One of the biggest murder investigations in Canada at pig farm

CBC News Transcript-The National

March 21, 2002

BRIAN STEWART: It's one of the biggest murder investigations in Canadian history, searching to answer one question. What's happened to 50 women missing from the streets of Vancouver? Tonight, a CBC News special investigation. A revealing look at the case and the link to one woman. She describes herself as a prime suspect, a mysterious figure with ties to the man charged with murder as well as others implicated in the investigation. Here's Darrow MacIntyre with a CBC News exclusive.

DARROW MACINTYRE (Reporter): In BC these days, mention the words "pig farm," and this is what comes to mind. One of the biggest, most notorious crime scenes in Canada. Its owner, Robert William Pickton, a man neighbours describe as a loner, is in jail. Investigators say they have proof he murdered two Vancouver prostitutes, two of 50 who are missing, and they intend to search every inch of his farm looking for more evidence of more murders. Now, an investigation by CBC News reveals some of what police are finding, that Robert William Pickton wasn't a loner at all. That the farm was actually a haven for thieves and other criminals, that hookers were regularly lured here with the promise of crack cocaine and alcohol, and that police are so sure some of those women were killed here, they're pouring unprecedented resources into proving it and pushing the boundaries of acceptable police work. For years, the police have been under enormous pressure to solve the case of the missing women and criticized for not taking it seriously enough. For a long time, they claimed they weren't even sure a crime had been committed, that the women may have just drifted off to other cities or even gone back to their home towns. The truth is, for at least five years, police have had suspicions about this farm, its owner, and a handful of people who frequented the place, including one woman who calls herself the number one suspect at large. These days, Gina Houston lives a kind of hunted existence, hiding from media, hounded by police. She says Robert Pickton, who she calls Willy, is a very close friend. She and her three children may be closer to him than anyone. Her youngest daughter calls him daddy Willy, even though she isn't related. Since his arrest, Houston has regularly visited Pickton in prison where he's awaiting trial. Over the past two weeks, she also met with me on several occasions and in several locations. Although I asked Houston for an on-camera interview at every meeting, she never did consent to one, but she spoke freely and on the record about a range of different issues. Issues that included her relationship with Pickton and the ongoing police investigation. I was waiting for you to call so I thought I'd drop by and see you again. "I've been under investigation for four years. That's all I know", she told me. Asked why, she replied, let's just say I used to hang around with a group of girls and now there's only two left alive and I'm one of them. Well, the others, I should say, are missing. Asked are they on the missing women's list, she replied yes. It was from these streets that those women disappeared and where Houston hung around with them, Vancouver's downtown east side. A hard neighbourhood marked by poverty and crime. Here, drugs are dealt and used in the open, and a john can buy sex for a few dollars if he finds a girl desperate enough for a rock of crack. Beatings and even murder are common for women here, but in the mid 1990s, even the most hardened street workers were getting nervous about the number of friends who were simply vanishing without a trace. Since the early '80s, at least 50 have gone missing, sometimes as many as nine a year. They were women who had come to the downtown east side from across BC, Canada, and the United States. They were almost always prostitutes and usually drug addicts or alcoholics who had hit rock bottom. Women like Marnie Frey who disappeared in 1997. Unlike many addicts, she was in almost daily contact with her family back home on Vancouver island, and when she stopped calling, her stepmother came looking for her.

LYNN FREY (Marnie Frey's Stepmother): I would have said the time I went to get her at the Balmoral Hotel she was almost at rock bottom.

MACINTYRE: Lynn Frey made it her mission to find out what happened to Marnie and in the streets and alleys of the downtown east side, she heard a lot of stories about a farm.

FREY: Not everybody wanted to talk. A lot of them were very scared to talk. I'd start asking them questions like, you know, when was the last time you'd seen her or do you know who hung out with her or who her buddies were? They all call each other sisters so who was her sister? They would say I hope she didn't go, it's 40 minutes from Vancouver. There's this farm you can go to, and the guy is really dirty, and a lot of the women are going there, and they have a chipper there. I'm not talking no more, and they'd take off.

MACINTYRE: She eventually got a tip from two outreach workers and tracked the place down. Three years ago, she went to the police, only to discover they already knew about it.

FREY: They were kind of surprised to know that we knew about this place, but they weren't shocked. Then this officer got a hold of the two street workers and they talked. I don't know what they said. Supposedly this place was checked out.

MACINTYRE: Frey was far from the only one hearing about the pig farm. Gary Bigg is a street-wise, long-time resident of the downtown east side. Like many who live here, he's known about the farm for years. His girlfriend, Heather Chinook, had been going there for a decade before she disappeared in April of last year. She told Gary there was lots of booze and drugs in exchange for sex.

GARY BIGG (Boyfriend of Missing Woman): She seemed to think it was a fun place to go. Like she, obviously didn't figure any harm was going to come to her. She said the guy was a bit strange, right, in some ways but she could control him. I said what do you mean by that? She said, you know. So I think that means he liked kinky sex, right, but she could control, you know, what she would do with him and what she wanted to do with him.

MACINTYRE: Did she ever suggest that she had reason to be concerned for her safety out there?

BIGG: I would only get little bits and pieces out of here. I'd put together little bits and pieces that she didn't know. She talked about evil spirits out there, right, spirits of people that she figured harm had come to them. At the time, I wasn't sure. It didn't make any sense to me at the time. I thought maybe it was just a little ploy so I would say, well, don't go out there, Heather, I'll go to the liquor store and I'll buy you a bottle or something like that, right. I think she was trying to tell me more than what I got out of her, and maybe she was trying to tell me something, and maybe it was my fault for not listening, right.

MACINTYRE: Bigg was suspicious enough to go to police even before Heather went missing. But what they did with his or any other report is unknown. Police have always refused to comment on how or when they started checking out Willy Pickton's farm. We asked one retired officer who worked on the case. Ron Lepine declined an on-camera interview, but confirmed that the farm was certainly part of the investigation. And as for Pickton, he said, the RCMP Were certainly involved with him. There's no question they were involved with him in 1997. In the spring of that year, a young prostitute named Wendy Lynn Istetter ran from the farm through this gate in the middle of the night. She was bleeding with stab wounds and near death. Willy Picton was charged with attempted murder and unlawful confinement, but those charges were eventually stayed. The CBC recently went to court to try to gain access to the evidence that was collected in that case, but we were denied. The judge said that information is too similar to the evidence that will be presented in the murder trial Willy Pickton now faces. Gina Houston remembers the Istetter incident. She wasn't there, but suggests it was probably a failed robbery attempt in which Pickton, who was also stabbed, was simply defending himself. If those days, she says, Willy often carried thousands of dollars on him and hookers often tried to steal from him, even though, according to her, all he was doing, according to her, was trying to help them out. They were supposed to be getting their shit together and getting off dope, she said. But once Willy is off at a site all day, they realize they can just borrow this and pawn it for good money and get dope.

BIGG: It's huge down there.

MACINTYRE: Gary Bigg says his girlfriend did consider the farm a place where she might get her life in order, but, to him, that was just wishful thinking.

BIGG: She talked about the farm and how she could call it her farm, and she kept talking about getting a job out there, right. That they were going to give her a job. I think the job that maybe, that she was thinking about and the job they had in mind might have been two different things, right?

MACINTYRE: In recent years, parcels of family farm have been sold off for subdivisions, making Willy Pickton a very wealthy man. Even the derelict property still owned by the family is worth millions. But the idea that Pickton used his wealth as a good samaritan, turning his farm in to a rehab centre for hookers seems unbelievable. Especially when you consider how some of the women got there and where they came from. The corner of Main and Hastings is nicknamed "pain and wastings" by people on the downtown east side and for good reason. It's the heart of the neighbourhood drug trade where you can buy cocaine or heroin 24 hours a day, seven days a week and where strung out junkies hang around desperate for another fix. Barely a stone's throw away is the Roosevelt Hotel, a rundown hotel that was home for Willy Pickton's girlfriend, Dinah Taylor. She hasn't been seen around here, or anywhere, since police raided Willy Pickton's farm. But the Roosevelt's doorman, Steven Arseneau, knew Dinah. In fact, ask him about any one of the 50 or so people who live here, and he can tell you what room they're in, how often they come and go, what they're like, even who they hang around with. Arseneau says Dinah Taylor often used the office phone to set Willy Pickton up with other hookers, including two of the missing women who also lived here, Dawn Cray and Angela Joesbury. In fact, Arseneau says it was after going to meet Willy Pickton that Joesbury disappeared.

STEVEN ARSENEAU: Dinah was the last to see her. She told me, oh, I saw her in Port Coquitlam going on a date. Never heard of her since.

MACINTYRE: Arseneau remembers Dinah phoning her "uncle" Willy at least 20 times.

ARSENEAU: I think she talked to the girls first, tell the girls I got an uncle, and maybe she'd arrange it. Then she'd come down here and use the phone.

MACINTYRE: According to Gina Houston, police think she was also lining up prostitutes for Pickton. "They have actually a couple of signed statements, stating that I was, how did they put it, they have several eyewitnesses that saw me picking up the girls that went missing with Willy being in the vehicle. And not just one person signed these statements, several people signed them." Houston flatly denies the allegation, although she admits she did run a brothel in the early '90s. The same time, she said, she was friends with many of the missing women. "When these guys were really young", she said of her kids, "I had a place and the nickname in East Van was Madame Gino's on Fourth...Ever since I was young, anyone I've ever hung out with is always, if we're out partying and ran out of money, they've always gone out and turned a trick and brought me back the money." Her fifteen year old daughter bragged mom wasn't walking the streets, she was running them. In more recent years, Houston has spent a lot of time at the Picktons' farm in Port Coquitlam. In fact, she says, she had the run of the place. But she wasn't the only visitor there making police suspicious. Another was Houston's former common law husband Ross Contois. He was just released from this BC prison where he was serving 60 days for stealing saw blades, but he has a staggering record that includes far more serious crimes than that. He has a history of violence against women. He's been convicted of stabbing three different people. We contacted Contois in jail to ask for an interview. At first he agreed, saying "I know lots of shit about what went on at the farm." Later he changed his mind because we refused to pay him for the interview. And neighbours talk about another group of suspicious characters that visited the Picktons regularly, bikers. Police recently busted a marijuana growing operation across the road from the farm in a Hells Angels party house. Willy Pickton and his brother Dave regularly partied with the Hells Angels. Gary Bigg says his girlfriend was frightened of them.

BIGG: She talked about a prostitution ring on a few occasions, but I couldn't get, it was like she would never, ever finish what she was saying because she would just start to cry and that. Then I would hold her.

MACINTYRE: But she definitely said there was Hells Angels there?

BIGG: Yes, definitely, and affiliates, and friends, right. I call it affiliates. She said friends. So friends of the Hells Angels that would party out there.

MACINTYRE: When we come back, Gina Houston's violent past.


MACINTYRE: If the Picton farm was a place where violent criminals came to party, it seems Gina Houston may have fit right in. Houston, herself, claims to have something of a violent past. Although she denies having anything to do with the disappearance of the 50 missing women, she admits she once strangled a prostitute who tried to steal crack cocaine from her. "This hooker came over and she wanted a rock", she told me. "I gave her a piece and told her not to do it til she left because I wanted to go to bed. I turned my head for a split second and all I seen was her grab it. I dove for her neck and I grabbed it as tight as I could. That's all I remember. I blacked out. Three weeks later, I heard they found her in a dumpster." Houston says police once considered her a suspect in the disappearance of a transvestite named Kelly. "That was in 1997, she said, they went into my backyard with those big long sticks looking for freshly dug graves. I'm serious. And now they're asking Willy about Kelly." Houston says that whole incident was so ludicrous, she actually finds it funny, but she isn't laughing about the determination with which police are now pursuing her and Willy Pickton. If it's true they once downplayed the seriousness of this case, police now seem to be making up for it. According to Houston, an undercover officer or paid informant, a man she knew only by the name Terry, has been part of the circle of acquaintances at this farm for the past year. She says it was only after Willy Pickton was arrested that anyone realized Terry may have been working for the RCMP. She says police also have a signed statement from another frequent visitor to the farm in which details are given about how some of the women who came here may have been killed. According to Houston, the man who gave that statement said the women were injected with antifreeze, that he told police where to find the syringes and the antifreeze, and she says when police looked there, they found them. Houston scoffs at the suggestion anyone on the farm did that and says the man who gave the statement was simply trying to throw the police off his own trail.

GLEN ORRIS (Vancouver Defence Lawyer): There's always people that are going to try and benefit, you know, from these kinds of cases.

MACINTYRE: Glen Orris is a Vancouver defence lawyer. He says in all high-profile cases, until you know who gives a statement, how credible they are, and whether they got a benefit, you have to be sceptical.

ORRIS: It may very well have been made up. A person planted the weapons themselves. Maybe they didn't see willy do anything. Maybe they got no information about the killing, but they know that Willy is a target. They plant some weapons somewhere, and they say, you know, this is how he did it. This is the weapons we used, or he used and they're over there. All of a sudden the police find them and say, well, this guy must be telling the truth. We found the weapons. That means nothing really.

MACINTYRE: We went to this Port Coquitlam house to try to speak to the man who gave that particular statement, a man who does have a criminal record. But when we arrived, he'd already left and gone into hiding. Meanwhile, there are signs five weeks in jail are beginning to take a toll on Willy Pickton. Friends and family say he's been interrogated for as long as twelve hours at a time. They say they were shown a videotape of police questioning him in which it appeared he was becoming mentally unstable. So far, Pickton has not confessed to the murders, but he hasn't denied taking part in them either. Gina Houston says police are playing head games with him, moving him to a smaller cell, trying to make him watch the film "Silence of the Lambs." She says he's even starting to forget who people are. Glen Orris says when police push somebody so hard, it's usually for a reason. As a criminal lawyer, what does it tell you when you see the police using these kind of aggressive techniques in their investigation?

ORRIS: What it tells me is that they really want a confession, they can't have much else. The police officers say to me, sure, come on down, we don't care if he talks to us or not. All of a sudden I'm saying we've got some serious problems here because they've got a whole bunch of other stuff apparently. They don't need a confession. So if they're pushing hard to get a confession, the thing that it says to me is exactly that. They don't have a lot of concrete evidence against this person.

MACINTYRE: Gina Houston is starting to feel the pressure herself. She even has several pieces of false identification in the name of Felicia Fay Webber in case she has to take off. Just last week, police executed a search warrant at this storage facility where both she and Willy Pickton rented units. They seized almost all of her personal belongings, including furniture, clothes, even her children's toys. She says police are making her life a living hell. They've questioned her at length too, playing what she calls good cop-bad cop. They've met with her friends. They've watched her movements, and they say police warned her she can either testify against Willy Pickton or join him as a defendant. At our last meeting, she told me, "Sometimes I think it's a big joke." But it isn't, I said. "No", she replied, "it isn't". For "The National," I'm Darrow MacIntyre in Vancouver.

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Updated: August 21, 2016