Missing women, missing answers

Relatives of the 50 who disappeared are asking why police in B.C. didn't move on tips sooner

The Toronto Star

Daniel Girard
Western Canada Bureau

Saturday, April 20, 2002


DAWN CREY'S FAMILY is looking for answers.

More than a year after Crey joined the swelling ranks of women missing from Vancouver's seedy downtown eastside, the search for her and 49 others focuses on a dilapidated suburban pig farm and, as of this week, a nearby site dubbed Piggy's Palace.

So far, the search has yielded evidence of six of the missing women, including some human remains, confirming the worst fears of a half-dozen families. Others can only watch the police probe, one of the largest ever in Canada, for more grim discoveries.

"It would be nice if it would be solved, to know one way or the other, what happened to Dawn, what happened to everybody," says Crey's younger sister Rose Walton.

Crey, 43 at the time, was last seen in late 2000. She's Number 42 on the list of those missing and presumed dead.

"There's a lot of missing women, a lot of families that are hurting, a lot of pain and a lot of frustration," Walton said after a recent native healing ceremony held in honour of all the dead and disappeared at the Pickton farm, in this suburb 35 kilometres east of Vancouver. "So, I think it's definitely something that we have to know, no matter how dark. And the sooner we find out, the better."

But as they greet each telephone call with foreboding and realize every court appearance of accused serial killer Robert William Pickton, 52, could bring more charges, as it has twice this month, families are asking about more than just the whereabouts of their loved ones.

They wonder why police, who were reportedly first told about a possible link between the pig farm and the missing women four years ago, did not begin searching it until February. That becomes even more inexplicable to them after considering that Pickton, one of the property's owners, was charged in 1997 with attempted murder and aggravated assault for an alleged knife attack on a prostitute there. The charges were eventually stayed.

Families also wonder why little was done by police despite their pleas, more disappearances and an officer's expert opinion that the public be told a serial killer might be at work.

Given that five of the six women Pickton is accused of murdering disappeared last year, many family members are also now convinced that police bungling and indifference, as well as the disinterest of local politicians, has translated into a higher death toll.

"It is very disturbing to think that there have been so many lives gone and that maybe some of it could have been stopped years ago," says Kathleen Hallmark, whose daughter, Helen, disappeared in mid-1997, at the age of 31. She's Number 20 on the list.

For their part, police and Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen are tight-lipped as the search for evidence continues. However, in the past they have been quick to defend their conduct, especially in a case, they say, that for the longest time had no crime scene and no bodies, involved an often transient population and had to be considered alongside all other investigations.

"I think the police did act initially very responsibly," Owen said last month. "They took it very seriously. It was high on the agenda list."

But it's comments like these that disgust Bill Hiscox.

An employee of the Pickton brothers' demolition and salvage company in 1997 and 1998, he says he told Vancouver police about something a friend of his saw in a building used as an office and sleeping quarters by the man now accused of six first-degree murders bloody clothing and women's identification.

Hiscox says he had five separate interviews about it with police four years ago.

"They knew back then, but nothing was done," he told The Star from Vancouver Island, where he now lives. "It's just not right. It makes me feel like screaming."

Hiscox wonders whether the fact that he was a drug addict with a criminal record at the time meant he was not taken seriously. Or was the officer he told just unable to get superiors to follow up?

"Somebody has got to answer for this," Hiscox says. "Police officers are paid to serve and protect but this makes you wonder what they were doing back then."

The families of the women mainly drug addicts and prostitutes missing since 1983 insist their questions can no longer be ignored, something they say has been happening for years.

There are calls for a public inquiry or independent review of the investigation some want it now, others say it's best to wait until all criminal proceedings are finished.

However, a lawsuit is expected to be filed as early as next week against the Vancouver police, the RCMP and Pickton, co-owner with his siblings of the pig farm and the Piggy's Palace site. Others are seeking advice from a high-profile U.S. lawyer, Ralph Lotkin, on how to proceed.

Ultimately, their quest for answers is about trying to close an agonizing chapter of their lives. For some, it will come with the discovery of a body and conviction of those responsible. Others will also need to know how the investigation broke down and why.

All will demand assurances that the frustration, anxiety and despair they endured getting help can never be repeated in future cases that involve allegations of a serial killer.

"All of the women who've been found, died after the police knew about the pig farm," says Maggie deVries, whose younger sister, Sarah, disappeared in April, 1998, at the age of 28. She is Number 30 on the list. "So, there's a great deal of anger in a lot of people."

DeVries says she thinks the police should have been able to stop the disappearances in the years after Sarah went missing.

But in the same way that history reveals police forces in Ontario failed to communicate to catch Paul Bernardo early enough in the 1990s and their B.C. counterparts struggled to nab Clifford Olson in British Columbia's Fraser Valley a decade earlier, deVries says this case illustrates the need for better tracking of alleged serial predators no matter whom they prey on.

"More than wanting anyone in the police to be held up as a bad person who messed everything up, I want the police to make changes in how they do things," deVries says.

Police first launched an investigation into the missing women in 1998 after a pattern was detected in the disappearance of sex-trade workers from the downtown eastside, one of Canada's poorest neighbourhoods. It focused on reviewing missing-person files.

In July, 1999, with the help of John Walsh, host of the crime-busting television show America's Most Wanted, a reward of $100,000 was offered by then-B.C. attorney-general Ujjal Dosanjh, Owen and Vancouver police officials.

"Once we became aware, as did the community, that there was clearly something wrong here, something that we should be concerned about, we started to kick in additional resources," Constable Anne Drennan, then-spokesperson for the Vancouver police, said the day the reward was offered.

At the time, 31 women were listed as missing. Four of them were later located safe and sound.

Although police described the case as "extremely active" with up to nine officers working on it, subsequent media reports revealed they were either only part-time or assigned to two jobs, resulting in far fewer resources actually being devoted to it.

Eventually, that investigation stalled, replaced in early 2001 by the joint RCMP-Vancouver police missing-women's task force. Files were reviewed, resulting in the number of women listed as missing climbing to 50. It was then the pig farm search began.

Late last month, the task force released the names and photographs of five more women last seen between Jan. 1, 1997, and March 16, 2001. While one has reportedly been safely located, the other four may soon be added to the list of those officially missing.

As anger from families over past police work has grown along with the list of missing women, spokespersons for the task force have refused to comment on allegations the case has been mismanaged and not given the attention it deserves over the years.

"All we can say is that we respect their right to do whatever they feel is necessary," RCMP Constable Cate Galliford said of possible legal action by frustrated families.

"We also understand that these are very emotional times for many, very confusing times, and a time when there are still many questions," she added.

Owen, who is also chair of the city's police board, has been criticized for not acting soon enough on the missing women's case and making it a higher priority.

But he considers it "inappropriate" to discuss an inquiry in the middle of the investigation and before Pickton even goes on trial, a spokesperson at city hall said this week.

Those sentiments have been echoed by B.C. Solicitor-General Rich Coleman, who shortly after the farm search began, said it was "very premature" to discuss an inquiry. He urged everyone to allow the police to concentrate "on the job at hand."

Owen has already made it clear how he feels about a probe, helping defeat a motion last month to have Vancouver city council call for one following the completion of the police investigation. Last week, Owen announced he would not seek re-election to a fourth straight term this fall.

While police have refused all comment on the allegations by Hiscox, two former Vancouver officers have recently supported calls for an inquiry, insisting that not enough resources were provided to follow up on all the leads that came in on the case.

One of those two officers, Kim Rossmo, says no one in the higher ranks of the Vancouver police was interested in the missing-women file. Through the system of so-called geographic profiling that he pioneered, he concluded a serial killer was likely responsible.

But Rossmo, who last year lost a wrongful dismissal case against the Vancouver police and is now research director at the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., says his talk of a serial killer and desire to let the public know about it fell on deaf ears.

Rossmo's allegations were rejected as "outrageous" by a high-ranking Vancouver police officer during his wrongful dismissal case. Owen also dismissed them.

All this finger-pointing does little to ease the pain of Lorraine Crey. Like her other siblings, she deeply misses her sister, Dawn, and can't help but conclude the disappearance, and those of others recently added to the list, could have been prevented.

"Not anybody's loss is greater than the others," Lorraine Crey said after surveying the pictures, candles, flowers and other mementos of a makeshift memorial at the farm gate. "We all carry the same loss. It's just very sad that it's taken so long for this, too long."

Families of the missing women say they also told police about the Pickton farm at least two years ago because it, and the nearby property that contains the rundown Piggy's Palace banquet hall, were known to those in the downtown eastside as party places.

The fact police took so long to connect the dots and zero in on the properties as part of their investigation incenses Kathleen Hallmark.

She says police told her that Helen likely went to Florida and changed her identity. And she admits she may never find out what happened to her daughter, missing nearly five years. But Hallmark says she will be relentless in pursuit of answers as to why the women seemed so inconsequential to authorities.

"Why did they feel that these women and our loved ones were so disposable?" she asks. "I am definitely sure that if there had been three women, other than from the east end of Vancouver, there wouldn't have been a rock unturned way back then."

Hallmark is looking for advice on pursuing an inquiry immediately. She has organized a meeting next month between some of the families and Washington, D.C.-based lawyer Lotkin, who once practised with O.J. Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochrane.

"Waiting until (the police investigation) is all over is like waiting until the players leave the game," Hallmark says. "Nobody will remember a damn thing."

It's a sentiment Ernie Crey can understand. Like his two younger sisters and the families of every other woman missing and yet to be accounted for he's hurting and anxious for answers on what became of Dawn.

But while he appreciates calls for an inquiry now, he prefers to see the end of a police investigation that is finally gathering steam and the trial of whomever is responsible for 50 women mothers, daughters and sisters disappearing.

It will, he predicts, prove to be worth the wait.

"My family and I are not different from any of the others," Crey says. "Of course, I sit at night, when I have quiet time, and I think about how this investigation has proceeded, how far it's come and where it may go.

"And, quite clearly, there remains a lot of unanswered questions."

Courtesy of The Toronto Star



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

Updated: August 21, 2016