Mounties Dig Up Body Parts in Serial Killing Case


Saturday, November 23, 2002

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Nov. 22 Before his arrest, Robert William Pickton kept several menacing signs outside his pig farm, including one that read: "No Visitors, Agents, Peddlers or Salespeople Admittance by Appointment Only!! (No Exceptions)." Another said, "This property is protected by: Pit Bull With AIDS."

Robert J. Galbraith for The New York Timesv

Investigators raking through piles of freshly dug topsoil on a pig farm in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, looking for remains of missing women.

The police and prosecutors say he had reason to be cautious. The remains of 18 women have been found on his 15-acre property in a nearby suburb, and investigators say many more may turn up before they are through.

Mr. Pickton is suspected in the disappearance of 63 women in all, mostly prostitutes and drug addicts, from the streets of the Downtown Eastside section of Vancouver since 1983. He is awaiting trial, charged with 15 counts of murder. If he is guilty of those charges, he is Canada's most savage serial killer ever.

David Pickton

Today the Pickton farm in Port Coquitlam has been turned into Canada's largest crime investigation scene, one so gruesome and crowded with detectives, archaeologists and forensic experts that the Mounties have compared it to the site of the World Trade Center after Sept. 11.

Earthmovers, backhoes, payloaders and conveyor belts move and sift tons of topsoil as investigators cull samples of torn clothing, fingernails and tiny body pieces for storage in a refrigerated trailer.

There is a backlog of thousands of pieces of DNA evidence in police labs, and investigators say it will take at least a year to analyze more than 500,000 cubic feet of dirt.

The police are saying little about their investigation. But it appears that Mr. Pickton, 52, a disheveled loner who owned a seedy nightclub called Piggy's Palace, was arrested in February almost by accident.

A detail of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrived at the farm to investigate reports that he had an unlicensed shotgun. In their search they found an asthma inhaler and identification cards belonging to some of the missing women.

Robert William Pickton

Robert William Pickton and his brother, David and their sister own the pig farm

Robert William Pickton is charged with 15 counts of first degree murder.

A special team investigating the cases arrived soon after and found body parts in a freezer, as well as purses and other personal effects later linked to the missing.

The sufferings of the women can only be imagined. Not one body has been found intact, and a wood chipper and Mr. Pickton's pigs are believed to have devoured much of the evidence, leaving behind mostly microscopic traces of DNA.

The task of the investigators is also complicated by the fact that the Picktons sold soil to businesses around British Columbia, as well as a good deal of adjacent land in recent years to develop condominiums, which now overlook the crime scene.

Investigators say more arrests may be coming, either of accomplices or others who may have killed.

Mr. Pickton's brother, David, who helped manage the nightclub, has suggested that the police planted evidence on the farm, and Mr. Pickton's lawyer did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. A prolonged trial is expected to begin in the next few months, even as the police hunt for more remains.

Many family members of the dead and missing want to know why it took so long for the Vancouver police to conclude that a serial killer was on the loose.

Twenty-five of the women disappeared in the last two years before Mr. Pickton was arrested, long after family members and the police received a tip about bloodied women's clothing seen at the Pickton farm. No women have been reported missing in the Downtown Eastside district since the arrest.

Several family members complained that the Vancouver police denied for years that there was evidence of a serial killer and that the force had put only a couple of detectives on the case.

"I keep wondering if sometime soon the police will have news for me," Ernie Crey, a local Native Canadian leader, said as he gazed over the yellow police ribbon around the crime scene last week. "I want to know if this is where my sister died. That's why I keep coming back."

Three families have sued local law enforcement agencies, charging that they neglected the case. Many contend that the police did not pursue the case aggressively because many of the missing women were known to be addicts and prostitutes.

"The police didn't want to know," said Maggie de Vries, a writer of children's fiction. "If it had been 50 women like me missing, the police would have been out in droves." Remains of her foster sister, Sarah, who disappeared in April 1998, were found on the farm.

Vancouver's mayor-elect, Larry Campbell, said in an interview that he would demand a full investigation of how the police had handled the case.

"I don't quite frankly know if they were slow or not," said Mr. Campbell, a former police officer and coroner who takes office next month. "But I know there will be an inquiry to assure that this does not happen again."

Constable Sarah Bloor, spokeswoman of the department, said it was reviewing how the investigation had been managed. "Once a formal review is complete," she said, "we believe the public and family members will see the actions of the investigators were competent."

Another Vancouver police official said that in 1998, the department passed the information it had on Mr. Pickton to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who are responsible for Port Coquitlam, but that they did nothing. The Mounties joined the investigation only in the spring of 2001.

"The R.C.M.P. was well aware of the information we had, and they dropped the ball," said a Vancouver detective who worked on the case and insisted on not being identified. "It was their jurisdiction."

Mr. Pickton and his brother and sister inherited the pig farm from their father, who died when they were young. Known by all as Willy, he had difficulties in school and apparently never got beyond the sixth grade. He never married and had no children.

Before his arrest this year, he had several brushes with the law. He was charged with attempted murder in 1997, after a woman, Wendy Lynn Eistetter, was found bloody and disheveled on a road near his farm. He said he was merely defending himself from a robbery attempt and had a knife wound to back his claim. The charge was dropped.

But his name surfaced a year later when a former employee, Bill Hiscox, called a hot line set up by one of the missing prostitute's lovers and reported that his foster sister had seen bloodied women's clothing at the farm, where she worked as a domestic servant. But when the police interviewed her, she denied the assertion.

Detective Lori Shenher wanted to pursue Mr. Pickton, but people familiar with the case said her superiors did not think he was a particularly likely culprit among the 200 suspects they had listed. Ms. Shenher said she could not comment.

"She wanted to build a case against Robert Pickton," said Ms. de Vries, who has written a book about her sister and the other missing women to be published next year. She recalled having several conversations with Ms. Shenher at the time. "But in my opinion she didn't have enough support in the department to make it happen."

In late 1998, Kim Rossmo, an investigator specializing in profiling criminals who is now director of research at the Police Foundation in Washington, urged the department to investigate the possibility that the missing women were being killed by one man, but his superiors refused.

"Canada's largest serial killer investigation was on their doorstep," he said, "and they fumbled the ball."

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Updated: August 21, 2016