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Autopsies on B.C. sex workers inconclusive

New Westminster Police and forensic teams examine the apartment complex of 211 Eleventh Street in New Westminster on Tuesday. Two escorts where found dead in their apartments this month.

Ben Nelms/The Globe & Mail

Police are still unable to say whether two female escorts found dead in a New Westminster apartment block were murdered, or even if their deaths are related, after autopsies on both women have now come back inconclusive.

The uncertainty has left Lower Mainland sex workers in limbo, taking extra precautions while anxiously waiting to hear if a killer is targeting their industry.

The Integrated Homicide Investigation Team said Wednesday afternoon they will need further forensic testing to determine how Karen Nabors died. She was found dead in her apartment on Aug. 25, and police say there is evidence indicating foul play.

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Ms. Nabors was found dead two weeks after Jill Lyons died in her apartment on the floor above.

Police initially suspected suicide, but Ms. Lyons's autopsy also failed to settle the cause of death.

In a region still scarred by the Robert Pickton serial murders, those involved in the sex industry are hoping to find out soon whether the deaths of the two escorts are related. IHIT issued a public alert on Monday, asking sex workers to be vigilant against potential dangers.

Many of the safety resources sex workers relied on in the past have now moved online, just as their advertisements have.

Internet forums have become an especially important information-sharing service, said Susan Davis, a long-time sex worker and activist.

"Workers form these private areas where only they can see what's being posted," Ms. Davis said. "And new workers can ask questions. There are a number of things about working in the industry that you need to know, and it's not usually written down anywhere, right?"

Ms. Davis said the advice being given most often right now is to not take any food or drink from clients, and to not allow clients to bring bags into the room.

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She said escorts working out of their home – as Ms. Nabors and Ms. Lyons did – often employ a "safe call" system as well, where they call a friend when the client arrives and use code words if there's a problem.

Friends of Ms. Nabors say she told them she had a safety system in place, but it isn't known what exactly the system was.

The online forums are also used to share information about dangerous clients – an informal digital version of the practice long known as the "bad-date sheet."

"I remember when I worked on the street in the 1990s, they would come around and hand out a sheet," said Ms. Davis. The sheet, produced back then by the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society, was also posted in various resource centres.

The "bad-date sheet" is still around today and is now produced by WISH, a drop-in centre for sex workers. The document, called the Red Light Alert, gets posted on bulletin boards and handed out on the streets, but it also gets distributed digitally.

"We gather and compile [reports on dangerous clients] every week, and they get distributed to about 250 e-mail addresses across the Lower Mainland," said Kate Gibson, WISH's executive director. "Some go to women who work, but most are service providers and people who would come into contact with women."

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Ms. Davis said the rapid information-sharing of online forums is invaluable during a situation like this one, where a threat has been hinted at but remains mysterious.

"We need these spaces because you're very isolated when working like those two women were, alone from their homes," she said. "It has made it possible for those of us working independently to come together."

Editor's note: A headline on this story, in some print editions and in a previous version online, incorrectly said two female escort workers were murdered. In fact, as the article states, police are unable to say if the women were murdered. This version has been corrected.

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