Twenty-six very different lives

Pickton Trial; Women allegedly killed by Pickton -- who goes on trial this month -- led complex, varied lives

VANCOUVER (Jan 11, 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 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.

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.

These women didn't have the shining hair and complete futures of many young women whose murders are vaulted into national 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, shit would hit the goddamn fan," Sarah de Vries wrote of the growing list before police said she herself disappeared in April 1998.

Five years since Pickton's arrest have left behind guilt and anger among family members and friends.

It has made trying to draw the curtain to reveal their lives into a leaden task, burdened by the 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 and photographs, 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 a bitter e-mail disdaining media who he said portrayed the other women only as drug addicts and prostitutes.

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.

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

Helen Hallmark's siblings recalled Hallmark's 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.

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

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?

Why did talented, beautiful Sarah de Vries cringe from the love of her adopted family to find a routine of prostitution, drugs and writing on the Downtown Eastside?

And then there are stories just barely told.

Debra Jones liked to sing.

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

Reading all of their stories at once reveals no movie fantasy of a pretty hooker rescued into a life of love by a well-intentioned client.

But there are moments of redemption.

At least 40 kids were left behind by the women, and some of them speak with hesitant pride about their mothers' selfless decisions to give them up for adoption and a better life.

Georgina Papin's daughter, Kristina Bateman, knows that as Papin handed her over to her paternal grandmother, she said "I'm glad she will have a chance that I never had."

Chelsey George grew up in suburban Langley, B.C., knowing she'd been adopted when she was three and that Helen Hallmark was her mother. She didn't look for her mother's family until police came calling, looking for her DNA to match against DNA found on the Pickton farm.

George made a brief connection with her mother's family and learned, among other things, that her mother gave her up because she thought that was what was best.

Time after time, family members said their loved one was working on getting out of the Downtown Eastside, was considering rehab, was hoping for a chance.

But their deaths meant the what-ifs remain. They never had a chance to prove themselves.

Robert Pickton has been charged with 26 counts of murder. His trial in the deaths of Mona Wilson, Brenda Wolfe, Sereena Abotsway, Andrea Joesbury, Georgina Papin and Marnie Frey begins Jan. 22. He is to be tried on the remaining counts at a later date.

Guelph Mercury News



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

Updated: August 21, 2016