VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
The Sun's Lori Culbert writes about the lives of three women, cut tragically short
Saturday, January 13, 2007
Especially for someone whose turbulent life was cut short so early.
CREDIT: Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun
Sereena Abotsway earned a trip to Holland from her foster parents.
Sereena Abotsway was a "furious" four-year-old when she was sent to live with Anna and Bert Draayers, but the veteran foster parents soon learned to love the troubled girl despite her tendency to act out at school.
So Anna Draayers issued a challenge to the outspoken child -- one she never thought Abotsway could achieve: She promised to take her to Draayers's home country of Holland if she completed her entire Grade 6 year without getting into any serious trouble at school.
"I said to her, 'If you can manage for the whole year to be okay . . . then we'll take you to Holland.' And she did," Draayers said proudly in a recent interview. "Nobody ever thought that she was going to make it, but she did."
Abotsway, who was raised by the Draayers from age four to 18, learned to speak Dutch on that trip and maintained her knowledge of the language throughout her troubled adult years.
"When she would phone me daily when she was in the [Downtown Eastside], she would say to me in Dutch, 'Hi mother. How are you? How are the children?'" Draayers recalled. "I would answer in Dutch and she would know what I was saying.
"I miss her an awful lot."
Abotsway is one of the six women whom Port Coquitlam pig farmer Robert (Willie) Pickton will be accused of killing when his trial begins Jan. 22 in New Westminster. Pickton has been charged with killing an additional 20 women, and is to face a second trial in the future.
The 26 victims are all on a list of 65 women who police say disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside between 1978 and 2001.
Some friends and relatives of the victims complain that police didn't respond quickly enough to missing person reports because most of the women supported their drug habits with prostitution. And now the families hope positive memories about the women can rise above the troubling evidence that is expected to emerge from Pickton's first trial.
"Sereena did not choose to live life the way she did, circumstances chose it for her...," Abotsway's half-brother Jay Draayers wrote in a memorial to his sister. "Sereena quite often, when talking to us on the phone, would ask us to make sure that the younger [foster] children would never end up living the life that she was living."
Added Rick Frey, father of murder victim Marnie Frey: "[T]hese are our sisters, our daughters, our mothers -- all human beings, all great people. They came into this world with big bright eyes and a slap on the ass, and ready to take the world on. And through whatever reasons they got hooked on the drugs."
On Friday, The Sun profiled three of the six victims who are at the centre of Pickton's first trial: Mona Wilson, Georgina Papin and Andrea Joesbury.
Today, relatives and friends remember Abotsway, Frey and Brenda Wolfe as they emotionally prepare for the start of Pickton's long-awaited trial.
When Abotsway arrived at her foster parents' home in Surrey, the four-year-old was skeptical of new people after enduring abuse as a toddler. However, she developed into a "bubbly" little girl who sang loudly and out-of-tune at church.
"Those things now I think about, and wish I could hear it one more time," Anna Draayers said. "I love her dearly."
The outspoken girl had few friends in school, and had to be home-schooled in her teen years. However, she was close to some of the 50 foster children taken in over the years by the Draayers, and the family also raised Abotsway's half-brother Jay and half-sister Michelle.
When Abotsway was 18, the Draayers had to make a heart-breaking decision: The teen's behaviour was so out of control her foster parents were forced to ask the ministry to remove her from their home to protect their other foster children.
Although Abotsway had grown up physically, Draayers said she remained "a child inside" and struggled as an adult, eventually ending up on the mean streets of the Downtown Eastside.
"She had lots of difficulties and we never thought she would be okay on her own," Draayers said. "She would phone us every day, and sometimes when she was older and she couldn't remember she would phone two, three times a day. And would ask me exactly the same questions."
In her final years, Abotsway owned nothing more than the clothes on her back. Anything the Draayers gave her, she would either lose or share with others, with little regard for her own needs.
On one birthday, her foster parents took Abotsway out for dinner downtown and gave her some cigarettes because they were something practical she could use. She turned to the waitress and asked, "Do you want part of my present?" Draayers recalled.
Abotsway's disappearance in August 2001 was extremely worrisome for the Draayers because they had been planning her 30th birthday party, a celebration Abotsway had been eagerly anticipating.
In his memorial tribute to his older half-sister, Jay Draayers fondly remembered Abotsway as someone who would both bully him and fiercely protect him, and who volunteered to help others at various Downtown Eastside organizations during her final years on the streets.
"We hope that Sereena has found the peace and love which she always hungered for. Sereena did not have this peace in the early days of her childhood," Jay Draayers wrote.
"Unfortunately Sereena, being the oldest, was more affected by what had been done to her in the first few years of her life. This would affect her later years, and [she] would become very troublesome. . . Even so, we all loved and still love her unconditionally."
Anna Draayers, 73, has been told that she and her 78-year-old husband could be called as witnesses, so they cannot attend the beginning of the trial. She said she wouldn't want to sit through the evidence anyway, but does want some answers about her foster daughter.
"I want so badly to know what happened to Sereena," she said. "I will be so happy when this is over and done with."
At a memorial service for Marnie Frey in 2002, after Pickton was charged with her murder, she was remembered as "a carefree loving girl . . . [who] loved the simple things in life."
The girl with the bright smile and light-hearted spirit enjoyed spending time with her family and small animals, and was praised for being trustworthy and generous.
Frey was an 18-year-old still living at home in Campbell River with her father Rick and stepmother Lynn when she had a baby girl she named Brittney.
Frey tried to raise the infant, but ultimately asked her parents to adopt Brittney because she believed that was best for her daughter.
The young woman would be drawn to the bright lights of the big city, and Brittney was only in kindergarten when her mother disappeared in August 1997.
Brittney grew up believing Rick and Lynn were her parents, and that Marnie was her older sister. However, she recently had to be told the truth when school yard bullies taunted her about who her mother really was.
"People are pretty vicious, you know," Rick Frey said in a recent interview. "The day that we had to tell her, that had to be one of our worst days. But she took it like a trouper."
Rick and Lynn Frey have been outspoken about how police, the government and society in general appeared to react with indifference when this group of marginalized women disappeared -- and he hopes officials will respond more swiftly in the future.
"I hope the public starts demanding some answers to all the questions we have," said Frey, a fisherman.
The Freys say even though Marnie disappeared nearly 10 years ago, they haven't been able to get a death certificate; they also cannot claim her remains to have them cremated until after the trial; and they say they haven't received proper support or counselling from the government's victim services workers.
In particular, they are unhappy that the government will only fund two family members to attend the trial for a week, when Marnie's father, mother, stepmother and daughter would like to attend.
Rick Frey is also unimpressed with a handbook that victim services sent to the families earlier this month in an effort to guide them through the trial process.
"We're as ready as we can be. We know what it's going to be like, we know what to expect. I mean there's going to be tears," he said in the interview. "It's been a long time in coming."
Susanne Dahlin, executive director of the provincial government's victim services and community programs division, said her staff cannot, by law, tell the families what evidence they will hear at trial because of the sweeping publication ban on all of Pickton's pre-trial hearings.
However, she said that over the last year and a half, some of her 50 staff members have met with relatives of all 65 women who are still listed as missing from the Downtown Eastside.
(Pickton has been charged with killing 26 of those women and the other 39 remain unaccounted for.)
The meetings in the families' home communities were intended to prepare them for hearing disturbing evidence and to create individual support plans to assist them through the trial.
Dahlin said they are a diverse group, and assistance that one family finds beneficial will not necessarily fit the needs of the next family.
Some relatives are further along in their grieving, depending on when their loved one disappeared. However, Dahlin noted that living through the trial will not be a "straight road," and those who feel prepared today may not in fact be when they hear the allegations against Pickton.
The government will pay for travel costs, a hotel room in New Westminster and food for certain relatives for one week to help with the costs of attending the trial, Dahlin said.
Once the trial starts, there will be at least one counsellor at the courthouse each day to help relatives cope with the evidence they will hear.
In addition to the handbook, victims services has created a website for the families that includes frequently asked questions intended to help them understand the trial process.
Dahlin said her boss, the solicitor-general, has indicated more funding will be made available if additional workers are needed to help people get through the trial.
"We just know that this is going to be a long haul," she said.
Elaine Allan worked at the WISH drop-in centre for sex-trade workers. She knew many of the missing women, including five of the six victims who are the subject of Pickton's first trial.
She remembers seeing Brenda Wolfe using the WISH facilities until her disappearance in February 1999 at the age of 30.
"Brenda was a very quiet person, but she was a well-liked quiet person. She wasn't Georgina Papin, who was outgoing and gregarious, but she was well-liked and she always had a friend with her [at WISH]," said Allan.
"She had a boyfriend and she was a very gentle soul. She had a very affable nature. You liked having her around. She had a nice presence about her."
Wolfe was born in Pincher Creek, Alta., but grew up near Calgary.
"Brenda was kind of independent. She used to come in and ask me if she could put bags up against the wall behind the serving tray while she got dinner and a shower. Because that's always a big thing -- where do you put your stuff in a place like that when you get a shower?" said Allan. "She was very polite and very soft-spoken and very kind."
Allan, who has attended portions of Pickton's pre-trial hearings, is now employed by the Salvation Army. She started working in the Downtown Eastside in 1998, so never met Frey, who went missing a year earlier.
She fondly recalled Abotsway, who she said went by the street name Riviera, as a spunky, mischievous and very social woman who would talk for hours on the free phone at a drop-in centre.
Mona Wilson, who went by the street name Stacey, was a mild-mannered WISH regular during the nightly drop-ins. That time, Allan said, was Wilson's break from an overbearing boyfriend who treated her poorly.
"She'd be crying, she'd be frantic. 'I don't know what to do about him,'" Allan recalled Wilson saying about her boyfriend.
"She'd just get paralysed, and she'd just sit down and cry," added Allan, who said she tried -- unsuccessfully -- to get Wilson into a recovery house.
Papin was a "tough" woman who knew how to defend herself; she was also extremely popular and immediately missed when she vanished.
"She would always come in [to WISH] with a pile of friends, and would hang out with a pile of friends, and leave with a pile of friends. She was a very social person," Allan said. "People all talked about her [disappearing.] When your social maven is missing, people are going to mention that."
Andrea Joesbury was a petite, strawberry-blond "little kid" who wore platform shoes and had a "very, very sweet" disposition. She was quiet and never seemed to get into altercations with others -- prompting Allan to wonder how she navigated the treacherous Downtown Eastside for so many years.
"Her nature was so gentle. You just couldn't imagine someone that gentle and so little and so defenceless being out on the mean streets every night," Allan said.
When the WISH doors closed at 10 p.m., Allan always worried about how Joesbury and the others would survive the dark nights.
"Everyone knew that . . . women were going missing," she said softly.
"Every night when they walked out the door I would say goodbye and I would wonder if that was the last time I'd see them."
Profiles of Sereena Abotsway, Marnie Frey and Brenda Ann Wolfe.
© The Vancouver Sun 2007
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Updated: August 21, 2016