When police announced Tuesday that Bobby Jack Fowler was the one responsible for the murder of 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen in 1974, and that he died in an Oregon prison in 2006 before anyone discovered he was ever killing in Canada, it might have brought peace of mind to some. But it also stirred up pain and anguish as wounds were reopened for those grieving the loss of one of the victims of crimes against women in B.C.
"When I heard this news there was a connection to my own feelings of when I heard the news my sister's DNA was found on the Pickton farm," said Maggie de Vries.
In her memoir, Missing Sarah, de Vries details the four-year search for her sister, a longtime prostitute on Vancouver's East Side who maintained connections with her family. Sarah's bank card and her DNA were found in 2002 on the property of serial killer Robert Pickton.
"I was astonished, first off, that the police could make this discovery 38 years later," de Vries said of the Fowler attack. It was recent advancements in DNA testing that concluded Fowler was MacMillen's killer. "By the time four years went by and by the time police were searching Robert Pickton's farm, I had given up. Some people don't ever give up, and I don't know how Colleen's family dealt with things over those many years, but to hear the emotion in her brother's voice during the news conference brought me back to my own emotion. I'm sure all loved ones of victims are feeling great emotions right now."
It is an uncomfortable feeling, she said, to be among those who have some kind of final answer compared to the many families who known not who killed their girl, or perhaps don't even have a body to mourn.
While de Vries was writing her emotions onto pages, her friend Betty Kovacic was painting her own empathies. Kovacic, a Prince George-based artist, was moved by years of watching Highway of Tears cases unfold like MacMillen's, and all the victims dotting the Missing Persons posters in the Lower Mainland. She felt compelled to paint a portrait for each of the Downtown Eastside victims so they could posthumously have another image of themselves than a mug shot or thumbnail picture on a bulletin board.
de Vries was coincidentally staying in Kovacic's home the day police announced Fowler's role in B.C.'s dark history.
"I was trying really hard to show, with my paintings, that the missing women were individual, real people," Kovacic said. "I became very emotional when I watched the [Fowler announcement] press conference. The loss of any life is significant, and when it is done through violence it breaks your heart. When no one can be found responsible, the heartbreak compounds and it is endless. What I saw watching the news conference was, the police never give up. They do not drop cases and they persist until answers are found. This all sort of confirmed for me the importance of finding answers for those unsolved cases. The police solved this case through advancements in technology, but that wouldn't have worked if they hadn't also been imaginative and persistent with the evidence they had."
de Vries agreed that she has been a harsh critic of police practices over the years, and she gave two days of testimony at the Oppal inquiry to that effect, but "there are some things they are really good at and we saw that with this case. This was excellent police work. Their diligence was amazing."