three ways off the streets. "You go to jail, you end up dead, or you do a life sentence here."
Here is one of her poems reflecting her tragic struggles with drugs and life on the streets.
Woman’s body found beaten beyond recognition.
You sip your coffee,
Taking a drag of your smoke,
Turning the page,
Taking a bite of your toast.
Just another day, just another death,
Just one more thing for you to forget,
You and your soft sheltered life,
Just go on and on,
For nobody special from your world is gone.
Just another Hastings Street whore
Sentenced to death.
No judge, no jury, no trial, no mercy.
The judge’s gavel already fallen,
Sentence already passed.