VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
A cold trail
For four years, prostitutes have been disappearing from a grubby Vancouver neighbourhood. Mystified police don't have any suspects, bodies or even a crime scene
Toronto Star Western Canada Bureau
VANCOUVER - FEAR IS again stalking the city's toughest neighbourhood.
Twenty-one prostitutes have disappeared from Vancouver's downtown east side since 1995. No bodies have been discovered; no crime scenes found.
But the women of the street and their advocates have for months said a serial killer is at work. Police now accept that as a possibility but say there's still no evidence any of the prostitutes were murdered or met harm.
Now, a new $100,000 reward from Vancouver police and the provincial government along with a segment on the U.S. crime-solving show America's Most Wanted thrusts the missing women into the spotlight once more.
``We've never asked for cash for bodies or anything like that,'' says Jamie Lee Hamilton of Grandma's House, a downtown east-side refuge for prostitutes. ``We just want whoever is responsible brought to justice.
``We have a very serious problem - women are being killed,'' says Hamilton, herself a former Vancouver prostitute. ``There are serial stalkers in our midst.''
The missing women had two things in common - prostitution and an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Having left behind families, apartments and even money in bank accounts, few who knew them suspect their disappearances are simply the product of a transient lifestyle.
``Twenty women just can't disappear off the face of the earth,'' says Michele Pineault, whose daughter Stephanie Marie Lane was last seen in a seedy downtown east-side hotel in January, 1997. ``That's from science fiction or the movies.''
Vancouver police have broadened their investigation, adding homicide officers and other personnel to the one missing person specialist originally assigned to the case.
In addition to the 21 women known to have disappeared since 1995, they've discovered another six prostitutes unaccounted for dating back to 1978, bringing the total to 27.
``We acknowledge that there is a possibility that there is a killer or several killers out there,'' says Vancouver police spokesperson Const. Anne Drennan.
``But until we have any kind of evidence that indicates that that's the case, we absolutely can't say that that's what happened to these girls.''
The women who work Vancouver's streets don't need dead bodies to be convinced their former colleagues have been murdered. The city's abundance of water and proximity to the mountains would make disposing of a corpse very easy, they note.
That prostitutes would be killed is not surprising, they say, given the dramatic increase in crime, drug use and the incidence of violence from customers.
``It's really spooky out there right now,'' says Rebecca Snyder, 48, who has sold sex on Vancouver streets for more than 30 years. ``There are a lot more bad dates, so you have to be street smart and use common sense or you're not going to last very long.
``But if a girl's doing rock (crack cocaine) or something, she doesn't care as long as she gets her drugs.''
Vancouver's downtown east side has long been a place where sex, drugs and crime pay no attention to the clock or the calendar - it's always open for business. Prostitutes on the stroll and junkies shooting up are readily seen whether it's 3 p.m. or 3 a.m.
The teeming collection of rundown hotels, dingy shops and decaying apartments immediately east of some of Vancouver's best known tourist destinations is the city's skid row. Poverty, addiction and AIDS flourish.
And the sex business hasn't suffered even with so many women missing. Whether lured by pimps, a need for money to feed a habit or a family, or an initial perception that prostitution is glamorous, there's no shortage of women selling themselves on Vancouver streets.
There are plenty of men willing to pay as well. From pedestrians to those driving Range Rovers with a baby seat in the back, a steady parade each night inspects women darkening doorways and standing on sidewalks along Hastings, Cordova and Franklin Sts.
Vancouver prostitutes and downtown east-side activists are pleased that more attention and resources are now being given to the case of the missing women.
But they say it took too many months and too many women for authorities to care. That's proof that prostitutes are regarded as nothing more than society's throwaways, they add.
``Whether they're working girls or not, this isn't a joke,'' Snyder says. ``If this was happening to girls in offices you'd have an outrageous uproar.''
Earlier this year, police and the provincial government offered two separate $100,000 rewards for tips regarding other crimes. One was to combat a rash of home invasions against the elderly, which resulted in two deaths. The other was to help solve a series of armed robberies of people in their garages that left no one injured.
Downtown east-side activists and the families of the missing women were outraged. The authorities were willing to aggressively go after people commiting crimes against the middle class but had no interest in catching someone killing women on the fringe of society, they said.
``It's was frustrating because VCRs seemed to have more value than human lives,'' says Hamilton of Grandma's House. ``It wasn't just low priority, it seemed to be no priority.''
Drennan insists that criticism the missing women are a low priority for police is ``the furthest thing from the truth.''
Typically, some prostitutes and drug addicts from Vancouver go missing, surfacing again in another city, Drennan says. They're also sometimes found dead, often of an overdose or suicide, she says.
One of the women originally listed as missing in this case surfaced last year at a mental facility in Arizona under an assumed name, Drennan notes.
But in this case, it was about 18 months ago that investigators began to notice that many of the women were still missing and their ranks were increasing, Drennan says.
``The numbers were disturbing enough that we thought we had to devote more manpower to them,'' she says. ``It's a sad fact that because these women lived the lifestyles they did, the investigations are so much more difficult and time-consuming.''
At least a dozen Vancouver prostitutes have disappeared in the past 18 months. The most recent to go missing and be officially added to the list disappeared several months ago. Police say tracking prostitutes is an inexact science because they may be gone for months before anyone notices, move or simply not want to be found.
But activists say the number of women missing from Vancouver streets and likely murdered is much higher than the official figures from the police. The $100,000 reward in the case is expected to be posted within the next month. Posters will feature pictures of the missing women and a brief description of where they were last seen.
The reward money is for information that leads police to conclude the women have met with foul play.
Investigators are also looking for a boost from the airing of America's Most Wanted. On July 31, it will feature a six-minute report on the missing women.
Michele Pineault has had little doubt about the fate of her daughter, who was 20 when she disappeared.
``I believe, and have for a long time, that Stephanie is dead,'' says Pineault, 40, who has lived in east Vancouver all her life. ``You still have to have hope at times but she was too needy to have not contacted one of us in the family after all this time.''
So Pineault contents herself with memories of her ``very bright little girl'' who excelled through Grade 7 before losing interest in high school.
Pineault also has Stephanie's boy, whom the girl put up for adoption before his grandmother decided to raise him on her own. Stephen is now 3.
``You can't get too depressed when you've got a 3-year-old on your hands,'' Pineault says. ``He makes sure that you get on with your life.''
Stephanie started stripping at age 18. From there the descent was quick into cocaine, heroin and prostitution. The exact order is unclear but the effect was devastating.
The night before she disappeared, a drugged-out Stephanie called an ambulance to take her to a downtown hospital. Once she came down from her high, Stephanie stayed at a rundown hotel on Hastings St., the last place anyone remembers seeing her.
Despite the mess Stephanie's life became, Pineault says people can't regard the loss of her daughter or the other women as anything but tragic.
``These were all women that had families and they were all women that were loved,'' she says. ``Even though they were drug addicts and prostitutes they were still daughters and mothers and sisters who will be dearly missed.''
Updated: August 21, 2016