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Serial killer mystery for women on Canada's 'Highway of Tears'

Women whose daughters are part of a missing women's inquiry in Canada cry during discussion of a report, titled 'Forsaken,' that examines the mishandling of the Robert Pickton serial killer case.
Women whose daughters are part of a missing women's inquiry in Canada cry during discussion of a report, titled 'Forsaken,' that examines the mishandling of the Robert Pickton serial killer case.Ben Nelms / Reuters, file

Sarah de Vries started running away when she was 13, in 1983. She lived in cheap apartments and grim hotels in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia -- places that would let a teenager turn tricks. Later, she got hooked on heroin.

Sarah's big sister, Maggie, remembers a bubbly, adorable baby. But life was not always easy. Of mixed race, with some black and aboriginal ancestry, Sarah was targeted by racist bullies, and sometimes felt disconnected from her white adoptive family.

In 1995, she wrote about how many women were missing from her neighborhood, Vancouver's rough Downtown Eastside.

"Am I next? Is he watching me now?" she wrote in a journal her sister published years later, after Sarah, too, disappeared. "Stalking me like a predator and its prey. Waiting, waiting for some perfect spot, time or my stupid mistake."

We know now that the Downtown Eastside was where serial killer Robert Pickton found his victims, picking up sex workers, killing them, and disposing of their bodies on his pig farm.

Investigators charged him with 26 murders, but only six counts went to trial. Found guilty in 2007, Pickton was jailed for life, the toughest sentence possible in Canada, which has no death penalty.

Vancouver police now admit they made mistakes probing the murders, and a public inquiry report released last month, titled "Forsaken," highlighted a "systemic bias" against the victims, paired with public indifference.

'Compelling information'

When Sarah de Vries went missing in 1998, her disappearance was one of many unsolved cases in the Downtown Eastside.

Vancouver police believed there had been an increase in disappearances but were unsure why. Some officers recognized a serial killer at work, but others clung to the idea that the women had just moved and did not want to be found.

A Vancouver police review from 2010 said the case was clear only in hindsight. But it also found that even in 1998 and 1999, police had "compelling information" pointing to Pickton: tales of bloody clothes and of a woman's body suspended in his barn.

A supporter lights candles surrounding photos of murdered women outside the Missing Women's Commission of Inquiry in Vancouver, British Columbia on Dec. 17.Andy Clark / Reuters -- file

Pickton agreed to a search in 2000, but it was never done, and he was caught in 2002 only because of a separate weapons probe. DNA linked him to 33 of the Downtown Eastside's more than 60 missing women, including Sarah de Vries.

Vancouver police, who say they have made changes since 2002, have apologized: "We could have, and we should have, caught Pickton sooner," Chief Constable Jim Chu said in December.

Pickton's farm was in an area that is under the jurisdiction of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who have said they will study the inquiry report. They declined to comment on the case.

Canada is still wrestling with what the Pickton case means. It prompted questions about the fate of scores of other missing and murdered women, and in the years since Pickton's 2002 arrest, police have set up new task forces to investigate some of the disappearances.

One of these is the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's Project E-Pana, which was asked to determine whether one or more serial killers had stalked young women along British Columbia's highways.

'Highway of Tears'

In northern British Columbia, so many women, many of them aboriginal, have gone missing along Highway 16 that their families call it the "Highway of Tears." Those cases, along with disappearances near two other highways in the province, are Project E-Pana's focus. The 18 cases it is dealing with date from 1969 to 2006.

But E-Pana, which police say they named for an Inuit goddess who cares for the dead, has not cracked any of the cases along Highway 16.

Gladys Radek, who grew up in northern British Columbia, said she has known about the disappearances since she was a girl. In 2005, her niece, 22-year-old Tamara Chipman, went missing.

"The RCMP have always been in denial that there is a Highway of Tears," she said.

Among Canada's major provinces, British Columbia has the lowest clearance rate -- 49 percent of the murders are unsolved, compared with 39 percent nationally -- perhaps because of the Highway of Tears and Downtown Eastside cases that remain open.

Aboriginal women are disproportionately likely to be murdered in Canada, and they were overrepresented among Pickton's suspected victims.

Wally Oppal, whose inquiry produced the "Forsaken" report, recommended that British Columbia's government replace the patchwork of police jurisdictions in the Vancouver area with a regional force. He said geographic isolation, poor transit and poverty in the north of the province have put women and girls at particular risk.

The matter is urgent, he wrote: "Serial predators are committing violence today; that is an inescapable fact."