Around the corner from a landing pad for helicopter rides and the construction site of an indoor water park, a person walking through a desolate, wooded area off Whirlpool Road made a grisly discovery Jan. 24.
Wrapped in a sheet, amid garbage and large animal bones, were the remains of 22-year-old Cassey Joyce Cichocki, who had disappeared more than a month earlier.
She was last seen near an empty storefront in downtown Niagara Falls.
She was the fifth woman who had led what Canadian authorities politely call a "high risk lifestyle" to be found slain in or around the Niagara Falls region over the last 11 years.
Police soon arrested a man they believe responsible for Cichocki's death, but the murders have exposed the underbelly of this falls-side city, better known in the United States for its breathtaking vistas, the Skylon Tower and its revolving restaurant, two bustling casinos and the neon-lit tourist spots.
In the midst of theme park-like Clifton Hill and just a short drive west through Ferry Street and Lundy's Lane, or north of the city's sparkling tourist spots is a Niagara Falls teeming with illicit sex, drugs, massage parlors and strip clubs. "Of course there is an underworld in Niagara Falls," said Michelle, who identified herself as a 43-year-old street sex trade worker.
Michelle said she usually works in Toronto and Hamilton, Ont., but noted she once made $900 in two hours turning tricks near the casino in Niagara Falls. "I picked up four rich men, went to their hotel rooms," she said.
It's another side of this city of fewer than 80,000 that draws nearly 14 million visitors a year -- a side that isn't spotlighted by the tourism bureau, which beckons "Discover Niagara Falls. There's more to us than meets the eye."
>One who left the street
Deb Nanson knows this other Niagara Falls all too well.
Until two years ago, she was a street prostitute who sold her body for money to buy crack cocaine in Niagara Falls, and then later in Hamilton. Nanson went clean and stopped selling sex after being busted in Hamilton in a crack house. She now runs Come Walk a Mile Addiction Services in Hamilton, Ont., an outreach group that works with drug addicts and sex workers.
Nanson, 45, the granddaughter of a Falls daredevil who survived a plunge over the falls, grew up in this city. She was raised down the street from Dawn Stewart, the first victim in the five homicides now being revisited by authorities. Stewart's skeletal remains, along with those of her 6-month-old fetus, were found on a dirt road near a farm in Pelham in 1996. "We got high together," Nanson recalled of her old friend. "She was a sex trade worker, but she was a good mom."
She realizes she could easily have ended up dead herself, whether by a killer or by the drugs. On Friday, Nanson stood at Ferry Street and Sylvia Place by the Lundy's Lane Historical Museum, recalling how that had been her spot for picking up tricks. "This is the corner," she said, pointing out the back parking lot and the alleyway just around the way where she would go with her customers. "My stomach's in knots," she said, admitting that even after being clean for nearly 19 months, she still considers herself an addict.
>Prostitution laws fuzzy
Canada's laws involving prostitution are not exactly clear-cut, and Canadian strip clubs are legally allowed to have all-nude dances as well as lap-dances, leaving a lot of gray area that is readily exploited by frisky customers and cash-driven dancers.
"The basic idea is prostitution itself is not illegal," explained Brenda Cossman, a law professor at the University of Toronto. "But solicitation of prostitution is."
Canada's criminal codes specifically ban street prostitution and brothels, called common bawdy houses. It's also illegal in Canada to live off the proceeds of a prostitute -- a law designed to prevent pimping, but a law that could be applied to the children of prostitutes and a partner of a prostitute. "It's a bizarre situation," Cossman said.
The law allows a customer to call for an escort and have her, or him, meet for sex at the john's home or a hotel room that the john has rented, said Valerie Scott, executive director of Toronto-based Sex Professionals of Canada. But it's illegal for a john to meet the escort at her residence or even a hotel room the escort has rented, because that place could then be considered a common bawdy house.
Scott, whose group advocates decriminalizing prostitution, believes the law puts prostitutes in danger. "If it's your place where you're comfortable with your own surroundings, then you know there aren't three guys hiding in a closet," Scott said.
Operating a bawdy house can be punishable by up to two years in jail, she said. And police have been known to confiscate everything from a home determined to be a bawdy house, she said. "The police can and do show up with moving vans when they arrest someone, and they take absolutely everything."
>Fears of serial killer
Although police quickly arrested a suspect in Cichocki's death, they don't know whether they have a modern day Jack the Ripper on their hands -- or if they're faced with a disturbing increase in violent behavior toward women involved in stripping, prostitution and drugs.
Sex workers throughout Ontario are worried about a possible serial killer targeting them, Michelle said. Street sex-trade workers like herself face many kinds of dangerous predators, she said. "I remember hearing about a guy in Hamilton who was sleeping with women and giving them AIDS," she said. "I knew I was safe because I always use a condom. But it's scary what some guy will do to the girls. You never know what is going to happen to you."
Four out of the five Niagara Falls victims "worked the streets," said Detective Sgt. Cliff Sexton of the Niagara Regional Police, who is heading the task force.
The other one, Nadine Gurczenski, 26, who was found dead in 1999 in a ditch in Vineland, was an exotic dancer.
But with the street women, he said, "the driving force was drugs." Sexton, a longtime investigator in Niagara Falls, said drugs and prostitution have always plagued the city. "I don't see it as a growing problem," he said. "But I do think there's a problem."
Nanson recounted how she had slid into her dark life. First, she got hooked on cocaine and then crack, became increasingly desperate for money.
"Stealing didn't cover my addiction," she said. "First, I stole. Then I robbed. Then the sex trade. I thought it was glamorous. I would think, 'He's picked me.' "
While drugs are a major problem among street workers, escorts -- who probably make up the majority of prostitutes in Canada -- aren't as affected, said Scott, of the Sex Professionals of Canada.
"What you're seeing on the street, a lot of times, are crack addicts turning tricks to get high," she said. "And that really is a different issue than prostitution . . . But that being said, we still consider them our sisters. Even though they're doing it for the drug money, they're still doing it."
>Dancers provide extras
Niagara Falls' strip clubs are legitimate, but it's an open secret that there are plenty of dancers in some clubs who are willing to provide "extras" if the price is right.
A quick scan of an online chat site about one such club includes postings on recollections of sex acts performed in private back rooms as well as questions and advice about taking a dancer from the club back to a hotel. "You have to pay the club a release fee and then the girl for her time," one poster explained. "By the time you pay both fees you're better off paying for an escort . . ."
The Canadian government has taken steps to try to regulate the adult entertainment industry through special licenses, similar to those issued to taxi cab drivers and street food vendors.
Niagara Regional Police Services currently has licenses issued to 2,238 people in the adult entertainment business; about 40 are operators, the rest are exotic dancers.
Police throughout Ontario have taken some steps to stem violence against women in the sex trade without punishing them for reporting attacks.
Niagara Regional Police and Toronto Police operate "Bad Date" hotlines -- toll free phone lines that allow women to anonymously report robberies, assaults and rapes. That information is put into a database and used to identify potential serial predators.
The task force will mine this database for any possible clues to help them solve the homicides, Sexton said.
Sex worker advocates also maintain their own "bad date" Web sites where they list descriptions, even cell phone numbers, of customers who stood them up, refused to pay, got violent or forced them to do things that hadn't been previously agreed to.
Nanson is now trying to start a self-monitoring program through her organization to help keep tabs on sex trade workers. If the sex worker fails to check in, Nanson's volunteers call around, then go to the police.
Like other Canadian sex workers and their advocates, Nanson knows how critical it is for there to be some sort of safeguard for women in the sex trade.
She points out Vancouver, where Robert William Pickton is on trial for the murder of 27 prostitutes from that city. For years, police there dismissed the women's disappearances -- until their remains were found at Pickton's pig farm. "We don't want another Vancouver," Nanson said.