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Why Did No One Act to Stop a Known SRO Predator?

Van Chung Pham brought girls to his room to use drugs. Three died. He was on law enforcement’s radar and a victim’s relative wants answers.

Jen St. Denis 6 Oct 2022TheTyee.ca

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

[Editor’s note: This article contains descriptions of sexual assault and stories related to missing and murdered Indigenous women and youth. It may be triggering to some readers.]

For years before the bodies of a woman and a missing Indigenous teenager were found in his room on May 1, Van Chung Pham frequently brought young women and girls to his Vancouver SRO rooms to give them drugs, sometimes in exchange for sex.

Almost a year earlier, in June 2019, another woman had died of an apparent overdose inside Pham’s room at the Hotel Canada in the Downtown Eastside.

The details of the 2019 death and of Pham’s habit of bringing women to his room to give them drugs were known to the Immigration and Refugee Board when it held a hearing Oct. 14, 2020, CBC has reported.

Despite his history, the board released Pham from custody.

On May 1 the bodies of Elma Enan and 14-year-old Noelle O’Soup were found in Pham’s room at 405 Heatley Ave., a privately owned and operated SRO in the Strathcona neighbourhood. O’Soup had gone missing from foster care in Port Coquitlam one year before her body was found in Pham’s room.

The bodies were found two months after Pham, 46, who also went by the names Jimmy, Chung and Peter, had been discovered dead in the same room.

The Tyee has interviewed a source with knowledge of Pham’s behaviour when he lived at Hotel Canada at 518 Richards St. in Vancouver. The SRO is owned by the B.C. government and is operated as supportive housing.

The person, who asked to remain anonymous, said Pham repeatedly brought underaged girls up to his room.

Pham was so persistent that staff had to monitor the building’s reception desk constantly, the source said. If they stopped him from bringing a woman in, he would often try to sneak his guests in through the back door of the hotel. He would also get angry at staff for checking the women’s identification.

“It was multiple times a day and different girls,” said the source. “They all seemed so young — they looked underaged.”

The Tyee also previously interviewed a woman who was drugged and sexually assaulted in the Heatley Avenue SRO by Pham in November 2020.

The Tyee is using a pseudonym — Zoe — for the woman’s safety.

Zoe told The Tyee she often saw other young women in Pham’s room, using drugs that Pham provided for free. He insisted she use the drugs in his room, she said.

During a visit on Nov. 19, 2020, the drugs Pham gave Zoe left her unable to move, although she remained conscious. That’s when Pham sexually assaulted her.

“It was so weird because I was still conscious and aware,” said Zoe. “I felt like my spirit left my body and I just remember lying there, kind of being paralyzed.”

The sexual assault happened just weeks after Pham was released from immigration detention — and after he had been warned by IRB tribunal member Michael McPhalen that his behaviour was dangerous to vulnerable people in the Downtown Eastside.

'One woman died of an overdose in your room’

“You give drugs to vulnerable women so that they will have sex with you,” McPhalen told Pham during the Oct. 14, 2020, hearing, as he laid out the reasons why Pham was considered a danger to the public.

“One woman died of an overdose in your room.... Staff at the hotel report that women often come to your room when they're not supposed to, and I believe that those women were coming to your room to use drugs. That is extremely dangerous behaviour on your part.”

The Tyee asked the BC Coroners Service for information on the June 2019 death, but was told to file a freedom of information request. The Tyee also asked the Vancouver Police Department whether her death had been deemed suspicious or investigated further, and was told to ask the coroner because that agency investigates all deaths that are not considered crimes.

A police department spokesperson said that since officers first encountered Pham in 1996, the VPD tried to hold him accountable for his crimes.

“He was convicted 13 times as a result of Vancouver police investigations, and at the time of his death he was wanted Canada-wide for charges stemming from a VPD investigation,” Sgt. Steve Addison wrote in an email statement in response to questions sent by The Tyee.

Court records show Pham was convicted of drug trafficking in 1997, and had numerous other drug possession, trafficking and theft convictions over the years. For the drug trafficking conviction in 1997, Pham was sentenced to one day in jail. He received the same sentence for a 2007 conviction for theft, conviction for possession of drugs in 2017 and another possession conviction in 2018.

Pham, who was originally from Vietnam, applied to stay in Canada as a refugee and became a permanent Canadian resident in 1993. He was ordered deported in 2012. That order was stayed for two years, but reinstated in 2016 after Pham had had several criminal convictions.

Pham had been detained by the Canada Border Services Agency in July 2020 and again on Oct. 2, 2020, after breaching conditions related to his stay in a drug recovery home and attempting to break into a house.

During the July 2020 hearing, the federal public safety minister applied to detain him longer because he was a danger to the public and unlikely to appear for deportation.

By the time the immigration hearing took place on Oct. 14, 2020, the Vietnamese government had not been co-operating with Canada to get a travel document needed to deport Pham, effectively stalling the effort to get Pham out of Canada.

During the hearing, McPhalen and Logan Sherwood, the lawyer representing the CBSA, agreed that there was no reason to hold Pham under immigration law.

McPhalen ordered Pham released with no conditions other than to inform the Canada Border Services Agency of his new address and report to the agency when required.

Shortly after Pham was released, Zoe started going to his room at 405 Heatley Ave. She told The Tyee that Pham gave her and other women free drugs that were much higher quality than street drugs.

After being sexually assaulted during her last visit to Pham’s room in November 2020, Zoe sought care in hospital and reported the assault to police. Vancouver police officers interviewed her about the incident, but it wasn’t until Feb. 18, 2022 that charges of sexual assault, overcoming resistance by administering a drug, and trafficking cocaine and heroin were approved by the BC Prosecution Service.

A police investigator informed Zoe that the charges had been approved, but later told her that when a police officer went to Pham’s room to inform him of the charges, he had been found dead.

Zoe said she wants to know why it took so long to charge Pham. Police say it takes time to investigate and put together a case that will stand up in court. Then, there was a nine-month delay between the time police recommended charges on May 13, 2021, and the BC Prosecution Service approving the charges on Feb. 18, 2022. By then, Pham was already dead.

In British Columbia and Quebec, police recommend charges to the BC Prosecution Service, who then decides whether to approve them. In all other provinces, police lay charges.

At some point between Pham’s sexual assault against Zoe on Nov. 19, 2020, and the discovery of Pham’s body on Feb. 23, 2022, Elma Enan and Noelle O’Soup had crossed paths with Pham.

Their bodies were discovered two months after Pham was found dead in the same SRO room where Zoe had gone to take drugs and been assaulted.

There are many questions, and few answers, about how Enan and O’Soup’s bodies went undiscovered in the small room for so long, even as other tenants in the building repeatedly complained about the smell.

Josie August, a family member of O’Soup, said there had been plenty of warning signs about Pham’s behaviour.

“Why wasn't he deported or in jail?” she asked. “Why weren’t there posters about keeping safe from him?”

After learning of Pham’s past, Zoe said she understands how much danger she was in, and she would warn other women not to take free drugs.

But she acknowledged that choosing between the high-quality drugs Pham offered and the tainted street supply could be an impossible choice for some women, at a time when overdoses are killing a record number of B.C. residents.

“It’s never really free,” she said. “At the end of the day it always comes with a cost — it could even be your life.”  [Tyee]

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