On Saturday, November 4, an Instagram post that began with an “EMERGENCY SAFETY NOTICE” started circulating among Vancouver users.
The post, by an Indigenous wellness company called Sisters Sage, detailed a horrifying assault: the previous night, a woman leaving the Princeton Pub on Powell Street had reportedly been abducted by “a man dressed all in black” while walking to her car. According to the post, the victim, a woman from Mexico, had been raped, beaten so badly she lost most of her teeth, and dumped in Queen Elizabeth Park. “The predator,” the caption added, “is still at large.”
On Monday, November 6, a GoFundMe was organized to support the victim (who was given the pseudonym “Amor” to protect her identity); within 24 hours, it had exceeded its $15,000 goal. “With all of your help, ‘Amor’ is headed home to Mexico to have all the necessary emergency dental work completed,” wrote Annelie Van der Heyden, the GoFundMe organizer, in an update.
But along with an outpouring of support for Amor were a growing number of questions about what had really happened. “Why isn’t this all over the media?” asked one commenter on Instagram. Others wondered if the assault had been reported to police—and if so, why they hadn’t issued a statement. But neither Van der Heyden, who created the GoFundMe, nor Lynn-Marie Angus, the co-owner of Sisters Sage and creator of the Instagram post, knew Amor personally. And neither had answers.
As the unconfirmed details spread across social media networks, they took on their own momentum. By Friday, November 10, an Instagram Story suggesting that convicted sex offender Randall Hopley was the assailant began circulating widely.
“This is the man who attacked the women [sic] outside the Princeton Pub” the Story read. “Walk with buddies in the area.”
The fourth time I saw it shared, I replied to the person who had reposted it, asking whether it had been confirmed. “I have no idea,” they replied. “Just sharing the same post as everyone else.” (It turns out it couldn’t have been true, because Hopley disappeared from his halfway house on November 4—the day after the assault took place. Hopley was later apprehended by police on November 14.)
Social media has become, for many people, a primary mode of accessing important news and sharing information. But the qualities that make it valuable—constant updates, interactivity, immediacy—can also make it wildly vulnerable to misinformation. Resharing a post feels active enough to matter, but passive enough to occur with minimal scrutiny. Who is responsible for checking the details? And when we’re trying to keep one another safe from a terrifying threat, how much do they matter? Alternatively, can that act of trying to keep one another safe, in some cases, do more harm than good?
In 2020, a similar warning echoed across Vancouver social networks about a man in a silver car who was said to be following and abducting women in Mount Pleasant. Many women called police to report a suspicious man, but ultimately there were no attacks confirmed and no arrests—just a lingering sense of unease.
That feeling resurfaced as Amor’s story was shared and reshared, its many questions still unanswered, with no sign of Amor herself. Initial reporting from CTV republished the details from Instagram, furthering their reach without confirming their accuracy.
Contacted by phone, GoFundMe organizer Van der Heyden explained that she heard about the attack from a friend who was with Amor at the Princeton that night. She had set up GoFundMe campaigns before, she explained, and was eager to help a woman in need. After the campaign hit its goal, she started receiving comments accusing her of keeping the money for herself, which caused her to pause donations; she has since reopened them, noting that GoFundMe is conducting an investigation and that all future donations will include invoices and bills as proof that the funds are going directly to Amor.
Van der Heyden also connected me with someone who was with Amor at the Princeton that night, and who accompanied her to the hospital the next day. She agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.
“Elena” and Amor spent the night of Friday, November 3 hanging out at the Princeton, and agreed to leave their cars parked outside the pub and Uber home so they could have a few beers. When the pub was about to close for the night, Elena went outside for a smoke; she said that Amor seemed normal, laughing and playing pool with some of their friends. As people filtered out of the pub, Elena and her friends waited, assuming Amor would be out in a minute. No one had seen her leave, and her car was still parked nearby. Finally Elena checked inside and was told by a staff member that Amor had left in a taxi with someone. Elena’s phone was dead, but she figured Amor might have gone to a mutual friend’s place, so she headed there too; she fell asleep while her phone was charging. A few hours later, Elena got a call from her husband: another friend had found Amor in her car, which was now parked in Riley Park. Her face was badly injured and bleeding, and she was unable to recall how she got there. Her last memory was of playing pool at the pub.
Though initial media reporting said that police only learned about the attack from social media, Elena said she and Amor both gave detailed statements to the police when they were at the hospital, which was before the Sisters Sage post went up. Elena, who is also from Mexico, emphasized that she only told two trusted friends about the assault. The next day, she learned about the viral Instagram post; at first she wasn’t sure it was about Amor, because it contained details that were wrong or uncertain—like how she was abducted while walking the three blocks to her car. In reality, Elena said, Amor’s car was still parked in front of the pub when she disappeared, and she doesn’t remember a man in black. Amor did not lose most of her teeth, and she wasn’t found in Queen Elizabeth Park. And while the post said she was raped, Elena said Amor still doesn’t know whether she was sexually assaulted during the attack. (By email, a media liaison for the Vancouver Police Department wrote to me that “though we are limited in what detail we can provide about the ongoing investigation, we can say that, at this time, it does not appear to have been sexually motivated.”)
Elena said she knows people were trying to help, but that the attention from the Instagram post seems to have muddied the investigation; people started calling the police to report that they had seen a man dressed all in black—a common outfit—at the Princeton several weeks earlier. The reason no one who was with Amor has weighed in, Elena explained, is that they still don’t have any definitive answers—just questions of their own. And because they don’t know who committed the assault, they’re worried about their own safety, too.
Unfortunately, Elena said, they still don’t know what happened—or how the story became so distorted by the time it was shared on Instagram. Original poster Angus, reached by phone, said she got the details from someone who read them in a private Facebook group for femmes living in Hastings-Sunrise, but did not know where they originated from; according to the Facebook author, the post was only intended to be shared privately. As of publication, the Sisters Sage post is still up.
The Vancouver Police Department has not released a statement as of publication, though the media liaison confirmed to me by email that officers had spoken with Amor and were aware of the Instagram post, saying: “We have determined that some details contained in the social media post were inaccurate.” They also wrote that there is “no known risk to the public” and that they are “taking a number of investigative steps.”
Elena emphasized that Amor is grateful for the GoFundMe; as a visitor to Canada, she was worried about how to cover the cost of her hospital visit and the care she is now receiving back home in Mexico. The horrifying description of her assault in the Instagram post was unignorable, and no doubt it led many people to make donations for her care. But it also wasn’t entirely accurate—nor was it shared by Amor herself, who became a target of scrutiny because she was not in a position to answer the public’s questions. It’s still all too common for survivors of violence to face disbelief and skepticism—a sad fact that underscores the need to handle their stories with care. Misinformation can’t keep you safe; and sharing it, even unintentionally, can lead to more harm.
Meanwhile, Vancouverites who were alarmed for the safety of their friends and neighbours are still concerned, and are still unable to arm themselves with information about a possible suspect. Instead, they’re left unsettled, reminded that some senseless acts of violence can’t be explained or understood. It’s frightening to think of a man dressed in black, lurking in the shadows; but accepting that we don’t actually know anything at all about the attacker is, perhaps, even more terrifying.
“It’s just very confusing and scary to think that as a woman, you’re not safe anywhere,” said Elena. “One of the reasons I came to Canada is because I felt safe compared to some places in Mexico. And then this is making me think, ‘Well, I guess it’s the same everywhere.’”