VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Sisters' tenuous bond grows even as a killer separates them
March 13, 2007
BELLEVUE -- Rosalee Walton, at 44, still wants to know her sister Dawn Crey. This prospect, difficult since childhood, is both easier and harder since Crey's suspected murder in fall 2000.
Walton knows their shared story. It's short: Separated by provincial authorities in British Columbia in 1962 when she was an infant in a home with no dad and an alcoholic mom, Walton (then Crey), her sister and five other siblings ended up scattered among Chilliwack, B.C., foster homes.
Some drifted. Some drank. Rosalee Crey caught a break -- a stable home and loving new family. Today, she's married and lives in a multilevel ranch house in a leafy, middle-class neighborhood with peekaboo views of Lake Washington.
"You can see it right there through the trees," she said, pointing over the koi pond that her husband, Fred Walton, built.
Dawn, four years older, tipped the other way: Bumped between foster families and a stranger to her little sister, she eventually tumbled to Vancouver's Tenderloin, finding heroin, hooking and death. DNA evidence indicates her remains were among those of dozens of prostitutes authorities say perished at the pig farm owned by William Pickton.
Pickton is on trial in Vancouver for Canada's largest-ever serial murder investigation. It began five years ago, before the Green River Killer case concluded. More than 60 women, including Crey, had disappeared over a decade from a four-block area of downtown.
Crey's is among the DNA discovered in 2004 within tons of dirt and debris from the farm analyzed by investigators. Pickton has been formally charged with 26 murders and is on trial in six of them. Police suspect him in many more. He has not been charged in Crey's death.
Walton, who for the past 11 years has lived in the States, catches the news as the trial unfolds. It's no way to get to know your sister.
'We were strangers'
Rosalee was two weeks old when her father died. Family lore has it that he died of heart failure with his head in Dawn's lap. She was 4 at the time.
With seven children to feed and problem drinking in her past, Rosalee's mother, Minnie, returned to the bottle.
"Both my Mom and my Dad had quit drinking and we had been living a pretty stable life," Walton said. "But it was too difficult after he died. She started drinking again. She was unable to look after us."
The Ministry of Children and Family Development arrived and took the children in late 1962 before Rosalee, the youngest, turned a year old. The oldest child, Gordon, 15, was left at home. Authorities took the rest, paired them up (except the infant Rosalee) and placed them in foster homes. Dawn, 4, and Faith, 6, were sent to the first of several homes.
For Rosalee, who was too young to remember any of this, it's a separation that today can't be fully bridged. She ended up in a stable home with family that soon tried to adopt her. But as a Cheam Band member, a part of the indigenous Sto:lo tribe, she could not be adopted by a non-member under Canadian law.
In the end, the adoption became a formal contract for permanent relationship. They became her family. It remains so. Rosalee's childhood stabilized, normalized. She went to grade school, made friends, loved her family.
Chilliwack, on the Frasier River, is a small logging and agricultural town, where chance encounters occur at a rate more often than chance. Rosalee knew she had siblings. She'd see other children around town who looked and talked like her. But they scared her; she didn't want to get to know them.
"We were strangers, except for those who lived together. But we would see each other, we'd make eye contact and we would just know."
Beginning to connect
Sitting in her living room recently, Rosalee Walton wonders if deep down she worried that getting closer to her blood siblings might mean leaving her foster family.
"The whole idea of this other family, it was threatening," she said.
She remembers the silver handrails, the big foyer and the staircase. This is where the children played before and after church. They'd swing under the handrails, run up the stairs. Two girls approached her while she played. She was 5 or 6. They said they were Faith and Dawn. They said they were her sisters.
"I thought, 'How could they be my sisters? I live with my sisters.' I said, 'No you're not.' "
But she always listened for information about her brothers and sisters -- which families they stayed with. She knew Dawn sometimes ran away. Rosalee stored it all away.
In the summer, children in Chilliwack made money picking berries. Rosalee knew Dawn's foster mother was the field boss. One day, picking with her foster mom, Rosalee ended up in the row next to her older sister.
At 16, Dawn was cute with jet-black hair. She already had a 1-year-old who was in the field with her. "I didn't want to talk to her. I was so nervous. I was afraid of the situation. My mom talked to her. She asked her all sorts of questions about my family."
Rosalee played with Dawn's son. She looked at him, who looked like Dawn, who looked like her. And she began to feel the connection.
"I don't think any family can teach you about a biological connection. It's so innate. I think through my nephew, I began to connect."
But Dawn had begun to unravel.
A prostitute disappears
Through her sister Lorraine, Rosalee kept track of Dawn. Dawn did the same with her.
Then in 1988, Rosalee became a Walton and moved to Edmonton, where the couple lived for 10 years. She grew closer to her brother Bruce, but drifted from contact with Dawn.
"The last time I saw her was in the 1980s," Walton said.
With better job prospects for her husband (a program manager) in the States, the couple settled first in Renton, then Bellevue. In the late 1990s she saw the horrific news reports of the conditions in east downtown Vancouver, near the corner of Main and Hastings -- an intersection thick with prostitutes and addicts nicknamed "Pain and Wastings." She knew Dawn lived there.
In 2000, Rosalee and Lorraine talked about spending Christmas together. She asked about Dawn. She wondered if Dawn would like to talk, to join them. Lorraine, excited, said "absolutely." Lorraine called the last place she knew Dawn was living to arrange a meeting. She left a message.
The sisters didn't want to wait. They drove to Vancouver's Balmoral Hotel, at the time a moldering single-room occupancy hotel. The manager said he hadn't seen Dawn for weeks and that he had some of her stuff. She still owed for rent, he said.
The sisters canvassed downtown. Other people had seen Dawn but all said it had been roughly three weeks since.
For all of her problems, Dawn never moved without telling Lorraine. They checked the methadone clinic. Dawn's caseworker hadn't seen her in a month. It was Dec. 21, 2000.
Learning about Dawn
Over the next three years, knowledge arrived like a series of earthquakes. The sisters and brothers who had begun to reconnect learned that 60 women, like Dawn, had disappeared from that four-block neighborhood over the past 15 years.
They learned the police refused to believe there might be a serial killer. They talked to Dawn's friends and learned about her life on the streets, her kindness to the people around her even as she abused herself in the hours between johns.
Rosalee learned that Dawn, like her, loved books and read voraciously. She learned that Dawn was tough and smart to have lasted in east downtown for 20 years.
But the cops weren't talking. And a transient neighborhood's memory is short. The information began to dry up.
Then came the call.
It was her brother. Ernie said police had raided a farm west of Vancouver. There were rumors of body parts, recovered purses and parties with prostitutes that some never returned from.
"When I heard the arrest of Pickton -- my brother called me to tell me to watch the news -- I had been wondering if it was (Gary) Ridgway."
Dawn had been missing three years at that point.
As the Royal Canadian Mounted Police deepened their investigation, they began to collect DNA. They contacted relatives of women who had been reported missing for comparable DNA samples. Lorraine and Ernie provided swabs.
They found a match.
Now Rosalee Walton follows the trial, spending more time immersed in Dawn's life than she had before her sister's death. She's close to her siblings now and they try to vacation together.
And even now, she learns more about her sister, through a Canadian documentary, "Finding Dawn." Lorraine and Ernie were interviewed for the film.
Filmmaker Christine Welch, a part-time teacher at the University of Victoria, said Dawn's story was compelling because she represents Canadian women lost to violence, the prostitutes who disappeared for years unnoticed (except by their families) and the social fallout of a government policy that once sought to scatter First Nation siblings from each other and their culture.
"What I sense from Rosalee is that she was learning about Dawn, as I was," Welch said. "She's gotten behind the film in a big way. I get the sense that it's her chance to explore how she feels about Dawn and about her family."
Walton doesn't argue the point. Take their lives, distill the sisters' time in the same room together, and it's less than a year. But some bonds are not only formed on contact, she said.
It's strange, she said, looking around at the house, how the same fragmented DNA that connects Dawn to that farm also connects her to her sister.
It's strange, Walton said, how strong an invisible relationship can be.
To learn more about the documentary, visit nfb.ca/findingdawn.
P-I reporter Mike Lewis can be reached at 206-448-8140 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Updated: August 21, 2016