Courtesy of The Province  

The hunt for evidence

Steve Berry
The Province

Sunday, February 10, 2002

Dr. Mark Skinner well knows the potentially grisly road that lies ahead for police searching the ramshackle grounds of a Port Coquitlam pig farm.

Skinner, a professor of forensic anthropology at Simon Fraser university, has investigated mass grave sites in the former Yugoslavia, East Timor and Afghanistan and has worked with local police for 25 years.

He took The Province through the steps the 30-member team of police officers and forensic experts will likely take as they look for evidence in the disappearance of 50 women.

The first thing is to record everything they see, down to the smallest object. Everything will be photographed and mapped, possibly using aerial photography, video cameras and still cameras.

"They want to try and record everything that is on that site," said Skinner. "The better job they do at the beginning, the happier they'll be at the end if they actually find something.

"There may be body parts on the surface, they may be at depth. They are just going to have to go very slowly."

Investigators will be looking for freshly disturbed earth, and evidence of historic movements of land.

"You look for anything that suggests the land has been disturbed," he said.

They might bring in botanists to look for clues in vegetation, such as lush growth where bodies may be buried, or tree rings to gauge time frames when the disturbance occurred.

Ground-penetrating radar may be used to pinpoint any bodies. And long metal probes might be used, looking for differences in textures below the surface.

Skinner speculated that investigators may have to move a lot of earth. They may run a series of trenches, looking for grave sites.

"It is worrisome to me that there is large earth-moving equipment there. This means whatever is there could be very deep."

The deepest graves he has worked on were three and a half metres deep. Typically, most mass graves are about a metre and a half, he said.

The deeper the remains are buried, the better the preservation will be.

"Certainly you'd expect soft tissue preservation for five to 10 years at the bottom of a deep grave," he said, adding that wet ground will help the preservation.

DNA would be in good enough shape to help identify any bodies.

Skinner said the fact there are pigs on the site could make the investigation more difficult, especially if they were used to scavenge any remains. But he witnessed a similar scenario in East Timor, where useful evidence was recovered.

He also witnessed a site in B.C. where animal remains were mixed with human remains in an attempt to confuse investigators.

"If there's commingling of human remains and pig, it's going to be challenging," said Skinner.

Clothing will supply clues and will help hold the body together as investigators delicately retrieve any remains.

The wet earth will make the job that much more difficult.

"I could see it being very difficult to remove sticky earth from around bodies," he said, adding that tents or portable buildings will likely be brought in to shelter any digs from the rain.

Skinner said police are capable of running the investigation at this point without outside experts.

"The police are very experienced at looking for evidence. They should have no trouble observing essential evidence," he said. "They don't need other experts at this stage, but they will eventually if they have to process a lot of remains."

Retired RCMP Staff Sgt Mike Eastham, who worked many involved and long cases, said police are facing a "monumental task."

And even if they do find evidence of the missing women, they will still have to make a case.

"It's no different than finding a body in downtown Surrey," said Eastham. "You've got a dead body, but it doesn't lead you to who did it. It's step number one."

Eastham speculated that police are confident they will find what they are after and might have an informant.

"They obviously have something that's triggered the possibility that there may be one or more of these women on the grounds," he said. "They're not just fishing."

If they do find remains, they will precisely record the scene which will give clues to how the women were murdered, said Skinner.

"How those remains were treated -- with reverence or in a cavalier manner -- can tell you a lot about the manner of their death," he said.

Skinner said he was "very encouraged" to hear police say the investigation could take months.

"The idea is, slow but sure," he said. "It's very demanding. You don't know what's important." 

© Copyright 2002 The Province

Candles lit for missing women

John Colebourn
The Province

Sunday, February 10, 2002

Family and friends lit candles in memory of their lost ones yesterday as the missing- women task force continued its around-the-clock search of a Port Coquitlam pig farm.

Dawn Sangret lit a candle for her friend Elaine Dumba, who disappeared in 1998, and placed her picture at the gate to the farm at 953 Dominion Ave.

"I'm here for her today and just want to find out what happened to these poor women," said Sangret.

More than 1,200 metres of metal fencing has been placed around the farm to keep out the curious. They lined up along Dominion Road to watch search dogs comb huge mounds of dirt and investigators stake out plots in advance of excavating in their search for 50 Vancouver prostitutes from the Downtown Eastside.

Investigators are looking for bodies and tiny body fragments -- with forensic specialists paying close attention to a wood chipper on the farm. They spent hours this weekend searching pig barns.

RCMP Const. Catherine Galliford said police have received more than 250 tips.

"Some of the tips that have come in are very, very valuable," she said.

Some of the farm animals were being moved yesterday. Robert William Pickton, 52, and his brother David had 30 sheep, 12 pigs, 12 goats, a couple of llamas and cows.

Police said the animals were not being quarantined for evidence.

Lawyer Peter Ritchie, representing the Picktons, said they were "shocked" to find their farm at the centre of the massive police investigation.

Ritchie was Robert Pickton's lawyer in 1997 when Pickton was charged with unlawful confinement, attempted murder and aggravated assault in an attack on a woman who alleged that he had slashed her with a knife at the farm.

The charges were stayed.

Ritchie said his clients are assisting police, though he said Robert Pickton was "flabbergasted" to hear police call him a "person of interest."

Robert Pickton faces firearms charges stemming from a search of the farm last Tuesday.

Police would not confirm reports that officers found identification belonging to two of the missing women as well as an inhaler -- possibly for asthma --Ýwith instructions bearing the name of one of the missing prostitutes.

But those discoveries apparently led the task force to get its own warrant on Wednesday. Up to 40 investigators have been combing the 11-hectare site since.

The Picktons are well-known in the area, colourful operators of a demolition business in Surrey, a used-building-supplies company and owners of properties assessed in the millions. The brothers inherited the farm from their parents. Their sister is a co-owner.

An aunt of one of the missing women said she told police three years ago about suspicious activities on the farm, but they dismissed the tip. Newspaper reports said another woman told police in 1998 that she saw bags of bloodied clothing in a trailer at the farm.

Police say they are interested in the farm, not the owners.

Police have established a tip line at 1-877-687-3377. 

© Copyright 2002 The Province

No need for an inquiry says mayor

Damian Inwood
The Province

Sunday, February 10, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen yesterday ruled out an inquiry into the Vancouver Police Department's investigation of the missing women.

"No I don't think so," he said when asked if the Vancouver Police Board should call an inquiry.

The Vancouver Police Department has admitted it was slow to act, and relatives of some of the victims have complained that they told police about the Pickton brothers' Port Coquitlam pig farm, but no action was taken.

"I don't think there's been any major criticism of the police department," said Owen, in Salt Lake City with the Vancouver 2010 bid team. "Of course, you always need more resources, [want to] go faster and find a solution quicker but it doesn't always turn out that way."

He said Vancouver police have been working with a co-ordinated RCMP provincial task force for about a year and a half.

"We've put a lot of resources in because these women are not all from Vancouver, they live in other communities and they lost their lives in other communities, so it's a joint regional and provincial event," he said.

Owen said Vancouver police put "assigned constables" on to the case at the start.

"They've been working on a co-ordinated basis for a long time," he said. "I think the chief of police right away recognized this and they deployed people and were anxious to put this on a very high level with all law enforcement agencies. That's the only way we can really do it.

"I think it's been handled in an expeditious, very serious way, and I don't think there's any intention or effort to ever duck it or avoid it."

Libby Davies, the NDP MP for Vancouver East, demanded Owen investigate.

"I am calling on the mayor [as chairman of the police board] to conduct an inquiry into police investigations of the missing women to determine what happened," she said. "I am also calling on the federal minister of justice to begin an immediate review of federal laws pertaining to soliciting that put many of these women at risk on the street. It is vital to improve safety in the community." 

© Copyright 2002 The Province

Violence stalks sex trade workers

Adrienne Tanner
The Province

Sunday, February 10, 2002

It is not unusual for women like Annie to shoulder the occasional beating.

Violence against prostitutes is so common that one community agency publishes a monthly bad-date list, complete with descriptions of men known to be cruel and of their vehicles.

The vignettes are so horrifying, it is difficult to see how any of these women survive.

"Guy got out after her and gave her a severe beating. Didn't seem to care about residents hearing her screams," the latest sheet reads.

Says another entry: "She tried to leave but he got rough with her. He started tearing her clothes. He put his full weight on her chest so she couldn't breathe or speak. She was crying and he finally stopped, threw some change and left."

Annie, whose working corner for more than a decade has been East Hastings and Jackson in Vancouver, knows about the list.

But even though she has survived some close calls, she does not carry it with her.

One night in particular stands out in her mind.

She stuck out her thumb to hitch a ride to Pitt Meadows and was picked up by the wrong man.

He drove her into the country, raped her, beat her and dumped her in a ditch to die.

"He used a condom to rape me," she says.

"He took my clothes, shoes and everything. My face was purple for a month."

The police took her back to the scene and found the straps he had used to bind her hands.

"But they never got back to me about anything," she says.

That was five years ago and Annie is still working.

As she talks, a man she calls a "friend" whistles at her from across the street.

The message is clear: Stop chatting. Keep working.

Wendy Lynn Eistetter was working as a prostitute in the Downtown Eastside three years ago when she was attacked by a customer and left with serious injuries that put her in hospital for weeks.

She was found, bleeding, on a roadside near the Port Coquitlam pig farm owned by the Pickton brothers.

Robert Pickton was charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault, but the charges were stayed.

Police say the Pickton brothers are not suspects in the current investigation.

And police would not confirm reports that Eistetter, 36, is in protective custody.

Last Wednesday night, as police began searching the Picktons' pig farm, prostitutes gathered at a prayer service for missing friends.

Afterwards, they signed bunches of balloons with the names of the 50 women who have disappeared and released them into the night sky.

"It was a light moment," says Karen Duddy, executive director of the WISH drop-in centre society.

"They were laughing and saying how the balloons were all sticking together, just like they do."

No one knew that the police had launched a massive investigation that may uncover clues to the whereabouts of the bodies. 

© Copyright 2002 The Province

I played ‘Piggy’s Palace’

Greg Middleton
The Province

Sunday, February 10, 2002

"It was a rough crowd" at Piggy's Palace, said Brian, a musician who played there a few years ago with the hard-rock band South City Slam.

The nightclub, he said, was inside an old building on a property Dave Pickton and his brother Robert own at 2552 Burns Rd., near their pig farm on Dominion Road in Port Coquitlam. Police from the missing-women task force are searching the farm.

"Even the women were tough- looking -- a lot of leather and denim. It wasn't a cocktail-gown kind of place," he recalled.

Brian, who didn't want his last name used, recalled that there was a coat-check girl and a sign saying, "Check your knives and other weapons at the door."

He told the Sunday Province he hooked up with Dave Pickton when the now-defunct band played at the South City Club in New Westminster -- a "heavier bar" where Pickton used to hang out.

The crowd at Piggy's Palace often included men wearing Hells Angels biker club colours.

"They were there a lot," said Brian. "The people who came all seemed to know one another."

Piggy's Palace had a stage with a good sound system and lights.

"They had deep pockets and spent some money on the place," Brian said. "It was like a regular club. They did do some benefits, sports-related things, but they were out to make a profit."

The City of Port Coquitlam went to considerable effort to shut down Piggy's Palace.

PoCo attempted, but failed, to get a court order in 1996 to force the Picktons and their Piggy's Palace Good Times Society to cease throwing parties on the property.

The society was incorporated in 1996 with five directors, including the Picktons, and was dissolved in January 2000 for failing to file annual statements.

The city got an injunction in 1998, but the parties went on.

Brian said his band played a New Year's Eve gig there in 1998.

"I wasn't really keen on spending New Year's Eve on a pig farm, but the money was good," Brian said. He made about $500 a night.

"They were always very good to us, very generous. You get a bit nervous playing at a private party like that, but we played at biker parties a lot and never had any trouble."

The dances would usually start with a roast pork dinner about 8 p.m. The band would start about 9:30 p.m. and play until 1 or later.

Among those who attended parties at Piggy's Palace was Port Coquitlam Mayor Scott Young.

Young said he went to Piggy's Palace in September 1996 for a neighbourhood party when he was on the school board.

He described the party as a "getting to know you" event put on by people living in the area. 

© Copyright 2002 The Province

Missing women search expands to farmhouse-Feb 17, 2002

Police search farm for missing Vancouver women-Feb 7, 2002

Police seal off PoCo farm, tell family they have suspect-Feb 7, 2002 



Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016