VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
A group of artists has created images of Willy Pickton's alleged victims that reveal real women behind their grim mug shots
Saturday, December 17, 2005
It was the sad faces, the dishevelled hair, and the startled eyes of the women missing from the Downtown Eastside that bothered Tennessee artist Todd Matthews.
Those grim police mug shots were the only photographs the public have seen of many of the 27 women Port Coquitlam pig farmer Robert (Willy) Pickton is accused of murdering.
Artist Todd Matthews works on a sketch of Sarah de Vries. Matthew's group Project Edan has sketched 27 original pictures of Robert Pickton's alleged victims.
RYCK KALONICK/SPECIAL TO THE VANCOUVER SUN
In them, the women look tired, scared and worn-down -- a reflection, most likely, of difficult lifestyles that often involved drug addiction and prostitution.
The pictures were not, Matthews thought, a true reflection of the women's inner spirits: they didn't reveal that these women were mothers, sisters and aunts, with families, friends and unfulfilled dreams.
The mug shots sent a message that the women were photographed by police for doing something wrong, and Matthews believed it was important for them to be viewed in a more positive light.
"I think people were seeing a criminal rather than a victim," he said in an interview from his home near Nashville. "I think they were discounted. If they had been 20-something soccer moms, what [public reaction] do you think would have happened?"
Matthews is the founder of Project EDAN (Everybody Deserves A Name), a U.S. group of certified forensic sketch artists who donate their time to make facial reconstructions of unidentified victims for small- and medium-sized police agencies without budgets to hire artists.
Matthews, who has a passion for unsolved crimes and was instrumental in helping police solve the 30-year-old Kentucky "tent girl" murder case, is also media director for the Doe Network, which has volunteers worldwide and profiles hundreds of missing people and unidentified bodies on its Internet site.
On an online cold cases chat group, Matthews met former Vancouver resident Wayne Leng, who was a friend of Sarah de Vries, one of the city's missing women. Leng, who now lives in California, has established a website dedicated to the more than 60 women who have disappeared from Vancouver's gritty Downtown Eastside since the late 1970s, including Pickton's alleged victims.
Matthews saw the pictures displayed on Leng's website, and put out a request to the members of Project EDAN to volunteer their time to create drawings of the women.
He wanted their hair styled nicely and a "Mona Lisa" smile on their lips -- to reflect a happier time.
"I wanted them to have a little touch of pleasantry, because the images -- the mug shots -- it was obviously a very bad point in their lives," Matthews said.
"I just thought it was so sad to leave it like that."
To his surprise, six artists, in addition to himself, were quick to volunteer their time.
The vast majority of the Project EDAN members do not work in law enforcement -- the sketches they do for the police are done on a volunteer basis in their space time.
But Wesley Neville, a lieutenant with the Florence County sheriff's office in South Carolina, is a unique member of the group.
He works full-time for a police agency, doing composite drawings, facial reconstruction with clay, and age-progression sketches of missing children.
He said his volunteer work for Project EDAN -- including drawing 11 of Vancouver's missing women -- allows him to use his artistic talent to give back to society.
"It feels good inside, especially on a project like this," Neville said in a telephone interview.
He based his sketches on the police mug shots, as well as other photos of the women he found posted on Web sites by media outlets, relatives or friends.
Neville's technique was to imagine how the women would have looked when they were happy, healthy and safe.
"I saw through the damage that had been done physically to them. It's obvious their diets were bad, and drugs had taken their toll on some of them. I pretty much take that out -- it's like an age-regression," he said.
"I wanted to try to make them look as lifelike as possible, in a more innocent time."
The sketches by the Project EDAN volunteers are being unveiled for the first time in today's Vancouver Sun. They include drawings of 25 of the 27 alleged Pickton victims. (One victim is unidentified, so she could not be sketched, and the other is not included because her mother requested the picture not be published.)
The drawings in today's newspaper also include sketches of two women, Dawn Crey and Yvonne Boen, whose DNA was found on the Pickton farm, but police say there was not enough evidence to lay murder charges in those cases.
The men championing this project, Matthews and Leng, spoke to a couple of the victims' families about the sketches, but they didn't seek permission to do them -- arguing they were created for the women themselves.
"When Todd first came to me with the idea, I thought, 'Wow, this is fantastic,'" Leng said in a telephone interview.
"[The sketches] takes them away from that mug shot . . . . A lot of people do only see them as an addict and a prostitute. They don't see that this is a real human being. They just look at the ruggedness of what's happened to them on the Downtown Eastside."
Leng said he is sorry one mother didn't like her daughter's sketch, but said he hopes others will be moved by the artists' efforts.
"These sketches are for these women," Leng said. "I think they present [the women] in a beautiful light, as to the way they really were."
The drawings will be posted on his website (www.missingpeople.net), and he hopes they'll eventually be used at a permanent memorial in Vancouver as the city prepares for Pickton's lengthy murder trial, expected to start next year.
Leng searched doggedly for his friend, de Vries, before police announced her DNA had been found on Pickton's farm. He speaks frequently to her mother, Pat de Vries, but hadn't mentioned the sketches to her.
However, in a phone interview from her home in Guelph, Ont., Pat de Vries said the drawings could only be an improvement over the mug shots often published in newspapers.
"I think it's a really nice idea. Those photos were really ugly of some of those women -- unnecessarily so," de Vries said.
Leng had mentioned the sketches to Jack Cummer, the grandfather of Andrea Joesbury. He hasn't seen his granddaughter's sketch when contacted last week by the Sun, but believes the intention behind them is good.
"I thought it was fantastic, if they were painting the inner-picture rather than the picture of the one that was on the [police missing person] poster," Cummer said from his home in Nanaimo.
"They weren't drug-addicted hookers. They were warm individuals and they were somebody's darling."
Cummer said Joesbury, one of the first women Pickton was charged with murdering after his arrest in February 2002, often had a Mona Lisa smile on her face.
Of the seven Project EDAN volunteers who drew the sketches, only one is Canadian: Charlaine Michaelis from Sudbury, Ont.
"This particular group of women were so underexposed in the media, in my opinion. It was just such a joy for me to do it," said Michaelis, who has been a graphic artist for 25 years and recently did artwork for the new Disney movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
She scanned the pictures of the women sent to her by Matthews, and chose to sketch Georgina Papin -- "her face jumped out at me" -- but had only the police mug shot to work from.
Her technique, Michaelis said, was based partly on science and partly on intuition.
"I spent a lot of time examining the photo, looking at the underlying muscle structure to see how the face falls, and then I try to imagine how it would look if that action were reversed -- if she were smiling," she said.
Then, Michaelis watched herself in the mirror, analyzing how her face changed from a frown to a smile.
"Once I had that idea of how the muscles were working, I translated that onto her features," she recalled.
Michaelis said she was solely motivated to provide Papin with a better picture of herself, but added she hopes the woman's family will get some peace from the sketch.
"I would hope they'll think, 'Yeah that's the girl we remember before she got into her situation.'"
"It's sort of like a Christmas gift for the families," he said.
© The Vancouver Sun 2005
Updated: January 01, 2007