VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Investigation turns up startling new numbers
Police to announce expanded probe Women have history of drugs, prostitution and links to Downtown Eastside
The Vancouver Sun
Friday Sept 21, 2001
Crime; Special Report
Lori Culbert, Lindsay Kines and Kim Bolan
From the left: Serena Abotsway, Angela Arseneault, Georgina Papin,
If the cases are officially added to the list, the startling discovery would push the number of missing women involved in drugs and the sex trade close to 45.
And if the disappearances are the work of a serial killer -- something police acknowledge is a strong possibility -- it would put the crime spree in league with Washington's Green River killer, who murdered 49 prostitutes and was never caught.
The Sun has learned that a number of the new cases were reported to B.C. police agencies years ago, while other women were reported missing in recent months.
A joint forces team of 10 RCMP and Vancouver city police personnel is currently reviewing the cases to see if they fit the profile and should be added to the list of 31. The team, which was formed earlier this year, replaced a stalled Vancouver police department probe that began in 1998.
Police also revealed Thursday that they have decided to increase the size of the team to 16 -- including four more from the Vancouver police and two from the RCMP.
Vancouver police Chief Constable Terry Blythe said he will be making a special request to city council for more money to cover the cost of the additional officers for up to a four-year period.
Deputy Chief John Unger, who heads the department's investigation division, declined to say why the police agencies have decided to gear up the investigation now.
"Without revealing the investigative leads that we have, I can't really go into that," he said. "But I can say that we've made significant progress.
"What I can tell you is that we are looking at a number of other missing women. We cannot confirm at this time that we are going to add them to that list.
"We want to make absolutely sure, in each case, that they fit exactly the same profile."
But families and advocates for sex-trade workers are demanding to know why police are still examining old cases -- three years into the investigation.
Vancouver Island resident Erin McGrath has been asking Vancouver police for a year why her missing sister, Leigh Miner, has not been added to the list of women who have disappeared from the Downtown Eastside. McGrath is grateful police are now considering that step, but says she was never given a straight answer in the past.
McGrath believes a missing purebred dog would generate more concern than her sister's disappearance.
"People are so welcoming to pets, to dogs, but to the people who have these terrible problems that take their lives, we treat them like they are sub-human."
Miner, a heroin addict who was known to work as a prostitute, was reported missing by
her mother in the spring of 1994 after vanishing from the streets of Vancouver. But McGrath said her family never received any phone calls or updates from the missing person's unit.
"We tried to maintain some sort of relationship with the police ... but we felt like we were disturbing them," she said. "We didn't feel like we had the right to call and inquire. We didn't feel like we were being treated fairly, and we thought that we didn't really have a voice. So we just stopped calling after a while."
McGrath re-established contact with police about a year ago, but feels very little had been done over the last seven years to try to find Miner.
"They really didn't seem interested in my sister's case. When somebody lives a lifestyle like my sister, they really are looked down upon. It felt like she just didn't matter, and we didn't matter," she said. "We were marginalized because of my sister's addictions."
After McGrath's inquiries, the missing women's unit tracked down Miner's file on microfilm and is re-examining it.
Families and activists are also concerned about the number of detectives the Vancouver city police department has assigned to investigate the most recent disappearances.
Although the department has supplied officers for the joint forces project with the RCMP, those investigators have strictly being doing a file review of all prostitute murders, attempted murders and sexual assaults across the province to check for links to the missing women cases.
Senior officers with the team have said the 10-person team has no responsibility for the active investigation of new cases.
That work is still being handled by the local police agencies in the cities where the women were last seen. A significant number of the files are the responsibility of the Vancouver police department's missing persons section, which means there are just two detectives working the freshest leads in what is potentially the largest serial murder case in the city's history.
The detectives are also responsible for other missing persons cases in the city, and they occasionally fill in as coroner's liaison officers.
Asked if that was enough people to have working on the newest missing women files, Blythe said: "Probably, ideally, no, it isn't enough people."
But he said most other departments don't even have missing persons sections. And he said Vancouver has done the best it can with limited resources.
A confidential report obtained by The Vancouver Sun under B.C.'s Freedom of Information Act shows the department lost 42 officers due to budget cuts from 1993 to 2000 -- even as its workload increased by the equivalent of 89 jobs -- positions that were filled by pulling officers off the street. City council responded to the report by approving permanent funding for 50 officers, but the report says the department still needs at least 90 more people.
"The ideal would be to have so many [officers] we didn't know what to do with them all," Blythe said. "But that's not the case and it's never going to be the case. So you do the best with what you have.
"Right from the beginning, I think we've acted very responsibly and we've done as much as we could with the resources we had and with the information we had. The other thing that really annoys me is why we're taking the brunt of this. These are people that may have gone through Vancouver, but they were obviously from elsewhere in B.C. and other provinces.
"I mean this is not solely our investigation, and I don't think we need to be blamed for it."
Blythe refrained from criticizing another police agency, but the RCMP only became directly involved in the case earlier this year.
RCMP media relations Constable Danielle Efford said the Mounties formed the review team as soon as they were asked, arguing it was a file that fell under Vancouver's jurisdiction until that point.
Efford also declined to confirm how many names the review team is considering for addition to the list of missing women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
"There are a number of ... women who could be added to the list, however those ... still need to be thoroughly investigated ... to determine if those women do fit the profile ... or all efforts have been exhausted to locate them," she said. "This has become a massive undertaking."
The Vancouver Sun has learned that, at one point, police were looking at as many as 19 new names. But an investigation by the newspaper has determined that five of those women are no longer missing.
Of the remaining names, The Sun has determined that more than a dozen appear to fit the profile of the 31 already on the list: Women who are missing, have histories in prostitution and drug use, and links to the Downtown Eastside.
One case dates back to 1985, three are from the 1990s, and the rest from 2000 and 2001. About two-thirds are files that originated with police agencies outside Vancouver, while the rest are cases from the city.
Efford said the number of cases turned up by the review team could continue to grow, as the officers are looking for old files on missing and murdered women from across B.C. who could have links to the Downtown Eastside.
"To play the number game ... would be irresponsible," she said.
But families want the names of their missing daughters publicized as soon as possible. They argue that potential witnesses may have forgotten they saw the women by the time police get around to releasing their names and pictures.
Elaine Allan, who was coordinator at a drop-in centre for prostitutes in the Downtown Eastside until last April, remembers one case where the woman was missing and her pictures posted at the drop-in, but she was not officially added to the police list for a year.
"Girls will be missing and before they are officially deemed missing, it could be a year later," she said. "Any chance of getting quick leads is gone with that kind of delay."
Margaret Kennedy has been under the impression for about a year that Vancouver police would be including her daughter, Angela Arseneault, on the list.
Kennedy is frustrated by delays in the investigation, and says she feels the RCMP in Burnaby -- to whom she made the initial missing person report seven years ago when she lived in that city -- dismissed her daughter as a teenage runaway.
"I can't believe the way the whole thing was handled right from the beginning," she said from her new home in Edmonton. "They just didn't seem to care. I can't believe that she wasn't already on that list."
Kennedy admits her daughter, who disappeared in 1994 when she was 17, was experimenting with drugs and prostitution in the Downtown Eastside. But she says it was out of character for her to vanish without contacting her family.
Angela's grandmother, Pat Arseneault, said police have provided the family with little information over the years.
"I've called and called and called now. But I've given up this last year, so I never bothered them at all. You just get this run around," Arseneault said from her home in New Brunswick.
Ted Davis, an investigator with the Missing Children's Society of Canada, has spent years trying to find Angela and says she should have been added to the list of women missing from the Downtown Eastside a long time ago.
"I'm saying this without knowing the parameters that they've used to include people on that list, but knowing some of the people who are on the list, she could easily be included on it," said Davis, a retired vice officer from Calgary.
Marion Bryce also says she has lobbied the police to add her daughter, Patricia Johnson, to the list of missing women, but first heard they were considering such a move this week from a Vancouver Sun reporter.
"Nobody's called me. Nobody cares," Bryce said. "I have to phone them. They don't call me."
Johnson, 24, is a heroin addict and prostitute who lived on the streets of the Downtown Eastside for five years. She was last seen by her mother Jan. 1, and was reported missing in February after she failed to pick up her welfare cheque.
"[The police] are doing nothing. They don't care about these girls who have gone missing from the downtown," said Bryce, who is frustrated that officers haven't gone to the media to publicize her daughter's disappearance.
"I want her picture on BCTV and on America's Most Wanted. I want it everywhere."
The latest woman to go missing, Serena Abotsway, was last seen Aug. 1. She was a sex trade worker in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
But, before now, Vancouver police had never gone to the media with the case, which they think may be linked to the others.
Nor had the department publicized the disappearance of Andrea Joesbury, who vanished in June of this year.
"Whose daughter, whose sister, whose mother has to get abducted before this becomes a priority? Does it have to be a city councillor's daughter?" asked Raven Bowen of Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education.
She urged Vancouver city council to take the lead in getting together all interest groups, including those working with prostitutes.
"Let's all come together at a table and let's remedy it," Bowen said. "They have to make it a priority. It is getting worse and worse."
Bowen said there needs to be a system for reporting sex trade workers missing that would aid investigators.
"We've run into people who've had such difficulty getting names added to the list," she said. "The process is not fast enough. The trail runs cold."
And she called the situation an "international embarrassment. This is how our weakest citizens are treated."
Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen rejected allegations that too little has been done on the case. "This is a very serious issue and it is very much a public concern and it involves public safety. I think the police forces -- city and provincial -- are having a fresh, hard look at it and I think that is appropriate."
Owen also echoed police who say the nature of the disappearances makes them difficult to solve, because there are no bodies, few details about when or where a crime might have occurred and potentially hundreds of suspects.
But the fact police have no bodies of the missing women is precisely why they are listed as missing.
However, police have located the bodies of a number of murdered prostitutes over the years. The Sun's own review of newspaper and police files determined there have been more than 60 murders of prostitutes in B.C. over the past two decades and at least 35 of those remain unsolved.
Investigators are now looking at some of those cases to see if they could be connected to the disappearances.
Staff Sergeant Don Adam, who has been heading up the joint forces team, said the list of possible suspects is endless.
"Our issue is there are so many guys capable of this that it's mind-boggling," he said. "It's not like we're lacking suspects."
Click on thumbnail to increase
How the investigation was flawed-Sept 22, 2001
Updated: August 21, 2016