Calgary Sun-Top Story-Aug 9, 1999


The Calgary Sun, August 8, 1999

Vancouver hookers' worst nightmare:

Sex slave death ships

VANCOUVER, B.C.-- The haunting fear a serial killer is stalking this city's seedy red light district, where 31 hookers have vanished, hangs on every corner.

But many in the sex-trade are dreading a worse nightmare explanation for the deaths that have occurred over the last 10 years -- a sex-slave slaughter involving the ships in the harbour.

Watery grave for hookers?

Some believe victims were held captive on ships

By PETER SMITH -- Calgary Sun

Zoom photo

Vancouver's 'missing women's memorial.

VANCOUVER, B.C.-- The haunting fear a serial killer is stalking this city's seedy redlight district, where 31 hookers have vanished, hangs on every corner.

But many in the sex-trade are dreading a worse nightmare explanation for the deaths that have occurred over the last 10 years -- a sex-slave slaughter involving the ships in the harbour.

The missing hookers, most of whom have vanished since 1995, may have been taken as sex slaves on board ships leaving the harbour, murdered and then dumped at sea, say frightened women working the stroll.

Lured on board by offers of unlimited free heroin to feed their chronic addictions, hookers board the boats only to find they are held captive, says a woman running a shelter for prostitutes, who's talked first-hand to one ship sex-slave who escaped with her life.

Other women working the streets in sight of the dockside ships told the Calgary Sun they believe it's the terrifying explanation behind the 31 strange disappearances.

Everyone close to the mystery -- families of the missing women, friends and agency workers -- are convinced they've all been murdered.

Fears of a serial killer are rampant, but no one can explain how one killer could murder so many victims without a single body being discovered.

Out on the street, hookers say the bodies will never be discovered -- they say they've been dumped far out in the Pacific Ocean from freighters and international commercial ships leaving the bustling port.

Vancouver police -- who've set up an eight-officer task force, including homicide detectives and who are working behind the attraction of a $100,000 reward -- are still skeptical about any talk of mass murders.

Const. Anne Drennan said there's no evidence of murder: there are no bodies, no crime scenes, only a long string of missing person reports.

But she confirmed investigators both from the Green River Killer serial killer inquiry and the Spokane prostitute serial killer hunt have been brought to Vancouver to help the city's task force.

And one of Vancouver's largest private detective agencies, CPA Confidence Group, has employed four "cadaver" dogs to search selected areas, looking for decomposing human remains.

"Our dogs have been working several days a week for several weeks now," said Darryll Harasemow, the CPA's director of investigations.

They've not yet turned up any remains.

Drennan also confirmed police are investigating the possibility crews off ships in the harbour may be involved with the disappearances.

Family members and friends of several missing prostitutes, at first frustrated they couldn't convince police there was a murder horror taking place, turned to the U.S. TV program America's Most Wanted .

The program aired July 31, fanfaring the $100,000 reward. It prompted over 100 calls into the program's Washington headquarters.

"Only 20 were thought to be useful; the task force is investigating them," said Drennan.


It's all about terror. The cruel, cold facts are frightening enough. At least 31 drug-addict prostitutes have disappeared off Vancouver's Downtown Eastside red-light stroll streets.
That's the official police count.
Is it the work of Canada's cleverest serial killer? If so, how is the killer murdering the hookers and hiding the bodies? Calgary Sun senior crime reporter Peter Smith went into the fear-ridden, drug-invested streets to find the answer and discovered an even more sinister explanation.

By PETER SMITH -- Calgary Sun

Calgary-born Suzette works the rush-hour traffic in the same area as the 31 women who have vanished.

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- On a seedy Downtown Eastside stroll, it starts with a promise of free heroin and pots of money to be earned on an international ship berthed right there at a harbour wharf.

All too often, according to the latest word on the street here, the promise ends as a one-way ticket to sex-slave captivity, murder and instant burial at sea.

Elaine Allan -- executive director of the Women's Information Safe House, a drop-in centre used by nearly every prostitute in the gritty downtown eastside red-light district -- is scared the sex slaughter at sea could be a valid explanation for the disappearance of more than 30 women.

Even Vancouver cops, hard-pressed to explain the disappearances, concede it's a possibility.

"Whether the boats could be involved is one of the possibilities we're looking into," said police spokeswoman Anne Drennan.

Allan knows how the boats play a big role in the lives of the women on the stroll.

"Many of the women I've talked to have been on the boats," she said.

As she changed sheets on the sofas in her centre ready for the night's influx of women refugees from the street, Allan explained the simple scenario.

"Remember, many of these sex-trade workers are heavily into heroin addiction, desperate for their next fix," she said.

"Also remember, something like 95 percent of all the heroin coming into Canada hits the shore first right here in Vancouver."

Crew members come ashore, bringing heroin with them.

It's not a hard sell for them to lure a prostitute on board, where she knows unlimited supplies of heroin wait for her, together with a bunch of eager "tricks."

"I talked to one girl who was held captive on one of the boats, but who had a lucky escape," said Allan.

When the girl went on board, she didn't know it but a Russian sailor, who'd watched her on the street, had followed her to the ship.

When she didn't come back off after an hour, he went aboard, demanding to know where "his girl" was.

"They told him no girl had come on board -- they didn't know what he was talking about." When the Russian bluffed the crew he'd photographed the girl getting aboard and would take his pictures to the cops, his ruse may have saved her life.

Suddenly, the girl appeared and came ashore. Allan talked to her, learning of the sex-slave captivity she'd endured on board.

"This girl said she'd been given very pure heroin, which totally incapacitated her, and she was just captive there," she said.

Allan will never know if the Russian hadn't intervened, whether this girl might have joined the list of the missing that night.

Out on East Cordova, in the heart of the Downtown Eastside red-light district, and only three blocks from the nearest docks and ships, Suzette is working the rush-hour traffic.

Calgary-born Suzette is a 20-year veteran who has seen it all. She's more street-smart than most and she has a new golden rule.

"I'm never going on the boats," she told me. "Not for all the free heroin they could ever offer me."

Out of the blue, she offers her opinion the murdered girls were taken out on the boats and dumped at sea.

She knew two of the missing girls pretty well, Monique and Helen, who she believes are now among the dead.

"I know there are no bodies, but there's no way they're alive, no way," she said.

Her only surprise is the street smart girls were lured onto the ships in the first place.

Drennan said police have on file a report of a sex-trade worker going on board and being passed around from man to man.

But police have no evidence the sex-trade on the ships explains the disappearance of the 31 prostitutes.

There's a sad irony just three blocks north of Suzette's pitch, where Portside Park overlooks the harbour.

There sits a memorial stone originally dedicated to all the Downtown Eastside victims who've been murdered, but now unofficially adopted as the "missing women's memorial."

Oddly, it's set not far back from the harbour edge and it points straight out across the water, right at the ships.

Streets of death

Glimpse into a tortured soul

By PETER SMITH -- Calgary Sun

VANCOUVER -- It's the black dead of night.

A one-time Calgary exotic dancer and another hooker hankering to get back to Calgary ply their trade kitty-corner to each other in this city's most dangerous Downtown Eastside red-light district.

Sylvie gets into a car, but what this guy wants she won't do, and in 55 seconds, he's driven round the block and dropped Sylvie back out onto her corner.

In those 55 seconds, Sarah the one-time exotic dancer has gone from her kitty-corner pitch, disappeared, and has never been seen again.

That was at 4 a.m. on April 14 last year.

Sarah deVries, 29, has joined a growing list of more than 30 sex-trade workers grabbed off these streets and believed murdered.

Her "missing person" police poster tags her with the simple seven-word title that's become the Downtown Eastside death sentence: "Known drug user and sex-trade worker."

Sarah's story is not much different from any of the other 30 missing women who've probably been taken by a serial killer.

Like all the others, she was a desperate drug addict, shooting $1,000 worth of heroin a day into her veins, the cash coming from the tricks she was turning.

Death on the streets around her was never far from the mind of Sarah deVries. Sadly, it's now thought she's another of its victims.
In this portion of a poem from her hand-written journals, she expresses her sadness of society not caring about the girls being killed around her.

"Woman's body found beaten beyond recognition.
You sip your coffee,
Taking a drag of your smoke,
Turning the page,
Taking a bite of your toast.
Just another day, just another death,
Just one more thing for you to forget,
You and your soft sheltered life,
Just go on and on,
For nobody special from your world is gone.
Just another Hastings Street whore
Sentenced to death.
No judge, no jury, no trial, no mercy.
The judge's gavel already fallen,
Sentence already passed."

She had HIV and hepatitis C.

But unlike most, she left behind a rare legacy -- a journal revealing her innermost and blackest thoughts -- and loved ones who won't rest until they find her body and her killer.

Taken in by adoptive parents when young, Sarah was into the street life and drugs before she hit her teens.

She did a spell as an exotic dancer in a Calgary nightclub before heading west.

Five years ago, hopelessly addicted to heroin, Sarah made a rare TV documentary where she let cameras film her shooting-up her next heroin fix.

I watched the tape, where through a drug-induced haze, Sarah paints an agonizing picture.

"When you need your next fix, you're sick, puking, it's like having the flu, a cold, arthritis, all at the same time only multiplied a hundred times," she says in the documentary.

Sarah probably scared more people off starting drugs in this film than any expensive campaign has ever done.

And through her sister Maggie, who's never stopped caring, and her friend Wayne Leng, who still keeps her possessions in his apartment where she left them the night she disappeared, the human side of Sarah, a mother, a sister, a friend, shines through.

Not many years ago, Sarah learned the devastating news she'd tested positive for HIV.

"Her instant reaction was to discover whether she'd passed it on to her son Ben," said Leng.

"When the tests showed Ben was clear of HIV, she was ecstatic, it was the best news of her life."

Sarah's two children, Jeannie and Ben, are now safe with their grandparents in Ontario.

Her journals contain her sensuous artistic drawings reflecting expressions of freedom like butterflies and birds.

Saddest of all is a page completed as Sarah obviously injected heroin into her arm.

A splash of her blood has dried, ominously dark red on the black and blue ink drawing.

One of Sarah's favourite books is a hard-cover written by her aunt, children's author Jean Little.

Inside its cover is a hand-written dedication from Little:

"Sarah, happy birthday. Be sure to read the dedication, love, Aunt Jean."

And the book's printed dedication starts with these words: "This one is for Jeannie and Ben and all kids who live with adoptive parents ..."

"Sarah was so proud of that," said Leng.

Watching that spooky film clip of Sarah, when you know she's almost certainly dead now, her main message is especially poignant.

Looking into the camera with faraway eyes, Sarah says there are only three ways off Vancouver's darkest street.

"You go to jail, you end up dead, or you do a life sentence here," she said.

Prophetic words from a woman who's now believed to be a murder victim, and who may have fallen foul of a serial killer.

'I hope it is a serial killer'

By PETER SMITH -- Calgary Sun

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- She hangs her religious gown on the hook behind her office door in the First United Church and comes straight out with it.

"I really hope it is a serial killer," says the Rev. Ruth Wright, and she means it.

She knows most of the missing women snatched from the streets around her church are gone forever, murdered.

The alternative to a serial killer is something Wright doesn't want to face.

"That would mean there are 31 separate killers out there and that much evil would be too much," she said.

Wright is very much a realist with no false illusions about how tough it is on the streets around her church that's been a community cornerstone here for 114 years, and which houses the WISH drop-in centre for sex-trade workers.

Wright was here when AIDS devastated the same Downtown Eastside district, the deaths bringing world-wide infamy to the community.

And when a killer batch of heroin took the lives of more than 300 addicts in 1997, the grim spotlight turned on the district again.

Now it's a serial killer with a supposed death toll of 31 prostitutes.

"We get massive coverage and it's nothing but bad; we are always the skid row of Vancouver," she said.

A friend committed to finding answers

By PETER SMITH -- Calgary Sun

Wayne Leng has been obsessed with finding the killer of prostitute Sarah deVries ever since she disappeared after he dropped her off on a Vancouver street one year ago. Missing-person posters of some of the 30 other women who vanished adorn his room.

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- A blood-red sun face with ice-blue tears dripping from its eyes is the artwork on Wayne Leng's refrigerator door.

It's a study in sadness painted by his close friend Sarah deVries, whose memory fills his room.

Leng,  gave deVries -- his heroin-addicted prostitute friend -- a ride to the Downtown Eastside street the night she disappeared more than a year ago, where she was probably snatched by a serial killer.

Trying to find Sarah has consumed Leng's every waking hour since then.

Leng and deVries' sister Maggie were the driving force behind a campaign to find the missing prostitute.

When the families of some of the other 31 missing prostitutes realized their loved ones had disappeared from the same streets, they helped expand the search to include their lost women.

In the early days, said Leng, the families battled with little help from police or any authorities.

But Leng increased his activities, starting a web site on the Internet, plastering posters throughout the streets of Vancouver's red-light district, and tramping the street for hours talking to other prostitutes.

"One lead sent me to Calgary," he said.

One caller said he was sure he'd seen deVries in the downtown Calgary York Hotel.

Leng checked all through the York Hotel with the help of Calgary police vice unit detectives. It was all in vain, as Leng returned to Vancouver empty-handed.

As the list of missing prostitutes increased, so did media coverage.

When Leng and Sarah's sister went to producers of the America's Most Wanted TV show with the kernel of a story that a serial killer may have murdered 31 prostitutes, they came running -- and aired their program last week.

Television crews from Germany, France and elsewhere across the U.S. trekked through Leng's apartment, festooned by pictures of all 31 missing women.

Sarah's face, once seen in Calgary nightclubs, has been looking out from TV screens across Europe and the States, and from the pages of newspapers everywhere.

'She's dead,' said caller

Did the killer telephone tip line?

By PETER SMITH -- Calgary Sun

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- I listened to this slurred voice, heard over loud music pounding away in the background.

Was it the voice of a serial killer?

Three months after Sarah deVries disappeared, and as her family and close friend Wayne Leng were gearing up their hunt for her with posters, rewards and a 1-800 number for tips, three strange calls came into their tip line.

It was about midnight on a Saturday when the three calls were made -- each with the same music pounding away in the background.

The male caller had a eerie message.

"Sarah's dead," he said the first time.

"So there will be more girls like her dead.

"There will be more prostitutes killed. There will be one every Friday night -- at the busiest time."

It wasn't long before the man called again, elaborating.

"You'll never find Sarah again, so just stop looking for her, all right?" he said.

"She doesn't want to be seen and heard from again, all right? So, 'bye. She's dead."

The third message was downright scary.

"This is in regard to Sarah. I just want to let you know that you'll never find her again alive because a friend of mine killed her and I was there."

Leng, who's passed the original tapes on to the police, played me his copy.

It's eerie that the voice on that tape could be responsible for so many disappearances.

And he is likely still out there.

Never Forget, from 'Missing Sarah' by Maggie de Vries

Information vital to police-April 30, 2000

Vancouver pimp eyed in disappearances

Hit By Deja Vu-Feb 25, 2001



Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016