Sunday, January 28, 2007

Michele Mandel

Pickton trial a wakeup call?

'We have all these unsolved homicides and they're never made a priority'

The gruesome details out of New Westminster, B.C. set her reeling as she mourns for the lost girls savagely murdered on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

And for those killed right here as well.

Anastasia Kuzyk is a tireless, outspoken advocate for sex workers. I have known her from the days she still worked the track down on Jarvis St., her stiletto boots, fire red bustier and take-no-prisoners attitude never failing to draw attention from those who would slowly cruise by.

When Toronto prostitutes started turning up dead back in 1994, she was the one who would always call and insist that I had to speak up for these women, that their deaths deserved the same outrage and attention as any other murder victim.

As the anniversaries of their unsolved slayings would inevitably come around each year, their families no closer to any answers, she would be on the phone once more, beseeching our help in keeping their names in the news in the desperate hope that someone, somewhere would finally let these women rest in peace.

"I was relentless when I was younger," she acknowledges.

We're both older now, but not much else has changed. Kuzyk is 38 and semi-retired, a dominatrix who works inside. She spends a lot of time doing volunteer work — from the Salvation Army to disaster relief near New Orleans to street outreach. She still riles some cops the wrong way, still has detractors who accuse her of being a media hound. Yet I know her huge heart never stops aching for her fellow working girls who have died at the hands of "buddy."

And so I can still always expect a call as the anniversaries near.

"I never thought I'd be their messenger, this is not something you aspire to," she insists. "But somebody has to do it."

As the horrific details emerge from the Robert Pickton trial, she tries to limit herself to how much she takes in. It is all too personal, too painful, too close to home.

In Toronto, the first recent murder victim was 23-year-old Julieanne Middleton, who was found in Lake Ontario near Sunnyside Pool on July 7, 1994.

On Oct. 28, 1994, the semi-nude body of Virginia Coote, 33, was spotted about 100 metres from where Middleton was discovered. And then three years and one day later, Darlene MacNeill's body was found behind the Canadian Legion building on Lake Shore Blvd. W.

All three victims were addicted to crack, all worked Parkdale's "low track" of desperation and all were strangled and left for dead in the cold shallow waters of Lake Ontario. Toronto Police wouldn't confirm that a serial killer was at work. They didn't have to.

But despite their Breakwater Task Force and a 1998 composite sketch of a possible suspect — a white, 35-year-old with long blond hair who had recently attacked another prostitute — the predator has never been charged.

He would not be the only serial killer preying on Toronto sex workers. Marcello Palma, though, would be the only one ever convicted — the air conditioning contractor is now serving life for shooting three prostitutes in one night under cover of 1996 Victoria Day fireworks.

The list of murders unsolved in this city runs too long when it comes to sex workers: The three Breakwater slayings, Lisa Lyn Anstey, 21, Donna Ogilve, 24, Cassandra "Tula" Do, 39, Anne Fernando, 50, Lien "May-Ling" Phem, 39 and more.

As the 50 missing women of Vancouver attest, prostitutes have always been a killer's easiest prey. They are forced to work in dangerous shadows and society is only too happy to look the other way. A 2006 Statistics Canada report found 171 female hookers were murdered across the country between 1991 to 2004, with almost half the cases unsolved.

So many Toronto women she's known have been slain, their killers still out there. "It wears away at you," Kuzyk says softly. "I probably had a nervous breakdown in 2003 six months after Cassandra Do was murdered."

Does anyone else care? For so long, no one paid attention to the dozens of sex workers who went missing in Vancouver. Police advocates insist they've learned a hard lesson and the rest of us try to believe that it would not happen here.

Kuzyk would like to believe that. "Since the pig farm in B.C., cops are more likely to listen to me," she admits.

Little else, though, has changed. Too many still view these women as society's detritus, their deaths unmourned.

"It's kind of hard to say that attitude doesn't persist," argues Kuzyk, "when we have all these unsolved homicides and they're never made a priority."

Or when a caller on a recent talk show here complained the media was spending too much time on these "sexual deviants" murdered in B.C. or 416-947-2231

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Created: January 30, 2007
Last modified: March 23, 2007
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