VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Never to be forgotten
Vancouver Sun reporter Lori Culbert looks at the lives of three women whom Port Coquitlam pig farmer Robert (Willie) Pickton is accused of killing. His first trial on six murder charges starts Jan. 22
Friday, January 12, 2007
Mona Lee Wilson hated wearing dresses or putting her hair in ribbons to go to church.
CREDIT: Richard Lam, Canadian Press, files
A photograph shows Mona Lee Wilson as a young girl. She is among 26 women Robert (Willie) Pickton is accused of killing
As a young girl, she much preferred playing with the animals on her foster family's hobby farm in Langley, and even tried to smuggle chicks into her bedroom to sleep with them.
"She'd lay right down in the mud with them, and play with them, and have them in her pockets. You had to check her when she came in the house because in her coat pockets there would be a couple of chicks, and in her boot you'd have another," Greg Garley said with a kind laugh as he recalled his late foster sister.
"We'd take her to church but, oh, getting Mona into a pink dress -- that was an ordeal. Frills and bows weren't for her . . . . She didn't like being a girl. When she got home [from church], off came that dress and on went the jeans and boots."
Wilson is one of 26 women whom Port Coquitlam pig farmer Robert (Willie) Pickton is accused of killing. His first trial on six of those murder charges begins Jan. 22.
On the opening day, the public will hear for the first time the Crown's grim allegations of how these six women died: Sereena Abotsway, who vanished just days before her 30th birthday; Marnie Frey, who was 24 and left behind a young daughter; Andrea Joesbury, who was 23 and trying to straighten out her life; Georgina Papin, who was 37, outgoing and had many friends; Brenda Wolfe, who was 30, kind and well-liked; and Wilson, who disappeared when she was 26 years old.
The trial judge, Justice James Williams, warned the jurors selected in December that the evidence they will hear will be "graphic and distressing."
That disturbing information will dominate headlines and newscasts for months. What should not be forgotten during that time, say the victims' relatives and friends, is that the women had moments of youthful innocence and adult accomplishments that should be celebrated.
Many faced challenges in their lives that undoubtedly led them down the turbulent road to drug addiction and, in most cases, prostitution to support their habits.
But along that journey, they left behind many positive memories and touched the lives of people who continue to grieve for them today.
Mona Wilson was a terrified eight-year-old girl when she came to live with the Garley family: Mom Norma, dad Ken, their four biological children, and so many other foster kids that Greg lost count over the years how many there were.
After enduring horrific sexual and physical abuse as a child, Wilson was seized from her family and received psychiatric care in a hospital. The Garleys were her first long-term foster parents, and she lived with them until age 14.
"I'll tell you, of all the kids she stayed in our hearts and our minds," said Greg Garley in a recent interview.
That scared girl grew to love playing with the dogs, cats, chickens, turkeys and peacocks on the hobby farm.
"She was sort of like a tomboy," said Greg Garley, who was a few years older than Wilson. "Digging in the garden, feeding the chickens, getting the eggs."
Attending school and other regular childhood routines were sporadic for Wilson in her earliest years, but in the Garleys' home she went to class and was taken on family vacations -- including one to Disneyland.
"There was nothing she liked better than going camping, going fishing," Garley said. "An awfully good girl. We just absolutely love her."
The Garleys operated an "emergency" foster home, which meant they took in some of the most troubled children -- many of them babies born with drug addictions.
Wilson's behaviour started to worsen at puberty, but Greg Garley said his family was upset when the ministry removed the troubled teen from their house. At her new foster home, Wilson's problems increased, Garley said.
She was placed in "independent living" when she was about 16 years old, which meant the government found her a place to live in east Vancouver and gave her some money to live, he said.
"A survivor of such horrors -- and then they just gave her a cheque and let her loose in Vancouver. What did anyone think would happen to a vulnerable girl like that on her own in a big city?" Garley asked.
He said Wilson phoned his parents regularly, even after they retired to the Okanagan.
"She stayed in touch with us until her death, every single month we got a phone call from her and it was just wonderful. She was always going to come and visit, but always had an excuse as to why she couldn't."
Garley said his family didn't know anyone involved in drugs or prostitution, but would have tried to help Wilson if they'd known she was mixed up in that world.
"I try not to think about that stuff because that's not who we knew. The way she talked on the phone, she was still the Mona we knew. So, right up until the month before they found her . . . she was still pretending to be the same girl."
Wilson was 26 years old when she was reported missing by her boyfriend in November 2001.
Foster mother Norma Garley was concerned something was wrong when she didn't receive her monthly phone call that December.
Then in February 2002, the family was horrified when Wilson was named in one of the first two murder charges against Pickton.
"My parents are in their mid-70s and I've watched them visibly age through this whole thing. So many sleepless nights, and nightmares, and not eating, losing weight," Greg Garley said.
Garley, who now lives in Parksville, is upset about the process that was set up to help the victims' families prepare for and attend the trial.
He said it favours biological relatives, and doesn't treat foster families equally.
"She's as close to blood as you can get. I went through my teen years with her, we loved her as much as anyone else," said Garley.
"It's just a very difficult thing to imagine this happening to someone you know and love."
- - -
Maggy Gisle is haunted by the memory of the last time she saw her friend Georgina Papin in March 1999. They were both drug-free and at a baby shower in Mission, where Gisle was celebrating the birth of her daughter.
But Papin, 37, was in a less celebratory mood. The mother of at least six children, she was devastated by a recent court ruling prohibiting her from getting custody of her kids, who were in government care.
"She said she was going to go downtown. I asked her to stay overnight with me . . . I was really, really upset. And I told her that I had lost many friends when they had relapsed," recalled Gisle, who now lives with her daughter on the Sunshine Coast, where she works as a nurse.
"She insisted that she wasn't going to use drugs, that she was just going to drink. And she was going and I couldn't stop her. I told her if she had to [then] be safe and come back. And she didn't come back," Gisle said, her voice breaking with emotion.
"About a week and a half after she left, she just disappeared off the face of the Earth."
Gisle, who spent 16 years on the streets of the Downtown Eastside before getting sober in 1998, checked with drop-in centres and needle exchanges but found no sign of her friend. The police would not accept a missing person report from her because she was not a relative.
The heartache of losing a friend was not unfamiliar to Gisle, who says she knew 54 of the 65 names on the police list of those missing from the Downtown Eastside.
Papin had a troubled life growing up in Alberta, bouncing from foster homes to group homes to residential schools. She began experimenting with drugs at age 11, and was under the control of a pimp shortly thereafter, her brother Rick Papin said in an interview in 2001.
She moved to Las Vegas, got married and had a baby girl in her early 20s, and then returned to Canada, where she had at least five more children. However, she struggled with relationships, drugs and incarceration.
Gisle first met Papin in 1994 at a recovery house in New Westminster, where they were roommates. Gisle was drawn to Papin's honesty, boundless energy and constant offers of assistance to vulnerable women.
"She was very outgoing, she was very motherly, and she took people underneath her wing," Gisle said in a recent interview. "She taught me about native culture, she drummed, she sang. . . She did traditional beading and native crafts."
They remained friends through the 1990s, when they both struggled through cycles of getting clean, then falling back into drugs again.
However, even in her darkest hours, Gisle said, Papin did not live in the Downtown Eastside, as she kept an apartment in Mission. She also maintained that Papin was not a sex-trade worker but instead an "opportunist" who would use her outgoing personality to get alcohol or drugs from others.
Gisle said Papin was a good mother who phoned her children and had regular visits with them when they were in care -- which made her disappearance all the more suspicious.
"When she relapsed, her getting clean was always about her kids. That's why I was so adamant about looking for her sooner because I knew it wasn't in her character to let go of her kids and have absolutely no contact," she said.
Gisle's faint hope of finding her friend alive was dashed in 2002 when Pickton was charged with her murder.
- - -
Jack Cummer, a kind retired salesman from Nanoose Bay, remembers vividly his last phone call with his beautiful granddaughter
Andrea Joesbury, who ran away from a difficult childhood on Vancouver Island to the Downtown Eastside when she was just 16 years old.
The conversation was just before Joesbury disappeared in June 2001, at the age of 23. In those seven years on the streets she had experienced a lifetime of pain, but she was upbeat on the phone because she was completing a methadone program to kick her heroin habit and was hoping to move back to the island.
"She was a very happy young lady whose life was in a starting mode. .... Our conversation ended with our love to each other," Cummer wrote in a recent e-mail to The Sun.
"I did say goodbye."
But he did not realize then it would be for the last time.
Joesbury loved drama and sports as a young girl, but struggled in school. She mostly lived with her troubled mother, and occasionally stayed with her grandparents, Jack and Laila Cummer.
She had a good relationship with her grandparents, but they couldn't stop the vulnerable teenager from running away to pursue her dream of finding a husband and having a baby.
"She went to Vancouver because she was looking for love. And she found this guy, and she fell in love with him. She's a young, naive girl, 16 years old, not knowing what's going on," Cummer said in an earlier interview.
"Eventually she phoned and let me know he was 15 or 20 years older than she was, so it gave her two things: A man she loved and a father figure. [But] she was put on the streets because he was a drug dealer."
Cummer tried to convince his granddaughter many times to come home, but she stubbornly said it was the life she had chosen and wouldn't leave Vancouver until she was ready, he recalled.
Joesbury did have the baby she yearned for, and Cummer came to visit after the birth. He said his granddaughter was "worn to a frazzle" trying to provide for the baby on a limited budget, but the little girl was healthy and receiving good care.
However, social services would eventually seize the child and put her up for adoption, which caused Joesbury to spiral back into her life on the streets.
"She tried to make a new life for herself and baby but was forced to give up her child and [had] nowhere else to return to but the man causing all her heartbreak," he said in his e-mail.
In that final phone call, Joesbury told Cummer she had the support of a caring Downtown Eastside doctor who was helping her with the methadone, and would come home to Vancouver Island when she was clean of her habit.
"Her dream was to come and search for the baby," Cummer wrote.
But she disappeared before ever seeing her daughter again.
Joesbury kept in regular contact with her grandfather through her collect calls, so when the phone didn't ring again, Cummer knew something was wrong.
The Cummers were devastated when police knocked on their door in 2002 to say Pickton had been charged with her murder.
"She is missed by the family and dearly loved," Cummer wrote in his e-mail. "Our Andrea is safe in God's arms and He is a wonderful, understanding person. He is helping us to be the same."
Saturday: Relatives, foster families and friends remember Sereena Abotsway, Marnie Frey and Brenda Wolfe.
© The Vancouver Sun 2007
Updated: August 21, 2016