The latest victim, Ellie May Meyer, 33, was the second Edmonton prostitute to turn up dead in less than three weeks. On April 16, an oil field worker stumbled upon the burned body of Charlene Gauld, 20, near an oil well about 60 km southeast of Edmonton. Both women were well-known to police and had, in fact, registered with Project Kare, an Alberta-wide, RCMP-led task force which is currently investigating 41 deaths and 31 disappearances of people engaged in "high risk" lifestyles such as PROSTITUTION and drug use. Founded in October 2003, Project Kare followed on the heels of the alarming case of Robert Pickton, the British Columbia pig farmer now facing 15 murder charges related to the disappearance of 69 women from Vancouver's seedy Downtown Eastside. "It was decided," says Cpl. Wayne Oakes, an Edmonton-based spokesman for the RCMP, "that we had to take a look at what's happening in our own backyard."
Project Kare is an unusual police operation. In addition to chasing down tips and leads on the outstanding cases, one of which dates back to the 1930s, the 43-member task force spends a lot of time building trust and contacts on the street. Officers encourage prostitutes and others to provide them with detailed information, including names, birth dates, friends and family contacts, identifying marks, as well as strands of hair for DNA samples. To date, over 90 per cent of those approached have complied. In the event of foul play, this provides investigators leads they otherwise wouldn't have, given the victims' transient lifestyle. It's done little, though, to stop the mounting death toll.
For the record, police decline to talk about a serial killer. Their mantra, for nearly a year, has been that, yes, there is one person who may be responsible for more than one of the murdered prostitutes. But there could be many killers out there, they say, and investigators must remain open to all possible scenarios. In the wake of the latest grisly discoveries, Alberta Solicitor General Harvey Cenaiko went a step further. "I'm not going to speculate on whether it's a serial killer," said Cenaiko, a former Calgary police officer who has been briefed on the evidence. "But I would think there's one individual responsible for a number of the murders."
Bill Pitt, who teaches criminology at the University of Alberta, thinks everyone is skirting the obvious. "What we're dealing with here," he says, "is a targeted group of individuals who are taken from the street, murdered and then dumped off." All the bodies were found in rural sites, several of them in a cluster just east of the city in Strathcona county, an area patrolled by the RCMP (Edmonton has its own municipal police force). "It's almost," says Pitt, "like the killer is saying to both police forces, 'I'm smarter than you. I'm better than you. I can dump them in your backyard and you can't catch me.'"
EVEN WHEN not being stalked by a murderer, the life of a prostitute is often nasty, brutish and short. Dawn Hodgins knows the territory well. These days, Hodgins, 35, is a special projects coordinator and research assistant for the Prostitution Awareness and Action Foundation of Edmonton (PAAFE), a financially challenged non-profit organization, which runs programs aimed at dealing with the root causes of the sex trade and getting women off the street. But for eight years, Hodgins was, in her own words, "a crack-addicted prostitute who was off her rocker."
Hodgins says she grew up as the daughter of an alcoholic mother and suffered physical and emotional abuse from an early age. She began hanging out with street kids at age 13. "I turned my first trick for money when I was 16," she says, "but I'd probably been prostituting myself long before that by having sex with men in exchange for a place to stay." Crack cocaine became her drug of choice and she'd work seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m., to support her habit.
Her scariest experience? "I've blocked a lot of it out," she says, "but one that frightens me more now than it did at the time is when I was giving oral sex to a john and he grabbed a pair of garden shears. He took my hair, which was in a ponytail and chopped it right off. He could have done anything he wanted to me that day. He could have stabbed me. He could have killed me. But that didn't really sink in until later."
After a lifetime of abuse, the turning point came when a boyfriend, angry she had left for a weekend without telling him, smashed her in the face with a chair. "It was like whatever was broken in my brain got knocked back to where it was supposed to be," says Hodgins. "The next morning, I looked at the bruises in the mirror and said to myself, 'What the f- are you doing? Do you want to live the rest of your life like this?'"
Hodgins was one of the lucky ones. She phoned her mother, who had stopped drinking, and asked to come back home. She returned to school and earned a high school diploma. She met and married a man who didn't hold her past against her. And she got a job helping people like herself.
But Hodgins knows others are not as fortunate. There is very little transitional housing or support for those who want to leave the sex trade and who don't have a family to go back to. They have few options, which is why they continue to work the streets, even now. "There's tons of fear out there because you never know who is going to be next," says Hodgins. "But just because someone is out there killing people doesn't change the situations these women live with day-to-day. Like being homeless, being addicted, being controlled by a pimp or a gang. That's their reality and they often see no escape."
DRESSED IN blue jeans and a leather jacket, JoAnn McCartney looks very much the tough vice-cop she once was. But for the past three years, the retired 27-year veteran of the Edmonton police force has been more of a social worker, running a court diversion program for PAAFE, which tries to help women charged with solicitation to change their lives. McCartney is a one-person referral service, steering her clients toward drug treatment facilities, housing options and employment opportunities.
McCartney draws on the street cred she earned as a member of the vice squad. "Being a woman helped," she says. "When I worked undercover, the women dressed me and taught me how to put on makeup. I stood out there with them and so they got to know me on a different level. I helped lots of them get away and I put a lot of pimps in jail."
All the same, McCartney's current assignment is a tough one. Even women who want to get out are drawn back by the strength of their addictions. Crack cocaine was bad enough, she says, but the recent prevalence of cheap, mind-warping crystal meth has made things even worse. "Even the pimps are now addicted," says McCartney. "There's more paranoia, hallucinations and agitation." The spectre of a serial killer is just another boon for the drug trade, she adds. "People are frantic, stressed out and scared. So they cope the best way they know how, which for most of them means more dope."
But there is a brighter side. Away from the street, says McCartney, her clients "can be like playful, happy little kids, with lots of creativity. They produce some wonderful poetry and drawings." And among those who have exited the trade, McCartney counts nurses, paramedics and social workers. "These women keep being told they might as well not even try," she says, "that they are throwaway humans. But without all the drugs, they are amazing people."
NO ONE WOULD have predicted that Caralyn King, known to friends and family simply as Cara, would one day end up helpless, hopeless and selling her body to support a punishing cocaine habit. As a little girl, Kathy King recalls, Cara was bright and happy. She loved animals, especially horses. But Cara, who suffered from learning disabilities, struggled as a student. This, in turn, cut into her self-esteem and left her looking for other ways to be accepted.
As a teenager, Cara began to experiment with alcohol and drugs. She suffered a drug-induced psychosis and, more than once, spent time in a psychiatric hospital. "I struggled for a number of years to get treatment for her," says King, who works as a provincial civil servant. "But the mental health people don't want to deal with addictions, and the addictions people don't want to deal with the mentally ill."
Cara left home at 18 and slipped into a shadowy life King only caught glimpses of. King set Cara up in apartments from which her daughter was sometimes evicted because of the company she kept. She bounced from rundown houses to staying with a boyfriend to the women's emergency shelter. Somewhere along the line, Cara started turning tricks and got arrested for solicitation twice. "I didn't know how she was living and part of me didn't want to know," says King. "I guess that's what they call denial."
King's routine was to hook up with Cara once a week, to buy her a meal, maybe clothing and a week's worth of groceries. One Monday, Cara didn't show. A few days passed without any word, and then Cara's friends started calling for news of her. King contacted the police, but says it took several attempts just to file a missing person's report. Once she had, she asked what would happen next. "Now we wait for a body," she was told. The words still sting. "I will never," says King, "forgive the person who said that."
King spent the next month in a state of panic. Then the body was found and she buried her only child. After that, King says, she thought about simply keeping quiet and putting the shame and guilt of having a daughter who was a prostitute behind her. "But I decided this wasn't about me," says King. "As frustrated as I was, it had been much worse for Cara. I can't imagine what it must be like to be mentally ill, homeless and addicted." So she began to speak out, for Cara and all the other lost girls.
King shows a visitor a photo album she prepared for Cara's funeral. It reveals an entire young life, from a cheerful toddler to a cocky teen to a young woman with brooding eyes. King has a dozen other albums like it, so many memories she doesn't know what to do with. "I used to think I'd save them for her," says King. She sighs and then is silent.
Maclean's May 23, 2005
Author BRIAN BERGMAN