(Reuters) - 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, entitled “Forsaken”, highlighted a “systemic bias” against the victims, paired with public indifference.
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 has stalked young women along British Columbia’s highways.
The impact has been felt as far away as Oregon, where new DNA evidence from one E-Pana case brought the first break in the 1995 cold-case murder of two teenage girls.
But closer to home, activists and victims’ families fear that too little has changed, and more killers may be at large.
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 uptick 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 only clear in hindsight. But it also found that even in 1998 and 1999, police had “compelling information” pointing to Pickton: tales of bloody clothes, a woman’s body suspended in his barn.
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.
Activists had raised the alarm about missing women as early as 1991. Susan Davis, an activist and 26-year veteran of Vancouver’s sex trade, said the community was already on edge because of the Green River Killer in nearby Washington State, later identified as Gary Ridgway.
Ridgway murdered at least 49 women, many of them sex workers, in the 1980s and 1990s, and was not caught until 2001.
There may be other killers too. Police believe Alaska’s confessed serial murderer, Israel Keyes, who committed suicide in December, spent time in Canada. Canadian police are working with U.S. investigators, but have not yet linked him to any cases.
“At first, they get away with just sexually assaulting you, or beating you, or robbing you,” said Davis, who believes police indifference set the stage for Pickton’s murders. “When they see that they can get away with that, things escalate.”
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.
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.
E-Pana solved its first case in the fall, and that led to a breakthrough outside Canada, in the pretty seaside town of Newport, Oregon, where Jennifer Esson and Kara Leas, both 16, were killed in 1995.
The girls had been visiting Esson’s boyfriend, and left late in the evening, likely planning to hitchhike home. Almost three weeks later, workers found their bodies north of town.
The case went cold for 17 years, until E-Pana sent Interpol a new DNA profile from a man who they believe killed 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen in central British Columbia in 1974.
That DNA, Interpol found, belonged to Bobby Jack Fowler, a convicted kidnapper who died of lung cancer in an Oregon prison in 2006. Fowler’s last arrest was in Newport, and when the Canadian police visited, local authorities took notice.
In September, Oregon authorities named Fowler a suspect in the Leas and Esson murders, and a person of interest in a similar 1992 case. Newport investigator Ron Benson said Fowler may have had other victims in both Canada and the United States.
“It does keep me up nights, wondering why I wasn’t there to protect her,” said Jennifer Esson’s father, Floyd. But Fowler’s “good, slow death” has given him some comfort.
Without E-Pana, Newport authorities might never have identified a suspect.
But while E-Pana, which police say they named for an Inuit goddess who cares for the dead, identified Fowler, it 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.
The cases were highlighted in a 2010 report from the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Sisters In Spirit, a project that cataloged nearly 600 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls across Canada.
Among Canada’s major provinces, British Columbia had the lowest clearance rate - 49 percent of the murders were 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.”
Kate Rexe, who directed Sisters In Spirit from 2008 to 2011, said the Pickton trial was a double-edged sword, attracting attention, but creating a faulty perception that all the missing women were in the sex trade.
Rexe can list other Canadian cities where unsolved cases may indicate a serial killer, but she has seen some loss of momentum. “It seemed as though there was a lot of interest for a short period of time in educating police officers, that has since been put on hold, or just cut altogether.”
Oppal’s mandate centered on Vancouver, not the bigger issue of missing women. But his sweeping 1,400-page account of police failure and public indifference referred repeatedly to a broader crisis, and he exhorted his readers to learn from what happened in Vancouver. He also quoted from Sarah de Vries’ journals.
“Will they remember me when I am gone?” she asked. “Or would their lives just carry on?”
Reporting by Allison Martell in Toronto and Teresa Carson in Newport, Oregon; Editing by Janet Guttsman, Cynthia Johnston and; Peter Galloway