Helen Hallmark

Missing Vancouver woman's murder sends ripples
across decades to daughter

By Steve Mertyl
The Canadian Press

Anyone who doubts that evil can reach across the years to touch the innocent should know about Chelsey George.

Now 21, George has always known she was adopted and even knew the name of her birth mother.

But she would not learn the whole truth until police turned up at her adopted parents' home in Langley, B.C.

They were seeking a DNA sample to match against remains found at Robert William Pickton's property in Coquitlam, B.C., in 2002.

Pickton is charged with 26 counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of women who disappeared from Vancouver's gritty Downtown Eastside.

One of them was Helen Hallmark, who gave Chelsey up when she was a year old.

Investigators had unsealed records of the 1986 adoption as part of their effort to match DNA.

Through her mother's death, the thread of the young woman's life now became tangled with the tragedy of the missing women.

Adopted at about age three, she discovered a family she never knew existed.

``She actually found us because when all this came about I guess they went and found her to get her DNA,'' said Carrie Kerr, Hallmark's younger sister and George's aunt.

``That's when she found out that her natural mother was one of these missing women and she sought us out.''

George is not comfortable talking about it all.

``It's taken me a lot to get past that and I'd rather not revisit it if I don't need to,'' she said.

Helen Hallmark was born in Vancouver in 1966, the eldest of three children her mother had with different fathers. There would be a stepsister, too.

Carrie Kerr, seven years younger, said there was ``a lot of abuse in different forms'' at home, aimed mostly at Helen and her and their brother Shawn, the middle child.

Shawn Hallmark blamed much of the violence on their mother's companion at the time, who is now dead.

``She (Helen) really took the brunt of a lot of stuff to protect us from being abused in the same ways,'' Kerr recalled. ``She really took on the role of guardian for my brother and I and really tried to protect us as kids.''

Their mother, Kathleen McClelland, said Helen was simply a teenage rebel who didn't like being told she couldn't go clubbing and partying with older teens.

She sighed wearily at the suggestion there might have been physical confrontations.

``Oh, I don't know,'' she said. `` I don't really remember too much of any of that. No, I don't think so.''

Shawn Hallmark also thinks Helen was reacting to their mother's own problems.

Carrie, Shawn and Helen Hallmark (right).

``My mum was in an abusive relationship,'' he said. ``I guess Helen didn't want any part of that and decided she was going to leave home.''

Helen was put into foster care at about age 13.

Her mother believes her real problems began in foster care and a group home. But Shawn suspects his sister was experimenting before leaving home.

Despite the difficulties, Helen never cut her family ties completely.

``We all meant a lot to her,'' said Kerr. ``She was actually a strong enough person, she forgave a lot of the things that she experienced growing up a lot easier than maybe some of us did.''

But her life was a cycle of rescue, rehab and relapse.

Shawn Hallmark, who remembers his older sister shielding him from bullies, recalled hopping on the new SkyTrain rapid-transit line in 1986, heading into the Downtown Eastside to look for her. He was 16.

``It kind of went full circle where when I got old enough to kind of protect her, I was the one going downtown and looking for her and trying to get her into treatment centres, stuff like that,'' he said.

But whatever damage she suffered in childhood, combined with the corrosive effects of drugs, was beyond her power to repair.

George was born when Hallmark was 19. There were two broken marriages, a string of boyfriends, petty crime and prostitution on the Downtown Eastside's mean streets.

Hallmark's sister believes most addicts use drugs to hide from something.

``And she had so many things to hide from,'' said Kerr.

Imagining a future would have meant getting off drugs and confronting her past, and her sister was not strong enough.

Police say Helen Hallmark disappeared in October 1997.

``I was the last person in our family to see her alive before she went missing,'' said Kerr, living in Calgary at the time but in Vancouver on a visit.

``She was actually really upset with me because I hadn't brought my kids with me and she really wanted to see my boys.''

Mother and brother missed tantalizing last chances to connect with her.

Shawn Hallmark remembers spotting her outside a suburban New Westminster convenience store while driving by with his then-wife.

``We were late for an appointment and I thought, well, she looked busy hanging out with her girlfriend and whatnot,'' he said. ``I just kept going and that's the last time I saw her. She didn't see me.''

A few weeks after Kerr visited her sister, McClelland heard Hallmark's name over a police scanner her husband liked to listen to in the evening. She was apparently being arrested.

``So I said `We'll hear from her. She'll call tomorrow.' And that was the last I heard of her. Period,'' McClelland said.

Christmas came and went with no word. Hallmark always spent the holiday with her family.

Her family began making the now-familiar inquiries on the Downtown Eastside, this time fruitless.

She wasn't formally reported missing until the following summer after police arrested Kerr on an outstanding warrant for solicitation.

``I went completely ballistic of course,'' she said. ``That's when they realized it was my sister and not me.

``She apparently had a driver's licence with her picture and my name on it, is what they ended up telling me.''

Kerr said police initially brushed off her attempts to file a missing-person report, telling her instead to go the downtown needle exchange and leave a message for her sister.

Hallmark was officially listed as missing in September 1998. Shawn Hallmark papered the Downtown Eastside with posters.

``They actually called us on her birthday,'' said Kerr.

``I'll never forget that because I'd just finished going to my best friend's funeral, a friend that had died of a drug overdose.''

News that Pickton was charged with Hallmark's death created a brief, bittersweet connection between Hallmark's family and Chelsey George.

``She's a strong girl,'' Kerr said of George. ``She was more curious to see where she came from and to try and understand her mother more as a person.

``We had a great time doing it because we got to reminisce about a lot of good things too.''

But George has opted not to stay in touch.

``I have things for her of her mother's, pictures of her when she was little that she wouldn't have otherwise,'' said McClelland. ``But she doesn't make the contact back. I figure there's a reason ... and I'm fine with that.''

Kerr said she'll always hold onto her sister's good qualities, her personal warmth, the fact she gave Chelsey a good chance at life.

``Her daughter is alive today and she's doing amazingly well,'' said Kerr. ``She knew also that letting Chelsey go was really the best thing for her and it turned out the best for her.''

It's clear her daughter understands that.

``I know that she loved me and only wanted what was best for me,'' she wrote in a message posted on one of the websites dedicated to the missing women.


2006 The Canadian Press

MISSING LIVES - The Canadian Press

Five years ago a pig farm near Vancouver became one of Canada's largest crime scenes
What followed were headlines about the massive forensic investigation and 26 murder charges against Robert William Pickton.
Far from the headlines have been the stories of the dead women. Twenty-six women who lived on and disappeared from the streets of Canada's most dismal inner-city neighbourhood Vancouver's bleak Downtown Eastside. Twenty-six missing lives.

In the five years since the Pickton pig farm made national headlines, the memories of the women have faded even further from the public spotlight. When mentioned, they are usually referred to only as "drug addicts" or "street prostitutes." They are often only numbers 26 victims, their names seldom used in news reports. All of the stories behind the names have never been told. Until now.

The Canadian Press, Canada's independent news agency, felt those stories needed to be told. Six reporters from across the country spent hundreds of hours researching details not previously reported. The result is Missing Lives: profiles on each of the 26 women.

Missing Lives reveals the 26 women as daughters, sisters, mothers: troubled souls whose lives touched others in lasting ways.



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

Updated: August 21, 2016