Families call for action: Aboriginal leader whose sister is missing tells memorial service: We 'deserve better'

The Vancouver Sun

September 24, 2001 

Special Report
Lori Culbert

Anger is rising among friends and families of dozens of women missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, who fear not enough is being done to solve a mystery that has dragged on for years while the number of victims continues to increase.

At an emotional memorial service in Abbotsford this weekend, they vowed to escalate the pressure on police and politicians after reading a series of stories in The Vancouver Sun that revealed the number of missing women could jump from 31 to a high of 45.

"The police authorities in the province and the politicians who sit in Victoria, they have to come to our side," said Ernie Crey, whose sister Dawn Crey has been missing since December 2000.

"We have another job to do: and that is to be a voice for all of these women who have gone missing . . . We have to be their advocates, because they no longer have a voice to speak with."

Crey, an outspoken and well-respected aboriginal leader, said he was hesitant at first to join other families criticizing Vancouver police for not doing enough to solve the case.

But he said his frustrations have grown over the past nine months because he has received little information from investigators. He stressed the importance of working with police and supporting their efforts to find the women, but added pressure must be applied to senior officers, municipal politicians and the provincial government to take the situation more seriously.

"I have to say that I think my sister, and some of the people in this room, deserve better than what is going on with policing authorities in Vancouver. . . I'm very concerned that I'll never learn the fate of my sister," Crey told the memorial service.

"I want the police to get themselves properly organized so that they can do a thorough, comprehensive investigation so that the surviving families of 31 or 41 or 51 women who have gone missing from the east end of Vancouver will know what's become of big sister, little sister, auntie, niece."

The Sun has reported that the original Vancouver police investigation into the case, launched in 1998, was assigned to inexperienced and overworked officers without the time or resources to do a proper job.

The result was a deficient investigation into what may be the largest serial murder case in the city's history.

The Sun has also obtained an internal document that showed Vancouver police resources have suffered in recent years because of budget cuts, meaning there were too few officers to do all the city's policing.

This spring, Vancouver police formed a joint review team with the RCMP to take a fresh look at the cases.

But friends and families of the missing women say they have noticed little improvement, so far, in the investigation.

Char LaFontaine, who was a prostitute and drug addict from age 13 to 35, knows about 16 of the women on the original list of 31 who have vanished over the past two decades.

"They were my partners on the street, they were my sisters, they protected me and I them. And then I became their outreach worker," said LaFontaine, 46, who is now the housing coordinator at Prostitute Alternatives: Counselling & Education (PACE).

"I watched them one at a time disappear. I watched them vanish into thin air. And there has never been an appropriate response to these women being missing."

She said she is too frightened to hear the names of more than a dozen new people police are considering adding to the official missing women list, for fear that she will know them too.

LaFontaine believes a serial killer is stalking the city's prostitutes and, although the size of the Vancouver-RCMP review team has been increased to 16 from 10 people, she called for more investigators and for the province to dedicate money to the case.

"Where's the outrage to bring these women home? If we can't bring them home alive, at least please put pressure on your government, put pressure on your police force, to find them to let them rest," LaFontaine said.

"They need to take us seriously and refocus. . . This is a horrible ending to a difficult life, especially for the parents that don't know what happened."

Neither Solicitor-General Rich Coleman nor Attorney-General Geoff Plant would agree to be interviewed this weekend to comment on The Sun's series.

Anita Hauck, 31, a prostitute and drug addict, is friends with two of the people police are considering adding to the list: Serena Abotsway, 29, who disappeared last month, and Patricia Johnson, 24, who vanished in January.

"I remember Patty being an outgoing, innocent 18-year-old who was experimenting with drugs and did occasionally work the streets," Hauck said.

"Serena was a pretty, happy, kind, caring person. . . It scares me because it just hits home -- it could happen to me."

She wonders why police haven't found a suspect when prostitutes make "bad-date" reports after being roughed up.

"I don't think the case has been taken seriously. I don't think there's enough concern in the community. People still look down on us. They don't remember that we're somebody's sister, we're somebody's daughter, we're somebody's mother."

Officers involved in the file have told The Sun they care about the missing women, and have done as much as they could to investigate their whereabouts given the department's resources. They say it is challenging to track the women's movements because they often lead transient, dangerous lifestyles and missing-persons reports are often filed weeks, or months, after the victims are last seen.

Hauck, who is trying to leave the streets and kick her drug habit after falling into it in her early 20s, said Johnson and Abotsway deteriorated rapidly in east Vancouver. But she stressed no one chooses to work the streets, that most of the women were forced into the trade due to life circumstances.

"And it is hard to catch ourselves once we fall into that abyss of prostitution and drug addiction."

Hauck, 31, brought her four-year-old daughter Mikhaila to the memorial service to remind everyone that the missing women started out as innocent children.

"Mikhaila doesn't know what a prostitute is. And she would never in her mind think that she is going to become one. I was once like her," said the tall, striking woman.

After the emotional speeches, about 100 people at the memorial service lit candles and released balloons into the night sky.

Erin McGrath launched a balloon for her sister Leigh Miner, who has been missing from the Downtown Eastside since January 1994.

McGrath made a missing person's report, provided the police with a picture of Miner, and searched the Downtown Eastside, but didn't hear anything from officers for years.

When she recently called police to inquire about the investigation, police could not find Miner's file -- they eventually located it on microfilm -- but it left McGrath feeling that little was being done to find her sister, who is a drug addict and prostitute.

"At that time, in early 1994, there was no word about the missing women in east Vancouver. We thought it was just our concern, and we felt very alone in our predicament," the articulate woman told the memorial service.

"We would still call the police to check in. We would call when we saw on the news there had been a body washed ashore. We called when a body had been unearthed, or when bones had been found. But nothing.

"Year after year, and still the police had no answer. And I was naive enough to believe they were actively trying to solve my sister's disappearance."

While growing up in a middle-class family in the San Francisco area, McGrath said she had always had an advocate in Miner -- her intelligent, beautiful, outgoing, older sister.

"I'm here tonight because I feel my sister needs me to be her advocate," McGrath said. "Having a drug addiction makes you no less human, no less important, and no less valuable."

In an interview Sunday, Valerie Hughes, the sister of Kerry Lynn Koski, who vanished in January, 1998, expressed her frustration at the police investigation. Like McGrath, Hughes said she was trying to get officers interested in her sister's file months before Vancouver formed a team to search for the missing women.

"It would be truly nice if some of the things they are doing now were done then."

Hughes sympathizes that police are understaffed, but said she also believes they haven't given the file a top priority.

Shari Herbert, the organizer of the Saturday night memorial at an elementary school in Abbotsford, encouraged those at the event to demand answers.

"It's time that we did something," said Herbert, whose 11-year-old daughter Kathryn-Mary was murdered in 1975. The case has never been solved.

"You can stand there and say, 'It's not my child. Why should I care?' Because it could happen to you."

Herbert called on supporters to be calm and rational, to try to bring about change by writing letters and phoning police and politicians.

"There's too many missing. Those are all missing," she said, pointing to a collage of posters behind her bearing the pictures of dozens of women who have disappeared from the Downtown Eastside.

"It's time we got a grip and started pushing. . . You have to stand and start fighting back."

Investigation turns up more missing women-Sept 21, 2001

How the investigation was flawed-Sept 22, 2001

DNA Samples not used-Sept 24, 2001



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

Updated: August 21, 2016