After 27 years, the circumstances surrounding the death of Vicki Black on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has finally been solved.
Stephen Laroche pleaded guilty to manslaughter earlier this week and was sentenced to 10 years minus 14 months for time served.
And while it may bring legal closure, for some of those who were closest to the 23-year-old and her case, the painful memories linger.
Black’s body was found wrapped in a sheet in a dumpster in an East Vancouver alley in March of 1993.
Her girlfriend at the time, Charlotte Johnson, remembers the morning she found out as if it were yesterday.
“I wasn’t the same person [after that,]” said Johnson, who attended Laroche’s sentencing by teleconference.
Johnson and Black had been living together with two other people, including Tracy Olajide — whose own murder in 1995 remains unsolved.
The three women lived together for two years and would move around to different homes, always as a pack, so they could see each other’s “dates.” Black, Johnson and Olajide all worked in the sex trade.
“I think it was for a safety reason,” said Johnson.
Johnson vividly remembers how Black’s date came to pick her up the night she died. From the way the date spoke to her, Johnson knew something was wrong
“I closed the door and I didn’t feel easy about it. Something wasn’t right for me,” she said.
In court, the agreed statement of facts confirmed that Laroche admitted to taking Black back to his apartment on the night of her death where they had sex, did drugs and he eventually strangled her in dispute over payment.
“That’s where the guilt and shame come in… Because I left her with him. And it’s something I’ll never get over,” said Johnson, through sobs, her voice carrying more than a quarter-century of pain.
“I’ll never get over leaving her with him. Especially since I had that bad feeling.”
While much of the public’s memory of Black has been reduced to her murder, Johnson’s memory is much more vivid, filled with stories of how they loved to go to the PNE, where Black wanted to ride all the thrill rides or how Black loved to eat, especially Jamaican food.
“This girl could eat hot sauce like it ain’t nobody’s business. She’s like the first white girl I ever met that was like that,” said Johnson.
But Black was also complex; she was a hard-headed and stubborn woman. Traits required to survive the hood, Johnson said. Black loved to shop, draw and write.
It’s these memories clashing against the backdrop of her gruesome murder that make it difficult for Johnson to accept Laroche’s conviction.
A conviction 27 years in the making
After Laroche fled Vancouver, he eventually ended up in Manitoba where he killed another woman who also worked in the sex trade. He was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment but later earned full parole.
In court last week, Laroche’s case was tried as if it were his first offence because it happened in 1993, three years before he killed the second woman. He was originally charged with second-degree murder for Black’s death, but pleaded guilty in court to the lesser charge of manslaughter.
“I wanted him to get so much more time. Ten years is too good for him,” said Johnson
“I feel like basically, it’s OK to kill a working girl. You only get ten years for it. It’s not enough. It doesn’t show society that they don’t tolerate it.”
A semblance of closure
Charlotte Johnson isn’t the only one who feels the sentence wasn’t harsh enough.
Dave Dickson, a former Downtown Eastside beat cop, has also waited nearly three decades for justice for Vicki Black.
“Certainly, I wish it was harsher,” he said, but he understands how the process works, admitting it’s difficult to prove intent in a murder case.
He’s just happy there is some semblance of closure for Black’s family.
“And I hope that the family got something good out of it. I know there’s nothing that could ever bring her back,” said Dickson.
For 28 years, Dickson worked on the Downtown Eastside. He knew all the women who worked along there, including Black.
“She was a sweet kid,” he remembers.
He says he would run into her and her friends about once a week, if not daily.
And while he admits he can’t remember what he ate for breakfast the day before, his memory of Black and his work on the Downtown Eastside are crystal clear.
After Black’s murder, he remembers carrying the sheet she was found in around the city, trying to find where it came from.
Her murder and the unsolved murders of many other women from the Downtown Eastside still weigh heavy on him.
“It’s really hard to describe. I still have real tough days with it. It certainly never goes away,” said Dickson.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Mona Wilson [murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton] or a ton of the other girls that just aren’t around anymore because the system sort of failed them.”