A WORKING GIRL’S NIGHTMARE The Murdered and Missing Women of Skid Row

Sean Devlin

The driver of the giant compactor disposal truck was tired and yawning. It was 7:30 a.m. and his shift was nearly over. In a downtown eastside Vancouver alley he slid the forks of his behemoth into a dumpster filled with construction waste and raised it high. Something fell off the container, landing with a thud beside the truck. The driver yawned again, hugely, and jumped down from his cab. He was expecting to scoop up a chunk of drywall or two-by-four. What he did find was a small duffel bag, stuffed and crammed with the body of a young native woman, chin crushed into her knees, wrapped in a cotton comforter, her hair pulled up in a ponytail.

Lisa Marie Graveline’s short life had been as tragic as her death.

The 20-year-old woman’s body was found on May 1. Police confirmed her identity and said she had been a prostitute and a drug user and a drug dealer, roughly in that order. Also known as Lisa Marie Bear, she had been addicted to heroin and crack cocaine. When found, her body was intact, fully clothed, with no signs of sexual assault.

Lisa Marie’s childhood was troubled. One month before her 13th birthday, she was arrested for theft under $5,000. Before she was 14, she was arrested twice more, for theft and possession of a weapon. At the age of 16, she was put on probation after being convicted of robbery and assault. In November 1998, Graveline was first charged as an adult, for trafficking in cocaine. She was a known prostitute, according to police, but had lately been involved exclusively in the drug trade.

The founder of one drug rehabilitation facility Lisa Marie had resorted to said: “You could see a little girl inside her who was desperately crying out for help. But the window of opportunity is so small. They do want the help. Yet the minute they see the drug they run right back to it.”

Lisa Marie’s family had come to Vancouver about eight years ago from a Manitoba reserve. Their lives on the streets of the most impoverished postal code in Canada were not happy. In the fall of 1998, Lisa Marie’s two brothers and her mother overdosed in separate locations in the city. They all wound up in St. Paul’s hospital at the same time. Her brother Oswald died.

Then in June 1999, her mother was found dead of an overdose behind a strip joint, the No. 5 Orange at Powell and Main. Her father had died four years previously from addiction related problems.

“They all loved each other, you could see that,” said Jean-Claude, a close friend of the family. “But it was just so sad to see them on the street.”

A worker in an east-end social agency, who didn’t want to be named, said Lisa Marie’s story is familiar.

“This happens to a lot of native families down here,” he said. “You get whole families who are in an addictive cycle.”

On the wall of a drop-in centre for drug-dependent women in the downtown eaastside, a poem in blue marker on a large sheet of white drawing paper says good-bye to Lisa Marie:




The death of Lisa Marie Graveline had one unexpected consequence. Police rapidly caught up with her alleged killer. On June 15 Thong Thanh Huynh, 34, was arrested in a car in the 2800 block east Hastings Street on an outstanding Immigration warrant concerning deportation proceedings. On June 19, Thong was charged with Second Degree murder. The alleged killer is a resident of Vancouver, well-known to police and loosely associated with the drug trade. He came to Canada in 1980 from Vietnam; he holds Landed Immigrant status. He has been in Vancouver for three years and is unemployed.

Graveline is believed to have been stabbed to death at a drug house. Her body was then put in the duffel bag and placed in the dumpster.


The thing that makes Graveline’s murder unusual is that the police arrested a suspect very quickly.. This in contrast to the 40plus known murders of Vancouver area prostitutes, whose bodies have been found in the past 15 years. Most of these murders are still unsolved.

The statistics of violence against the working women of the Downtown Eastside are horrendous. No one knows more about this than John Lowman, professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University ; he is Canada’s leading expert on prostitution. His research shows that prostitutes are 60 to 120 times more likely to be murdered than other Canadian women. a fierce critic of current policy toward prostitution, Lowman accuses the Vancouver police and fearful civic politicians of complicity, through inaction, in the murders and, more frightening, the unexplained disappearances of 31 skid-row area women – all prostitutes, all drug addicts, all almost certainly murdered, most in the past five years.

Most of the missing women are native people.

Professor John : “The police and the politicians actively created the problem they are now trying to fix. The rhetoric of the ’80s and early’90s was: ‘We’ll get rid of the prostitutes.’ The idea of eliminating prostitution in Vancouver has translated tragically into REALLY getting rid of prostitutes. We chase them from one area to another. They find themselves in dark streets in defenceless situations. They get into strangers’ cars. There are no eyes there. But there ARE men who get off on violence. They see the women’s vulnerability.”

Lowman suspects, based on the number of deaths and recent disappearances, that there are three or four serial killers who have been operating in Vancouver over the past 15 years. And lately, they have become very good at hiding the bodies.


For the devastated women of the Downtown Eastside, desperate and driven by the demon of drug abuse, there is a have they can go to – the Womens’ Information and Safe House (WISH). They come by Skytrain from as far away as New Westminster and Surrey, seeking a temporary refuge. At WISH they can share a meal and gossip; exchange information and warn one another about the “bad dates” they have had.

Program Director Karen Duddy: “Our women are very worried about their missing sisters. There is a great sense of fear out there.”

Seventy per cent of the women in the Downtown Eastside are native. More than 60 per cent of the participants at WISH are First Nations people. The sense of menace and the fear that stalks these women has encouraged them to seek both solace and help in sisterhood. The number of them participating in WISH has doubled in the past year; there are now between 70 and 90 women in attendance each evening.

Karen Duddy: “Both Lisa Marie Graveline and her mother were participants in our program. Both of them were victims of drug abuse and were emotionally disturbed as a result.

“The majority of our women suffer fro Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, especially native women. They are women who come from situations of extreme incestual and sexual abuse. The tragedy of the residential schools also plays a role in the situation of these women. They are multi-barriered, really in a difficult spot.”

Duddy explained that native women become “urbanized” after they have spent time in the city. Their rural reserves no longer want to have anything to do with them. Roughly 80 per cent of them suffer from Hepatitis C; roughly 35 per cent are HIV positive and a great proportion of that number suffer from AIDS.

“These women speak openly about feeling like the ‘throwaways’ of society,” said Duddy. “Nobody gives a damn about them. They genuinely feel terror around the issue of the missing women. But they are caught up in the extreme addiction problem.”

While the estimated 500 “hookers” in the skid-row area may have boyfriends with whom they share money and/or drugs, they are not Pimped” in the traditional sense. John Lowman: “once the price of a habit-forming, mind-altering substance is driven up by criminal prohibition, a drug like heroin or cocaine can be as demanding a pimp as any man.”

Because of their addiction, women on the Downtown Eastside are generally not as discriminating about clients as their higher-priced, non-addicted counterparts. This makes them even more vulnerable to the continuum of misogynist violence inherent in our culture.

As one 31 year veteran of the Vancouver Police put it, the maliciousness and viciousness of some of the sexual assaults and murders is “beyond belief.” He described the behaviour of many of the men who assault prostitutes as “very physical…very intimate…and designed to hurt.”


John Lowman believes that police have waited far too long to react to the ever-growing number of vanished women, dismissing the appeals of friends and families of the prostitutes by saying, in effect: “They’re drug addicts. They’re transients. They’ll come back.” Yet 40some deaths, 31 missing women – the pattern surely cannot be random. The situation can be compared to the famous unsolved case of 49 Seattle-area prostitutes who went missing or whose bodies were found along Washington State’s Green River in the early ’80s. No other Canadian city has a similar pattern of disappearances. Yet it is known that ten American cities are facing the same diabolical problem.

Police Media Liaison officer Anne Drennan defends her force against accusations that they were slow to react and often insensitive to complaints. She points out that if 31 university coeds were to go missing, their friends and relatives would report it immediately and the details of their recent whereabouts would be known. With street prostitutes…Drennan lets her hands fall open, upward and empty.

In many cases, police often only have access to the body dump site, not the murder scene, which one homicide detective said yields an estimated 75 per cent of useful evidence. Police also cited the anonymity of the suspect and victim. People tend to notice what is out of place but street prostitutes are not noticed when they climb into a vehicle. The most common crime scene is a vehicle, but in very few cases are witnesses able to identify it. The offender has total control of the crime scene and he takes it with him, usually without much trace, after he has dumped the body.


The quasi-legal status of prostitution also hampers police effectiveness. Prostitution is not illegal. However, it is unlawful to communicate with another person for the purpose of buying or selling sexual services. This alienates prostitutes from the protective powers of the police. For a prostitute to report an assault or robbery might entail that they were committing an offence (communicating), or violating a bail or probation area restriction. Why have anything at all to do with the police?

Criminal law sanctions institutionalize an adversarial relationship between prostitutes and police. This can lead to a mind-set in which police brutality or negligence is “acceptable.” Karen Duddy tells of a young native woman being “taken down” in the WISH safe house parking lot because she was wanted under two warrants for solicitation. “It took seven cops and a police dog in her face to arrest one small woman. It was just the most unreasonable use of force.”

In another case, a native woman was held down and raped by two men, nearly strangled by the chain they wrapped around her throat. She managed to escape and flee to the police to report the incident, only to be arrested on an outstanding warrant for solicitation. Nobody would listen to her complaint. Only when she threw herself at the feet of a WISH worker in the jail and begged for help, was anything done. The two men were later arrested.

“This was no joke,” Karen Duddy said. “Women do not fantasize about being raped. Yet she was completely ignored. It happens time and time again.”

Only after the well-known “America’s Most Wanted” TV show came to town and did a program on the missing women were the city of Vancouver and the province shamed into posting a $100,000 reward.

John Lowman has labeled the city as the “biggest pimp on the street.” The 1985 communication law and police harassment forced prostitutes into darker and more dangerous places to do their business.

That made them targets for misogynistic and predatory men.

The City of Vancouver makes a great deal of money licencing the 100 or so high-end body-rub parlours and escort agencies while, at the same time, hounding street prostitutes.

The city licence fee for body-rub parlours can be nearly $7,000, compared to $175 for a therapeutic massage parlour.

“They are up to their necks in facilitating prostitution on the one hand while condemning it on the other,” Lowman said. “They are a bunch of hypocrites.”

Vancouver’s bylaw defines a body rub as “the manipulating, touching or stimulating, by any means, of a person’s body or part thereof but does not include medical, therapeutic or cosmetic massage treatment.”
“It’s the only thing they’re allowed to do, according to the city’s own bylaw,” Lowman said. “Body-rub parlours are by definition brothels.”