Danielle LaRue never had chance to succeed

A childhood full of pain and abuse led her to drug addiction, working the streets and an unsolved death -- a fate that's been all too common among first nations children in the city

Daphne Bramham
Vancouver Sun

Saturday, March 01, 2008

VANCOUVER - Danielle LaRue's life was a disaster from the beginning to its haunting end. Like too many first nations children, she never had a chance to succeed. Home was never safe for her. As a child, no one, no parent, social worker, police officer, lawyer or law ever protected her.

CREDIT: Undated handout/Vancouver Police Dept.
Danielle Larue has not been seen or heard from since the beginning of December, 2002.

"She was physically and sexually abused. She was abused in every way a child could be," says her sister Kim.

By the time Danielle reached her teens, only heroin eased the pain and selling sex on the street was the only way to pay for it.

On May 12, 2003, Vancouver police issued an alert that the 25-year-old had been missing from the Downtown Eastside since the previous December. Not a single newspaper in Metro Vancouver reported it.

It wasn't until a year ago that Global TV's John Daly revealed that police had received an unsigned note, presumably from Danielle's killer, in early December 2002. When nothing was reported in the newspaper, the killer sent a second chilling note to police.

"This is about Vancouver prostitute who disappear at the end of November 2002. Don't remember name she gave me, had no ID. Sounded like she had just recently come to Vancouver. Caucasian, long black, curly hair, jeans, black leather jacket, tattoos and jewelry. She is dead . . . .

"I send this info so you can notify her family. If you can, please make mention of her name in Vancouver Sun. I would like to know who she was . . . .

"To her family. I am sorry more than you can imagine. I did not intend this but am still responsible. She will not be unmourned. Have brought flowers to her grave once already, plan to do so every years as am able. Not ideal, but better than no visits at all. I know you can't forgive me but please believe I tried my very hardest to bring her back."

The police file remains open. Danielle's body has never been found and nor has her killer.

"I can't say that anything could have saved her," Kim says. "When you're abused to the extent that she was as a child, I don't think anything can help. That's why I think anybody who hurts or molests a child should be killed because that child never gets over it. Some kids live as normally as they can be. But they never get over it."

Despite her own short, brutal life, Danielle did what she could to keep her brother and sister safe.

Kim says almost everyone she's ever known has either been murdered or died of a drug overdose. She reels off the names of girlfriends who died at 13, 14 and 15.

Had it not been for Danielle, Kim says she too might be on the list of women missing or murdered from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside -- a list that has kept growing even after serial killer Robert (Willie) Pickton was put in jail in 2002.

For Kim, being alive at 28 is a near miracle. It's also Danielle's legacy.


Danielle's nickname was Holy Smoke. She was fearless; a spitfire who was desperately protective of her younger sister and brother, who were badly in need of someone to look after them. But then, so was Danielle.

Their ancestors were hereditary chiefs of the Neskonlith, which is part of the Shuswap First Nation. Being born into a hereditary chief's family is like being born into royalty. It means both respect and the responsibility of looking after others.

Even after the Canadian government did away with the hereditary system, the LaRues led their people. Danielle's great-great-grandfather was the first to be elected, followed by his son. Danielle's grandfather was elected and so was her own father, Norman. But like so many other things in Norman's life, nothing was simple. His election was overturned by the federal Indian Affairs Department because of voting irregularities.

Norman was born on a reserve outside of Chase. His father was a Second World War veteran; his mother was murdered when he was still an infant. Norman lived with his grandparents before being packed off to the Indian residential school in Kamloops.

Like too many children, he was abused and eventually was among the first to sign on to the class-action lawsuit against the government for the systemic abuse perpetrated in residential schools.

But it wasn't only at school that Norman was abused. When he was only 12, Norman and his father spent the entire summer bingeing on alcohol. Norman often blacked out, but before that he beat anyone who got in his way.

And so his life life ebbed and flowed. Sober, Norman was acknowledged by everyone to be articulate, charming, brilliant even. Drunk, he was violent and dangerous. His rap sheet grew at about the same pace as his list of accomplishments.

He started a free medical clinic in the 1960s for skid-row residents in Kamloops, spearheaded the native civil rights movement in B.C. with the formation of the Native Alliance for Red Power in 1969. He was a boxing coach. For a while, he worked as a CBC reporter. By the end of his life, he was starting to gain recognition as an artist.

Danielle, Kim and Norman Jr. were separated in age by only four years. When they were little, their dad studied business administration in Spokane, Wash. But in the 1980s, they moved back to Kamloops and Norman resumed drinking, and drinking a lot.

Drunk, he was wildly abusive to his wife -- a Caucasian and an alcoholic -- and to their children. Eventually, his wife left him, sobered up and became an addictions counsellor. By then it was too late for their children.

Danielle was the first to go into foster care. Kim and her younger brother went to live with their paternal grandparents. But eventually they ended up in foster homes as well. Kim remembers a particularly abusive one in northern B.C. when she was eight and Norman Jr. was seven.

To protect them, Danielle kidnapped her siblings. Even at 10, she was fierce. She held the foster parents at bay and, for a while, even the police. Finally, several officers subdued her, and only when forced did she relinquish her hold on her siblings.

A few years later, in February 1989, their father was charged with second-degree murder. Larry Meristy had been found dead only a few metres from the doorway to Norman's one-room shack in Kamloops. Meristy's skull had been fractured five times by repeated blows from a baseball bat. Both Norman and Meristy had been drinking for two days. Both had blood-alcohol readings three times the legal driving limit.

Norman Sr. was convicted in September that year, but the conviction was overturned on appeal. In the fall of 1991 and only two days into a second jury trial, a Kamloops newspaper ran a story outlining one version of what had happened the night Meristy was murdered. The judge declared a mistrial.

Finally, in 1992, only a few weeks before the third trial was set to begin, the Crown stayed the charges. Two witnesses and one of the RCMP investigators had died. Another witness was no longer in Canada. Norman LaRue walked free, but not exonerated.

By then, Danielle had already run from foster care to the streets. She was barely a teenager. She began made a living the only way she could. She sold herself for sex.

"She never had a pimp. She was way too tough for that," says Kim. "She only had one serious boyfriend, when she was 16. After that she kept them [boyfriends] like pets. She'd take care of them for a while and when she got bored she'd get another one. I don't think she ever loved anybody like that one even though he beat her, took her money and left her dope-sick. With him, she'd put up with anything."

Perhaps it was because for a short time while she was with him, Danielle had something approaching a normal life. When 13-year-old Kim also ran away from foster care, Danielle took her into their nicely furnished house in Prince George.

But soon after Kim arrived, Danielle discovered that heroin eased her pain. Bit by bit, the furniture disappeared from the house; it was sold to pay for drugs. The home became a shooting gallery.

Even then, Danielle tried to keep her younger sister out of it.

"She'd protect me, kick ass and fight anyone who tried to do anything to hurt me," says Kim. Still, it wasn't long before Kim followed her sister into the streets and on to heroin.

"As soon as you take heroin, you don't feel that shit any more," she says. "It makes everything okay. It makes everything good. That's something that's hard to walk away from. And Danielle wouldn't deal with it. She didn't want therapy. She didn't want rehab. She always said, 'I have time to straighten my life out later.'

"Whatever Danielle chose to do, she was good at. And she was the best heroin addict. Even when nobody else could find heroin in the 1990s, she'd find it."

Soon after their mother died of cancer, 19-year-old Danielle's search for heroin landed her in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Kim knew she would never come back.

"Everybody knew that once you went to the Downtown Eastside you were done. You were either going to be dead or in jail. Those were the only exits you had. .... It's like a big black pit with stabbings, murders and ODs. It's crazy down there. Nobody cares about anybody but themselves and their next fix."

But while Danielle's life was going downhill fast, her father was having a renaissance. The Kamloops Art Gallery had bought some of his work and was planning a major show. A local company with business in Japan had commissioned him to carve six totem poles. They paid him a $5,000 advance.

Norman celebrated with heroin. On Feb. 24, 2000, he died of an overdose at the age of 59. He was widely mourned. In a letter to the Kamloops Daily News, Karl Ireland wrote: "At the end of his life he had become deeply committed to learning how to become a gentle man. He was struggling with that issue when he died. He deeply regretted past violent acts. He and his many loved ones can be proud without reservation."

Danielle was 21. Kim was 19. Both were addicts, selling sex and doing minor crimes to support their habits. Their brother wasn't faring any better.

Once, Kim remembers all three of them appearing in court on the same day. Danielle was released, but both Kim and their brother went to jail.

Norman Jr. is a violent alcoholic, who was declared a long-term offender when he was only 21.

In December 2000, when a 23-year-old woman coming out of an alcoholic blackout refused to have sex with him, Norman slashed her throat with enough force to break the knife in two. The woman recovered. Norman was convicted of aggravated sexual assault.

According to court documents, he was neglected and sexually abused by female relatives as a very young child. By 15, he was so dangerous and unmanageable that child-care authorities created a special program for him. He did well until another youth was placed in the home.

But by 19, Norman had more than 18 convictions ranging from break and enter to assault and resisting arrest. The last time his name appeared in a Vancouver paper was last September. A week after walking away from a Vancouver halfway house, Norman turned himself in.

In 2002, Kim was arrested after Kamloops police received a complaint about a woman "watering a neighbour's roof." She and five others were charged with a variety of offences including possession of stolen property and improper storage of firearms.

Her last arrest was for armed robbery. Kim went to court so high that she now can't recall whether she pleaded guilty to armed robbery or to a lesser charge. But she went to jail and only got out two years ago.


Danielle's reputation as a fearsome fighter kept Kim safe in jail. Nobody messed with Danielle's little sister.

"For me and Danielle, institutions are like home. We don't want to be there. But you get three regular meals. You have a place to sleep. You see your friends, play some games and get your health back up before you go back to drugs and the street. Because when you get out, it's usually on the bus and straight back downtown."

Danielle took the ride back downtown one time too many. As Sun reporter Lori Culbert reported earlier this week, women have few places to go, whether they're getting out of jail or rehab or trying to find a place to detox. Even rat-infested, fleabag, single-room occupancy hotels on the Downtown Eastside often refuse them shelter. The managers either assume they are prostitutes and will turn tricks in the room, or they fear for the women's safety living among male addicts.

Kim can't believe that Danielle died without a fight. But she's haunted by not knowing what happened and the fact that Danielle's body has never been found. Despite the two letters about her death, the case remains unsolved.

Like Danielle, Kim says she would likely have gone straight back to drugs and prostitution when she walked out of jail. But her boyfriend had bought bus tickets out of town and out of British Columbia. In the bus-depot parking lot, they smoked one last pipe of crack cocaine, threw their pipes away and got on.

Now 28, Kim is in a methadone program and has "a crazy good job" -- her first steady job ever.

She has caught up academically. She's articulate, funny and seemingly confident. But that's not how she feels.

"From the age you start taking drugs, you stop growing. Socially, I'm like a 13-year-old," she says.

Kim scarcely dares to hope for anything. That's how mean her life has been. But she hopes Danielle's body will be found so the family can put up a marker for her. Kim has little hope that Danielle's murderer will be found. Too many women are missing and dead and no one has been charged.

When pushed, Kim says she hopes to stay strong and clean for her four children, who are doing well in good, safe foster homes.

Only with prodding does Kim dare voice to a dream for herself.

"I want to go to university and study law. I've wanted that ever since I was a kid."

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 The Vancouver Sun 2008

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

Updated: August 21, 2016