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Using the mass publicity of prime time television on both sides of the border, investigators featured the case in the crime-busting TV program America’s Most Wanted. The show aired July 31, 1999, fanfaring the $100,000 reward. It prompted over 100 calls to the program’s Washington headquarters. “Only 20 were thought to be useful; the task force is investigating them,” said Drennan. Reaching investigative overdrive, the Ministry of the Attorney General and the Vancouver Police Board Authorized a $100,000 reward for information leading to the resolution of the case. Adding to the effort one of Vancouver’s largest private detective agencies, CPA Confidence Group, offered four of their “cadaver” dogs to search selected areas, looking for decomposing human remains. There was even an attempt spearheaded by local business leaders to give cell phones to prostitutes with 911 on the speed dial. The idea was quickly dismissed because of fears that the sex-trade workers would use their new toys to conduct their age-old business.
Police say that Vancouver, being flanked by the sea and mountains, is the perfect spot for stashing bodies out of sight. “The possible grave sites are endless,” Drennan said. “If there is a predator out there, he may have a common grave site. But finding that is so difficult.” Though a more plausible explanation would be a person, like Chicago killer John Wayne Gacy, stashing the bodies in a basement, or someone dumping them in the open sea. “I think it’s a combination.” said Elaine Allen. “There’s so many women missing it’s almost ridiculous to think its one person doing it”
John Lowman, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, believes a combination of several factors could explain the mystery. Since 1985, at least 60 prostitutes in British Columbia have been killed by johns, drug dealers and pimps. “It suggests that these missing women may well have met the same fate,” Lowman said. It is not unusual for women who sell sex in the street and are addicted to drugs to disappear. They check in for rehab. They leave the streets. They move to another city. They overdose. They commit suicide. They are committed to hospitals. In the past, police say, women reported missing usually reappear within a year or two, dead or alive. “All of sudden that wasn’t happening anymore,” Drennan said. “They just stayed missing. That’s what became most frightening.” And though all circumstantial evidence indicates foul play, investigators cannot confirm that any of the disappearances are even related.
Police have sent missing-persons reports to psychiatric hospitals, morgues and welfare offices across Canada and the United States. Of the original 31 women reported missing, only two of them were located, both dead. One, Karen Anne Smith, died February 13, 1999 from heart problems related to Hepatitis C in an Edmonton hospital. She was last seen on the streets of Vancouver in 1994. The other, Linda Jean Coombes, died of a heroin overdose in an east Vancouver bowling alley February 15, 1994.
To keep track of the prostitutes two law enforcement agencies have asked them to record personal data on registries that would give police clues if they were to disappear. The registries — which have been signed by 60 prostitutes — include questions about previous bad dates, stalkers, or anything or anyone they were concerned about? It also records who would most likely know if they were missing. The prostitutes are also taking self-defense lessons and have been given special codes and asked to call in occasionally to let authorities know they are still alive. “A lot of them are being more cautious now, working by day or with somebody else,” said Deb Mearns, who coordinates safety programs for the prostitutes.
Using a new vice squad computer program, the Deter and Identify Sextrade Consumers (DISC) database, investigators hope to identify more suspects. The program allows officers to index every piece of information they gather about johns, pimps and prostitutes into a searchable database. The information includes regulars in the red-light districts, their nicknames, physical and vehicular descriptions, and even states if they have a specific perversions or tattoo.
Deputy Police Chief Gary Greer, former district commander for the Downtown Eastside, said he believes the street women make the perfect target for a serial killer. They readily get into cars with strangers, not many people notice their disappearance, and fewer still would report them missing. “With a prostitute who goes by a street name, who’s picked up by a john, and then another john, whose intention is to be unseen, to be anonymous – for a predator, that’s perfect,” Greer said.
Constable Dave Dickson, a 20-year Downtown Eastside veteran who was the first policeman to notice the disappearances, believes prostitutes still working the streets are upset by the mystery, but not enough to change their ways. “If they’re heavily addicted and need money, they’re probably going to jump in the car with a guy no matter what anyone tells them. They come from such horrible backgrounds, they’ve been sexually abused their whole lives. They’re not afraid of anything.”
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