VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
A killer's slip-up gave police a break
Unlike other missing women on the East Side, police found April Reoch's body
The Vancouver Sun
Friday, September 28, 2001
Sometimes the difference between a missing woman and a murder is a matter of inches.
On Christmas morning last year, a janitor found the body of 25-year-old April Reoch behind an apartment building at 40 East Hastings. The mother of a young boy, she had been killed, placed in a duffle bag, and left on the ground near a garbage bin.
It appears to police that whoever put her there tried first to lift her into the dumpster. If they had succeeded, Reoch might well be among the escalating numbers of women reported missing from Vancouver in recent years.
Certainly, she had much in common with the women on that list. She was battling a drug problem, as were the others. She was known to work as a prostitute, as were they. And she lived on the Downtown Eastside, as they had done.
But whereas the others vanished without a trace, Reoch's body was found -- and investigators say that was the break they needed.
Vancouver city police have been harshly criticized in recent days for doing too little to solve the missing-women case.
A Vancouver Sun series found, among other things, that the original police investigation was assigned to inexperienced or overworked officers without the time and resources to do a thorough job. The Sun reported that members of the team distrusted one another, withheld information and lacked necessary training.
Even today, the department has just two detectives working on the latest disappearances and pursuing the freshest leads in what could potentially be the largest serial murder case in the city's history.
One of the many criticisms levelled at the department by friends and families of the missing is that police don't care about the women because they are prostitutes and drug addicts.
But homicide Detective Garry Vath said the Reoch investigation shows how seriously police take such cases.
"To a homicide investigator, a victim is a victim," he said. "It doesn't matter what economic stratum they come from. . . . It doesn't matter to us the background of the person. It's great to solve a homicide and get a charge -- period."
But finding a suspect and getting a charge requires evidence, and unlike the missing-women case, Reoch's murder offered a place to start, he said.
Because they had a body, police could look for DNA and fingerprints and anything else the killer might have left at the scene. They could do an autopsy and try to determine the cause of death, and from that begin to speculate on a motive.
They also could estimate the time she died, and from there begin working backward to try to find the last people who saw her alive -- perhaps even someone who witnessed the murder.
"If you look at a missing person, you don't have a crime scene or a body," said Vath. "You don't have a cause of death. You don't have a time when she was killed or last seen.
"You don't know, therefore, who she was hanging around with, or who might have seen anything at the time of her death. You don't have any of the physical evidence that you did at the other scene.
"There's no body. There's no DNA. There's no fingerprints. There's no evidence left by the suspect, because you don't know where it happened. Now, where do you start with that? It's very difficult, obviously.
"I can appreciate people saying: 'Police should have done more.' But man, I think police are open to suggestions, too. Like, where do you start?"
Even with a body, the murder of a woman who worked in the sex trade is among the most difficult that police ever investigate, Vath said.
"They've probably gotten in the car with a stranger and you don't know where they were picked up. Usually, the dump site of the body is not where they were picked up and, usually, not where the murder took place. So you don't even have the scene of the murder, usually. You just have a dumped body and you don't know who they were with."
Often, it takes a fluke or somebody stumbling on a clue for detectives to solve the case, police say.
In August 1990, Nancy Jane Bob got into a car with a customer near the Astoria Hotel on East Hastings, while a friend wrote down the licence plate number. Her body was later found in Langley, and the plate led detectives to Trevor Rodney Peters, who pleaded guilty to murder and received a life sentence.
In 1992, a CP Rail officer copied down the licence number of a suspicious van near a Vancouver loading dock where the mutilated body of Cheryl Joe was later discovered. The licence plate led homicide detectives to Brian William Allender, who was later convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
And in the case of April Reoch, the killer -- for whatever reason -- was unable to lift her body into a dumpster.
"Had the suspect not left the body there, she could be one of the missing, certainly," said Vath, although he stressed there is nothing to indicate the person who killed Reoch is also responsible for any of the disappearances. "There's no evidence to suggest that."
The point about the Reoch file is that police had a place to start, and over the next nine months they identified a suspect and pieced together a case, Vath said.
Finally, two weeks ago, police arrested a man who was living in the apartment building at 40 East Hastings at the time Reoch's body was found. Ian Mathieson Rowe, 39, has been charged with second-degree murder.
Vath said April Reoch, who was befriended by police officers and featured in the National Film Board documentary Through a Blue Lens, was the sort of victim that critics have accused the police of treating like throwaways.
"It just turns out that in her particular circumstance, we did have a body, we did have a site, we did have some evidence," he said.
The difference was a matter of inches.
Investigation turns up more missing women-Sept 21, 2001
Updated: August 21, 2016