One woman's disappearance became a focus

Doug Ward
Vancouver Sun

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

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

From the journal of Sarah de Vries, 29, who vanished in the spring of 1998.

She had worked as a prostitute on the Downtown Eastside and was last seen on the corner of Princess and Hastings.

- - -

She wasn't forgotten.

Sarah de Vries is shown reading here to her daughter, one of her two children.

The quote from her journals kicked off a feature in The Vancouver Sun on March 3, 1999 -- a two-part story by reporter Lindsay Kines about de Vries and the disappearance of sex-trade workers.

The fate of de Vries and of other missing women on the Downtown Eastside eventually shocked a city and a nation.

A cluster of disappearances sparked a police investigation and media coverage that culminated in the 2002 arrest of Robert (Willie) Pickton, who is scheduled to go on trial 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 sex-trade workers were not uncommon in the '70s and '80s.

But de Vries' 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's 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 de Vries.

A friend of de Vries, 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.

"This was the first hint I had that there were more missing women. It's what prompted me to start asking around the Downtown Eastside," Kines, who is now a Victoria Times Colonist reporter, said in an interview Monday.

"Then I found that the police were concerned about the number who were missing."

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.

And the media, including The Vancouver Sun, began to profile prostitutes who had disappeared. The phrase "missing women" became a familiar phrase as reporters attempted to give the alarming statistics some humanity.

In a two-part report in 1999 entitled Missing on the Mean Streets, which included his profile on de Vries, 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's stories were confirming what was being said on the street, recalled Elaine Allen, 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."

And they were talking with a sense that nobody was listening, recalled Allen.

"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 that the stories put tons of pressure on the mayor and the police chief," Allen said.

DeVries' friend Leng similarly said that Kines's early coverage helped place the spotlight on the missing women and the police investigation.

Leng praised Kines and other Sun reporters for "handling the issue carefully and not sensationalizing it." He said The Sun helped the public see the victims as "missing women" as opposed to prostitutes with drug habits.

"Many people looked at prostitutes as throwaways who deserved what they got. But those of us who knew them -- we knew they were so much more. Sarah [de Vries] was a wonderful person."

In 1999, the police added detectives to a team of officers investigating the disappearances and sought assistance from authorities involved in major serial killer cases in the U.S. Also that year, 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 case in 1999.

But progress was slow, women continued to disappear and 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 working in Vancouver's most impoverished neighbourhood.

THURSDAY: The number of missing women continued to climb in the new century. An 11-part Vancouver Sun series in 2001 examined the police investigators' lack of progress. Shortly after the series, more officers were attached to the probe.

You can now listen to every Vancouver Sun story on our new digital edition.

Free to full-week print subscribers or sign up for a 7-day free trial.


First of 11 parts

 The Vancouver Sun 2007

Courtesy of
The Vancouver Sun

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