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A Downtown Eastside mural of Chelsea Poorman painted by graffiti artist James Hardy was updated recently after the Indigenous woman was found in the backyard of an unoccupied Vancouver mansion.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/The Globe and Mail

Investigators believe Chelsea Poorman’s body lay hidden on the back deck of an empty Vancouver mansion for 592 days.

Nearly a year after she vanished, a city inspector visited the backyard in the leafy Shaughnessy neighbourhood, long one of the city’s wealthiest areas. The owners, a couple who bought the property for $7.3-million in 2014 and now live in China, had proposed adding some 3,000 square feet of new space to the nine-bedroom home, and the city needed to verify some aspects of the application.

But the inspector didn’t notice Ms. Poorman’s remains, or anything else suspicious, according to city spokespeople, and the municipality issued a permit for the massive renovation two months later. It wasn’t until three weeks ago – after the city alerted the owners that they needed to get to work on their construction project – that a rubbish removal company went into the backyard and discovered the 24-year-old Cree woman’s corpse.

At a press conference on May 6, the Vancouver Police Department announced the gruesome end to what had been an unsolved missing-persons case. Ms. Poorman likely died the night she disappeared, police said, and there was no evidence to suggest she was murdered.

The news that a vacant mansion had become a crime scene in an Indigenous woman’s death, even as its offshore owners pondered making their investment more lavish still, has highlighted the divide between haves and have nots in a city where many locals can no longer afford to rent homes, let alone buy them. It has also touched off a torrent of criticism of the police investigation, prompting the force to walk back its assertion that the death was not suspicious.

Ms. Poorman had moved to Vancouver from Regina after the first wave of the pandemic. She disappeared in the early hours of Sept. 7, 2020, some time after texting her sister that she had met a “new bae.” Her family reported her missing a day later. After 10 days, police issued a public appeal for help with finding her. Over the next months, her family and friends frantically canvassed the city and papered it with “missing” posters.

Half a year later, they held a vigil walk for her that began in the Granville Strip nightlife area, where Ms. Poorman was last seen, and finished on the outskirts of the Downtown Eastside, where she often stayed with her mother and sister.

Ms. Poorman’s relatives, who are members of the Kawacatoose First Nation, have been critical of police. So have Indigenous leaders from British Columbia and Saskatchewan, the Poormans’ home province. Her mother, Sheila Poorman, said Ms. Poorman had mobility issues from a serious car accident and had struggled with mental health and substance use issues.

Ms. Poorman lived, for the most part, with a boyfriend in Burnaby and would not have known how to get to the empty home in Shaughnessy, according to her mother, who works at a Vancouver homeless shelter. The property is about eight kilometres and a world away from the Downtown Eastside.

Police investigators met with Sheila and her two other daughters on May 9 to answer questions and apologize for telling the public Ms. Poorman’s death was not suspicious. The investigators could not explain why part of her daughter’s skull and some fingers are still missing, she said, nor why Ms. Poorman’s remains appeared to have been covered up with a blanket. And police did not tell the family whether a toxicology report had been conducted. Instead, they said the coroner could not determine a cause of death, Sheila added.

“I want to try and get it reinvestigated, because it seems like there’s something missing,” she said.

On Thursday, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, issued separate calls for the Vancouver Police Department to restart its investigation into the death.

“To sweep her death under the rug is another example of the continued systemic racism against our Indigenous women by police,” Kawacatoose First Nation Chief Tom Dustyhorn said in the FSIN statement, which also referenced a 2012 provincial inquiry into the serial killer Robert Pickton. That inquiry found police prejudice had hampered investigations into the disappearances of dozens of women, many of whom were Indigenous.

Constable Tania Visintin, a spokesperson for the Vancouver Police Department, said the force should have clarified to the family and the public that “not suspicious” meant only that investigators had not found enough evidence of foul play.

“There’s no evidence to believe that her death was the result of a crime,” Constable Visintin said.

The home where Ms. Poorman was found sits on West 36th Avenue, near Granville Street, Vancouver’s longest thoroughfare. The neighbourhood includes the official residence of the United States Consul General and the mansion where Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou spent her extradition proceedings.

All the available public evidence suggests the property was vacant for several years. In June, 2019, municipal bylaw officers ordered the home’s owners to clean up their overgrown yard, according to a statement from the city’s media department.

The city said it does not disclose which properties have been made to pay its Empty Homes Tax, a penalty on owners who don’t rent out their vacant homes to long-term tenants. But the city’s latest report on the tax showed that five per cent of all residences within Shaughnessy’s borders were vacant, putting it in a three-way tie with two other neighbourhoods for Vancouver’s highest rate of uninhabited housing.

Squatters began living in the home at least two years ago. Victor Chow, the developer in charge of the property’s renovation, said he had the unwelcome guests kicked out when he was hired to gut and rebuild it in 2020. Afterward, the front gates and front door of the home were padlocked, and its large ground-floor windows boarded up from the inside with plywood.

It is unclear whether anyone returned. Neighbours say the property has appeared vacant for at least five years.

Dozens of flowers and candles, as well as placards with red dresses – which symbolize Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls – now adorn the front fence and foliage.

The property’s owners are businessman Long Zhou and his wife, Jiayu Bu, a homemaker, according to its land title. From the time Ms. Poorman died to the day her body was found there, the home’s assessed value increased by nearly half a million dollars, to $7.1-million.

A call to a Vancouver lawyer listed on the owners’ 2014 mortgage with HSBC was not returned this week. An e-mail to the Shanghai-based lawyer for the guarantor on that mortgage was also not returned.

Mr. Chow said he could not provide the owners’ contact info, but he was willing to discuss the renovation, which he said will be a complete revamp of the 30-year-old home. He estimated the work will cost more than $6-million and end up taking five years.

Mr. Zhou had previously lived in another home in Vancouver, but he moved back to China several months before the pandemic reached Canada’s West Coast, according to Mr. Chow. In April, Mr. Chow hired someone to clear piles of garbage and overgrown vegetation in the Shaughnessy home’s backyard.

That’s when the subcontractor found Ms. Poorman’s remains covered up by a blanket, Mr. Chow said.

Standing outside the property for the first time earlier this week after flying in from Saskatoon, Ms. Poorman’s stepfather, Mike Kiernan, was as stunned by the public outpouring of grief for his stepdaughter as he was by the wealth the vacant home represents.

“This guy is not even in the country?” said Mr. Kiernan, who had campaigned for months to find Ms. Poorman. “You could put a lot of people in a good shelter here while he’s gone.”

After visiting the home, he returned to the Downtown Eastside to view a mural of Ms. Poorman by street artist Smokey D, who had painted over the word “MISSING” as soon as news of her body’s discovery broke. It now reads: “A sad day, FOUND, passed on…”

- With research from Stephanie Chambers

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