"It happened right over there," said Sharon.
She pointed to the manicured church lawn across the street from the bar that serves as as home base for the sex workers of Edmonton's 118th Avenue. Sharon, an indigenous woman in her twenties, pulled down the rhinestone-covered strap of her dress to reveal a yellow and blue bruise on her sides and upper arm. More cover the rest of her body. She was sleeping on that lawn when it happened.
"He threw the blanket over me so no one could hear me and then he started stomping," Sharon told VICE News last week.
A man on a bike pulled up as she recalled the grim details and stared at her incessantly.
Sharon's friend Missy, a young white girl in a mini skirt, chimed in about that time a client went crazy. "I had to jump out of this white semi going 80 an hour. The same guy tried to pick me up in a silver jeep. He smashed my friend Jocelyn's head. He's still driving around [here]," she said.
The women working this notorious strip in the Alberta capital do their best to be prepared for these violent encounters, which happen all the time. They try to work in pairs and most carry some form of protection, like bear mace. Still, safety is never a sure thing as dozens of women from here have gone missing or have been murdered over the years.
Just last week, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers announced they had identified the remains of Corrie Ottenbreit, a sex worker who vanished more than a decade ago, on May 9, 2004, and that they were treating her death as a murder.
Ottenbreit, like many of these women, knew something like this might happen to her. Just a few months before she went missing, the 27-year-old who worked on 118th Ave. provided a sample of her hair to officers with RCMP's Project KARE, so they would have her DNA on file in the event she ever went missing or was found dead.
Her remains were found in a field in Leduc, just outside Edmonton, close to those of three other women. According to the police, this suggests a serial killer could be responsible.
The grim tally includes Delores Brower, a 33-year-old sex worker whose skeletal remains were found this April. Brower registered herself with the police's database and went missing the same month as Ottenbreit. The remains of Katie Ballantyne, also a sex worker, were found a few months after she went missing in 2003. Remnants of Amber Tuccaro, a new mom who disappeared in 2010, were found in 2012.
This week, RCMP officers announced they had identified the body of a 22-year-old woman who was reported missing on August 1. Her death is being treated as a homicide, but officers say her death is unrelated to those of Ottenbreit and the three other women found near Leduc.
Project KARE is a special RCMP initiative that started in 2003 in response to local missing or murdered sex workers, and the case of a serial killer who scattered the murdered bodies of Vancouver sex workers on his pig farm. It's because of the project that these women have been identified at all — delivering a measure of peace for families, even though the cases remain open. The unit's work has led to the convictions of two men who killed local sex workers within the last decade. An RCMP Inspector in Edmonton told VICE News these men, along others who might have been around the area at the time, will be considered in the investigations.
Amber Tuccaro/photo from RCMP
Since 2003, officers with KARE, one of the only projects of its kind in the country, have met with people who live and work on the streets to ask them if they'd like to provide DNA samples for their database. It has grown to 1,200 names — including girls as young as 12. An RCMP Inspector told VICE News that women are adding themselves to the list every day. Recently, KARE has expanded its mandate and officers review files of missing vulnerable persons throughout the province. According to one officer involved with KARE, while murder rates in the Edmonton area have gone down, the number of women who vanish "remains steady."
There has never been a national DNA databank for missing-persons in Canada. Although in 2014, after decades of campaigning by victims' rights advocates, the Canadian government committed $8 million over five years to create a DNA-based Missing Persons Index, which is expected to be up and running by 2017.
However, critics have pointed out flaws in Canada's plan, specifically that it would be up to the provinces to foot the bill and discrete police forces to decide the types of DNA they will collect. In the US, the federal government pays for all DNA testing of missing persons. Over the last decade, the lab in Texas that tests the remains has received more than $10 million in funding.
Other countries have long had such a system in place. Argentina created its genetic databank in 2006 to help identify the remains of people who disappeared during its military dictatorship and launched a public awareness campaign asking families to provide blood samples.
Back on 118th Ave., a few blocks from Sharon and Missy, another sex worker, Suzanne, leaned against a coffee shop watching the passing cars, eager for one to pull over. She has been working here for years and knows what she's doing. Lately, she says the girls are more worried than usual about their lives. "You'd be stupid not to worry about it," she told VICE News. But that fear is there, like them, every day. She's not going to stop what she's doing, though, and she doesn't see the point in donating to Project KARE.
"What's that going to do for me? If he gets me, he gets me, right? That's not going to make it or break it," she said. "I've gone this far without it and I'm doing fine."
For others, like Courtney Heather, signing up for Project KARE was a good decision, even if it didn't make her feel any safer. Heather told VICE News over the phone that she entered the sex industry in Edmonton when she was 14 years old to pay for coke, meth, speed, and anything else she could get her hands on.
"I was a 'yes' girl," Heather, now 38, said. "If it screwed you up, it'd be like, just give it to me. And I'm kinda still like that, unfortunately."
About five years ago, she met with Project KARE officers, although she says she was high at the time and barely remembers it. "I kind of remember that it was my hair, saliva, my picture," she said. "I did it so somebody could find me if I got murdered. If somebody took my life, maybe one day they could find me. We put ourselves in situations we shouldn't. Not saying it's totally our fault, but we have some responsibility in it."
For almost a decade, Heather has been dipping in and out of the industry, struggling to kick her overwhelming addiction. She would do anything to get away from it all and start a career training pit bulls to become service dogs for war veterans.
"You get tired of hurting, having nothing, and being around so much suffering. And being lonely and physically sick all the time. I feel like I've died already I don't know how many times," she said.
Heather planned to call her sponsors later that day, hoping they might stop her from giving in to another relapse and ending up back on the street. "I need to get some help," she said. "If I don't change soon, it might be me who's next."
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