The disappeared

In 1983, a prostitute from Vancouver's poorest district went missing. Over the next 20 years, more than 60 others met the same fate. Then, finally, police found remains at a local pig farm. Julie Bindel asks: what took them so long?

Friday August 5, 2005


Rebecca Guno was one of the first to go missing. On a hot June day in 1983, Guno, a drug-addicted prostitute from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest district, disappeared. She was never seen again. And she was not the last. More than 60 other women, mainly working in the sex trade, many from the aboriginal community, would vanish.

It would be almost 20 years before police tracked down the man they believe to be responsible, and another three years for them to gather evidence for the trial. Robert Pickton, a pig farmer, was arrested in 2002 after police called at his farm looking for weapons on an entirely different matter. Friends and relatives of some of the disappeared had alerted police to the farm several times over the years, having heard rumors about what happened there, but police had shown little interest.

When detectives eventually searched the farm 20 miles east of Vancouver they found more than the missing women's belongings. Human body parts were found in the freezer, and remains discovered in pig feed. Forensic experts then spent the next two years sifting through 370,000 cubic metres of mud and manure looking for further human parts.

Pickton, who liked to be known as Willy, hung out with the Hell's Angels biker crowd, and was a regular customer of the street prostitution scene. Several locals
described him as "weird" and "slow", and he tended to keep a low profile. Charged with the first-degree murder of 27 women, Pickton is now awaiting trial, which is expected to be held next January in British Columbia Superior Court. If found guilty, Pickton will go down as Canada's most prolific serial killer.

Pickton first became known to police in 1997 after Wendy Lynn Eistetter, a drug addict and prostitute, was stabbed during one of Pickton's notorious parties at Piggy Palace, a late-night drinking den near the farm that he and his brother David owned and used for "community events". She managed to disarm Pickton and run away, and was later found covered in blood on the highway by a passing motorist. Pickton was charged with the stabbing, but all charges were dropped a few months later.

The frequent parties at Piggy's Palace drew female drug addicts like a magnet. They knew they could get a fix there. The farm was a grim place, with a sign at the entrance that read, "This property protected by pit bull with Aids."

"That farm was the dregs of the earth," one prostitute from Downtown Eastside has said. "It was a hellhole. You can say to someone, 'Don't go,' but if they are an addict, the addiction overcomes the senses ... Police had known about the farm for some time, but nothing changed."

The first charges against Pickton were for the murders of Sereena Abotsway and Mona Wilson, based on DNA tests of remains found at the farm. Abotsway went missing days before her 30th birthday. "She would call home every day, and then she just stopped," said her mother. Wilson was 26. Workers at the drop-in centre for prostitutes and drug users described her as "a very sweet young woman who had struggled to deal with a lot of violence in her life and a serious drug problem". Her family alerted police that she was missing when she failed to come home for Christmas. Wilson had wanted to come off drugs but had been unable to get into a treatment centre as few spaces were available for women.

Wayne Leng, a close friend of Sarah de Vries, whose remains were also found at the farm, has been a thorn in the side of the police ever since de Vries went missing. A visitor to the farm told him that he'd seen a stack of identity cards which he thought probably belonged to the missing women. "I passed this on to police," he says, "but they were not interested. Those of us in the community who knew the women have never let this go. We will never give up until there has been a public inquiry, and the police know this."

Up to 69 women are known to be missing. Photographs of their faces on the missing women's website - mostly police mugshots - look battered and sick. But there are thought to be many more.

It took police a long time before they accepted that the missing women were likely to be the victims of a serial killer, targeting vulnerable people who are often not missed for years. By the late 1990s, however, activists and friends and families of the missing were starting to ask questions, and were refusing to accept the excuses police were giving them. "The police kept saying that the women had probably gone to live in another town, and that their lifestyles had made them so chaotic they would forget to call home," says one relative, who asked not to be named. "They must have thought we were stupid."

In 2001, 18 years after the first woman on their list disappeared, the police formed the Missing Women Task Force, collating the names of 54 women missing from the area, and launching what quickly became Canada's largest murder investigation. What took them so long? "These women are the most stigmatized group in society other than pedophiles," says John Lowman, criminologist from Vancouver's Simon Frasier University, "and sometimes I think more so. They are not as important to society as other women."

After Pickton's arrest, police assigned additional investigators to the case, but an officer commented at the time, "We are in no way saying there is a serial murderer out there. We are in no way saying that all those people missing are dead."

One police officer, however, was convinced from early on that a serial killer was at large. Inspector Kim Rossmo is a geographical profiler who helped develop software that enables police to locate where a serial killer lives. "Crimes tend to occur at those locations where suitable victims or targets are found by offenders as they move throughout their activity spaces," says Rossmo. When large numbers of prostitutes were going missing from the Downtown Eastside, Rossmo considered that too many events were happening in too small an area in too short a time period for it not to be the same perpetrator. Tragically, his colleagues in the Vancouver Police Department major crime section did not accept his theory. "They had great difficulty in accepting the fact that the only explanation that could account for this evidence was a serial murderer," says Rossmo. "They failed to see the fire beneath the smoke, and acted too little, too late."

Life is cheap in Downtown Eastside, also known as "Low Track" and "Skid Row": 10 blocks of urban wasteland, its streets littered with used condoms and needles, populated with liquor stores and pawn shops. It is the centre of the drug trade, with dealers, pimps and the most disenfranchised women in society selling themselves for anything from a packet of cigarettes to a rock of crack. It has the highest rate of HIV infection in North America. Girls and boys as young as 11 are found on what is known as "kiddie stroll" - runaways with appalling backgrounds who soon find out how much worse life can be. Almost 80% of adult prostitutes in the area started selling themselves while still children.

Suzanne Jay of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter believes that the sexist and racist attitudes of some police officers contributed to the slow start to the investigation. "Our justice system does not respond well to women who are black and criminalized. Prostitutes are seen as worth less than other women. They fall low on police priority."

Although there has been much criticism of the police response, much of the community in Downtown Eastside has pulled together to mourn them. On Valentine's Day this year, more than 500 people gathered to remember the disappeared. In the crowd was Maggy Gisle, known as Crazy Jackie when she lived on the streets. Seven years ago she managed to kick her cocaine addiction and leave prostitution. Fifty-four of her friends from the area are missing, 27 confirmed murdered. "There are many more that the police won't add to the list," she tells me. "Whole buildings of women have disappeared, but no one is looking for them."

For some, these women got what they deserved. "Some press reports on the case give the impression that for drug-addicted prostitutes, rape and murder are just occupational hazards," says Lowman. When it came out that police had found human remains in the pig feed, people started worrying about whether this meant that Pickton's pork products contained human flesh. "There was more concern from some about that than about the women themselves," says Alice Vachss, a former sex crimes prosecutor who has been following the Pickton case. "Some folk were queasier at what they had put in their stomachs than the fact that scores of women had been brutally murdered and mutilated."

While waiting for the trial to begin, friends and relatives try to pay tribute to the disappeared as best they can. Poems and diary extracts from the victims have been posted on websites. One poem stands out in its poignant prediction of the fate she would one day meet. De Vries wrote this some time before she went missing: "Just one more thing you so easily forget/you and your soft, sheltered life./Just go on and on, for nobody special from your world is gone./Just another Hasting Street whore/sentenced to death."

Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

Courtesy of Guardian Unlimited

If the girls had been dogs the police would have done more - Feb 27, 2002



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

Updated: August 21, 2016