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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 February 2007, 09:19 GMT
Vancouver's 'dirty little secret'
By Heather Alexander
BBC News, Vancouver, Canada

Thousands of people visit Vancouver each year. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it is described in brochures as one of the world's most spectacular cities.

But mention a trip to the downtown Eastside and you get: "Don't go there."

An alley on Vancouver's Eastside (Photo by Rob Kruyt for the BBC News website)
Dozens of women vanished from Vancouver's Eastside over the years
"Make sure you stay away from alleyways."

The area is known as the city's "dirty little secret" - a "hidden ghetto" where drug deals take place openly on the streets.

And dozens of women who worked the streets there were murdered.

Marnie Frey went missing in 1997.

A friend of hers came to the first day of the trial of Robert Pickton, who is accused of murdering 26 women - all prostitutes and drug addicts - who disappeared over a period of more than a decade.

Marnie Frey's friend said Marnie went out one day and never came back.

Police failings

She was one of over 60 women who went missing from the area in the 1980s and 1990s - and it wasn't something that was going unnoticed by the people of Vancouver.

"There have been so many rumours about missing women for so long... it was constantly in the paper," a local called Joanne told me.

In the case of the missing women, we don't have a suspect - in fact we don't have a crime
Police statement in 1999
She was first in line in the court queue that first day, with a friend.

Both doubted the police had done their utmost to solve the disappearances when they began.

"The police weren't taking it seriously. I guess in retrospect they were making excuses," the women said.

When officers did start investigating - over a decade after the first women disappeared - they admitted they were baffled.

In 1999, one constable told local channel Citynews: "In the case of the missing women, we don't have a suspect. In fact we don't have a crime."

Two years later they said: "We don't have any leads like crime scenes to help us uncover more facts."

Mental hospitals

The women were nearly all drug-addicted prostitutes.

Many think that is the real reason nothing was done.

Mental health worker Patricia Hanley says she saw many of her clients disappear.

"You'd meet with one and she'd be worried about a missing friend, then she'd go missing herself."

She says the deterioration of Vancouver's downtown Eastside is directly related to the gradual closure of one of the area's mental hospitals.

Riverview used to house more than 4,000 patients. Now the number is in the hundreds.

Ms Hanley says residents ended up living on the streets, getting money for crack through the sex trade.

'People cared'

In his opening statement, prosecutor Derrill Prevett told the jury not to be swayed by the victims' involvement with drugs and prostitution.

"Regardless of their lifestyle... each of the women had people and places that were important to them and people who cared about them."

Police searching for bodies in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia
The Pickton farm near Vancouver was searched for months
This is the first of two trials Robert "Willie" Pickton faces over the missing women - he faces six murder charges this time.

There is no dispute from defence that their remains did end up at the Pickton farm.

A jawbone is all that is left of Marnie Frey.

But they do say Robert Pickton did not put the bodies there - pointing to the large number of people who had access to the property.

It is likely to be at least a year before the jury decides its verdict.

Patricia Hanley hopes the trial will mean more is done to clean up the Eastside long before that.

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