A letter to … Sarah, who was murdered by a serial killer

Journalist Julie Bindel writes to Sarah Jean de Vries – a writer and victim of the serial killer Robert Pickton – whose powerful reflections about society letting down sexually exploited women still ring true today.

An illustration depicts a woman with short hair to the left reading a book and a Black woman with curly hair writing in a journal
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Dear Sarah, writer, poet, and one of the many victims of serial killer Robert Pickton.

In Vancouver in 2012, several years after you went missing, I heard the evidence you left behind about the hellish violence and abuse of women on the streets, and the lack of concern from police and too many citizens.

Your beloved sister Maggie read your evidence – diary entries and poetry – to the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry into how police forces were investigating cases of missing and murdered women in British Columbia, and why it took so long to catch your killer.

I had an interest in Pickton’s crimes, having written about them in 2005.

I was researching a book on the global sex trade and knew many feminists working to end sexual exploitation in Vancouver and elsewhere in Canada. Pickton preyed on sexually exploited women, namely those struggling to survive on the streets.

Over the years, you had written in your diary about the man, or men, who preyed on street prostituted women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, long before Pickton was caught.

While you had no idea of Pickton’s name or identity, you knew it was unlikely that his capture would be a priority because for so long the police maintained the women were transient and would eventually show up.

A decade after first hearing them, I still can’t get your words out of my head.

“Am I next? Is he watching me now? Stalking me like a predator and its prey. Waiting, waiting for some perfect spot, time or my stupid mistake. How does one choose a victim? Good question. If I knew that, I would never get snuffed,” reads an entry from 1995.

These words made me shiver.

Sarah, you knew about danger. For almost a decade, from the age of 18, you were prostituted from the corner of Princess Avenue and East Hastings Street, the most notorious red-light area in Downtown Eastside.

The last time you were seen was in April 1998. No one knows when you died, just that your DNA was discovered on Pickton’s farm four years later, along with that of many other missing women.

Your life was always hard. Born in 1969 with Black and Mexican ancestry, you were adopted at the age of 11 months by a white family.

Growing up in a relatively affluent and, at the time, overwhelmingly white neighbourhood of West Point Grey in Vancouver, you were described by family members as a precocious girl who loved to swim and draw. But you were bullied in your neighbourhood because you were different from the white population born and raised in the area. By the time you were 14, you were using drugs.

In 1998, police were tasked with investigating 17 missing women, most from Canada’s Indigenous population. All of you were prostituted drug users.

Three months after you disappeared, a potential suspect was named in the investigation: Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer in Vancouver.

A police officer checked the police database and saw that Pickton had been charged with imprisoning and stabbing Wendy Lynn Eistetter, a prostituted, drug-addicted woman, almost fatally, the previous year. She managed to disarm Pickton and escape. A passing motorist later found her on a highway covered in blood.

Pickton was charged with the stabbing, but all charges were dropped a few months later as Eistetter used heroin, and it was assumed she would make a poor witness.

This detail was exposed during the Inquiry, and hard questions were asked of police as to why they had missed an opportunity to put this man on trial.

Had Pickton been convicted, countless lives would have been saved, including yours.

You also used heroin. In 1993, a news outlet featured a video of you saying you spent $1,000 a day on the drug, and that you knew that one day it would kill you. But heroin didn’t kill you, Sarah.

Police waited until 2002 to carry out a forensic search on Pickton’s farm. He had kept items belonging to many of his victims, some of whom you knew. By the time they did the search after the attack on Eistetter, at least another 14 women had been murdered.

Police found the DNA of 33 women in buildings, freezers and machines on his farm. Pickton boasted that he used a meat grinder to dispose of some victims and fed others to his pigs.

Pickton was far from the only violent john to commit terrible acts of violence against women in prostitution.

Prostitution also led you to your death. And neglect by every single agency that should have supported you when you were selling sex.

I have interviewed and spent time with hundreds of women in prostitution, and every single one of them counted at least one near-death experience at the hands of a john – otherwise known as a “client” or “customer” – or a pimp, and all have been raped on multiple occasions. This violence is normalised, everyday, and horrific.

I have visited and worked alongside feminists at Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR) & Women’s Shelter, which runs services for sexually exploited women. I have walked around the streets near where you were prostituted, and seen women screaming while being chased by pimps as police patrol cars drive past and ignore them.

Research published by VRR in 2020 showed that, over two years, 24 percent of the women – either prostituted at the time or in the past – who called the crisis line, were 15 years old or younger when they entered prostitution. In most cases, the girls had already suffered sexual assault by a male relative and been groomed by a boyfriend who often gave them drugs to make sure they remained compliant.

Many girls had run away from foster care. More than a quarter of the women seen by VRR were Indigenous, despite only making up 3 percent of the population in Vancouver.

Many of the women had serious mental health conditions as a result of the abuse in prostitution, and 65 percent disclosed addiction to alcohol or drugs. Nearly half disclosed violence, coercion and abuse from pimps and johns.

Sarah, you documented the harsh realities of daily life on the Downtown Eastside in your many journals. Your poems, drawings and prose reflected the hell you were subjected to, whether by violent johns and pimps, or police and passersby.

In one poem I first heard at one of the many memorial services held in Canada for the missing and murdered women, you wrote:

She was somebody fighting for life,
Trying to survive,
A lonely lost child who died,
In the night, all alone, scared,
Gasping for air.

Through your family speaking publicly about you, I learned from reading in the news that you loved gymnastics and took up horse riding when you were little. Drawing and painting were your “sanctuary from the storm” and your journal was an “understanding friend”.

Writing about another missing woman who vanished from the streets and was likely killed by Pickton, you wrote in your journal, at an unknown date: “If she were some square john’s little girl, shit would hit the goddamn fan. Front page news for weeks, people protesting in the streets… While the happy hooker just starts to decay, like she didn’t matter, expendable, dishonourable. It’s a shame that society is that unfeeling. She was some woman’s little girl, gone astray, lost from the right path.”

Where did you go when you disappeared that day in April 1998, Sarah, aged 28?

The newspapers did not run the story, because you were living on the streets, and no longer in the affluent neighbourhood where you were raised.

At least 29 women had disappeared before you. We have little idea of the timeline, how many women went missing after you, or how many were victims of Pickton, but we do know that this pattern of disappearance continued until he was arrested.

Your words, “Am I next?” send a chill down my spine.

I wonder if the fear of becoming one of the missing preyed on your mind, and did you wonder if you could escape those streets from where so many women disappeared?

While Pickton was charged with your death, the case was eventually discontinued. Although Pickton was never tried for your murder, it is accepted by police and prosecutors that he is responsible for your death.

Many people in Vancouver and elsewhere have heard of you Sarah, because of your poignant, heart-breaking words recovered from your journals, and because family members and other loved ones have kept your memory alive by speaking of you publicly.

In 2003, your sister Maggie published a book about you, Missing Sarah: A Vancouver Woman Remembers Her Vanished Sister, in which she included many of your writings.

Since you died, many have argued on your behalf that you may well still be alive today had the government decriminalised what they call “sex work”.

As with other governments that have no idea how to deal with the problems inherent to the sex trade, many think that removing all the laws around prostitution will help keep the women safe. But there is no evidence for this, in fact, in countries where the sex trade is legalised such as the Netherlands, Germany and some states in Australia, problems such as trafficking, underage girls and violence all appear to be worse.

Since your death, a law was introduced in 2014 to protect vulnerable women and girls.

Known as the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, it treats prostitution as a form of sexual exploitation that disproportionately impacts women and girls. It says that purchasing sexual services, receiving financial or other benefits from the purchase of sexual services, recruiting a person for sex work or advertising the sale of sexual services of others is illegal.

Trisha Baptie began following the Pickton murder trial in 2007 as a citizen journalist, six years after exiting prostitution, aged 28. She had been abused into the sex trade at 13, and she was prostituted in the same area as you.

Baptie says the law is not working as it should.

“The laws that criminalise the johns are not being implemented because the police chiefs and mayor don’t like these men being arrested,” Baptie told me when we spoke over the phone in January this year. “Nor is there any more help for the women since the change in the law.”

I asked Baptie about the push by a number of escort agency owners and “sex worker’s rights” activists in Canada to decriminalise prostitution. Although many of the prostituted women will say that they support blanket decriminalisation, the dozens I have spoken to in Vancouver and across Canada who had, by then, escaped the sex trade, tell me they wish that they had been supported to exit sooner.

“There is a collective guilt in Canada, that these murders had been allowed to happen, and that the police ignored the missing women for so long,” said Baptie. “So, a lot of people bought into the idea that decriminalisation would make it safer because the women could hire drivers and minders, but the women that were murdered would not have been the women that would have been able to do that.”

“If Canada wants us to avoid another Pickton, things have to change,” she told me. “It’s not just that he killed those women, but all the other violence [associated with prostitution must stop]. The very act of purchasing sex is an act of violence.”

As Rachel Moran, the Irish writer and feminist who wrote the political memoir, Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution, told me: “Prostitution can never be safe. It is imperative on every government to end the demand for the commercial rape of vulnerable women.”

Even now in Canada, police attitudes and responses to prostitution remain appalling. Women are either arrested or, in some cases, sexually exploited as a payoff for not being arrested.

Sarah, there can be little doubt that Pickton killed you as he killed dozens of other women. But prostitution also killed you. The life sucked you in and wouldn’t let you escape. As you wrote of the men that bought you: “Do they actually realise that I’m real?”

But your writing also tells us that you wanted something different, and you imagined that future. “Way down in the abyss of my heart a spark shows through all the empty, cold darkness,” you wrote.

For Baptie, who heard the reams of evidence about so many victims during the Pickton trial, what stuck out about you was how amazing it was that part of you was allowed to live on, through your writing, which is so important for your children and other loved ones left behind.

Sarah, in your name and the name of every woman who has been used and abused by men and left to die, or even murdered, let’s hope that Canada makes some radical changes.

It must start by seeing women in prostitution as whole human beings.

I am thinking of your words right now, in particular, a poem in which you wrote about a woman whose name we do not know, who was savagely beaten to death on the streets where you worked. Your words are full of pain.

Woman’s body found beaten beyond recognition
You sip your coffee
Taking a drag of your smoke
Turning the page
Taking a bite of your toast
Just another day
Just another death
Just another Hastings Street whore.

Sarah, I want to thank you for paying your respects to the victims who perished before you met your death. Your remains were never found, but your presence, powerful, occasionally hopeful, is in the words you left behind.

These words inspire society to do better. They fuel the work of feminists campaigning for an end to the abuse of women in prostitution. Your voice did not die with you.

Source: Al Jazeera