The Golden Horseshoe Murders

News Articles / Unsolved Sex Trade Worker Crimes

Presented By

Bonnie M. Wells

Murders Stretching Around Lake Ontario

From Niagara Falls To Toronto;

"If you want to commit the perfect murder, go out and kill someone you don't know and shut up about it." A local detective who, for obvious reasons, does not want to be named.

They've been called "the forgotten," 25 murdered or missing women whose names have faded from public consciousness.

Over the past 15 years, a total of 25 women who lived what police call "high-risk lifestyles" have been slain in the Golden Horseshoe, an area stretching around Lake Ontario from Niagara Falls to Toronto.

Fourteen of those murders took place in or around the GTA.

Some of the murders were likely the work of serial killers, still out there prowling for new victims, say police.

Ten of the victims were strangled. One was clubbed to death. Two were pregnant.

One victim was Darlene MacNeill, a 35-year-old Parkdale prostitute.

Her killer choked her unconscious, then dumped her into Lake Ontario, drowning her in a nine-year-old cold case.

"Just another police statistic." That's what MacNeill's mother, Winnie Cornish, says about her daughter's slaying. "She's forgotten. If she was a judge's daughter, the case would have been solved by now."

As the MacNeill case and the other Golden Horseshoe murders grow colder with each passing year, it's unlikely they'll ever get solved, even with DNA and recent advances in police investigative techniques, such as PowerCase, a computerized database of violent crimes.

"Most homicides are crimes of passion," says one local detective who requested anonymity. "Hate and love are strong emotions that push people to do things they would normally be appalled by.

"Homicide investigations are done in concentric circles," starting with people who have an emotional attachment to the victim, and working outwards.

"The problem with `high-risk' women is that they meet dozens of men they don't know every day. That makes the suspect pool enormous. The cases are wickedly difficult to solve."In Ontario between 1991 and 2004, only four of every 10 murders of women in the sex trade were solved.

For all other murders in the province during that time, the average "clearance rate" was more than double that, a study done for the Toronto Star by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics at Statistics Canada shows.

There's another lesser-known problem common to "high-risk" murders. "Hurting an unarmed woman is not a macho crime, like beating up some guy in a bar," says another detective. "You aren't inclined to go around bragging that you roughed up a hooker because your manhood failed you."

That means fewer tips are phoned in to Crime Stoppers on the murder of street women than in other slayings.

But excuses are not what the relatives of the victims want to hear. Often angry and frustrated, they call for the police to put more resources into the cases. Police officers bristle at the notion that some murders are more important than others, with the killing of prostitutes on the bottom ng of the ladder. "Yes, the trail has gone cold on some of those slayings," says Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair. "But we still have officers assigned to each one. No case is ever forgotten."

Police insist they never close the books on a murder, but admit that in many of the cold cases of street women they need fresh leads if there's to be any hope of an arrest.

"It's a very difficult chore telling the relatives we have nothing new on the death of a loved one," says Det. Bob Wilkinson, head of the three-member cold-case unit with the Toronto police homicide squad.

"It would be nice to say, `I have a positive thing to tell you.' I'd like to say that, but unless I receive new information I can't advance (the case) any further."For the past six months, a task force set up by Niagara Region police and assisted by officers from the Hamilton and the Halton forces, has probed five slayings in Niagara Falls, along with three others in Hamilton. They've made one arrest.

"Investigations like these are very labor-intensive, " says Staff Sgt. Cliff Sexton, the Niagara officer heading up the 12-member task force, who is hoping to "bring some closure" to some of the families. "The summaries alone are up to 500 pages."

The last time Toronto police put together a task force on street women was nine years ago. Last month, the force formed a squad called the Special Victims Unit, which focuses on getting child sex workers off the street. That could include providing assistance to cold-case detectives probing the unsolved slayings of prostitutes. But unless there are more solid tips, the cold "high-risk" cases will remain nothing more than fodder for conversation whenever police get gether, such as at the recent meeting of the "Golden Horseshoe Homicide Investigators Association, " where the cases were discussed.

The media run into their own roadblocks. Relatives are typically reluctant to talk, often angry, or embarrassed, over how reporters portray the victims, focusing only on the sex trade part of their lives.

Valerie Scott, executive director of Sex Professionals of Canada, says sex workers live with the constant fear of getting beat up, robbed or murdered.

She says that the general attitude of the public seems to be that prostitutes are "non-persons, subhuman" and that killing them is "no big deal."

But she says there has been a drop in violence against sex workers because of recent initiatives by the Toronto force, such as the [["Anonymous Bad Date Line," ]] which helps police identify vicious men, making arrests before that repeated brutality leads to murder.

Anastasia Kuzyk, with the Sex Workers Alliance of Toronto, says society is apathetic to the fate of sex workers, seeing them as "disposable" people.

"It's often suggested that nobody misses them, but it's not true. They're missed."

The last initiative by the Toronto police to focus on the murder of street women was Project Break Wall, an 11-member task force devoted to the killing of three prostitutes from Parkdale, all addicted to crack.

Police feared the murders could be the work of a serial killer because of the similarities in the slayings all three women had been choked and their bodies were dumped into the water near a shoreline break wall south of Lake Shore Blvd. W. There were no arrests, although police released a composite sketch of a possible suspect, described as a man in his mid-30s, slim, with tattooed arms and shoulder-length blond hair.

Across Canada, public pressure has prompted the police to pay more attention to the murders of fringe women.

For instance, in Vancouver, the disappearance of 50 sex-trade workers in the 1990s was marked by controversy and allegations that the police weren't interested in finding out what happened to them. Initially, the police said that because of their transient lifestyle, they may have simply left the city and moved elsewhere.

It was only after pressure from family and friends through the media that a task force was set up. That investigation led to the arrest of Robert Pickton, a 52-year-old pig farmer who is now before the courts on 26 counts of first-degree murder.

The disappearance and murder of nine women along a remote stretch of highway in northern B.C., linking Prince Rupert and Prince George, and dubbed the "highway of tears," has led to public demands that the police, the government and the local native bands take action to end the killings.

In Ontario, police forces were admonished in a 1996 study by Justice Archie Campbell into what went wrong in the hunt for the killers of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy. The judge criticized them for a "dangerous lack of co-ordination. " One response to that report was PowerCase. It took eight years and $32 million to develop the computerized database of criminal occurrences in the province, one that automatically advises the province's 60 police forces by email of possible links between criminal cases.

But while PowerCase has been credited with helping to solve current cases, such as the arrest of a suspect by the Niagara police in two of the more recent prostitute slayings, entering data from cold cases is a time-consuming process. Forces, like Toronto's, don't always have the manpower to do it.

Chief Blair says his force was firmly committed to PowerCase. "All our current cases are in the system," he says. But what about the cold cases? "If an older case was tied to a current case, then we would look at putting it into PowerCase."

That means Toronto's unsolved murders before PowerCase, whose use became mandatory for police in February 2005, are typically stored away in banker's boxes.

Although the cases have gone cold, the head of Toronto's cold case squad is cautiously optimistic there could be some arrests down the road.

"We have solid directions in two or three cases," says Wilkinson, declining to offer specifics.

He constantly gets calls from detectives who have worked the cases, even some who have retired from the force.

"Police officers carry a flag for these murders," he says. "They know they're unsolved. They don't forget."

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Bonnie M. Wells

September Story Index

Page posted: September 7, 2007 / BMW