The Georgia Straight calls Vancouver Vice "a rollicking read populated by well-known Vancouverites, just like Chapman’s other books."
Aaron Chapman is a writer, historian, and musician with a special interest in Vancouver's entertainment history. He is the author of Vancouver After Dark: The Wild History of a City's Nightlife, winner of the Bill Duthie Booksellers' Choice Award (BC Book Prizes) in 2020; The Last Gang in Town, the Story of Vancouver's Clark Park Gang; Liquor, Lust, and the Law, the Story of Vancouver's Penthouse Nightclub, now available in a second edition; and Live at the Commodore, a history of the Commodore Ballroom that won the Bill Duthie Booksellers' Choice Award (BC Book Prizes) in 2015. In 2020 he was elected as a member of the Royal Historical Society. He lives in Vancouver.
** Trevor Corkum: Vancouver Vice takes a fascinating look into the seedier history of Vancouver’s West End. Why did you want to take this deep dive?
Aaron Chapman: In the wake of writing another book called The Last Gang in Town: The Epic Story of the Vancouver Police Department vs. The Clark Park Gang, which looked at how East Vancouver had changed through the lens of its crime history, I thought it might be interesting to look at the West End in the same way. It’s a much different story, and there are a lot of other elements at play.
If you’ve recently moved to Vancouver or the West End, you might not recall at all just how turbulent those years were in the West End in the late 1970s and early 80s, because at the same time there was an issue over street prostitution happening, there was also the gay West End that was building a more public profile. Police were dealing with some crime that they hadn’t really dealt with before.
One can walk around the West End today and there’s really no indication it all happened, except for the West End Sex Workers Memorial lamppost, or perhaps the traffic barricades left over from the period. So it’s a good time to look back on it, while some of the players are still alive—although a remarkable number of people are dead: murdered, overdosed, fallen by AIDS. Some, despite my best efforts, seem to have disappeared and never want to be found again. And if you read the book, you might guess why.
Some, despite my best efforts, seem to have disappeared and never want to be found again. And if you read the book, you might guess why.
TC:Your research covers lots of ground, but the main bad actor is hustler and pimp Wayne Harris. Why did you choose to make him the emblematic figure of the story?
AC: I first heard the story about Wayne Harris from Al Robson, a retired VPD detective who, along with his partner Gord Bader (VPD, retired), figures quite a bit into the book. In 2017, he told me the whole story about how he and Bader had investigated Harris, and the story was so shocking and surprising to me, I knew right then and there it was something I wanted to write about.
I spent a few more years researching, and it took a couple of years to write—I knew it would. The police story was fascinating to me, but so was the story of the book’s villains. I’m always a little surprised that for our port city, we don’t have more famous—or at least infamous—bad guys, because God knows there have been plenty of them. So Vancouver Vice is an opportunity to look at both sides during a pretty wild time of city history.
TC:So many great research nuggets appear—archival news stories, interviews, police files about underworld dealings, street culture, the diverse range of sex work happening in the period. Can you share something you learned that didn’t make it into the book?
AC: I always like to make sure all my research gets into the books one way or the other. There isn’t much left on the cutting room floor once these things are done. But I will say that some of the people who were the clients of Wayne Harris, who were detailed in the police reports leaked to me, were not named in the book because of potential litigation. The closer the book got to publication, I started receiving phone calls from lawyers and associates asking, “Is my client’s name going to appear in your book?”.
While I had some police reports and documentation that would have been very damning, unfortunately the original wire taps and evidence were destroyed due to police purging practices on defunct police files after a couple of decades. As one retired VPD detective told me, “Aaron, you did a better job of tying this all together than we did when we worked on the case, and weren’t given the manpower to do it.”
Did some people get away with crime who are still out there today? It would seem so. But the fact is that the VPD unfortunately destroyed the original documentation and electronic surveillance completed in the 1970s, thinking that there was nothing left to investigate, also destroyed the chance of prosecuting something later—unless others still alive step forward. Maybe now that the book is out, they will?
Did some people get away with crime who are still out there today? It would seem so.
TC:How have folks in Vancouver—particularly in the West End—reacted to the work?
AC: From who I’ve heard from and talked to so far, the reviews have been very, very good. It’s spent the last couple of months on the BC Bestseller list—which I’m happy to say. It’s interesting to have heard from people who lived in the West End at the time who recall those days, and to hear how they liked the book. As well as the newer, in many cases younger residents, who live in the West End now, who are really stunned that this happened on the very streets they live on.
TC:Finally, the West End of 2022—with all its gentrification, glitzy condo towers, and stark rental pressures—is a far cry from its status as the red light district of Vancouver in the 70s and early 80s. From your perspective, what elements of this hedonistic heyday still linger in the West End’s character today?
AC: It’s a different West End now. It’s a different Vancouver now. It would have been unable to envision a rainbow-covered crosswalk on Davie Street in the 1970s. Likewise, we don’t have anything today like the vice squad raids on pornography magazine stores like they did in 1977. Police investigations of gambling and bookies done in those years don’t happen today with Sports Action and casinos. Our morals and values have changed—I suppose some might argue not for the better. But one doesn’t really see street prostitution now as it was then.
So I often get into debates, especially with older Vancouverites who complain that “Vancouver used to be better back in the day.” In this case, I don’t think that’s really true. We should be happy to have left some of those problems behind, because depending on who you were, what you did for a living, and where you lived, you might very much prefer present-day Vancouver over the city back then.
There’s still plenty of wild nights and hedonism to be found. Some of it’s everywhere, and you don’t need to have to go exclusively down to the West End to find it. Some of it isn’t out on the street anymore, but done behind closed doors—maybe just next door?!
I think Vancouver Vice shows what was happening in the West End both on the street and behind closed doors in the West End in the 1970s and early 80s. Maybe those who lived there at the time might have not known what was going on—a secret, dark, and mysterious West End that some never knew, and others have sometimes tried to forget.
AARON’s NOTE: I’ll be speaking at the Vancouver Historical Society at the Vancouver Museum on April 28th! More info at Vancouver Historical Society.
It was just before seven o’clock on the evening of Wednesday, May 2, 1984, when police and ambulance first arrived on a quiet, tree-lined stretch of road along the north side of Lost Lagoon in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
The weather forecast had predicted partly cloudy with a few showers, but so far the rain had held off. And even though North Lagoon Drive was shaded by a tall canopy of trees, with the forest of the great urban park behind it, there was still plenty of evening light. The late-spring sun wouldn’t set for another hour or so.
A report of a suspected homicide had come from the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) communications centre at 312 Main Street. Details were sparse in the initial radio dispatch: Two men at the scene reported finding an abandoned car, a vehicle they said they recognized. They reported that the driver was missing. No mention of a body. It was unclear at the time how they knew the vehicle or the driver. Later, the police considered the possibility that the two had been trying to break into the car when they discovered a body in the trunk and had fabricated the story to cover their tracks. Even innocent people can make up an alibi when they get nervous and find themselves in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
As police from around downtown responded to reports of the abandoned car, some made derisive or even homophobic wisecracks that, given the proximity to the gay cruising areas along Stanley Park’s Lees Trail, the driver would likely be back shortly with a pair of muddy knees, wondering why all the police had shown up. But when the details emerged that a body had been found in the trunk of the car, the joking stopped.
Police humour is a particularly dark brand of levity that others, who don’t regularly deal with dead bodies, can often find macabre, or just plain insensitive. But police, firefighters, and paramedics often share this sardonic point of view among themselves as a coping mechanism to help them weather the often unrelenting stress of their jobs—especially if they’ve done the job for years. Even so, hardened veterans become solemn and put aside flippant jokes when they walk into a homicide scene in an area as public as Stanley Park—especially when there is a possibility that more than one victim might be discovered.
The car had been parked on a lay-by big enough for a vehicle to stop for a short time without interrupting traffic on the two-lane North Lagoon Drive. Trees and brush along the roadside gave the spot enough shade and cover to make it difficult to see who or what had parked there when viewed from the south side of the lagoon.
Ambulance attendants David Morris and Wayne Banks viewed the body upon arrival but did not disturb it. Two patrol constables, Les Yeo and Ray Winters, the first police to arrive, set up a perimeter to preserve the crime scene. They were followed by detectives Fred Johns and Ken Larkie from the VPD’s Major Crime Section.
Any time a homicide is reported over police dispatch, it is always met with a significant initial response. Ambulance and homicide investigators arrive, but there are a host of others who report to such scenes—pathologists, forensics, a body disposal crew. Available uniformed patrol officers in the area also provide support, if for nothing more than crowd control when the crime scene is in a public place. On this particular call, a retinue of department officials arrived at Lost Lagoon, as well as some who, years later, would become well-known names in the Lower Mainland. Coroner Larry Campbell—mayor of Vancouver from 2002 to 2005 and inspiration for the TV series Da Vinci’s Inquest—was present, as was a young District One patrol officer, Constable Bob Rich, just four years into his law enforcement career, who would become chief constable of the neighbouring city of Abbotsford in 2008. District One spread from Beatty Street, along the southeastern edge of downtown, to the end of Stanley Park, and included all of the West End and much of downtown but not the Downtown Eastside. District patrol supervisors Sergeant Brian Honeybourn and Corporal Phil Potts arrived on the Lost Lagoon scene, as did VPD fingerprint expert Sergeant Joe Mikita from the forensic identification unit to collect evidence.
Contemporary homicide investigations are markedly different from those in the 1980s. If the same homicide had occurred today, it probably would have led to the mobilization of an additional twenty police officers to cordon off the area and perform a ground search to comb for evidence forty to fifty feet back into the bush of Stanley Park. Today, forensic computer technicians with 3-D scanning technology are also regularly deployed to a crime scene to create simulations and maps, and the investigation results in enough boxes of reports, notes, photographs, interview transcripts, and documents to fill an entire storage room. But in 1984, aside from an immediate search of the area, a few photographs of the car and surrounding scene, some notes and diagrams, and a handful of interview transcripts, a 1980s homicide case often didn’t fill much more than a single large legal-sized file folder.
In this particular situation, perhaps a greater search of the area simply wasn’t considered necessary. Much of the immediate crime scene seemed to speak for itself. It was certainly clear the cause of death was not accidental, because of the blunt force trauma the victim sustained, and because they’d been shoved into the trunk of a car. And from the lack of blood around the scene of the vehicle, compared to what was isolated in the trunk, police suspected that this spot was not the original location of the murder.
Doctors from the VPD pathology department at the scene officially pronounced the victim dead and determined that the death appeared not to have occurred in recent hours but likely a day or two previous. The telltale odour of a body,dead for a while and stored in an enclosed space in warm weather, was certainly not unfamiliar to the veteran police officers present—one didn’t need a university accredited forensic science background to recognize that smell.
Joggers and people on their evening stroll around Stanley Park began to stop along the police tape to get a closer look.
Some of the officers recognized the victim inside the trunk. Casual speculation had begun among them about this person who was “known to police.” At this point, one more police officer arrived, walked up to the rear of the vehicle, and saw, unveiled from behind some bloodied blankets, the body of the victim. And that’s when the rain that had been forecast for the day began to fall. Staff Sergeant Rich Rollins from the Major Crime Section had marked his seventeenth anniversary with the Vancouver Police Department the day before. He would become the senior officer of this investigation. “I spent a lot of years on homicide investigations, and I saw a lot of autopsies,” says Rollins, recalling that day in May, almost forty years later. “This ended up being one of the most interesting cases I ever worked, and just when I thought it couldn’t get more bizarre, it did.”
Excerpted with permission from the book Vancouver Vice: Crime and Spectacle in the City's West End by Aaron Chapman, published by Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021.