It has been 21 years since Melinda Sheppit’s nearly naked body was found next to a dumpster in a downtown parking lot. She had been strangled and one of her snakeskin stilettos was missing.
The killing of a prostitute doesn’t always rock a city, but that one did. Ms. Sheppit was just 16 years old. She was beautiful. She came from a good family. And police said she had been working the streets for just three weeks before her demise. They also said an arrest was imminent. More than two decades later, her homicide remains unsolved.
But there are tantalizing hints of a turning point in the case, and perhaps in the cases of other sex workers who have lost their lives while plying their trade in Ottawa – a city where prostitutes have been pushed out of the downtown core to seedier neighbourhoods where they are unlikely to cross paths with tourists.
Police Chief Vern White has told local sex workers that a serial killer may have been operating here for the past 21 years. “Be vigilant and exercise good safety practices,” he warned during a December news conference at Minwaashin Lodge, a support centre for aboriginal women that reaches out to those in the sex trade.
Charles Bordeleau, the force’s assistant chief, said there have been six unsolved killings of prostitutes in Ottawa since 1990, and detectives have noticed what might be a link between an unspecified number of them. He would not name the victims.
But “as soon as we identified that pattern, we felt it prudent and our responsibility to go out and communicate with women, and particularly sex-trade workers, around safety issues,” Assistant Chief Bordeleau said.
The sex workers and the people who support them say the mindset of the police has changed greatly as a result of the crimes of Robert Pickton. Police in Vancouver sustained heavy criticism because it took years after Mr. Pickton killed his first victim for them to acknowledge a pattern in the subsequent disappearances of women from that city’s Downtown Eastside.
Chris Bruckert, vice-chair of POWER, an Ottawa support group for prostitutes, and a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, applauded the Ottawa police for their recent warning. But, she said, they continue to make mass arrests of sex workers that drive the trade into the back alleys, where the women are less safe.
Chief White told sex workers to be more careful by working in well-lit areas and in pairs. “That’s exactly what sex workers cannot do in the context of this kind of really aggressive policing,” Dr. Bruckert said, “because that’s when they get picked up.”
An Ottawa sex worker who goes by the name of Berlin says all of the measures that street workers could take to protect themselves create the risk of confrontation with the police. “The time that you would take to assess a client before getting into a car, you can’t do because solicitation is illegal,” she said.
And some of the violence that sex workers experience is committed by the police themselves, Berlin said. So “sex workers are understandably pretty [upset]that the police are telling them to be safe.”
It is impossible to narrow down exactly which killings the Ottawa police believe may have been committed by the same hand. Given the timeline, Ms. Sheppit would seem to be a likely candidate.
Perhaps police also are looking at the death of 36-year-old Jennifer Stewart, a mother of four who worked the streets to pay for her crack cocaine addiction. Ms. Stewart was found face-down in a parking lot in the low-income neighbourhood of Vanier – just a few blocks south of tony Rockcliffe – in August of last year. She had been stabbed multiple times.
Or maybe they are re-examining the case of 27-year-old Kelly Morriseau, a pregnant prostitute who was found dead five years ago. Or Leanne Lawson. Or Carrie Mancuso. Or Sophie Fillion. All were sex workers and all killed by persons unknown.
Castille Troy, executive director at Minwaashin Lodge, said that, despite the dangers, many of the women involved in street prostitution in this city see no way out.
They “are doing what we call survival sex,” Ms. Troy said. “In other words, they are doing it to survive from day to day, whether it’s for food or because they have an addiction problem or a substance-abuse problem.”
Ms. Troy is less critical of the police than Berlin or Dr. Bruckert.
“I am hoping that people will get the message that these women’s lives are not any less valuable than anybody else’s, and that there are those who really care about them and who are going after this perpetrator or perpetrators,” she said. “In our partnership with the police, I know that they really are sincere, I know that they want to catch whoever was responsible, and they don’t want this to escalate.”