VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Have you seen these women?
Courtesy of Vancouver Magazine
Downtown Eastside women keep vanishing. Here, the latest developments, theories and rumours in this controversial case—and an interview with a man who stalked the neighbourhood
Kim Point was obsessed with serial killers long before her fellow prostitutes began vanishing from the Downtown Eastside. "I’ve read almost every book on every serial murderer out there," she says. "They fascinate me: Bundy, Gacy, Dahmer, the Hillside Strangler—Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, his cousin." On this cloudy Sunday afternoon, Point sits at a booth in the Ovaltine Café on East Hastings Street, sipping a Pepsi. She’s dressed for work, in a black coat with a faux-fur collar, a miniskirt, chunky-soled black shoes and Frosty Peach lipstick.
Now 31, Point has survived on the streets since she was 13. Part Musqueam
Indian, she has high cheekbones, brown eyes and shoulder-length black hair. She’s
beautiful and resilient. Point walks with a slight limp and sports a
nasty-looking scar on her right shin, both unpleasant reminders of the time her
then-boyfriend tossed her out the window
Point makes each night feeds her drug addiction—she uses "up" (coke) and "down" (heroin). Like most working girls of the Downtown Eastside, she has no fixed address. Point tells me her fascination with serial killers was first piqued after watching Mark Harmon play Ted Bundy in the 1986 made-for-TV drama The Deliberate Stranger. From all her reading she knows serial killers prey mostly on prostitutes, but she seems indifferent to the possibility that tonight, when she’s working her regular corner near Oppenheimer Park, she might well become the next victim.
Since the mid-1980s, some 31 Vancouver prostitutes and drug addicts have mysteriously vanished, most of them from a shadowy prostitution stroll in the Downtown Eastside that sex workers call Low Track. The Vancouver Police Department has no bodies and no clues, no crime scenes and no witnesses, and repeatedly downplays suggestions that a serial killer might be on the prowl.
I first met Kim Point in May, just weeks after the names of three more women—Debra Lynne Jones, Dawn Teresa Crey and Brenda Ann Wolfe—had been unofficially added to the list. Point knows most of the faces on the 1999 CrimeStoppers poster (the last such one issued by police) offering a reward for information on the disappearances. She was particularly close to Sarah Jean deVries—"Black Sarah," as she was known down here—who was last seen in April 1998. Another friend, Andrea Fay Borhaven, reported missing in May 1999, is also on the poster. Although Point doesn’t pay much attention to the news, she’s well aware of the latest developments. "When a girl disappears it’s talked about," she says, lighting a smoke.
As the list of missing women continues to grow, so do the rumours and theories, fuelled by incidents such as the August 3 sexual assault on a woman at the Regent Hotel; the victim says her assailant claimed he has attacked and killed other Downtown Eastside women. While serial murder is a favourite explanation for the disappearances, there are other, even more sensational, theories—such as prostitutes being taken aboard the picturesque merchant ships that dot the horizon of Burrard Inlet, where they are drugged and taken out to sea as sex slaves.
The police haven’t ignored the problem. This April, the Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP announced the formation of a new task force, made up of two detectives from each agency, to review the files of the missing sex workers. VPD spokesperson Scott Driemel tells Vancouver magazine that the detectives involved are declining media interviews until all files have been reviewed. At press time, there was no estimated completion date.
Still, despite a growing public outcry, the VPD remains reluctant to concede that a serial killer is responsible. "As far as our official response goes, it’s not something that we would ever rule out," Driemel says. "However, there is no substantive evidence for us to conclude, at this point, that that is in fact the case. We have no bodies, we have no witnesses, we have no forensic evidence—we don’t even know exactly when these people went missing."
If this sounds like a reasonable argument, it doesn’t sit well with some of
the police department’s critics. As long ago as 1993, Jamie Lee Hamilton, a
long-time Downtown Eastside resident and an outspoken prostitute advocate,
approached police with concerns that a serial killer was on the loose.
"They were in denial and completely indifferent, in my opinion,"
Hamilton says. She believes that if the missing women were Kitsilano
By the time the Vancouver Police set up its original nine-member task force in September 1998, 20 women had already disappeared from the Downtown Eastside since 1986. In April 1999, with local activists and media ratcheting up the pressure, the city and the B.C. Attorney General’s office offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the person or persons responsible for any of the disappearances.
Later that year, the story garnered more media attention when it was featured on America’s Most Wanted. The television show produced a slew of tips—including one about a mysterious brown van—but none turned out to be solid leads. Between 1998 and 2001, the task force located four of the 31 women who appeared on the reward poster; two had died (one of natural causes and the other of a drug overdose), and two had left prostitution behind. (During the same time period, however, four more Downtown Eastside women went missing.) With results so scant, the VPD had scaled back its efforts by April 2000, leaving the mystery in obscurity.
This June, the missing women again became front-page news. Thanks to a shocking revelation during former detective inspector Kim Rossmo’s wrongful dismissal suit against the VPD, the department came under fire for its handling of the case. The veteran cop told the B.C. Supreme Court that back in 1998, he’d urged his colleagues to issue a public warning that a serial killer could be at work in the Downtown Eastside. "It’s about being honest with the public. At least other potential victims could have made better informed choices," he tells Vancouver magazine. Instead, the department sent out a press release saying it didn’t believe a serial killer was responsible for the disappearances. "Cops kept mum on serial killer," a typical newspaper headline scathed. "I guess…that the problem still exists," VPD sergeant Geramy Field admitted to the Vancouver Sun in April. "For a while there—for the majority of 1999—we felt that we didn’t have any [more women going missing] and that either somebody was in custody or the perpetrator had died or moved on."
While parents and relatives of those missing blamed the Vancouver police for not warning the public about the possibility of a prostitute-killer being loose, Kim Point figures most women on the street would be aware of the risk. "I’d already come to my own conclusions," she says. "I think that it’s two guys working together, like the Hillside Strangler." In any case, Point suggests that an official police warning would have likely caused mass hysteria. "It would have scared everybody, not just working women but all women."
Like many of those living and working in Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood,
Kim Rossmo strongly suspects that a serial killer is responsible for the
disappearances of Downtown Eastside prostitutes. Rossmo, a sturdy-looking
ex-beat cop, is now director of
While patrolling the streets of the Downtown Eastside in the 1980s and ’90s, Rossmo earned a Ph.D. in criminology at Simon Fraser University, on the strength of his doctoral thesis, "Geographic Profiling: Target Patterns of Serial Murderers." During his years at SFU, Rossmo developed a software program that produces a geographic profile of serial offenders by analyzing crime locations to determine the criminal’s most likely place of residence.
Rossmo tested his program’s accuracy on a series of solved cases—including
the one against Clifford Robert Olson, B.C.’s most notorious serial killer.
(In case you’ve forgotten, Olson, who was arrested in 1981 after picking up
two female hitchhikers on Vancouver Island, confessed to killing 11 young boys
and girls.) Using crime-scene
From 1993 to 1995, Rossmo taught an SFU undergraduate course called Phenomenon of Serial Murder; serial killers, he told his classes, often victimize prostitutes because they represent the society’s most vulnerable members—and what more fruitful place to stalk them than the Downtown Eastside? "Whenever you see something happening to prostitutes, you want to raise the issue: Is there a predator out there?" says Rossmo. "If you were that type of predator, what you have to do is really easy. You drive up, the woman voluntarily gets in your car—it’s a neighbourhood where everyone is minding their own business—and then you drive off to some dark area."
In the summer of 1998, Rossmo, then a detective inspector with the VPD’s profiling unit, was asked to investigate the disappearing women by Gary Greer, inspector of Police District 2 at the time, and then-staff sergeant Doug MacKay-Dunn. With no crime scenes to mine for data, Rossmo decided to analyze the numbers. Rossmo claims other members of the police department disagreed over whether the disappearing-women phenomenon really amounted to anything—prostitutes are transient by nature, many of them use aliases, and they often prefer to leave the profession without a trace, skeptics argued. "Look, these women are missing, but we’re going to find them over time," he remembers a Major Crime inspector saying then. But their time is likely up. Using missing-persons data, Rossmo built a statistical model, discovering that the vast majority of missing people are found alive within two months. Given the large number of missing women in this case and the amount of time that had passed, Rossmo determined that only two more would ever be found alive.
What of the others? The Downtown Eastside scenario was way beyond the norm for disappearances in other urban areas, including other "skid rows." Something had to be going on. "The simplest explanation is that there was a predator or serial killer out there," Rossmo explains. Based on his analysis, he discounts media and police theories that there are a number of murderers at work. "It’s not unknown for more than one offender to be operating in the same area…but it’s certainly not as likely as one—one is rare enough," he says. "If it’s a bunch of different people, why are we not finding bodies?" Typically, panicking murderers abandon or hurriedly dump bodies; finding no remains at all suggests they must be carefully hidden by a single, methodical criminal.
Updated: September 16, 2014