Thirty-one women went missing before the situation in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside received adequate media coverage. They may be seen as throwaways to society, but each one had a story.
By Leighan Bell
"Will they remember me when I’m gone or would their lives just carry on?"
Sarah deVries’ journal- she’s been missing for three years
Before her own daughter Sarah disappeared, Pat deVries didn’t even realize that women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside were going missing. In the last couple of years the disappearances haven’t been very public, said deVries. However, she says the amount of coverage has improved considering the general populace’s attitude toward prostitutes. She went on to say that the media is trying to get some horror out of the tragedies with the theory that a serial killer may be at work, "A serial killer makes a good story that people like to read about- if it’s not about them," said deVries.
"They won’t be missed is the feeling of most people," said deVries. But her daughter has certainly been missed. DeVries is raising her two young grandchildren, Jeanie and Ben, in Ontario. Wayne Leng, a close friend of Sarah’s, operates a website devoted to the missing women. Leng is very active in trying to keep up the level of awareness about the mysterious disappearances, "This sort of thing happens all over the place. We don’t seem to want to deal with it."
Sarah initially got involved in the drug scene when she was in her teenage years, and prostitution followed thereafter. "She had no skills for living in a straight world… she was hooked [on drugs] as soon as she started," deVries said about Sarah.
Sarah went missing in April of 1998, just a month before her 29th birthday. "She was a vibrant person with a deep infectious chuckle… both her kids have it," said deVries. She describes Sarah as being a strong- willed, generous and loving person who liked art and poetry.
DeVries described a story that Sarah’s friend and former roommate Christine told her last summer: eight women were trying to sleep in one room. Four were in a double bed and four more were on the floor. Christine complained to Sarah that the two of them were the only ones paying rent and that the others should leave. But Sarah refused to kick them out because she said they would be safe there with them. DeVries said that if Sarah could help people she always would.
Descriptions of Sarah come in the past tense- she believes her daughter is dead. Sarah’s children know what their Grandma believes happened to their mother, "People have a right to know about their own reality," said deVries. According to Leng, Sarah’s daughter Jeanie said, "You know, just because these women are addicted to drugs doesn’t mean they need to die."
We’ll always have the beautiful memories
Step-mom Lynn Frey can still recall her daughter Marnie’s love for animals, athletics, drawing and poetry. She describes Marnie as being a typical child who liked climbing trees, horseback riding, and playing in her fort. "She wasn’t afraid of anything," Frey said. She describes Marnie’s appearance- tall, thin, with olive skin and dark brownish- black hair. She had a round face when she was healthy and was a very attractive girl, Frey said quietly as she remembered her missing daughter.
"Street workers are treated like their garbage… to a majority of society they are just bums. They don’t think they have families and are loved," said Frey. She used to go to Vancouver and look for her daughter on the streets after she went missing. She always came home alone.
Marnie was just 24 when she disappeared four years ago from the Downtown Eastside. She began getting involved in drugs while living at home in Campbell River, on Vancouver Island. She began going to Vancouver and got involved in prostitution as a way to pay for her drug habit. There were three times when she tried to stop doing heroin: Marnie would tell her mom, "I don’t like feeling this way. I need help," said Frey. She was not successful in getting treatment and her addition raged on. The last time Marnie’s family spoke to her was in August of 1997 when she called from a pay phone on Hastings Street in Vancouver.
"I miss her dearly. I wish she would pick up the phone, but I know it’s not going to happen… I know damn well we’re not going to find her alive- she’s gone," said Frey.
"…Just another day/ Just another death/ Just one more thing you go forget/ You and your soft, sheltered life/ Just go on and on/ For nobody special from your world is gone/ Just another day/ Just another death/ Just another Hastings street whore sentenced to death…"
Thirty-one sex-trade workers, many of whom were addicted to drugs, are officially included in the growing list of women who have disappeared from the Downtown Eastside stroll or ‘low track’. It is estimated that the actual number of missing women is between 45 and 60, and they are presumed dead, possibly at the hands of a serial killer. Although contact with their families may have been infrequent or sporadic, none of the women have been heard from in quite some time. Their welfare checks have not been picked up, nor did they leave with any of their belongings.
Many of the people interviewed for this article have said prostitutes are treated as if they are expendable or throwaways. But to their families and others close to them, these women were mothers, daughters, sisters and friends. If the media can pick up that the women have more to them than just being sex trade workers and drug addicts then it’s a fuller picture, said Erin McGrath, the sister of victim Leigh Miner.
Without people advocating for them there are barriers and their voices don’t get heard; it’s a segment of society that doesn’t have economic and social power, said Marika Sandrelli of PACE (Prostitution Alternatives Counseling Education). Sandrelli said it has almost been normalized that people go missing from the Downtown Eastside and people just shrug their shoulders because they have discriminatory attitudes toward sex-trade workers and drug addicts.
Leng points out that in recent months they have been identified collectively in the media as ‘missing women’ instead of ‘missing prostitutes.’ To the families and friends of the missing women that is a step in the right direction toward giving the women the coverage they deserve. Before this year, a lot of the articles written were negative in terms of the language used to describe the women. They were commonly referred to as hookers, prostitutes and drug addicts rather than as missing women.
In the past, the media has quoted sources saying things to the effect of "They sell sex, so what do you expect to happen to them?" said Dorothy E. Chunn, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU). An example of this is in a May article by the Times Colonist; it says, "prostitutes are also killed because of their lifestyle." Statements such as that continue to further perpetuate the notion that the women are somehow responsible for the violence they encounter.
The coverage was not as compassionate, nor did it focus on the fact that each woman was a human being rather than merely a prostitute or a hooker. Indeed, missing women did receive some media coverage, but it wasn’t until the last year or so the situation was consistently placed on the front pages- where other murder victim’s stories are put. The media coverage has really taken off now that the Vancouver Police Department has acknowledged that a serial killer may be at work.
The media coverage has increased in the last year, but as Constable Dave Dickson of the Vancouver Police department said, "It’s not a big story to them [the media] unless a whole bunch go missing." The Vancouver Sun newspaper has been running features about the women since last spring, but it took a long time and many disappearances before a keen interest was given to the issue. "It’s been going on for years, pretty much invisibly," said Robert Hackett, a communications professor at SFU.
There have been a lot of complaints about how prostitutes have been treated by the police and the media said Karlene Faith, professor of criminology at SFU. Faith went on to say that in the last year the missing women have been given more media attention, but not the kind of coverage that 40 miscellaneous people would receive.
Mary Lynn Young, an assistant journalism professor at the University of British Columbia said that the Vancouver Sun has done an extremely good job reporting, and has shone a much-needed spotlight on the problem. The television show ‘America’s Most Wanted’ has also run a special about the issue. In the past year, coverage has certainly increased, and articles are being run in other countries, including the US and England. The television program ‘The Fifth Estate’ is also running a feature on the missing women in December.
"By virtue of the fact that they sell sex they aren’t seen as worthy victims," said Chunn. The disparity of coverage is obvious when compared to someone like Melanie Carpenter, the beautiful 20-year-old who was murdered in 1995, "Melanie Carpenter is the perfect example of a credible victim… for white people we tend to identify with people who are seemingly like us," said Chun. "The level of sympathy for the victim [Carpenter] is higher because she’s seen as being pretty and innocent," said Faith. Carpenter’s tragedy was given extensive coverage by the media, and was given page one coverage. Even her funeral was televised.
None of the families interviewed have ever seen a front-page article devoted solely to their loved one alone. Coverage in the newspapers has only been given to the women as a group. This is a significant difference between the level of coverage for these women and other ‘worthy victims’ whose images are featured on the front pages. "It’s a tough time getting them [the media] to do a story on one person," said Constable Dickson.
The coverage doesn’t give the complete picture, just snap shots, and it continues to perpetuate the myths surrounding prostitution, because the media doesn’t get the authentic voices of those involved, said Sandrelli. She went on to say, "Ignorance is bliss. Not knowing or not wanting to know keeps you detached. Once you know you can’t cry out naivety."
The level of prostitution on the low track hasn’t decreased significantly even with the looming threat of a serial killer. According to Leng, the women are always on guard but because of the drugs they feel they will be okay. Constable Dickson concurs with that statement saying that the women are concerned, but they don’t have the power to do anything about it, "Their lifestyle is so horrendous, they just live day-to-day," he said.
Leng said that in the beginning there wasn’t much coverage at all, and that friends and family members of the women had to search to get coverage. He said that constant contact and pressure with the media has continued to fuel the stories. McGrath said, "If I had not have gone to the media my sisters name wouldn’t be made public at all… but if it wasn’t for the media we wouldn’t be where we are today."