08/27/2013 04:36 EDT | Updated 10/27/2013 05:12 EDT

Police defend lack of warning after first of two deaths involving escorts

NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. - Police are facing criticism over the timing of a public warning about the deaths of two women who worked as escorts in the Vancouver area, as news of the their deaths raised fears within the sex worker community in a region where memories of serial killer Robert Pickton remain fresh.

The region's RCMP-led homicide unit and the New Westminster police issued the public warning Monday, saying the deaths of the two women, both of whom posted online ads for escort services, were similar enough to raise suspicion.

Jill Lyons, 45, was found on Aug. 12 in her apartment in a building in New Westminster, southeast of Vancouver. The second woman, Karen Nabors, 48, was found dead in a separate unit in the same building on Aug. 25.

Investigators have yet to determine why either of the women died or whether foul play was involved, but they said the fact that both worked in the sex trade, lived in the same apartment building and knew each other meant a public warning was warranted.

But groups who advocate for sex workers said police should have informed the public — and sex workers, in particular — as soon as Lyons died.

Katrina Pacey of Pivot Legal Society said the Pickton case — in which the Vancouver police and the RCMP resisted issuing warnings or even publicly acknowledging sex workers were disappearing — demonstrated the need to err on the side of caution whenever there was a possibility women could be in danger.

"There is cause for concern about the delay," Pacey said in an interview Tuesday. "We know the police have, in the past, been slow to react."

But the RCMP held a news conference Tuesday to say there was no warning earlier in the month because early evidence suggested Lyons' death may have been a suicide.

Sgt. Jennifer Pound said the force traditionally doesn't release detailed information about suicides.

Pound repeatedly stressed there was no evidence to either confirm or rule out foul play, but she said it was the similarities between the women and their deaths that had investigators concerned.

"We haven't confirmed what the cause of death is, but it's our responsibility when we have information — even minimal information — to advise the public when we feel that the public could potentially be in danger," Pound told reporters in Surrey, south of Vancouver.

"We simply didn't have the information to put out a warning (after Lyons' death). When you attend a scene and the evidence suggests suicide, there's really nothing that you can warn the public about."

Pacey said the RCMP could have found a way to issue a warning even if they were concerned Lyons death could turn out to be a suicide.

"It's entirely possible the police could have taken action to put out a warning without explicit detail about what happened to Ms. Lyons," said Pacey.

"Even in light of the possibility that it could be suicide, the police could have taken immediate action to make sure the sex-work community was alerted.

Susan Davis, an outspoken Vancouver sex worker who advocates for women in the sex trade, particularly those who work indoors such as escorts, said the women's deaths have shocked the region's sex workers.

"Some are taking down their ads and their websites, others are going on tour, others are trying to find places to work collectively with other workers," said Davis.

"We're not faced with these types of tragedies all the time. People are panicked, they're feeling vulnerable."

While the RCMP have said very little about the women or how they operated, Davis said she's been able to identify ads on at least two websites that advertise sex workers that appear to be Lyons and Nabors. She said the ads suggest they both worked independently.

Davis said there are too few services available for indoor sex workers to help them protect themselves.

Some sex workers have used online discussion forums to help women track dangerous clients, said Davis, similar to the "bad date sheets" that are used by street-level sex workers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

But she said it has proved difficult to keep such websites private to ensure the women can discuss their experiences confidentially.

Davis also said this week's warning came too late.

"I think this just reflects a lack of communication between the sex working community and the police," she said.

"If they realized that violence against indoor workers is very rare, and actually had some sort of rapport with us, somebody they could call and say, 'Do you think this needs to be a warning?'"

The issue of public warnings was a subject at the public inquiry into the Pickton case.

The Vancouver police and the RCMP were investigating reports of missing sex workers and the possibility Pickton may have been involved for years before they publicly acknowledged the possibility of a serial killer.

In fact, the Vancouver police actively refuted the suggestion that a serial killer may have been at work in the Downtown Eastside.

Wally Oppal, a former judge and one-time attorney general who led the inquiry, concluded the Vancouver police and the RCMP made "serious errors" when they failed to issue warnings about a potential serial killer.

Oppal suggested the forces had a legal obligation to warn women in the Downtown Eastside and aboriginal communities across B.C.

— By James Keller in Vancouver