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By Gary C. King
Copyright © 2009
Gary C. King Enterprises
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Chapter One The city of Vancouver, British Columbia, with a metropolitan area population of 2,249,725, is the largest metro area in the western part of Canada and the third largest in that country. Located along the coast and sheltered from the Pacific Ocean by Vancouver Island, the major seaport is ethnically diverse, with 43 percent of the area's residents speaking a first language other than English, and is ranked fourth in population density for a major city on the North American continent, behind only New York City, San Francisco, and Mexico City. Because of its rapid growth, it is expected to take over the number two spot by 2021. Idyllic in appearance because of its surroundings of natural beauty, Vancouver is repeatedly ranked as one of the world's most livable cities. In Canada it is among the most expensive places in which to live. But Vancouver is a major city, and with that distinction comes the grim reality that, like all major cities, it has a dark side that most tourists rarely get, or even want, to see.
One of Vancouver's unpleasant sides, an understatement to be sure, is its Downtown Eastside, also known as Low Track, long recognized as the poorest neighborhood in all of Canada. Rife with heroin addicts and prostitutes, Low Track is an area of Vancouver where misery and despair rarely-if ever-subside. The area abounds in grubby tenements, some of which are not fit for human habitation, rundown hotels that can easily be described as flophouses, and many of its back alleys and some of its streets are just plain filthy. Cigarette butts, used hypodermic needles discarded by addicts, and empty liquor and beer bottles are strewn about and broken. Discarded articles of furniture, such as sofas, chairs, and mattresses, which some of the homeless use to sleep on, can be found without having to look very hard. The smell of urine and vomit is often overpowering, and used condoms discarded by hookers or their johns are a frequent sight. The sounds of emergency vehicle sirens are frequent, day and night-the police are either making drug busts or other arrests, or medical teams are rushing to the scene of daily drug overdoses. It is also known as the place where many of the resident prostitutes began disappearing in the late 1970s and continued vanishing past the turn of the century. Few people would dispute that Low Track is aptly named.
A number of theories about what may have happened to the missing women have surfaced over the years and range from opinions that one or more serial killers were at work, such as a copycat of the "Green River Killer," to hookers who visited the freighters that docked in the city's harbor, only blocks from Low Track, and were kidnapped. The women were kept as sex slaves, only to be thrown overboard at sea when the sailors were finished with them.
Finding out what happened to the missing women has been especially troubling for the police who, according to Vancouver police constable Anne Drennan, had few leads with which to work because in most cases the police didn't even know where the women came from. Were some of the women following the prostitution circuit along the West Coast-Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle-only to end up in Vancouver? No one knew, and guesses weren't good enough to move the investigation forward. For a time the freighter theory seemed viable because there were stories being told among the city's hookers about women visiting a number of the ships and not returning. Even though such leads were followed up, the police could never find the evidence they needed to line up any suspects connected to the freighters. As a result, the disappearances remained a mystery-and the women continued vanishing without a trace.
Sometime on Wednesday, December 27, 1995, twenty-year-old Diana Melnick joined the ranks of many of the other women in the vicinity of the high-vice area of Hastings and Main who tried to earn enough money to maintain her drug addiction, and to pay for food and a place to sleep, by selling her body to men, many of whom she had never seen before. The brown-eyed young woman, with brown hair, stood five feet two inches tall and weighed barely one hundred pounds. She had been arrested four times during the preceding few months by police officers posing as johns, yet she continued returning to the streets. Even though information about her was limited, the police learned enough to know that she had friends, and she was described as a warm, kind person with compassion for others. She had apparently attended a private high school, and had not been fond of wearing the school's uniform. She liked to talk about boys, and always looked forward to going to school dances. Diana also liked to listen to heavy metal, and had a passion for horses, according to information that would surface years later.
She was also apparently a very trusting young woman, as evidenced by her desperation to make the money she needed for survival, because at some point that day she willingly slid into a vehicle driven by a man old enough to be her father and was never seen or heard from again. Diana was reported missing two days later from "the back-side alley of hell," which is how a friend would describe Low Track some six years later.
Diana Melnick had been the twenty-fifth woman to be placed on the list that would be compiled by the not-as-yet-formed Joint Missing Women Task Force. She would also be one of the victims that the police would eventually be able to attribute to the serial killer at work here, an unremarkable and otherwise trite forty-seven-year-old pig farmer named Robert William Pickton. Had he not been a violent "backyard butcher," from appearances alone, he would fit right in as one of the characters on Green Acres or The Beverly Hillbillies. However, because of his violent, predatory ways-along with his hillbilly appearance-he could more easily be compared to one of the murderous characters out of the cult horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. While the first twenty-four missing women would remain among the vanishings that either remained unsolved or were among four out of sixty-nine women that would eventually be located-alive-"Uncle Willie," as Pickton was also known, was far from finished. In fact, his reign of terror had only just begun.
* * *
According to those who knew her, twenty-year-old Tanya Marlo Holyk got along well with most people, and easily fit in when new situations required it. Growing up, long-legged Tanya liked to play basketball, as well as other sports. She also liked to read, and enjoyed doing book reports in school. But influences at home were less than ideal. Her mother, Dixie Purcell, had been a party animal and was known to have brought men, as well as drugs and alcohol, into their home while Tanya was still quite young. Her father had been out of the picture for quite some time, but he was believed to have resided somewhere on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. A few years before Tanya was born, her mother had given birth to another daughter with another man, but she had given her up for adoption when the girl was only two years old. Dixie had never told either girl that each had a half sister until much later, and the meeting took place at Vancouver International Airport at the same time that Dixie and her first daughter were reunited.
Although her mother claimed to have loved her very much, Tanya spent considerable time living with a cousin in an apartment in downtown Vancouver during her preteen and teenage years. Even though Tanya was three years younger than her cousin, the two got along well together and lived like sisters.
"She taught me lots of things," Tanya's cousin said about her. "Some of them good things, some of them not-so-good things. But they all stayed with me."
At one point Tanya left Vancouver to live with her half sister and her family in the small community of Klemtu, located on Kitasoo Indian Reserve on Swindle Island. As could be expected, Tanya adjusted to the new environment and seemed to enjoy her new life there. She helped out with family chores around the house, and sometimes babysat her half sister's child. But as she began growing older, Tanya became difficult to handle. Things eventually became so unpleasant that Tanya was sent back to Vancouver.
At one point Tanya became pregnant, and gave birth to a baby boy, the product of a purportedly abusive relationship in which she had gotten hooked on drugs. But Tanya adored her son, opting to leave the relationship and to get clean so that she could properly care for her child. According to her cousin, Tanya moved into an apartment and managed to stay off drugs for approximately two months as she tried to put the pieces of her life back together. Despite her temporary accomplishment her desire for drugs was too much for her to handle.
"She had the access," her cousin said. "She could get the drugs, she could get the money. She had a friend who would drive her to Vancouver and back. An addiction is an addiction."
Tanya's half sister last heard from her when Tanya called her in August 1995 from a detoxification center, at which time she pleaded with her sister to allow her and her young son back into their home. She didn't want to return to the streets of Vancouver, and although a tentative agreement was made between her and her sister for Tanya and her son to return to her home in Klemtu, the plan fell through. Instead, Tanya went back to the drugs and the streets of Low Track, where, police believe, she met up with Robert Pickton sometime on Tuesday, October 29, 1996. Tanya was never seen again and her mother, Dixie, reported her missing on Sunday, November 3, 1996, a little more than a month before her twenty-first birthday.
Her mother said that she continually urged the police to investigate Tanya's disappearance, but they didn't take her seriously.
"'Tanya was just out having fun,'" her mother claimed the police told her. "'Don't bother us. Don't waste our time....' I just stood there with the phone in my hand for ten minutes, just looking at it."
She told CNN six years later that the police had chosen to ignore her, but she nonetheless persisted.
Though she knew that it was likely that her daughter had been murdered, probably by Robert Pickton, Dixie Purcell died in January 2006 without ever knowing the final outcome, nor that Tanya would be but one of twenty young women whose deaths might never be served by the scales of justice. In all likelihood, Tanya was butchered by Pickton in the slaughterhouse adjacent to his trailer following an evening of drugs and sex, and her body parts fed to Pickton's pigs.
Chapter Two The following year, 1997, proved to be a bumper-crop year for Canada's worst serial killer and the disappearances of Vancouver's street women. The residents of British Columbia-as well as the police-didn't have a clue about the bloody carnage that was occurring on a fairly regular basis at the nondescript pig farm in Port Coquitlam, where women were being slaughtered, literally butchered like animals, by a sadistic, maniacal pervert for his own unnatural pleasure. When his lust for pain, terror, and blood-elicited by his actions from his chosen victims-was finally satisfied, the victims were then dismembered, sometimes ground up or sawed into smaller pieces before being fed to his hogs and pigs. These swine would, in turn, and at the proper time, be slaughtered by the same man in the same slaughterhouse where he had butchered many of his human female victims. Then their meat, in the form of pork chops, roasts, loins, and sausages, would be given to unknowing friends and neighbors and sold to the public. Unlike most serial killers, who would dispose of their victims' bodies in a number of locations or cluster dump them in a single location, often far from the killer's home, Robert Pickton never even left home to get rid of his victims' remains. He would pick up his victims who, by the nature of their lifestyles, willingly but unwittingly accompanied him to his pig farm, and most would never leave-until it was time to butcher one of the hogs. Because bodies were not turning up anywhere, the police had little to go on except for a disappearance now and again, and many people merely assumed, including other prostitutes, that Pickton's victims had simply decided to pack up a small suitcase and move on to another location.
Between January and December 1997, no fewer than fourteen women would turn up missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. All fourteen of the disappearances would be attributed to the still-unknown killer's handiwork, much later, of course, after a thorough investigation. When the police finally agreed that a killer was indeed at work, Robert Pickton would eventually be charged with the murders of six of those women. The list of Vancouver's missing women was an ever-changing one, with some of the missing taken off the list because they were either found alive or their bodies were found and the cause of death was attributed to something other than the work of the killer. But as names fell off the list, new ones were added to it. By the time the Joint Missing Women Task Force was finally formed, there were still sixty-five names on the list of missing women and one Jane Doe.
The work facing Vancouver's missing person investigator, Constable Al Howlett, was daunting, to say the least. It seemed like each day he had one or two new files added to the pile already on his desk, and although he and his team remained determined to learn as much as possible about each missing woman, the circumstances of their shady backgrounds made the team's work all the more difficult.
The neighborhoods where they had to go in search of information didn't help matters, either. In fact, in the area of Hastings and Main, where a blow job could be bought for ten dollars or a fifteen-minute "suck-and-f***" encounter could be had from any number of working girls for twice that amount, Howlett's problems were compounded because, particularly in the early days of the disappearances, the working girl's subculture shied away from talking to the cops about anything at all. At first, with little to build a case upon, Howlett and his team had little choice but to treat the disappearances as unrelated. In truth, it would be another two years before the cops began to put "two and two" together and were able to see that something very horrible was going on here. In the meantime, women continued to disappear on a regular basis.
One of those women was street-tough, twenty-five-year-old Cara Louise Ellis, who often went by the street name of "Nicky Trimble." When Cara disappeared in January 1997, she was barely three months away from her next birthday. She looked older than her years, and her face clearly showed the ravages of what living on the streets can do to a person. Bisexual and carrying a $500-a-day heroin habit, Cara grew up in Alberta. Cara was diminutive, at four feet eleven inches, and barely weighed ninety pounds. Perhaps it was because of her small stature that she liked to sport a "biker bitch" persona. She also liked tattoos, and had one of a rose on her left shoulder, a heart on her left hand, and a Playboy bunny on her chest. She also had a considerable array of track marks, where she injected her daily doses of heroin that kept her "well"-in other words, from entering withdrawal. She lived in Calgary for a while, where she was raped as a young girl barely into her teens, and where one of her friends, a young hooker, was beaten to death by a trick. It was shortly after those two experiences that Cara, forever a loner, decided to pack up her few belongings and move to Vancouver.
She only met one good friend after reaching Vancouver, and that friendship took a few months to find her, as opposed to her finding it. As it turned out, Cara met another young woman on the streets and the friendship began soon after they moved into a recovery center for women and became roommates. They occasionally worked the streets together, turning tricks to make enough money to keep Cara supplied with heroin and her friend with cocaine. Despite trying to kick their habits in the women's recovery center, neither had what it took to cast out their demons. The nausea, diarrhea, and severe joint and muscle pain, the effects of withdrawal, always brought Cara back to the heroin. Even a stint at a detoxification facility, Cara lasted only five days before heading back to the streets.
Excerpted from BUTCHER by Gary C. King Copyright © 2009 by Gary C. King Enterprises. Excerpted by permission.
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