VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
The little sister behind the statistic
Sarah deVries went from affluence to addiction to missing
VANCOUVER — Sarah deVries is a smile behind the statistic.
One of 50 women missing and presumed dead from Vancouver's downtown eastside since 1983, deVries 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 who for more than a week have looked to a suburban pig farm for possible answers into her disappearance, deVries 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 deVries, 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 deVries from a childhood in one of Vancouver's more affluent neighbourhoods to demise on the streets of its poorest.
She grew up in 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 led deVries from one to the other nearly two decades ago may have been fuelled by the racism she experienced growing up and the pain of seeing her adoptive parents divorce. Money, the desire to feel a part of something and the excitement of being the centre of male attention, also could offer an explanation.
"It's impossible to piece together why she ended up where she did," said Maggie deVries, answering a question she has obviously already asked herself many times.
As Maggie deVries talked, the dining room table of her condominium was covered with framed family pictures from happier times. A young Sarah smiles from one. In another, her two children — Jeanie, now 11, and Ben, 5 — stare out brightly, their smiles and curls making them look like mini versions of their mother.
Sarah deVries 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, out-going little girl," said Maggie deVries.
"She always had a pen and paper in hand, drawing and writing poems," Maggie deVries said about a passion her sister had until she disappeared in April, 1998. "She was very creative, very melodramatic."
But Sarah deVries was also troubled. Growing up as a black child in a 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.
`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. But that's just not true. Sarah's story shows that it can happen to anybody's daughter or sister.'
Maggie deVries, sister of Sarah deVries, who vanished in 1998
"It was really tough for her, growing up with nobody who shared her experience on that fundamental level," said Maggie deVries, 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 completed Grade 8. By age 17, she was gone for good.
An attractive, 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 deVries in 1994 as he was coming out of a convenience store in the downtown eastside.
While Leng, 52, admits buying sex from deVries, thus helping fund her drug habit, he said 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. "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 deVries family to Sarah's disappearance and for months led the search for her.
Those efforts eventually grew into a Web site — http://www.missingpeople.net — that is dedicated to the 50 women who disappeared from the eastside.
That neighbourhood ultimately defined Sarah deVries. 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 contact with her family, defying police belief the missing women may have just left town.
Sarah deVries' 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.
In the fall of 1997, a few months before vanishing, Sarah deVries penned a poem about the beating death of a downtown eastside prostitute, describing her as "a broken down angel, just a child lost 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 a strange combination of horror and hope to want them to dig up my sister's remains on that property," Maggie deVries said. "But that's what I'm hoping for."
Whether or not that happens, Maggie deVries hopes people realize the life of her sister — and the other missing women — did matter. And, as foreign as their circumstances may seem, she hopes 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.
Updated: August 21, 2016