Children of Vancouver's missing women

Grieving family and friends now must face the upcoming Pickton trial

Lori Culbert
Vancouver Sun

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Just inside the front door of the de Vries family's southwestern Ontario home, the photographs of the beautiful young woman with her baby and toddler are hanging low on the wall.

Sarah de Vries is one of 68 women who disappeared between 1978 and 2001. She is shown here with her daughter Jeannie who is now 15. Her son Ben is 9.

They're at eye level for those children, now a few years older, to look at every day as they come home from school: The curly-haired woman reading a Winnie the Pooh book as her four-year-old daughter gazes happily at the camera, and another shot of the woman laughing as she proudly holds up a grinning five-month-old boy.

"When they come home with their friends, the pictures are right at their level. When people say, 'Why do you live with your grandmother and so on,' they can say, 'That's my mother right there,'" said Pat de Vries, who is raising her grandchildren Jeannie, 15, and Ben, 9.

Their mother is Sarah de Vries, one of 68 women who disappeared between 1978 and 2001 from Vancouver's seedy Downtown Eastside.

Those women have left behind treasured memories of the last time they were seen by family and friends; as-yet unanswered questions about what happened to them and many children who have become precious reminders of lost lives.

It is estimated the 68 missing women altogether had about 75 children -- some quite young, some school-aged and some adults -- when they vanished.

It is those children, along with many other grieving relatives, who are facing a new and difficult phase in this horrible tale: The trial of Robert (Willy) Pickton, who is accused of killing 27 of the women, starts Monday.

It begins with the voir dire, a portion of the trial that is expected to last several months and will determine what evidence can be heard by a jury.

Reporters cannot publish any details heard during the voir dire, so family members will not yet be subjected to disturbing headlines or TV news stories about the alleged fate of the missing women.

Pat de Vries has been honest with her grandchildren about her daughter Sarah's lifestyle and that police believe she was killed on Pickton's Port Coquitlam pig farm. But she's glad they won't be inundated yet with daily news in this portion of the trial.

She, like the caregivers of the other missing women's children, will decide later this year how to best prepare her grandchildren for that eventuality.

Jeannie is old enough to understand some of the complicated facets of her mother's lifestyle, but Ben "has no idea what prostitution is all about."

"It's hard to know what's in his head. I do know that he has fears -- he's more aware of the fact that there are bad guys in the world than most little boys are. He knows it for a certainty, not just for an imagination thing," de Vries said.

The backgrounds of the missing women -- some came from poverty, others from middle-class families -- were as varied as the reasons that led to them to drug addictions and prostitution.

But despite their challenges, many of the women shared a common thread of dedication to their children. Some were raising the youngsters when they disappeared, while others kept in regular contact as relatives looked after their kids.

In many of the cases, it was the children not hearing from their mothers that led relatives to file missing person reports with police.

Tanya Holyk's family knew something was wrong when she didn't come home in October 1996, after a night out with friends, to see her boy, who was about to turn one. Pickton has since been charged with her murder.

Yvonne Boen's mother, Lynn Metin, began to worry when her daughter, who had three sons, failed to show up in March 2001 for a visit with her middle son Troy, who Metin is raising.

"She was supposed to be here that Sunday to pick him up and she didn't show up," Metin told The Sun in 2004. "She never contacted me. That just wasn't her. Every holiday, Troy's birthday, my birthday -- it just wasn't like her not to phone."

Boen's DNA was found on Pickton's farm, although police haven't charged him with her murder because there isn't sufficient evidence.

Jack Cummer says his granddaughter Andrea Joesbury, who Pickton is accused of murdering, was straightening out her life and providing a good home to her infant daughter in an East Vancouver apartment before her disappearance in June, 2001.

"She was working very hard, she needed a lot of things, but she was doing it all herself," Cummer said in an interview.

"Andrea was worn to a frazzle, but the baby was well cared for."

However, he said, social services received a complaint about the well-being of the girl and seized her, which sent Joesbury into a downward spiral of drugs and prostitution.

"The thing is that she lost her whole reason to live," Cummer said, wondering if that was the case for some of the other victims.

"They were women, individuals, who unfortunately got lured into or abused into a different life, but an underlying factor is that if they were a mother they worshipped the ground their kids walked on."

The baby, who would now be about seven years old, was adopted and the Cummers are not able to see her. Joesbury, he said, either didn't realize or wouldn't accept the finality of the adoption, and would tell her grandparents that she was going to try to get her daughter back.

"She decided that she was going to straighten up and her prime objective was to get the baby back. I didn't have the heart to tell her that she was never going to do that," he said.

When missing woman Marnie Frey had a baby girl at 18 years old, she asked her parents Lynn and Rick Frey to adopt Brittney.

Marnie Lee Frey

"She said, 'Mom, this is the only thing I can do for her. I love her dearly, but I know I can't look after her as a mom,' " Lynn Frey recalled.

Because Marnie didn't want Brittney to think she didn't love her, the family told the girl, who is now 13, that Marnie was her older sister. But the Freys were forced to tell Brittney the truth two years ago when schoolyard bullies questioned her about her mother's identity following the publicity around Pickton's arrest for Marnie's murder, Lynn Frey said.

She now often tells Brittney: "Marnie was an awesome mom, she loved you with all her heart and that's why she gave you up for adoption because she knew she was addicted to drugs and her life was going down the wrong path, and she didn't want anything to happen to you."

Brittney was in kindergarten when Frey disappeared in September 1997, and has sketchy memories of her mother. The Freys have only one photograph of Marnie and Brittney together, because Marnie took her pictures to Vancouver and her belongings have never been found.

"They are so much alike," Lynn Frey said. "They have the same mannerisms, they have the same walk, they have the same attitude."

While some families will choose to keep children far from Pickton's trial, Lynn Frey believes Brittney needs to hear some some information -- although no disturbing details -- in court.

"I told her she can do a victim impact [statement] when the time comes, so she's started and she's got a binder full already. She's angry, she's really angry," Lynn Frey said. "Marnie didn't deserve to die. Marnie was a good person."

The provincial government's Victim Services and Community Programs division offers assistance to families as they grapple with traumatic events. There are several support workers who are dedicated to the missing women case, and have been helping relatives prepare for the trial, which could last more than a year.

"They've been working with the family members in preparing the entire family for this process, and working with the family about what works best for their unique situation," said victims services communications coordinator Pardeep Purewal.

"They've been ... preparing them with case information, preparing them for information that could potentially come out in the media, any emotional support."

The program offers relatives counselling, travel assistance to attend the trial, and respite areas in the New Westminster court house where they can go for breaks. There are other victims' services provided by the agency across B.C., as well as a multi-lingual 24-hour crisis support line called victimLINK at 1-800-563-0808.

"This is a very difficult time for the family members, and our role is to help them through that process. I think it's important to balance the information that needs to be presented to the public with the sensitivity to the needs of the family," she said.

"Respecting their concerns for the children involved, and other family members."

Purewal said more than 200 family members of the missing women have accessed help from victim services.

Indeed, some of the missing women, like Cindy Feliks who Pickton is accused of murdering, left behind not only children but grandchildren, and many others had nieces and nephews.

There is concern that two nieces of missing woman Dawn Crey, whose DNA has been found on Pickton's farm, could follow their aunt's same devastating path.

Dawn's brother Ernie Crey is locked in a battle with the government over the foster care given to the daughters of another Crey sister, Sherry, who also fell into drugs and prostitution. The troubled girls, aged 13 and 14, were kicked out of a native-agency foster home, and Crey is demanding the Ministry for Children and Families take over the case and find them another home before it is too late.

"People have asked me over the years, how does your sister and these other women end up in the Downtown Eastside in the first place," Ernie Crey said. "I say, 'Look, right now I have two nieces who are heading down the same road if there isn't intervention from the ministry in their lives.... When is it going to stop?' "

Some of the missing women's children have escaped the cycle of poverty, violence and drugs that claimed their mothers, while others have fallen into it. Their experiences are as diverse as their mothers'.

Other women Pickton has been accused of murdering who left behind children include Heather Bottomley, Jacqueline McDonell, Heather Chinnock, and Georgina Papin, who had six children.

Kerry Koski was married and raising three teenage children in a middle-class family, while Dianne Rock was also married, had a good job and five children, when drugs took over their lives.

It was Rock's daughter Carol Ann's 14th birthday when she last saw her mother in June 2001, and when the woman disappeared four months later the teenager walked the streets of the Downtown Eastside looking for her.

"I just wanted to find her, she was really important to me," the teenager told the Welland Tribune newspaper in Ontario, where she now lives.

There are also children out there of the 40 women who are still missing, such as Janet Henry's daughter Debra Chartier, now 20, who has been trying to locate her mother since her disappearance in June 1997.

She posted a letter on the website, expressing frustration that society doesn't seem interested in helping her find her mother.

"My mom is an important part of my life even though she did have some problems and wasn't there most of the time. I don't plan to follow in her footsteps. I don't plan to be better than her either. Nobody's perfect. But I do plan to fight for her until she's found," Chartier wrote.

"I don't see how she could have run off because I know she loves me.... She won't see me graduate and she won't be at my wedding if I get married. All the important stuff she won't be there. I bet if she could see it all then she'd have been proud of me."

Jeannie de Vries has been raised by her grandmother since birth, and the last time she saw her mother she was about six years old. She holds dear a few memories, and asks occasional questions about the woman she resembles so much.

"Jeannie is interested in how much she's like her. Did she have acne, or was she good at singing," Pat de Vries says with a kind laugh.

Both Jeannie and Ben have challenges in life, but are doing well and participating in extracurricular activities.

Pat de Vries is relieved she decided years ago to move from Vancouver back to her home town in Ontario, where she hopes the trial in this sensational case will not receive as much publicity as in B.C. That, perhaps, will protect her grandchildren from some future pain.

"I think it's easier for them to grow up far away," she said. "And I'm especially glad during all this that we're not there."

 The Vancouver Sun 2006

The Vancouver Sun

Missing Women, Forgotten Children - the de Vries

Missing Women, Missing Children - the Freys

Sketches express softer side of missing women



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

Updated: August 21, 2016