Mother's pain doesn't heal

St. Catherines Standard
Ontario, Canada

Wednesday, March 07, 2007 - 01:00

'They were still the mothers and the daughters of other people. They're not their lifestyle. Everything about them doesn't change the fact that they were people and all of us lost something.' - mother of Dawn Stewart, one of five sex trade workers whose deaths are the focus of an NRP task force

Police arrested a suspect Monday a day after a prostitute was found murdered; a Sherkston mother is still waiting for closure in the case of her daughter, Dawn Stewart, a sex-trade worker whose remains were discovered in the woods in 1996. The death of Stewart and four other women is the subject of a Niagara Regional Police task force. Dawn Stewart's mother still clings to hope. The hope that her questions about her daughter's death will be answered. That police will solve the case that's flitted between hot and cold more than once.

The hope that the case of Stephine Isabelle Beck, the 29-year-old St. Catharines prostitute whose body was found in a roadside ditch Sunday morning in Vineland, will spark something that will turn that hope into reality.

"There's always that. There's peace in knowledge," the Sherkston woman said Tuesday.

With her daughter's name surfacing in news reports again, nearly 12 years after Stewart went missing, that possibility exists. However, police have not linked Beck's death to Stewart's or those of four other sex-trade workers in Niagara.

"It's something we're going to take a look at down the road, but there's no obvious links," said Niagara Regional Police Det. Staff Sgt. Cliff Sexton.

Wayne Ryczak, 55, of St. Catharines was arrested Monday evening and later charged with first-degree murder in connection with Beck's death.

He is not a suspect in Stewart's death, nor is anyone else at this point.

That's why, coupled with hope, there's the feeling that a scab is being ripped off, exposing a raw wound for Stewart's mother that's never been able to properly heal.

"I hear people talk about a black pit and how many times I've started to slide in it, you have no idea," said the woman, who asked not be named to protect the identity of Stewart's sons, now 22 and 16.

Stewart's skeletal remains and those of her unborn child were discovered March 31, 1996, by a family hiking through a North Pelham forest near Centre Street and Metler Road. Stewart's remains were found without any trace of shoes or clothing.

Police determined her body had been left there, vulnerable to weather and animals, for at least five months. No one had seen or heard from her since late September 1995 when Stewart, six months' pregnant at the time, left her two boys with her roommate at their Niagara Falls apartment and ventured out for the evening.

She had a habit of disappearing, family and friends said after her body was discovered. Weeks would go by without a word from the 32-year-old.

It took months before anybody reported her missing.

It was almost a year to the day after she disappeared that Stewart's family was finally able to bury her.

"It was never a normal grieving. It was like it didn't happen but we knew it did," her mother said.

Stewart's mother has also been grieving the death of her son Randy, who died this past year of health problems he never revealed to his family.

"He never lived to find out who did it and that hurts," she said about her daughter's death.

To this day, Stewart's mother, who often finds solace riding her motorcycle, refuses to go near the area where her daughter's body was found.

But she has retraced the steps of her daughter's descent.

Stewart fell in with the wrong crowd in the last years of high school. Crack cocaine and booze were the group's pastimes.

Ambitions to become a hairdresser fell to the wayside. Stewart started hooking to support her drug addiction.

In a 2000 interview, Stewart's mother attributed her daughter's demise to poor self-esteem and a need to be loved by everyone.

Because of the state of Stewart's remains, police have never been able to say with certainty that she was murdered. They haven't ruled it out, either.

But they were certain when the body of 26-year-old Nadine Gurczenski was found three years later in May 1999 in a roadside ditch in Vineland one concession south of where Beck was discovered.

Police declared the death of the Toronto stripper a homicide.

Gurczenski was found clad only in stockings, one large hoop earring, a stud nose ring and a gold ankle bracelet.

She emigrated from Jamaica in 1992, settling in St. Catharines with her husband, Paul Gurczenski. When the couple separated two years later, Nadine moved to Toronto while Paul stayed in the Garden City with the couple's young daughter.

Police are still searching for Gurczenski's killer.

In August 2003, a passerby discovered the badly decomposed body of Diane Dimitri, 33, in a ditch in rural Welland.

Less than a week later, police determined Dimitri had been the victim of foul play.

The mother of four had fallen into a deep depression after the death of her husband. She turned to drugs for consolation and eventually prostitution.

On Jan. 30, 2006, Michael Durant of Niagara Falls was charged with first-degree murder in connection with Dimitri's death. A preliminary hearing for the 34-year-old, who worked in Niagara Falls as a labourer on construction sites, started last month in Welland. Less than a year after the grisly discovery of Dimitri, police were investigating the death of another prostitute with a drug abuse problem.

Margaret Jugaru, 26, was found clothed and face down in the fetal position in the parking lot of a Niagara Falls elementary school on July 9, 2004. Police called her death a homicide.

Like Stewart and Dimitri, Jugaru, who had model good looks, got involved with the wrong crowd. She started using crack. Started hooking to support her addiction.

Police believe Jugaru's killer is still at large.

On Jan. 24, 2006, the body of Cassey Cichocki was found wrapped in a sheet in the brush just off Whirlpool Road in Niagara Falls.

Once again, police were investigating the murder of a sex-trade worker with a substance-abuse problem.

At the time, friends said Cichocki, 22, never got over her father's death when she was a child. Then, over a three-year period, her brother, cousin and three-month-old baby died. It all proved too much for Cichocki to handle.

Durant was also charged with first-degree murder in the Cichocki case.

Two days prior to Durant's arrest, Sexton of the NRP's major crime unit got the nod to lead a team of 12 officers to review the cases of Stewart, Gurczenski, Dimitri and Jugaru.

Police have been tight-lipped about the way the six women died.

Keeping it secret will help police weed out the legitimate tips from the false leads in the cases, Sexton said.

"If the offender was to come forward or give that information to anybody in the public who came forward to us, we would know we were on the right path if only certain people knew that information," he said. "We always try to hold that close to the breast."

Stewart's mother has a "gut feeling" about Beck's death and whether it's related to Stewart's but she's not willing to publicize it.

What she will say is that the six women should be remembered as more than just slain sex workers turning tricks to support drug habits.

"They all died in the risky life they led. That didn't change anything, though," Stewart's mother said. "They were still the mothers and the daughters of other people. They're not their lifestyle. Everything about them doesn't change the fact that they were people and all of us lost something."

- with files from Grant LaFleche, Osprey archives

ID- 434228

2007 , Osprey Media. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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