VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
It's a career to die for
Bodies for sale often end up in the morgue
By Natalie Pona
Mon, September 27, 2004
It took more than a year for Geraldine Silva to be able to return to work after her daughter's skeleton was found in a field. "I've had a lot of tragedies in my life, losing my parents and my brother ... Losing my daughter was totally different. It takes the legs out from under you. It takes the breath out of you and you don't know how to get it back," says Silva, 60, whose daughter Therena's murdered body was found on Templeton Avenue on Dec. 15, 2002.
"We examined the skeletal remains. Most families would never do that but I wanted some answers on how my daughter died. I need to know," Silva says, sobbing.
Therena, 35, had been working in the sex trade. Raising two sons and trying to break out of an abusive relationship, Therena was desperate, says Silva, who lives in Vancouver.
"She did everything in her life to protect her children," she says. "Do you think, for a moment, if you had other options, if there was a job opening for you, you would be plying your body?"
FOUR UNSOLVED HOMICIDES
Therena's murder is one of four unsolved prostitute homicides in Winnipeg. The deaths of another six sex-trade workers, whose bodies were found outside city limits, remain unsolved. Those murders are being investigated by the RCMP.
"In every case, we always look for the possibility that there may be a serial killer working ... but there's nothing that leads our homicide unit to suspect that," says Winnipeg police spokeswoman Const. Shelly Glover.
She says there are small similarities in each homicide but those are outweighed by important differences.
It's very dangerous living on the street, getting into a stranger's car, says morals unit Sgt. Kelly Dennison.
"They're picked up on Ellice Avenue, taken to the North Perimeter, beaten up and thrown out of the car," Dennison says. "When they go missing, who is going to report that? They go missing for days before anybody notices."
Even when the girls are missed, a relative's pleas for help may be ignored, say some of the families of the women missing from Vancouver's downtown eastside.
Accused serial killer Robert Pickton allegedly managed to kill at least 15 women from the area before police heeded the families' concerns. The charges against Pickton stem from an investigation involving 61 women who vanished from the skid row in the past 20 years.
The DNA of 31 women has been connected to Pickton's pig farm. Three samples are still unidentified.
"One of the things I hope comes out of this at the end of the day, I hope that some best practices are developed," says Sgt. Sheila Sullivan, Vancouver police missing women spokeswoman.
Some family members are suing the Vancouver police for allegedly mishandling the investigation into the women's disappearances.
Solving murders of prostitutes and drug addicts missing from a gritty urban strip is tough.
"Many women would have gotten into a vehicle late at night without many witnesses or any witnesses around," Sullivan says. "By the time the woman would have realized she was in danger she would be in a secluded area. It's hard to know where they were heading, who they knew, suspects."
The women are often transient, working a circuit through other cities. Many are addicted to drugs, such as crack cocaine and heroin. And they are often suspicious of police, Sullivan says.
A joint Vancouver police-RCMP task force is examining the chance of links to killings in other cities and countries to solve the mystery of the remaining missing women, scrutinizing cases such as the murders committed by Gary Leon Ridgway, who pleaded guilty last November to killing 48 prostitutes near a strip along the Green River south of Seattle.
The task force is also studying homicides in Manitoba.
"We are alive to the possibility that a serial killer could be mobile and moving from province to province," Sullivan says. "There is no evidence of that, but anything's possible."
Janet Henry, who once lived in Winnipeg, went missing from Vancouver's downtown eastside in 1997.
"She still had money in the bank. She paid her rent at the hotel on East Hastings and didn't even go home to sleep," says sister Sandra Gagnon, who lives in Maple Ridge, B.C.
Though Pickton wasn't charged for Henry's murder, Gagnon believes he should be. Henry attended parties at Pickton's pig farm, she says.
"Janet told my sister she used to go to Uncle Willy's to party. That's what they called him, the creep."
A former sex-trade worker named Debbie, who lives in Winnipeg, was friends with three of Pickton's alleged victims: Andrea Joesbury, Sarah de Vries and Georgina Papin.
"We all had the same pattern. We worked East Hastings, we were intravenous drug users ... that's who he was picking up," Debbie says. "I never went out there, thank God! I can't even eat pork anymore."
She is surprised the women would get into a car knowing it might be taking them out of the city. They wouldn't have wanted to go far from their drug suppliers.
Whoever killed them "must have had drugs or something to entice them ... they wouldn't have gone," Debbie says.
Police from across Canada are trying to avoid another mass disappearance of prostitutes.
One venture in Alberta, called Project Kare, has police collecting information, such as DNA samples and tattoo descriptions, from people who live high-risk lifestyles, including prostitutes.
"It's not just the sex trade. It's also the drug-related lifestyle, chronic hitchhiking, anything about you, your lifestyle, and your habits that puts you at risk for confrontation," says Alberta RCMP spokesman Cpl. Wayne Oakes.
Police in Halifax have been doing the same thing.
Starting in fall 2003, Project Kare has been reviewing 123 unsolved homicides and missing persons cases from the Prairies and the Territories.
"We're looking for whether there is one person responsible for more than one of those incidents. Are their links or commonality between any of these cases?" Oakes says.
The DNA bank may have helped some people off the street by making them realize they could become the subject of a future murder investigation.
"Some people they approached said it was a real eye-opener," Oakes says.
Police hope Project Kare helps break the case of a suspected serial killer at work in the Edmonton area.
Efforts to help sex-trade workers are too late for Silva's daughter. And too late for many of the girls whose ghosts still linger on dark street corners.
"I don't care if they have a drug habit, they're human beings," Silva says. "These women are labelled all over the world. It's the men. It's the men who batter them, men who kill them, men who seek their services. When she is gone, it's like 'Oh well, she was just a prostitute.'"
Updated: August 21, 2016