Sarah deVries remembered for 'amazing qualities'

Friday February 15, 2002
Toronto Star

VANCOUVER - Sarah deVries is a smile behind the statistic.

Sarah de Vries' sister Maggie says 
"It's impossible to piece together why she ended up where she did."

One of 50 women missing and presumed dead from Vancouver's   downtown eastside since 1983, de Vries fits the mould -- drug addict and prostitute. To many, her kind are nameless, faceless sellers of themselves to feed their habits, autobiographers of despair.

But to family and friends -- including her mother Pat de Vries of Guelph -- who for more than a week have looked to a suburban pig farm for possible answers into her disappearance, Sarah was a curly-haired beauty with an infectious laugh and a talent for writing and drawing. A mother. A daughter. A sister.

"Just because someone is addicted to drugs and living on the street, people tend to think that they may as well not be alive, that their life isn't worth anything," Maggie de Vries, 40, Sarah's older sister, said in an interview. "But that's just not true. Sarah could be a pretty tough and scary person but she also had amazing qualities."

No road map exists for the journey that took Sarah de Vries from a childhood in one of Vancouver's more affluent neighbourhoods to demise on the streets of its poorest.

She grew up in Vancouver's West Point Grey. Its large homes, tree-lined streets and wide-open spaces are separated from the grubby rooming houses, garbage-strewn alleyways and drug-laced culture of the downtown eastside by less than 10 kilometres -- and a monumental divide.

What may have led de Vries from one to the other nearly two decades ago include adoption, racism and divorced parents. Money, the desire to feel a part of something and the excitement of being the centre of men's attention, also could offer an explanation.

"It's impossible to piece together why she ended up where she did," said Maggie de Vries, answering a question that she has obviously already asked herself many times.

As Maggie de Vries talked, the dining room table of her condominium was covered with framed family pictures from much happier times. A young Sarah smiles from one. In another, her two children -- Jeanie, now 11, and Xxx, 5, -- stare out brightly, their smiles and curly hair making them look like mini versions of their mother.

Sarah de Vries was born in 1969 of native Indian, black and Mexican heritage and was adopted before her first birthday. She became the youngest of four children of a professor and his wife, a nurse, growing up in an upper-middle class household.

"She was a very bubbly, outgoing little girl," Maggie de Vries said.

"She always had a pen and paper in hand, drawing and writing poems," Maggie de Vries said about a passion her sister entertained until she disappeared in April, 1998. "She was very creative, very melodramatic."

But Sarah de Vries was also troubled. Growing up as a black child in a totally white neighbourhood in the 1970s, she was teased and subjected to racist taunts. At home, while her older siblings and parents could sympathize, they could not relate.

"It was really tough for her, growing up with nobody who shared her experience on that fundamental level," said Maggie de Vries, a children's book author and editor.

When Sarah was 9, her parents split up. As the youngest, she took it hard. By her teens, she was in with the wrong crowd, using drugs, running away and frequenting the streets. It's unclear whether she ever completed Grade 8. By age 17, she was gone for good.

An attractive, dark, petite woman, Sarah had no trouble finding customers for her body on Vancouver streets. Never one to rely on a pimp in a dozen or so years on the streets, according to those who knew her, there was also no shortage of cash to feed addictions.

"She was beautiful. She was sassy," said Wayne Leng, who first met Sarah de Vries in 1994 as he was coming out of a convenience store in the downtown eastside.

While Leng, 52, admits buying sex from de Vries thus helping fund her drug habit, he said that that part of the relationship was soon replaced by a strong friendship. He still fondly recalls taking her to see her family at Christmas and a summer picnic with them at the beach. They went to see the movie Titanic not long before she vanished.

"Sarah had a very strong addiction that she couldn't break but she also had dreams," Leng said in an interview from Los Angeles where he is now an automotive technician in a dealership. "She wanted a picket fence and a house and children and that whole shot.

"Near the end, she was just getting sick and tired of being sick and tired," said Leng, who alerted the de Vries family to Sarah's disappearance and for months led the search for her.

Those efforts eventually grew into a Website -- -- that is dedicated to the 50 women who have disappeared from the downtown eastside.

That neighbourhood ultimately defined Sarah de Vries. On the downtown eastside she became addicted to heroin and cocaine. She was HIV-positive. She suffered hepatitis-C.

But those close to her say that's only part of her story. She developed close friendships.

She discouraged young women from following in her footsteps. She kept in regular contact with her family, defying police belief the missing women may have just left town.

Sarah de Vries' two children were born while she lived on the downtown eastside. They now live with their grandmother in Guelph, a vital link to their mother for her family.

She also continued to write and draw.

In the fall of 1997, a few months before vanishing, she penned a poem about the beating death of a downtown eastside prostitute, describing her as "a broken down angel, just a child with no place."

That poem is one her family and friends believe was prophetic. They hope for answers from the pig farm in Port Coquitlam, 35 kilometres east of Vancouver, so they can finally get some closure, no matter how difficult such a revelation would be.

"It's strange combination of horror and hope to want them to dig up my sister's remains on that property," Maggie de Vries said. "But that's what I'm hoping for."

Whether or not that happens, Maggie de Vries hopes people realize the life of her sister -- and the other missing women -- did matter. And, as foreign as their circumstances may seem, people realize that, in the end, the divide between them and us is not so great.

"Sarah's story shows that it can happen to anybody's daughter or sister," she said.

B.C. Missing Women - Sarah's street diaries

She's focusing on the living-Dec 6, 2001

In Memory of Sarah 1969-1998 

©Guelph Mercury 2001
8-14 Macdonell St.,
Guelph, Ontario, Canada, N1H 6P7

Praise for a man who dared to care-Dec 9, 2004



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Updated: August 21, 2016