Death on the streets

The spectre of a serial killer on the loose is haunting Edmonton's sex-trade workers Since 1988, 10 prostitutes have been found


Saturday, July 31, 2004

EDMONTON—On a hot summer afternoon, a cheap straw hat keeps the sunshine off her head and the crack cocaine helps dull years of pain as the woman strolls for business along the city's hard-bitten 118th Ave.

Nicole, 26, — "No last names, please" — has even more reason these days to fade into a drug fog. Just a few weeks ago, the battered body of a fellow prostitute was found in a field outside the city, the fifth Edmonton sex-trade worker murdered in the past 17 months.

Nicole knew the victim, Rachel Quinney, for about a year, chatting, working and partying with her on the desperate track just northeast of downtown. Standing outside a bar in the dusty parking lot of a strip mall, Nicole admits Quinney's murder "scares the hell out of me." But, she says, the lure of quick money to feed a habit will keep her — and many others like her — on the street despite the increased risks.

"All the time I think about getting out," she says "But it's a lot easier to hide the pain in more drugs and more work than to do that."

Since 1988, the bodies of 10 women who led what police describe as "high-risk lifestyles" — a euphemism for the sex-trade and addictions to alcohol and drugs — have been dumped in rural spots around Edmonton.

Alberta RCMP, who last fall created a task force to review the cases of about 80 murdered or missing women who lived that lifestyle, say a serial killer might be at work.

"After close examination of the evidence, we do have reason to believe that one person may be responsible for more than one homicide," says Inspector Mike Sekela, head of the 23-member group code-named Project KARE. "We can't put a number on that."

Despite the possibility of a serial killer, Sekela says police can't have "tunnel vision" and conclude that just one suspect is responsible for numerous killings.

"It's important that we keep an open mind and go where the evidence takes us," he says.

There's no shortage of evidence to examine.

The task force's office in the heart of Edmonton's downtown is filled with dozens of cardboard boxes and metal cabinets containing information on the cases of the murdered and missing. They come from an initial look at more than 300 high-risk missing people dating to the 1930s in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories.

Task force members are methodically going through the files and entering information into a massive police database that helps identify possible links such as people or vehicles. That can then be used to help investigators, including some who worked on the cases of Robert Pickton in British Columbia and Paul Bernardo in Ontario, develop new leads, generate additional interview contacts and profile killers' methods and traits.

But Sekela insists it's going to take more than technology to crack these cases.

"Computers are not going to solve this," says Sekela, a 23-year RCMP veteran with more than a decade in homicide and serious crime. "It's going to be the human element — the investigators, the public, the girls on the street and the social agencies they deal with."

Police have so far received more than 600 tips in their probe of the final hours of Quinney's life. Much of that information has come from women who worked the streets with her.

Investigators conclude Quinney, a crack cocaine addict with two children under 2 years of age, was on the 118th Ave. stroll June 6, five days before her body was found.

People who work with the prostitutes here say Quinney's death has served as a rallying cry for the women selling themselves on the city's streets.

Unlike the other murders, hers prompted fellow sex-trade workers to tie pink ribbons to stop signs and lampposts in protest. A candlelight vigil in memory of her and the others killed and attacked was held near one of the spots Quinney frequently solicited. More sex-trade workers have been coming forward to speak to police.

"Her death seemed to almost be like a powder keg," says Kate Quinn, executive director of the Prostitution Awareness and Action Foundation of Edmonton (PAAFE). "It's mobilized people on the street and in the community and it's made people angry.

"It seems to have created a real camaraderie, as if they're saying: `We've had enough.'"

A few blocks down the street from Quinney's regular corner, Nicole remembers her friend, whose street name was Candace. According to Nicole, the teenager from the Cree community of Frog Lake, 200 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, talked about her children — a daughter adopted by relatives, a son in foster care — and her desire to get off drugs and the street.

"I knew her long enough to know her ups and downs," says Nicole, who hails from Victoria, B.C., and has been selling herself on the streets of Edmonton for the past few years. "I knew her long enough to know she could take care of everybody but herself."

Nicole says that since Quinney's murder she's noticed a new attitude on the streets, with prostitutes being more cautious and paying better attention to what goes on around them.

`I knew her long enough to know she could take care of everybody but herself'

Nicole, about her murdered friend Rachel Quinney

"The girls are looking out for each other a lot more than they used to," Nicole says. "A lot more. It's not as harsh and competitive as it used to be."

Elizabeth, 27, a crack addict who came to Edmonton from Cold Lake, 300 kilometres to the northeast, nearly a decade ago, admits even though she didn't know Quinney she's "freaked out" by her killing and the other murders. They've changed life here, she says.

"When we see each other, even if we don't know each other, we say: `Be safe.'"

Keeping Edmonton's prostitutes safe is one of the key goals of the RCMP task force, Sekela says. It's also designed to arrest the people who may be responsible for the most recent murders, to create a homicide unit to investigate the unsolved killings in Alberta over the decades and develop a template that can be used by police elsewhere, he says.

"It's a daunting task," Sekela says. "But it's going to proceed.

"We're doing everything we can legally, ethically and morally to find the person or persons who are responsible."

But earlier this month, Kukdookaa Terri Brown, the president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said systemic racism by police means they are partly to blame for the murders of aboriginal women across the country, including those in Edmonton.

"They are responsible for the deaths when they do not provide a safe environment for all," she said on a visit to the city. "People are dying as a result of their inaction."

Brown said her organization, which wants $10 million from the federal government to research how many aboriginal women are missing and to create a national registry and hotline on the issue, is speaking out because "the longer we wait, the more lives are lost."

Police here, stung by the criticism of their colleagues in Vancouver, who were accused of not taking seriously enough the women — many of them aboriginal — missing from that city's downtown eastside through the years, bristle at suggestions they're not doing enough.

"What's happening around the Greater Edmonton area is tragic," says RCMP Corporal Wayne Oakes, noting that in the Quinney case 30 investigators from Strathcona County, where she was found, are working with members of Project KARE and Edmonton police.

"But we can't create the evidence to help us quickly solve the cases," Oakes says. "We have to find it, collect it, analyze and apply it. All of that takes time."

Oakes says a woman's race has no bearing on how police investigate her murder.

"It has nothing to do with who they are or what their position is in life," he says. "It has everything to do with the total circumstances of the case."

Offering a constant reminder of who this is all about, a poster displayed prominently on the wall of a room used by task force investigators has photographs of recent victims affixed to a map pinpointing the location where the women's bodies were found. Nearby is a large schematic drawn onto a metal erase board under the heading: "Person's of interest."

In addition to probing old files, the task force is gathering evidence it hopes to never use. A so-called insurgence team is getting names, photographs, fingerprints, DNA profiles and other distinctive characteristics, such as tattoos, to build a database — and a better rapport with prostitutes — to help investigators identify a woman if she becomes a victim.

The task force boasts nearly 100 per cent co-operation rate among the prostitutes.

Dawn Hodgins, a special projects co-ordinator with PAAFE who spent eight years selling sex on Edmonton streets, says there's more co-operation with the task force because it's seen as proof police are finally taking the issue of violence against them seriously.

"It's almost comes as a sense of relief," says Hodgins, 34, who got off the streets a decade ago. "Now, they have dedicated people looking at it and nothing else."

But Hodgins worries that Quinney's murder shows that despite the best efforts of police, the person who is responsible for a number of the murders is getting more brazen.

"I think he's speeding up and it scares me that Project KARE doesn't scare him," she says. "The fact he would pick up Rachel Quinney when all this is going on tells me he's sick and getting sicker."

Just down 118th Ave. from where Nicole is looking for some early afternoon business to help feed her habit, a small pile of wax and some burn marks on the wall of a credit union are all that remain of the impromptu candlelight vigil held in Quinney's memory.

It's an event Nicole says she didn't attend "because I just didn't think I could handle it."

Nicole would love to break her habit. She knows it's key to ending the cycle of violence that cost her friend and many others their lives. But on a hot summer day with the focus exclusively on getting enough money to get the next fix, she's proof that the grip of the street is not an easy one to break, no matter what the perils.

"It's a lot harder to go out and do something you don't know," she says. "It's a lot scarier to most girls to get their shit together than to stay on the street."

Additional articles by Daniel Girard

Courtesy of



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

Updated: August 21, 2016