VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
A sister lost to drugs, prostitution — and maybe a serial killer
By Emanuella Grinberg
October 15, 2004
Sarah de Vries was not even a teenager when she began running away from her home in an affluent Vancouver suburb to hang out in the rougher Downtown Eastside.
Sarah de Vries disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in 1998, along with many other women.
Sarah had been adopted into the de Vries family in 1970, the youngest of four children. A multiracial child in a white family, Sarah was obviously different, and she was never able to fully reconcile that, according to her older sister, Maggie.
"As a black and aboriginal child in a white neighborhood, people didn't understand where she fit in. She didn't understand where she fit in," said Maggie. "When she started running away, going downtown, I think she felt a sense of belonging there with all these other people who didn't fit in either."
As the years went on, Sarah made the Downtown Eastside her home, adopting a lifestyle of drugs and prostitution, but she never let much time pass before she would return home to visit.
"We became desperate when she was gone. We didn't understand why she was gone or how to find her. But at the same time, we felt connected to her, because we did continue to see her," Maggie said.
When Sarah gave birth to a daughter in 1991 and a son in 1996 — both of whom inherited heroin and cocaine addictions from their mother — she and her family decided the children were better off living with her mother, Pat, and her aunt, children's author Jean Little.
During those years, she kept extensive journals and wrote poetry, which her family didn't even know about until almost 20 years later.
"Sarah was tired of the drugs, tired of the johns, but she was addicted to the lifestyle," said Wayne Leng, a former john who later befriended Sarah. "She wanted to get out, but she couldn't."
Before she could leave the low track behind, she mysteriously disappeared in 1998.
Maggie de Vries compiled a book about her adopted sister, who may have been the victim of a serial killer.
Maggie de Vries and Leng took to the streets, posting fliers and talking to people who knew Sarah. "Everyone remembered Sarah very fondly, but they were all concerned because they knew if she hadn't been around the neighborhood for a week, something was wrong," Leng said.
They soon came to realize Sarah wasn't the only one to have disappeared from the neighborhood.
Families and friends of other missing women began to take their concerns to police, to little avail. At best, said de Vries, they were successful in lobbying for a reward for information about the women.
"At the time, the police were offering $10,000 rewards for information leading to garage robbers, so it seemed incongruous that they refused to acknowledge there might be violence involved with these missing women," said de Vries.
One year later, Maggie organized a public memorial to acknowledge a growing, troublesome phenomenon.
"There's no ritual associated with people who go missing, so the memorial was an important symbol for a situation that was being all but ignored," she said. "Then, at the memorial, I talked with more families and began to see some commonalities."
In 2002, "all hell broke loose," she said.
A joint federal and local review team was convened in late 2001 to look over the reports of missing women. By 2002, the team had become a task force with a primary target, and in February, descended upon a 14-acre pig farm outside of Vancouver.
The resulting 21-month search on the farm would become the largest crime scene investigation in Canadian history.
DNA samples belonging to a number of missing women, including Sarah, were identified on the farm. By the end of the year, the property's owner, Robert William Pickton, faced 15 first-degree murder charges.
Seven additional charges, including one based on the discovery of Sarah's DNA, are pending.
"The discovery was positive in a way. I could finally stop imagining the thousands upon thousands of things that might have happened to her," said de Vries. "But it still didn't provide any real answers."
In the aftermath of the news, Maggie would find out that during the years Sarah was in and out of the family's suburban home, she had written her older sister letters that she never sent.
She also discovered her sister's poetry and journals, and brought them all together in a book, "Missing Sarah," which she describes as a memorial. It includes letters such as this one:
How are you? I am fine.
I heard that I will be staying with you while Dad is in Holland. I have a humanities exam on metaphors and alliteration, Mennonites, Chinese, Japanese, Doukhobors, narrative, descriptive, expository writing, fragments and run-ons, spelling rules, consonants with prefixes and suffixes, migration, immigrants, immigration, writing a news story with a lead sentence. I pray I pass. I can't wait till you come out here. I have Cecil for French. He is really nice. I don't really like Marcie, James or Lynda. I don't really know why I hate them, but I do. I went to see Tootsie. It is really funny and he really looks like a lady. In science we had to dissect a cow's eye. It was interesting, yet gross. At U-Hill everybody tries to be like a Valley girl. I myself hate it. It sounds so funny, but like the song. "Valley Girl." Liz, Christine and I were talking and we started saying, "Freak me with a spoon" and "Gag me green." It is supposed to be "Gag me with a spoon" and "Freak me green."
The 2003 book was nominated for Canada's top literary prize, the Governor General's Award.
While de Vries describes the book as therapy for herself and her family in the wake of Sarah's presumed death and the media blitz surrounding Pickton's upcoming trial, the book has a more important mission: It addresses society's broader attitude toward sex workers.
"Prostitutes are a group that it is still okay to denigrate in common language," she said. "It's not all right to make fun of black people, or gay people, but the way we continue to talk about these women sends a message to those predisposed to violence that it's OK to brutalize them, or that it's part of their job to get hurt. We can't forget that they are people, just like us."
[Excerpt from "Missing Sarah" by Maggie de Vries. Copyright Maggie de Vries, 2003. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Group (Canada).]
Updated: August 21, 2016