VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Trial of pig farmer accused of murdering 15 women delayed until 2006
By Emanuella Grinberg
December 28, 2004
A Canadian judge reluctantly postponed hearings in an accused serial killer's trial to allow authorities to sift through about 40,000 pieces of evidence.
Robert William Pickton is charged with killing 15 women and is a suspect in the death of at least 7 others
Pig farmer Robert Pickton stands accused of murdering 15 women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and has been linked to dozens more.
Last week's delay likely means Pickton won't go to trial until 2006, four years after he was arrested for the deaths of Sereena Abbotsway and Mona Wilson after police identified their DNA on Pickton's Port Coquitlam pig farm.
DNA from 30 women
linked to pig farm
Since then, charges have mounted against the 55-year-old, and authorities have indicated that at least seven more are forthcoming.
At last week's hearing in British Columbia Supreme Court, Associate Chief Justice Patrick Dohm compared the analysis of the voluminous evidence against Pickton to evidence assessment in the Air India trial, Canada's most notorious terrorism case, which took 15 years to make it to court.A sister lost to drugs,
maybe a serial killer
From the bench, Dohm also implored the victims' families to be patient and understanding about the delays.
"Every effort is being made to get this matter on for trial," he said, according to the Associated Press. "It may not appear so to the families. I'm asking you to be patient a little while longer."
Police suspect Pickton murdered Sarah de Vries, who mysteriouslydisappeared from the Downtown Eastside area one evening in 1998.
De Vries' DNA has been identified on the Pickton property, but he has not yet been formally charged in her death.
"I know it's hard to wait, but these things take time," said Maggie de Vries, the victim's sister. "It feels like things are finally moving along."
The delay was agreed upon by Pickton's defense and the prosecution, who both cited the need for further evidence analysis.
"I'm glad to hear they're working so hard on testing the evidence," de Vries said.
"There's just so much information that it takes a long time for forensic analysis to take place," Pickton's lawyer, Peter Ritchie, said at a press conference outside the courthouse.
"Nothing will be done to rush the matter to such an extent that it would either prejudice the accused's right to a fair trial or prejudice the prosecution's chance to present the evidence they want to," British Columbia Crown spokesman Geoffrey Gaul said.
A task force was formed in 2001 to investigate the rising number of missing women from Downtown Eastside, some of whom had been missing since the early 1980s. To date, the official roster includes 69 names.
Pickton and his property, where he used to operate a party hall known as "Piggy's Palace," soon emerged as common threads among many of the missing women, and DNA from 30 of the missing women has been linked to the farm.
Investigators spent 18 months excavating Pickton's 15-acre property, which turned up various DNA remains from personal effects and body parts.
Details regarding the evidence against Pickton are scarce because of Canada's customary publication ban on pretrial proceedings, including testimony from the extensive six-month-long preliminary hearing.
Dohm scheduled another hearing for March 31 to set a timeline for pretrial arguments to begin. He also set a June 22 date to appoint a judge in the trial.
As Canadian farmer awaits trial, DNA from 30 women linked to pig farm
By Emanuella Grinberg
Updated Oct. 13, 2004, 6:17 p.m. ET
In February 2002, Canadian police executed a search warrant on a 14-acre pig farm located in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, about an hour's drive from Vancouver.
Almost half of the women on the Vancouver Missing Women Joint Task Force's list have been linked to pig farmer Robert Pickton's property through DNA.
By the end of the 21-month search of the property — the longest and most expensive in Canadian history — investigators had found DNA belonging to at least 22 women, 21 of whom were identified as missing or dead.
At the height of the search, 102 forensic anthropologists sifted through 370,000 cubic yards of soil from the property, owned by Robert William Pickton, including his home, the farm where he slaughtered pigs, and a warehouse called Piggy's Palace where he threw parties.
Three weeks after the search began, Vancouver Police arrested Pickton and charged him with murdering Sereena Abotsway, 29, and Mona Wilson, 26.
More charges followed as a mix of personal belongings and human remains led investigators to believe they had a serial killer on their hands — possibly Canada's worst. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of murder, with seven more pending based on DNA found on the farm in 2003.
A common factor among the women quickly emerged: All were prostitutes known to roam Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside, a slum neighborhood notorious for its sex and drug trades and their side effects, including a high rate of disease and violence.
Some had last been seen as far back as the early '90s, although most hadn't been reported missing officially until at least six years later.
At a press conference Wednesday, authorities confirmed eight new DNA samples had been linked to the farm since January 2004, bringing the latest count to 30. Twenty-seven are listed as missing and presumed dead, and three have not been identified.
Spokespeople for the Vancouver Police Department and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's Missing Women Joint Task Force also announced they had added eight new names to their list of women missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. One of those has been linked to DNA found at the farm.
To date, 27 of the 69 women missing have been linked to the Pickton property.
The investigation has been hailed by some as an acknowledgement of the disproportionate and largely ignored violence against prostitutes and drug addicts, while others, including the families of the missing women, have railed against police for taking so long to begin their search.
Robert William Pickton has been in jail since 2002 awaiting trial for at least 15 murders.
"There were so many instances of friends who tried to report these women missing, but since only family was able to file a missing person's report, many of them went unreported for years," said Wayne Leng, who last saw his friend, Sarah de Vries, in 1998. Her DNA was found on the Pickton farm in August 2002.
A quiet loner
Pickton first came to the attention of authorities in 1997, when he was arrested and charged with the attempted murder of a prostitute, who allegedly fled his home in the middle of the night on March 23, 1997, bleeding from several stab wounds.
The charges were dropped, and a judge recently sealed all records from the arrest, stating the Canadian government would be using them as "similar-fact evidence."
Corporal Catherine Galliford, spokesperson for the mounted police on the task force, would not comment on specific evidence that brought authorities to Pickton's farm five years later, except to say that in reviewing hundreds of missing persons files, Pickton was zeroed in on as a potential suspect.
"We are still looking at hundreds of other potential suspects. We have to be extremely open-minded," Galliford said, although Pickton is the only person currently facing charges.
In numerous media reports, Pickton's acquaintances have described him as a quiet loner who never drank or smoked but simply dedicated his life to working on the property he and his brother and sister inherited when their parents died in the 1970s.
Neither of his siblings has been charged in connection with the crimes.
He reportedly worked long days tending to the salvage business he ran with his brother, David, on the property they grew up on, in addition to looking after the slaughterhouse he ran on his own.
But Leng claims there was a dark side to Pickford that few were aware of, one he says he notified police of as early as 1999, one year after de Vries went missing.
After her disappearance, Leng began talking with her acquaintances in Downtown Eastside. He says he soon discovered she wasn't the only one to have vanished mysteriously.
Leng published a Web site dedicated to finding deVries, through which he says he was contacted by a former Pickton employee.
"He told me about this crazy farmer named 'Willie' he worked for, and that his stepsister had seen all these women's IDs and some bloody clothing in his house," Leng said. "I told police about it, but I didn't hear any more about it from police until the investigation began."
Once authorities completed their search of Pickton's farm, an equally exhaustive preliminary hearing followed in January 2003.
Testimony from the six-month proceeding was sealed from the public, as is standard in Canada, to prevent media reports from biasing potential jurors.
A trial date has not been set, but reports cite a spring 2005 date at best.
Pickton faces a number of consecutive life sentences if convicted. There is no death penalty in Canada.
Leng, who was says he was present for the preliminary hearing, describes his emotions as both anticipatory and dread-filled as he prepares to face trial evidence he describes as "very gruesome."
"These women were addicted to a lifestyle that they couldn't escape," Leng said. "Sarah was tired of it. She wanted to get out, but she didn't do it in time."
A sister lost to drugs, prostitution — and maybe a serial killer
By Emanuella Grinberg
October 15, 2004
Sarah de Vries was not even a teenager when she began running away from her home in an affluent Vancouver suburb to hang out in the rougher Downtown Eastside.
Sarah de Vries disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in 1998, along with many other women.
Sarah had been adopted into the de Vries family in 1970, the youngest of four children. A multiracial child in a white family, Sarah was obviously different, and she was never able to fully reconcile that, according to her older sister, Maggie.
"As a black and aboriginal child in a white neighborhood, people didn't understand where she fit in. She didn't understand where she fit in," said Maggie. "When she started running away, going downtown, I think she felt a sense of belonging there with all these other people who didn't fit in either."
As the years went on, Sarah made the Downtown Eastside her home, adopting a lifestyle of drugs and prostitution, but she never let much time pass before she would return home to visit.
"We became desperate when she was gone. We didn't understand why she was gone or how to find her. But at the same time, we felt connected to her, because we did continue to see her," Maggie said.
When Sarah gave birth to a daughter in 1991 and a son in 1996 — both of whom inherited heroin and cocaine addictions from their mother — she and her family decided the children were better off living with her mother, Pat, and her aunt, children's author Jean Little.
During those years, she kept extensive journals and wrote poetry, which her family didn't even know about until almost 20 years later.
"Sarah was tired of the drugs, tired of the johns, but she was addicted to the lifestyle," said Wayne Leng, a former john who later befriended Sarah. "She wanted to get out, but she couldn't."
Before she could leave the low track behind, she mysteriously disappeared in 1998.
Maggie de Vries compiled a book about her adopted sister, who may have been the victim of a serial killer.
Maggie de Vries and Leng took to the streets, posting fliers and talking to people who knew Sarah. "Everyone remembered Sarah very fondly, but they were all concerned because they knew if she hadn't been around the neighborhood for a week, something was wrong," Leng said.
They soon came to realize Sarah wasn't the only one to have disappeared from the neighborhood.
Families and friends of other missing women began to take their concerns to police, to little avail. At best, said de Vries, they were successful in lobbying for a reward for information about the women.
"At the time, the police were offering $10,000 rewards for information leading to garage robbers, so it seemed incongruous that they refused to acknowledge there might be violence involved with these missing women," said de Vries.
One year later, Maggie organized a public memorial to acknowledge a growing, troublesome phenomenon.
"There's no ritual associated with people who go missing, so the memorial was an important symbol for a situation that was being all but ignored," she said. "Then, at the memorial, I talked with more families and began to see some commonalities."
In 2002, "all hell broke loose," she said.
A joint federal and local review team was convened in late 2001 to look over the reports of missing women. By 2002, the team had become a task force with a primary target, and in February, descended upon a 14-acre pig farm outside of Vancouver.
The resulting 21-month search on the farm would become the largest crime scene investigation in Canadian history.
DNA samples belonging to a number of missing women, including Sarah, were identified on the farm. By the end of the year, the property's owner, Robert William Pickton, faced 15 first-degree murder charges.
Seven additional charges, including one based on the discovery of Sarah's DNA, are pending.
"The discovery was positive in a way. I could finally stop imagining the thousands upon thousands of things that might have happened to her," said de Vries. "But it still didn't provide any real answers."
In the aftermath of the news, Maggie would find out that during the years Sarah was in and out of the family's suburban home, she had written her older sister letters that she never sent.
She also discovered her sister's poetry and journals, and brought them all together in a book, "Missing Sarah," which she describes as a memorial. It includes letters such as this one:
How are you? I am fine.
I heard that I will be staying with you while Dad is in Holland. I have a humanities exam on metaphors and alliteration, Mennonites, Chinese, Japanese, Doukhobors, narrative, descriptive, expository writing, fragments and run-ons, spelling rules, consonants with prefixes and suffixes, migration, immigrants, immigration, writing a news story with a lead sentence. I pray I pass. I can't wait till you come out here. I have Cecil for French. He is really nice. I don't really like Marcie, James or Lynda. I don't really know why I hate them, but I do. I went to see Tootsie. It is really funny and he really looks like a lady. In science we had to dissect a cow's eye. It was interesting, yet gross. At U-Hill everybody tries to be like a Valley girl. I myself hate it. It sounds so funny, but like the song. "Valley Girl." Liz, Christine and I were talking and we started saying, "Freak me with a spoon" and "Gag me green." It is supposed to be "Gag me with a spoon" and "Freak me green."
The 2003 book was nominated for Canada's top literary prize, the Governor General's Award.
While de Vries describes the book as therapy for herself and her family in the wake of Sarah's presumed death and the media blitz surrounding Pickton's upcoming trial, the book has a more important mission: It addresses society's broader attitude toward sex workers.
"Prostitutes are a group that it is still okay to denigrate in common language," she said. "It's not all right to make fun of black people, or gay people, but the way we continue to talk about these women sends a message to those predisposed to violence that it's OK to brutalize them, or that it's part of their job to get hurt. We can't forget that they are people, just like us."
[Excerpt from "Missing Sarah" by Maggie de Vries. Copyright Maggie de Vries, 2003. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Group (Canada).]
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