Police missed a “precious moment” to gain the trust of a half-naked and badly beaten sex-trade worker who walked into their Vancouver-area office, choosing instead to ridicule the woman whose remains were later found on serial killer Robert Pickton's farm, the woman's sister told an inquiry Monday.
Sarah de Vries was turned back out on to the street to hitchhike to her Downtown Eastside home after the attack that prompted her to seek help from the police, her sister, author Maggie de Vries, told the inquiry into police handling of the Pickton case.
Ms. de Vries said the undated incident was recorded in Sarah's journal some time before she vanished in 1998 and became one of the 20 women on the list of charges dropped against Mr. Pickton.
Maggie de Vries has read her younger sister's journals and wrote a book about her sister, but she kept Sarah's traumatic encounter – first with a “bad date” and then with police – to herself until now.
Ms. de Vries did not specify what police did to ridicule her sister.
She told the inquiry Sarah described being picked up by a customer in the Downtown Eastside, being taken to a remote location east of Vancouver in Port Moody and then being badly beaten.
Sarah made it to a police station, Ms. de Vries said, but officers there turned her out without even offering the half-naked woman a blanket.
“It was that moment when she was in dire distress. [It]was the one opportunity perhaps in her whole life that police had to respond in a helpful manner to her,” she told Commissioner Wally Oppal.
Ms de Vries said police could have demonstrated to Sarah they were there to help, but she was further victimized.
“Instead, they humiliated her, they sent her back out to experience more violence and they sent a very clear message to her that this wasn't a good idea.”
She said the officers badly misused the precious moment, cementing the distrust those in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside had against police.
“You were better off to go straight to the highway and stick out your thumb,” Ms. de Vries said of her sister's journal entry.
The inquiry has heard other sex-trade workers in the area where women were disappearing had information about Mr. Pickton, but didn't share it with police.
“I think that had the police taken advantage of all of those moments and built that trust in those relationships, that information might have been more forthcoming,” Ms. de Vries said.
“That could have led to Robert Pickton being arrested earlier and that could mean that there'd be women still living and breathing in the world today who are now dead.”
Ms. de Vries's information was part of a panel presentation to the commission, along with sex-trade activist Jamie Lee Hamilton and Sarah's friend Wayne Leng, who later started a web page about the missing women from the area.
The three told the inquiry of their frustrations in getting police to admit that a serial killer may be at work, that more police resources needed to be put on the case and that a reward should be offered for information about the missing women.
De Vries said Detective Constable Lori Shenher urged her to lobby for more help from police because she was getting nowhere with her bosses.
“She clearly believed that these women met with foul play,” she told the inquiry.
Ms. Hamilton, a transsexual who started out in Vancouver's sex trade in the 1970s, said the work became much more dangerous when police pressured the women to move to the industrial areas of the city.
Sex-trade workers were being fined $2,000 just for standing on the street when the City of Vancouver passed a street-activity bylaw, she said.
Ms. Hamilton, who was issued the fine, said that was a lot of money to make up when oral sex was running about $60 and “full service” ranged up to $150.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, pimps were starting to victimize women, hard drugs were prevalent and police were pushing women to work in the back alleys of the Downtown Eastside.
“I remember saying [to police] ‘You're not going to be satisfied until we're pushed into the water,”’ Ms. Hamilton said, who by that time had been working as an advocate for the Downtown Eastside Residents Association.
Hamilton said the actions by police put sex-trade workers at a much greater risk to be picked up by a serial killer.
She contradicted testimony given last week by former Vancouver police chief Terry Blythe, who said the department supported Ms. Hamilton's safe house.
Instead she said the police targeted the place she called Grandma's House, a place for sex workers where they could get food, clothing and support.
“If they were [supportive]they wouldn't have shut us down in the midst of a serial killer roaming the streets of the Downtown Eastside.”
Vancouver Police charged Ms. Hamilton with keeping a common bawdy house after a raid in August 2000. The charges were stayed three years later.
“If the consequence was to put us at further risk of a serial killer, well the mission was accomplished,” she told the inquiry.
The inquiry is looking into why it took so long for police to stop the serial killer before his arrest in 2002.
Mr. Pickton was eventually convicted of killing six women, but confessed to an undercover officer that he murdered 49 women.
The DNA of 33 women was found on Mr. Pickton's pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C.