Secluded garden helps families mark the memory of the women left dead and missing in the Pickton case

September 27, 2006

VANCOUVER -- A special memorial in a secluded place not far from Vancouver's skid row has been created by families of women alleged to have been killed by Robert Pickton.

The families have been reluctant to speak about the site. They hope to keep it as a sombre place to remember those who have no graves. They have been trying to shelter the area from the public eye in order to maintain its peaceful, meditative atmosphere. The Globe and Mail was allowed to visit the site this week on the promise of respecting their privacy.

The area is dominated by mementoes from the so-called healing tent that provided refuge to the families in 2002 and 2003 while police investigated the suburban property. Posters and heartfelt tributes are tacked to a wooden bench made from a fence that was previously on the edge of the property. A weather-beaten poster of 31 missing women, a faded missing-person's poster for Helen Mae Hallmark and a loving remembrance of Cindy Feliks are among the postings. Some of the tent's original plantings are in planters in the area.

Kathy-Jo Bryce, 25, has been coming to the site since the spring. She last saw her sister, Patricia Rose Johnson, in March of 2001. Police told her the following year that they believed her sister had been murdered. Her sister's remains were never found.

Ms. Bryce brought colourful flowering plants to the site this week. She prefers plants "because cut flowers die," she said. She comes as often as she can to light a candle and occasionally burn rose incense in memory of her sister, who had the middle name Rose. Here, she said, she also talks to her sister.

And she has a lot to say. At the time of her sister's disappearance, Ms. Bryce was addicted to drugs and worked as a prostitute, much like her older sibling. She wishes she could let her sister know how she has made an "awesome" turnaround in her life in recent years.

Ms. Bryce said she was 11 years old when she started with drugs. She had run away from home and moved in with a 57-year-old man who sold crack cocaine. She turned her first trick as a prostitute at 14 and was spending as much as $500 a day on heroin by the age of 15. She was 16 before authorities caught up with her and placed her in a group home.

"[The group home] was okay, I had lots of food," Ms. Bryce recalled. She also remembers that she didn't have a curfew and went out every night. She continued taking drugs and working as a prostitute.

"It was not that hard to get $1,500," she said.

The government continued to provide assistance as she got older. That money paid her rent; income from prostitution paid for her drugs.

Ms. Bryce tried to get off drugs many times but never stayed clean. A serious intravenous drug user, she shot up in her upper and lower arm. When she could not get a hit off her arm, she started injecting in the neck. She even shot up in her foot a couple of times.

"I was that bad. I never thought I was going to come out of it. I never saw myself as being anything else. I never saw myself working for minimum wage, going to school and doing anything other than what I was doing," Ms. Bryce said.

She was devastated in 2002 when she heard what had happened to her sister.

"I hit bottom real hard," she said. "I just did not give a care any more if I lived or died. Nothing really mattered to me. I did not care about my hygiene; I did not care who picked me up. It just did not matter to me."

Her downward spiral lasted more than a year. Then she decided she had to clean up for the sake of her sister's two children.

"I wanted to be there for my nephew and niece. I wanted to get healthy. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I did not want to be an addict any more and I did not want to be a prostitute any more."

With the help of methadone, she has stayed away from drugs for more than two years.

She no longer works as a prostitute, largely as a result of help she received from an organization called Peers Vancouver, which helps girls leave the sex trade. She is now working part-time in a pizza parlour for minimum wage and making plans to take a residential-care attendant course. She is engaged to be married.

"I never thought I would make it this far. I was an extreme heroin addict. I used to stand on a street corner like my sister and today I am clean," she said.

She believes her sister, if still alive, would no longer be addicted and working as a prostitute. "She wanted to get clean and, more than anything, to have her kids back with her," Ms. Bryce said. "If I could do it, she could do it."

She thinks about her sister often. Last week, Ms. Bryce got a tattoo of a rose with a butterfly on her ankle as a tribute to her sister. It was her second rose tattoo. But she had moved when she got the first tattoo and it came out too dark. "This time I stayed still. I just cried because it hurt," she said.

Ms. Bryce is disappointed that her sister is not among the victims named in the murder charges against Mr. Pickton for a trial that is slated to begin Jan. 8. Although Mr. Pickton is charged with killing 26 women, only six charges will go to court in the first trial.

However, she is grateful she has a special place to go to remember her sister. The site is important not just to her, she said -- the women who do not have graves should also not be forgotten.

"We want to have a spot to remember them and this is it," Ms. Bryce said.

I never thought I would make it this far. I was an extreme heroin addict. I used to stand on a street corner like my sister and today I am clean.

Copyright 2006 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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