Stories that need to be told

Police mug shots can't tell the tales of lives lost

By Wendy Cox
The Hamilton Spectator

VANCOUVER (Jan 20, 2007)

Many of the 26 women Robert Willy Pickton is accused of killing appear in a police poster as mug shots -- blank eyes cratered into sallow, ravaged faces, hair pushed out of the way.

Now and again a smile peeks through, out of focus or blurry because a friend or relative didn't quite get the exposure right.

There are a few -- Andrea Joesbury, Tanya Holyk -- whose beauty offers a startling diversion.

Heather Bottomley grins impishly.

Sereena Abotsway looks sad. Sherry Irving just looks young.

But all blend into the macabre patchwork quilt that makes up the 66 faces on the police's missing women poster.

The standard description of those patches -- "drug-addicted prostitute" -- is an epithet that has helped deaden the cudgel of facts and recollections about the women's lives and their deaths.

Some were hard-core, some relatively recent inhabitants in the Downtown Eastside, an area a former B.C. premier described once as a "terrible human zoo." Some weren't even prostitutes, according to friends.

Their similarities and their deaths in the minds of many who try to comprehend the horror of what Pickton is accused of have managed to wipe out their differences and their potential.

In the grinding in-camera legal process that will culminate in the grinding public trial beginning Monday, it is almost automatic to cordon off these women in news coverage in much the same way the City of Vancouver has managed to put a virtual fence around the Downtown Eastside.

Stay away from the area and you'll be fine is standard thinking in British Columbia.

These women didn't have the shining hair and complete futures of many young women whose murders are vaulted into national and international headlines as parties of citizens help police search for clues.

But friends, family and frustrated resource workers say their deaths need to matter as much.

Even some of the women themselves made angry, fruitless demands for something to be done before more of their friends went missing, only to wind up a patch on the quilt themselves.

"If she were some square john's little girl, it would hit the fan," Sarah de Vries wrote of the growing list before police said she herself disappeared in April 1998.

"Front page news for weeks, people protesting in the streets.... While the happy hooker just starts to decay, like she didn't matter, expendable, dishonourable.... It's a shame that society is that unfeeling.

"She was some woman's little girl, gone astray, lost from the right path."

Abotsway participated in marches demanding police action on the missing before Pickton was charged in 2002.

Five years since Pickton's arrest and more years than that since the women were last seen have left behind guilt and anger among family members and friends.

It has meant that trying to draw the curtain from across a window to reveal their lives is a leaden task, burdened by the hindsights, justifications and grief of family and friends willing to talk.

The burden is not lifted by those unwilling to talk, many confined by fresh rage at what they see as the exploitive indifference of renewed inquisitions into the women's lives with Pickton's trial.

Mona Wilson's brother demanded money to hand over his sister's report cards, photographs and childhood remembrances, money he figured he was owed as compensation for a system that took his sister from her First Nations community and contributed to the violence that led to her death.

Jack Cummer, Andrea Joesbury's grandfather, refused to be interviewed, sending instead a bitter e-mail disdaining media who he said consistently portrayed Joesbury and the other women only as drug addicts and prostitutes.

"This is the picture the media have planted in the public's eye, heart," he wrote. "The media has had a field day. At no time did anyone attempt to paint a real picture.

"You are unable to change what you have caused."

However, weeks of telephone calls, questions, dead ends and bright leads yielded snapshots of happy childhoods and of young lives filled with despair, mental illness and Herculean strength, of sickening abuse from some family members and unconditional love from others.

Some of the stories have a familiar arc -- the cycle of abuse, neglect and violence broken by heartbreaking moments of happiness and ending with inevitable tragedy makes the stories understandable and easy to explain away at a glance.

Hearing Wilson's foster brother recall her childhood glee at her new life on his family farm and their shared trip to Disneyland establishes a reader's relief.

Then it's shattered, almost predictably, by his later recollection of Wilson's first menstrual period and her hysterical connection of that rite of passage to an early rape her foster family was unaware of.

Helen Hallmark's siblings recalled Hallmark's heroic efforts to shield them from the violence they experienced from a now-dead partner of their mother's. But then she was put into a foster home at age 13 and her life eventually became a cycle of rescue, rehab and relapse.

"She was actually a strong enough person, she forgave a lot of the things that she experienced growing up a lot easier than maybe some of us did," said Hallmark's sister, Carrie Kerr.

Angela Jardine's exhausted parents hauled their mentally challenged daughter from specialist to specialist, treatment program to treatment program with little relief. When their daughter disappeared from the Downtown Eastside, she was an 11-year-old trapped in a 27-year-old's body.

Other stories only whisper clues about why this daughter or that sister wound up on drugs on the Downtown Eastside.

How did Marnie Frey go from childhood worries about why her chickens died and giving up her new clothes to friends to giving a last, loving phone call to her stepmother from a pay phone on the Downtown Eastside, begging cheerfully for money, likely for drugs?

How did Sherry Irving go from camping and church outings with family to leaving her father waiting in his Comox, B.C., driveway with a car packed full of their belongings, hoping to take his wayward daughter with the family to a new life and his new job in Ontario?

And then there are stories just barely told.

Debra Jones liked to sing.

Heather Chinnock appears to have family in the United States. One Internet photo shows an attractive woman who barely resembles her police mug shot resting her head on the round, fuzzy orb of what appears to be a baby's head. The rest of the picture isn't included.

Diana Melnick's personal statistics -- born Aug. 26, 1975, 5-feet-2 inches tall, weight about 100 lbs. -- are available, but not much else.

Their stories reveal no movie fantasy of a pretty hooker rescued into a life of love by a well-intentioned and besotted client.

But there are moments of redemption. Between the 19 women known to have children, there are at least 40 kids and some of them speak with hesitant pride about their mothers' selfless decisions to give them up for adoption and a better life.

Maggy Gisle, who knew many of the women and considered some close friends, lived that life for 16 years. She went through rehab an astounding 22 times before getting clean, regaining her son, caring for her daughter and holding down a job as a homecare worker on the Sunshine Coast.

She and her best friend, Cara Ellis, promised each other that whoever got out first would rescue the other.

Gisle got out and went back. Ellis wasn't there.

2006 The Canadian Press

MISSING LIVES - The Canadian Press

Five years ago a pig farm near Vancouver became one of Canada's largest crime scenes
What followed were headlines about the massive forensic investigation and 26 murder charges against Robert William Pickton.
Far from the headlines have been the stories of the dead women. Twenty-six women who lived on and disappeared from the streets of Canada's most dismal inner-city neighbourhood Vancouver's bleak Downtown Eastside. Twenty-six missing lives.

In the five years since the Pickton pig farm made national headlines, the memories of the women have faded even further from the public spotlight. When mentioned, they are usually referred to only as "drug addicts" or "street prostitutes." They are often only numbers 26 victims, their names seldom used in news reports. All of the stories behind the names have never been told. Until now.

The Canadian Press, Canada's independent news agency, felt those stories needed to be told. Six reporters from across the country spent hundreds of hours researching details not previously reported. The result is Missing Lives: profiles on each of the 26 women.

Missing Lives reveals the 26 women as daughters, sisters, mothers: troubled souls whose lives touched others in lasting ways.







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

Updated: August 21, 2016