Dark journey to the low track

Missing women: Families desperate to comprehend lure of Vancouver's deadly hooker stroll

Mark Hume and Ian Bailey

National Post

Low track

VANCOUVER - Rick Frey remembers grappling with his daughter, holding her in the car while she tried to jump out on to the highway. He wanted to bring her home and she wanted to escape, back to her life on the streets in the Downtown Eastside, where she sold sex to buy drugs and where she would later become a name on the police list of 50 missing women.

If there is a single, nightmare image that captures the desperation of the families of the women who became trapped in dead-end lives on a stroll known as the Low Track, it is this insane moment on the highway heading out of the city. Mr. Frey had his daughter by the coat collar with one hand, while he tried to steer with the other. He could see the pavement rushing by just outside the open passenger door and he remembers how hard it was to keep it all together, to keep the car on the road and his twisting, frantic daughter, Marnie Frey, in the safety of the speeding vehicle.

Since the arrest of Robert "Willie" Pickton in February, Mr. Frey and others like him -- fathers, mothers, spouses, friends of women who are still missing -- have been lying awake asking themselves: Where did it all begin? How did we lose her?

Mr. Pickton, already charged with two murders of women who went missing, was charged with three more this week and a massive police search for more victims continues at his Port Coquitlam, B.C., pig farm. It is one of the largest criminal investigations in Canadian history.

Tracing back the lives of some of those on the list of missing women -- and now on the growing list of murder victims -- one finds their long, dark journey to the Downtown Eastside usually began without warning. And once it had begun, for most, there was no coming back.

Although each woman has her own story, drug addiction surfaces as a driving force in every case. It separated the women from their families, propelled them towards the Low Track and ultimately led them to their deaths. In a way, Mr. Frey was wrestling not with his daughter in that speeding car, but with her addiction.

Mr. Frey won that brief struggle, but before it was over he knew he had lost the larger battle. The sweet little girl he had loved and raised, the girl who had an affinity for animals and who wanted to grow up to be a veterinarian, had turned into a wilful young woman whose need for a hit put her beyond the influence of those who loved her most. From then on, he and his wife, Lynn, and their three other children could only help by offering Marnie a safe haven and by taking her to drug rehabilitation clinics. She came and went in their lives. In the end, they ran out of chances to pull her back from the brink.

Sometimes they thought they were making progress, then the drug craving overwhelmed her.

"She'd be home for three or four days. She'd be trying to get through the sick times. Then -- just gone."

They knew were to find her. Back on the Downtown Eastside. Then she vanished from there , too. Now they are waiting for a call from police, to say they have found her remains.

"It's really sad to think of what happened," he says from the family home in Campbell River, on Vancouver Island, where he works as a commercial fisherman.

"You sit here. You get angry. You get sad. You get mad. You try to think it through. The things going through your mind -- it's just terrible."

Sometimes he turns on the television and sees reports from the pig farm in Port Coquitlam. He thinks his daughter is there. She has been missing for five years.

"It doesn't get any easier," he says. "You look at her picture and remember the good times, fishing and camping.... You always wish you could roll back time."

Marnie Frey was a beautiful, fun-loving girl. She exuded warmth and always had a positive outlook.

"She could make friends with anyone," recalls her father.

As a teenager, she tried soft drugs. Then she got in with a crowd that went to a notorious housing complex in Campbell River that was like a drug supermarket. There had been an influx of Vietnamese immigrants that opened new pipelines to cocaine, crack and heroin.

"It was strong stuff. It really got them hooked fast," says Mr. Frey.

Once she got wired, someone convinced her to make money selling sex. She couldn't do that in a small town without everyone knowing. So Vancouver's Downtown Eastside beckoned.

"It's so much simpler to blend in. Up here, you're too visible," Mr. Frey said. She would call home almost daily. But then there was a sudden gap. Her birthday came -- and still, no call.

"That's when we knew," says Mr. Frey.

Marnie was 25 when she disappeared in the summer of 1997. She is the 22nd name on the list of missing women.

"Her friends are devastated," he says. "They all hung out as kids. Some of them experimented with drugs. But ... she went down the road to Vancouver and got caught. I guess somebody was going to."

- - -

Cori Wilson closes the door to the laundry room, hushes her baby and tries to compose herself. She is 24, a young mother and the same age as Tiffany Louise Drew, her cousin, who was one of five women named by police last week as possible new additions to the list of missing women.

One of those women subsequently surfaced, alive, in Montreal. Mrs. Wilson hopes Tiffany, last seen on Nov. 24, 1999, will be found somewhere, too -- but she fears that place may be the pig farm, which is giving her nightmares. It horrifies her that Tiffany may have gone there.

"Tiffany was such a beautiful girl, inside and out," she says. "She had a huge, huge heart. She was always happy, always seeing the best in things and other people."

Tiffany had a big, extended family in Port Alberni. They loved to go camping together. But Tiffany met a man who convinced her to go to Vancouver with him. Mrs. Wilson says she doesn't know whether hard-drug use came before that trip or during.

In Port Alberni, Tiffany did "the typical teenage stuff" -- marijuana and alcohol. But nobody saw signs of a drug problem. She was an athlete in high school. Loved to play baseball. Was on a championship team. When she went away to Vancouver she looked youthful and healthy. When she came back, her friends and family were shocked by how strung out she looked.

"Once we seen her, we knew it wasn't right," Mrs. Wilson says.

"Our whole family was supportive. We tried detox with her. We had a hold on her, she loved us, but drugs had a stronger hold."

Mrs. Wilson knows now that Tiffany sold sex to pay for drugs. She flinches at the thought and at the knowledge it was a brutal life. When she saw the picture of Tiffany released by police she could hardly recognize her.

"In trying to understand this, one thing you look at is why a person does what they do. The only person who can answer that is themselves."

And Tiffany is not here to answer the question.

"It's overwhelming," says Mrs. Wilson, who believes if this could happen to Tiffany -- it could happen to anyone.

- - -

While the families of some of the missing women are struggling to understand how the women they loved ended up on the Low Track, Deborah Jardine isn't. Her daughter, Angela, ran away from the small mining town of Sparwood, B.C., she says, to avoid being tormented.

"She didn't fit into society," she says of her mentally challenged daughter, who had the mind of an 11-year-old. "That's why she was comfortable living in the Downtown Eastside. People didn't mock or bully her there.

"She was tormented here. The same people that tormented her when they were children tormented her later as adults."

Angela was different from the beginning. Mrs. Jardine recalls that when she was born, on June 23, 1971, in the Sudbury General Hospital in Ontario, she didn't make a sound.

"The strange thing is I heard no crying, only sounds of silence."

The nurses rushed her away, but later returned the baby saying nothing was wrong.

Angela was slow to talk and to walk. At age three she started to behave strangely.

"She would get up in the middle of the night.... She would take her small chair and would climb on to it and reach into the kitchen cupboards, grabbing at dishes. She would slowly drop each cup or plate, watching them break one at a time."

It became clear Angela had developmental problems. And people were cruel. Mrs. Jardine recalls one day gathering her coat in the cloakroom after a kindergarten parent-teacher meeting.

"I overheard Angela's teacher telling another parent she would put Angela inside a closet when she misbehaved. It stopped me dead in my tracks. Many of the parents were laughing along with the teacher.... I looked down and Angela was standing beside me, clutching the sleeve of my sweater, listening to them mocking her. The sadness on her little face was heartbreaking.... I clasped Angela's hand and we bolted from the school."

Mrs. Jardine got her into a special-needs school, but when Angela was 11 the family moved from a rural area outside Sudbury to Sparwood, in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia. Suddenly, she was thrust into a public system with few resources available for her.

She went into a group home as a teenager, but at 19 was considered an adult.

The government told her she could go out on her own. She left for Vancouver.

Mrs. Jardine and her husband went looking for her and, by luck, saw her on the street. She had become a drug addict and prostitute. They stayed a week, trying to convince her to come home, but failed. They tried again later.

"On two or three different attempts, we did get her to come back. She had a little apartment not far from us for awhile. She seemed happy there."

But she ran into public ridicule again. The kids she had gone to school with remembered her and reminded her that in their eyes, she was a loser.

"She ran off in the middle of the night on the Greyhound. She got on a bus at 2:30-3:00 a.m., heading West. She left with the clothes on her back."

They never saw her again.

In Vancouver, street prostitutes say Angela would sometimes run after cars, offering sex for as little as $5. One night she took a ride and didn't come back.

"When I look back on our life, we were a typical middle class family living in the suburbs in a split-level home with a SUV, two children, one dog, a cat and a few goldfish," says Mrs. Jardine.

"Since the Port Coquitlam story broke, I've been having horrible nightmares and I think I'm beginning to suffer from sleep deprivation."

She says she misses Angela every day.

Ernie Crey has spent a lot of time reflecting on how his family lost Dawn, a street-wise drug addict and prostitute who, at 43, is one of the older women on the missing women's list.

He traces her problems back to age four, when she saw their father die of a heart attack.

"She felt there was something she could have done," recalls Mr. Crey, a respected native leader from the Fraser Valley.

He notes that half the missing women are of aboriginal ancestry and many come from broken families. Some, like his sister, experienced traumatic upbringings in foster homes.

Mr. Crey weeps as he recalls how she was harshly punished, pulled from bed at night for minor infractions like talking loudly, and "forced to shovel chicken shit all night."

That wasn't the end of the abuse. "They were told they were children of a heathen race, a non-Christian race, and that they were very likely to burn in an everlasting Hell if they weren't to live a different life than their parents."

Dawn, like many of the women on the Downtown Eastside, was filled with "anxiety and fears and insecurities."

Before long, Dawn was spending less time in the Fraser Valley community of Chilliwack, where the family had its roots, and more time dabbling in drugs in Vancouver: marijuana, alcohol, hash, LSD and heroin. She turned to prostitution to support her drug habit. She never got out of the life despite Mr. Crey's attempts to rescue her. She was in the Downtown Eastside from her mid-20s until she vanished sometime in 2000.

"There is a commonality of experiences among many of the women who have gone missing," says Mr. Crey. "Some of them were removed from families, placed in foster care. In other cases, family disintegrated. Young women wound up on the streets of Vancouver, introduced to the life as it were....I can't say that's the case in each and every one of the lives of the women who are missing, but it seems to me there's a bit of a common thread -- a similarity of life experiences.

"It's not as though [the women] arrive in Vancouver and say, 'Oh. I am going to live in the Downtown Eastside and live with drugs and alcohol.' There is a progression of events in their lives that show a trail that leads to life in the Downtown Eastside."

While many of the missing women did come from dysfunctional families, and while many suffered abuses or trauma, many too came from solid, middle-class homes and had happy childhoods. The common thread in all their lives was their fight against drug addiction -- a struggle none of them lived long enough to win. 

America's Most Wanted update-Apr 6, 2002



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

Updated: August 21, 2016