tribute to the missing women

Sarah we hardly knew you

Saturday, Jul. 26, 2003

Missing Sarah:

A Vancouver Woman Remembers

Her Vanished Sister

By Maggie de Vries
Penguin Canada,
267 pages, $36

Already accused of killing at least 15 of the more than 60 missing prostitutes and drug addicts from Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside, Robert William Pickton, 53, has the potential to eclipse Clifford Robert Olson as Canada's worst serial killer.

For most Canadians, though, any information they have is based on rumour and speculation, the bulk of it drawn from the scant coverage allowed in the media.

The wide-ranging publication ban placed on Pickton's preliminary hearing is the most stringent in Canadian history, outstripping the Karla Homolka ban. Even the Internet is covered -- a fact well known to me since I was covering the hearing for the newswires, Reuters and Associated Press.

After the defence alleged that I wrote something that breached the ban, I was ordered to appear in Port Coquitlam provincial court as Pickton watched. I was put on notice by Judge David Stone; I would be banned from the court or jailed if there were further alleged breaches. Can I tell you the facts? Can I characterize them? Can I tell you about any effects the case has had on those in court? The answer to each question is: No.

Into that information vacuum has stepped Maggie de Vries. She's the adoptive sister of Sarah de Vries, a stunning woman who became a prostitute and drug addict; she vanished from her regular Vancouver corner on April 14, 1998. A host of devils dogged her footsteps in her dramatic 29-year life, and her inquisitively innocent face continues to peer from the poster of missing women that became a fixture on power poles and seedy bars on Vancouver's skid row.

Maggie tells her sister's tale in Missing Sarah. The story draws on the experiences of the de Vries family, as its youngest member slowly slipped into a life on the streets. Sarah was adopted at the age of 11 months, the child of mixed-race parents -- aboriginal, black, white and Mexican Indian. She had lived with her birth mother and then a succession of foster families before being adopted by Jan and Pat de Vries. She joined the couple's two natural children and an adopted son.

Often the victim of schoolyard racism, Sarah began running away from home regularly at age 14. Invariably, her destination was Vancouver's downtown. There, she met others who had experienced problems fitting in at home and developed a kinship with them. She began to experiment with drugs. But, despite her absences, she frequently returned to the stability the family offered.

Although away at university, Maggie ventured to the Downtown Eastside when she could, meeting her sister in flophouse hotels and run-down houses. She brings her sister to life in the book through excerpts from Sarah's journal and snippets of her poetry and drawings. With a relaxed, almost conversational style, Maggie weaves the swatches of her life through the text. Never is it as brutal as the subtext, but its hammerlike impact is never diminished. And, through it, Sarah speaks directly to the reader.

Chillingly, almost in a premonition, Sarah discusses the disappearances: "Am I next? Is he watching me now? Stalking me like a predator and its prey. Waiting, waiting for some perfect spot, time or my stupid mistake. How does one choose a victim? Good question, isn't it? If I knew that, I would never get snuffed."

Maggie de Vries, a B.C. Book Prize winner for her children's novel, Chance and the Butterfly, went looking for Sarah before it was discovered that Sarah's DNA was found at Pickton's Port Coquitlam farm. While he has not been charged in her death, he faces trial on 15 charges of first-degree murder in B.C. Supreme Court.

"It was hard to face up to the possibility that someone I loved had been murdered, that Sarah had suffered as she must have and that she was gone, but while I considered other possibilities, I did believe almost from the beginning that she had been killed," Maggie writes. "I also could not grasp that my life had become one of the stories that I barely glanced at in the papers, a sensationalistic story that feeds on people's misery to feed other people's insatiable appetite for that misery, especially when it involves sex or violence. Well, the story was now my life, the misery mine and my family's."

While Maggie's attempts to detail the bleakness of life on the street, one senses that, even after 20 years of dealing with her sister's problems, the author is a long way from resolving them.

The warmest passages in the book are those dealing with Sarah's visits to her tony West Point Grey childhood home, and subsequent family homes in the area. Sarah gave her two children, both born addicted to drugs, to her family to raise, because of her inability to care for them. But she remained as much a part of their lives as her chaotic existence allowed.

"They are left with a set of questions not unlike those that Sarah herself grew up with," Maggie writes, "and to those they must add their awareness of the worst in human beings: the fact that a person would deliberately kill another, somebody's mother, and then chop up that person's body to dispose of it."

Missing Sarah is a rarity among books about sensational murder cases in that the more lurid aspects of the horrific crimes are absent.

Sarah's story will develop further as more information about the case reaches the public in 2004, when the publication ban is lifted. For a reporter having covered the five-month-long preliminary hearing, it is gut wrenching to read her story. For those not yet in possession of the evidence, it's an account of a life gone horribly wrong.

Jeremy Hainsworth is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.

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

Updated: August 21, 2016