Canada

‘There are other girls out there’: 26-year-old cold case haunts former Downtown Eastside beat cop

In 1993, Vicki Black’s body was found wrapped in a sheet, left in a dumpser behind the 7-Eleven near Hastings Street and Victoria Drive in Vancouver.

Dave Dickson was a constable with the Vancouver police at the time, who knew Black, 23, as a sweet kid who had been hanging around the Downtown Eastside for a couple of years.

He carried the sheet in which she was found around the city, trying to find out where it could have come from.

“I remember it. And how upset I was. It used to hit me real hard,” he said.

Twenty-six years later, a man named Steven Laroche was charged with Black’s murder. Earlier this week, when Laroche made an appearance by video in Vancouver Provincial Court, Dickson was one of the only people there, sitting by himself, third row from the front.

Dickson worked on the Downtown Eastside from 1980 to 2008. He said he “always thought Vicki’s case was solvable,” but he won’t know what evidence led them to bring charges until the court case. He said he’s dying to know.

Dickson said the case brings him some closure. But it also stirs memories of a time when women were disappearing from the streets of the Downtown Eastside, and police were failing to investigate because the women were Indigenous, drug users, or sex workers. 

Vicki Black, 23, was found murdered in Vancouver in 1993. Dickson remembers her as a ‘super nice kid.’ (B.C. RCMP)

The state of the Downtown Eastside, and the failure, for so long, to catch serial killer Robert Pickton — who preyed on so many vulnerable women — remains a blight on Vancouver, and triggered a damning inquiry into how so many cases were botched.

Dickson was the officer who first brought a list of missing women to the attention of Vancouver police in 1998.

Four years later, Pickton was arrested on his pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C. The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm, and in 2007 he was convicted on six counts of second-degree murder.

Now in his 50s, Dickson speaks quickly, precisely, a habit gleaned from years of police work. He keeps his hands shoved stiffly in his pockets, and gives a slight but noticeable shrug every time he remembers an uncomfortable detail from his years on one of the darkest beats in Canadian policing.

“I realized that the women on the street were probably taking the brunt of the violence. And a lot of times when they phoned the police for help, they didn’t get it,” he said. 

‘No crime scenes and no bodies’

Dickson started compiling his list of names in 1997.

“I would wake up in the middle of night and think about one of the girls that I knew from down here,” he said, glancing around a Downtown Eastside alley on a drizzly day in December.

“And think ‘I haven’t seen them for a while’ — a week, or a month, or whatever so I write her name down and I’d go into work.”

Dickson would look through police records, seeing if the people he knew from their time on the streets — people like Vicki Black — had been picked up or stopped by police. It was a red flag if they went too long without showing up in the system. Eventually, he had 31 names on his list. His last stop was to the office of Family Services, to see if their welfare cheques had been picked up.

“That was I guess the kicker for me is that every one, all 31, were there. Their file was closed because the cheque was never picked up,” he said.

Dickson told his superiors he worried foul play was involved in the deaths, but at the time was told he had ‘no crime scenes and no bodies.’ It took years before a serious investigation got off the ground. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Dickson told his superiors he worried foul play was involved in the deaths, but at the time was told he had “no crime scenes and no bodies.” It took years for a serious investigation to get off the ground.

In 2012, when a Missing Women inquiry was held in the aftermath of the Pickton case, Dickson found out Vancouver police managers didn’t take his concerns seriously, saying he had “Stockholm Syndrome,” because he spent time working with activist groups on the Downtown Eastside, as reported by the Vancouver Sun.

Asked about it, Dickson does his signature shrug, and said he was “shocked” when he learned 15 years later that that’s what colleagues said about him.

“I guess I was right. I’m really sad but that fact is I’ll live with that until the day I die — that I was right. Women were being taken and killed.”

Dickson worked on the Downtown Eastside from 1980 to 2008. (CBC)

Black wasn’t one of Pickton’s victims, but Dickson said he was always concerned that not enough attention was paid to the case. 

“There were people that looked down on the girls. I’ve heard the term many times, [officers] would say ‘just another crack whore.’ And that used to infuriate me,” he said.

“But was it solvable at the time? I don’t know.”

Dickson said Laroche’s name sounds familiar, but he hasn’t had time to comb through his old notebooks and see if he was among his list of suspects. He’s hoping seeing his face in court will jog his memory.

Dickson never met Black’s family, who issued a short statement asking for privacy. But he remembers Black, who he believes was on the Downtown Eastside for two to three years, as “a super nice kid. She wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

While he’s come a long way from jotting down names in a notebook beside his bed, and feels “extremely happy” that this cold case has been solved, Dickson doesn’t believe the legacy of that dark time is over.

“I’m still convinced that there are other girls out there missing that have never been reported.”

Dickson started compiling his list of names in 1997. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

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