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Cover story

Light and Darkness in Canada

Photographer Lincoln Clarkes Found Beauty in Vancouver's Female Drug Addicts. He Didn't Know He Was Also Documenting Murder.

June 01, 2003|John M. Glionna | John M. Glionna is The Times' San Francisco bureau chief.

The remains of 15 missing women were unearthed on the farm, and authorities fear they may find the remains of as many as 60 women missing since 1984. This spring, 150 forensic experts were continuing to analyze DNA, fingernails and bone fragments. Some police officials have theorized Pickton dismembered his victims before feeding them to his hogs.

Authorities have asked for records from a rendering plant where Pickton had delivered pig entrails for more than 20 years. They have also considered unearthing a new subdivision of homes built on land once owned by Pickton.

Following the close of a lengthy preliminary hearing next month, Pickton could face trial as early as 2004. The number of Downtown Eastside women reported missing since his arrest has all but dropped to zero. He has been charged so far with first-degree murder of 15 women--five of whom, it turns out, had posed for Clarkes.

Angry relatives of the women point to a chilling statistic: In the time between the department's first consideration of Pickton as a possible suspect and the day authorities swarmed his farm, more than a dozen women disappeared.

Vancouver's new mayor, Larry Campbell, has called for a review of the police department's handling of the case. While they won't comment publicly, police have suggested that the veracity of the tips they received about Pickton was doubtful. They also cite jurisdictional problems, saying the pig farm lies outside city boundaries.

Al Arsenault, a veteran Vancouver police officer who has produced educational videos about the Downtown Eastside, knows there is blame to go around. "That's a guilt I have to bear," he said. "I walked a beat down there and saw woman after woman go missing. Why didn't I say to myself, 'Al, what's going on here?' "

On a recent spring day, as Clarkes slows his battered Volvo on a Downtown Eastside street, he points to three women in high heels and clingy micro-dresses. "Look at all the heroines! They're so Saturday night! For these girls, every day is Saturday night."

He stops the car and walks along a tree-shaded street, past a discarded syringe and a serrated carving knife. The heroine Chantel runs into his arms. Immediately after Clarkes photographed her, she entered a methadone program and has since gained 15 pounds--up to 103. She's clean, but is still on the streets.

Seeing her portraits, Chantel says, helped her recognize heroin as a false security blanket: "Heroin is empathetic. The role it plays is like your better half. It takes care of your issues so you can solve things in your head by saying, 'I don't have to deal with it. That's my resolve.' Until you need it again. When you're sick and physically impaled, all your issues and all your troubles come right back again."

Clarkes' photos force people to look. Ed McCurdy has several heroines' portraits hanging in his Downtown Eastside cafe. "Before Lincoln, these people were invisible," he says. "Now customers notice the photos and say, 'I've seen her.' They view them as strong women. As survivors."

McCurdy says he watched as a woman named Shannon, a former fashion model now in a wheelchair, stared at a portrait of a heroine standing defiantly in the street. She reached up and touched the photo. "That was me," she said. Another addict named Nicole, with Karposi's sarcoma sores and missing teeth, stood before a portrait of a young woman with blond hair. "What do you think?" McCurdy recalls asking, not knowing who the woman was. Nicole paused. "God, I was beautiful."

Walking around the neighborhood, Clarkes watches a woman named Meagan sell a stolen bike for $7. He has taken Meagan's portrait often. She has said she was driven here by the death of her infant son. Once stunning, she now stumbles about in a trance. Her favorite place to meet customers is in front of a funeral chapel. Clarkes once took a portrait of her there. Meagan has confessed that Clarkes is her only friend. What did it say about her, she asked, that her best friend was someone who didn't even know her last name?

Later, Clarkes stops his car in an alley to chat with another heroine. "I'm broke," she cries. "I'm so dope-sick." She coughs in Clarkes' face. He rolls up his window and drives off. There is no more to say.

On another day, Clarkes stands outside the pig farm watching earthmovers create mounds of dirt several stories high. Workers in white moon-suits use conveyor belts to sort through evidence collected from abandoned barns and a shabby single-wide trailer.

Outside a "mourning tent" erected near the farm, amid sweeping views of snowcapped mountains, are fuzzy snapshots of the dead women posted by their families and one of Clarkes' elegant portraits of Johnson. It's a photograph that speaks about obsession--a young woman's fatal fixation with a drug, a photographer's addiction to capturing her crumbling beauty, a predator's sick need to take her life.

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