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What Happened to Chelsea?

Police say a young Cree woman’s Vancouver death is not suspicious, despite several disturbing factors. Her family won’t stop looking for answers.

Jen St. Denis 9 May

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

Chelsea Poorman’s mother says she will continue to fight for her daughter and the truth about what happened to her after police deemed the 24-year-old woman’s death not suspicious.

Police have closed the missing persons case, despite not being able to determine the cause of death and finding Poorman’s body outside a vacant Shaughnessy mansion, a neighbourhood six kilometres away from where she was last seen.

“We’re going to fight for Chelsea and we’re going to fight for the truth and what happened to her,” Sheila Poorman told supporters at a vigil Sunday.

“We’re not going to sit by and let them say it’s not suspicious and there’s no foul play.”

Poorman said the coroner had told her that her daughter’s remains were not intact when they were found: the cranium and some fingers are missing. The disturbing details makes it even harder to understand why police are not investigating further, she said. Police did not disclose the information to media during a press conference on Friday.

“And they have the gall to say it’s not suspicious,” she said.

A woman, Sheila Poorman, stands next to a pole with a "Missing: $10,000 Reward" notice of her daughter, Chelsea Poorman.
Sheila Poorman says she will continue to seek answers in the death of her daughter Chelsea and rejects police claims it was not suspicious. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Poorman was joined by her daughters, Paige Kiernan and Diamond Poorman, as well as other supporters outside the mansion where Chelsea’s body was found, to mourn, call for justice and do ceremonies intended to help release the young woman’s spirit.

Other speakers talked about Canada’s long history of ignoring the disappearances and deaths of Indigenous women, and echoed Sheila Poorman’s disbelief that Chelsea’s death would not be futher investigated.

Chelsea Poorman was last seen by her sister, Paige Kiernan, in a friend’s apartment near Granville and Davie streets in downtown Vancouver on Sept. 6, 2020, and was reported missing two days later.

Last Friday, police announced that the Cree woman’s body had been discovered outside an empty house in the city’s affluent Shaughnessy neighbourhood. Police say she likely died shortly after she disappeared, but her body was not found until April 22 of this year.

The Vancouver Police Department say it has now received the results of a coroner’s investigation and does not consider her death suspicious, even though the coroner was not able to determine a cause of death.

“We will likely never know,” Sgt. Steve Addison, a media liaison officer with the VPD, told reporters at a press conference.

Police say they believe Poorman likely died on the property the day she went missing or shortly after, but her body went undiscovered for so long because the house where she was found has been vacant for years. According to police, her body was discovered by contractors who were doing work on the property.

Shaughnessy is one of Vancouver’s most exclusive neighbourhoods, featuring large homes on big lots that are often priced in the tens of millions. In 2017, it had the highest rate of empty homes in the city, according to the City of Vancouver.

A large residence with sand-coloured bricks stands behind a locked white metal gate leading to the driveway.
The remains of Chelsea Poorman were found outside this Shaughnessy mansion. She likely died shortly after going missing in 2020, police said. Photo for The Tyee by Kayla Isomura.

The vacant home at 1536 W. 36th Ave. is owned by “an offshore owner,” Addison said. It’s valued at $7.1 million, according to BC Assessment, and land title records show the owners are Long Zhou, a businessman, and Jiayu Bu, a homemaker. A representative for the owners who attended the vigil on Sunday, but declined to give his name, said the owners do not live in Canada and haven’t lived in the house for a long time. He said it had taken a long time to get permits from the city to renovate the house.

At the vigil, the representative unlocked the front gate so that Poorman’s family could enter the property and go to the back of the house to say prayers for her spirit.

Although the property was neatly kept in the front, the back of the house, where Poorman’s skeletal remains were found was unkempt, according to police.

Poorman’s body was found along with her clothing and some personal effects, Addison said, declining to say whether her cellphone or a leg brace and cane she used were also found with the body. Chelsea was in a car accident in 2014 and wore a brace on her left leg and a lifted shoe on her right foot. The accident left her with rods in her leg and arm.

Addison said the vacant Shaughnessy home was known to be entered by people who didn’t own the house or live there.

“From time to time there are people who would enter the property, would enter the house,” Addison said. Addison said investigators don’t know whether Chelsea Poorman had previously been to the house or had familiarity with the Shaughnessy neighbourhood.

Addison said there were personal details with the case that he would not divulge without permission from Poorman’s family.

When Poorman went missing at 24, her mother and sister Paige spoke to media and organized rallies to appeal for information about her whereabouts. Poorman and Kiernan also marched in the Feb. 14 annual Women’s Memorial March in the Downtown Eastside, which remembers and raises awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.

The family is from the Kawacatoose First Nation in Saskatchewan.

Chelsea went missing after a dinner out with Kiernan. The two visited a friend of Kiernan’s, and Chelsea left around midnight. Later, she sent her sister a message saying she’d met “a new bae.” Her cellphone would later be traced to Victory Square, 12 blocks away from where Kiernan last saw her.

Three pictures of Chelsea Poorman is a row, left to right. The first is her holding her high school diploma in a grad gown and hat. The second is a black and white photo of her holding a digital SLR. The third is a closeup photo with a small dog.
Photos of Chelsea Poorman in the years before her death. Sheila Poorman says her daughter was kind and trusting. Photos supplied.

In a previous interview with The Tyee, Sheila Poorman described her daughter as a kind and trusting young woman who loves animals and music and wrote her own songs. Before she went missing, she had been living in Burnaby with her boyfriend.

Poorman also told The Tyee she was unhappy with the initial police response when she first reported Chelsea missing on Sept. 8, 2020. She questioned why police waited 10 days to release a statement notifying the public that Chelsea was missing.

“They just didn’t seem like they were too interested in looking for Chelsea. At one point the police officers told my daughter that they had more important things to do,” Poorman told The Tyee in March 2021.

The search seemed to pick up once the case was transferred from the VPD’s missing persons unit to major crimes, Poorman said.

Police have said detectives take several factors into account before deciding whether to release information about missing people to the media, including a missing person’s mental health and whether attention from the news will be detrimental to their personal safety.

Police also said they took “numerous investigative steps, including interviewing several people associated with Ms. Poorman, reviewing relevant banking and cellphone records, conducting an extensive video canvas and collaborating with Saskatoon police.”  [Tyee]

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