Long list of missing, but little alarm

Doug Ward, CanWest News Service
Published: Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Pickton Trial

There were rumours for years about the disappearance of prostitutes in Vancouver. But when the media began focusing on the names behind the growing numbers of "missing women," police finally took notice. B.C. pig farmer Robert Pickton goes on trial for six murders Jan. 22.

First in a series

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"Will they remember me when I'm gone, or would their lives just carry on?"

-- Sarah deVries, from her journals.

DeVries, 29, vanished in the spring of 1998. She had worked as a prostitute on Vancouver's downtown eastside.

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Sarah deVries wasn't forgotten. The quote from her journals kicked off an article in the Vancouver Sun on March 3, 1999 -- a two-part story by reporter Lindsay Kines about deVries and the disappearance of sex trade workers.

The tragic fate of deVries and of other missing women from Vancouver's downtown eastside eventually shocked a city and a nation.

A cluster of disappearances sparked a police investigation and media coverage that culminated in the arrest and trial of Robert (Willy) Pickton, scheduled for Jan. 22, for the murder of six women. He is to face a second trial in connection with the first-degree murder of 20 additional women.

Prostitutes have always experienced violence in Vancouver and newspaper accounts about murdered hookers were not uncommon in the 1970s and '80s.

However, deVries' disappearance in 1998 was part of an alarming rise in the number of missing sex-trade workers. She was one of 16 women reported missing in 1996, 1997 and 1998.

Kines' first stories on missing prostitutes were about Janet Henry, who vanished in 1997. A year later, Kines wrote a news story about other missing women, including deVries. A friend of deVries, Wayne Leng, told Kines there was growing concern in the downtown eastside about the disappearance of many other women involved in drugs and the sex trade.

"I'd already done two pieces on Janet Henry's disappearance, so those, combined with Leng's information, prompted me to start asking around on the downtown eastside, and I learned the police were concerned about the jump in the number of missing women."

In September 1998, the Vancouver police department set up a team of officers to review unsolved missing women cases dating back to 1971. Vancouver police geographic profiler Kim Rossmo began reviewing missing women files.

As well, the media began profiling prostitutes who had disappeared. The words "missing women" became a familiar phrase as reporters attempted to give humanity to the alarming statistics.

In a two-part series in 1999 -- titled Missing on the Mean Streets -- Kines reported: "With each passing month, the list of the disappeared continues to grow.

"Vancouver police have 20 outstanding files on missing 'street-involved' women since 1995 -- 11 from last year alone."

Kines' stories confirmed what was being said on the street, recalled Elaine Allan, who worked at a drop-in centre for prostitutes in the late '90s.

"The women at the drop-in centre were talking back in 1998 about friends and relatives who had gone missing.

"There was no sense that help was on the way or that anybody in authority was listening."

But reporters such as Kines were listening, and their coverage helped turn the case of the missing women into a major issue.

"There's no question the stories put tons of pressure on the mayor and the police chief," Allan said.

The police added detectives to the team investigating the disappearances and sought assistance from authorities involved in major serial-killer cases in the United States.

The Vancouver police board approved a $100,000 reward to aid in the probe.

America's Most Wanted did a show on the missing women in 1999.

However, progress was slow and women continued to disappear. Many in the downtown eastside believed there would have been a greater public outcry and police response if the missing women had been middle-class rather than prostitutes.

 The Calgary Herald 2007

Concerned citizens such as Wayne Leng, shown in 2000 holding a photo of friend Sarah de Vries,
 tried to publicize Vancouver's  "missing women" problem.

CanWest News Archive Service

Missing on the mean streets by Lindsay Kines

How Lindsay Kines and Sun reporters broke missing women story



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

Updated: August 21, 2016