Exclusive: Bermuda link to serial killer case


By Coggie Gibbons
(News from 2004-08-06 Edition)

A lawyer who spent virtually all his childhood in Bermuda is a prosecutor in Canada’s biggest serial murder case. John Ahern is one of a team of five Crown Counsels in British Columbia bringing multiple murder charges against Robert William Pickton, 54, of Port Coquitlam, a suburb of Vancouver.

The Pickton case has attracted intense media attention within and outside Canada and one of Mr. Ahern’s responsibilities is to enforce a court-ordered publication ban on the case.

He successfully fended off media challenges to the ban in 2002, including actions by American network ABC and several Seattle media organisations.

Mr. Ahern came to Bermuda from Canada in 1955 at the age of two and left 15 years later in 1970 to attend the University of Toronto after finishing at Saltus Grammar School. His parents were Norman and Joan Ahern, who are both deceased, and he has a younger brother Rick, who lives in Toronto. Norman Ahern died in Bermuda in 1999, while his mother, who had returned to Canada in 1990, died there in 1999.

The Pickton case involves the murders of at least 22 women whom Mr. Ahern describes as sex trade workers from the roughest and poorest part of the city. "They’re extremely vulnerable women who live very violent lives," Mr. Ahern told the Bermuda Sun.

The deaths were discovered when police searched and dug up Mr. Pickton’s pig farm in February, 2002. That led to two murder counts at first and, as the search of the farm continued over about 18 months using bulldozers, there were even more. "By the time we got to the preliminary inquiry that had generated evidence supporting 15 counts of murder," said Mr. Ahern.

The prosecution team also grew over the course of the investigation from three to five Crown Counsels. Aside from the lead Counsel, there is one handling the DNA evidence, Mr. Ahern and two others. His responsibility is file administration. And that is a mammoth task. Mr. Ahern said: "We’re probably running at about a half a million pages right now. So, my job is to keep a track of that."

And part of that function is to maintain contact with a police disclosure team of about 20 officers. Disclosure in Canada, Mr. Ahern said, is a constitutional requirement on the prosecution to reveal its evidence to the defence on request ahead of trial. In that regard, he said, "I deal with the masses, the volumes of correspondence from the defence demanding disclosure and reply to that."

The charges against Mr. Pickton went through four or five versions and the search of the farm continued through the six-month preliminary inquiry (PI)in Port Coquitlam in 2003, producing evidence of seven more murders. Although the information against Mr. Pickton contained 15 charges, Mr. Ahern said the Crown led evidence of the additional seven. "Since the preliminary inquiry ended," he related, "the results of the search and the analysis of the exhibits have suggested the possibility of further charges and we’re considering whether we will indict on those."

Spring trial

The next court date is on December 20 to set a trial date for the spring of 2005 at the earliest. Mr. Ahern estimates that the trial will take three years. "As far as the prosecution team has heard, there’s no real consideration being given to a guilty plea. We’re expecting a trial." That will be held at the New Westminster Supreme Court and the prosecution is still considering how many counts to put in the indictment.

Mr. Ahern spent seven years in the Peel Regional Police in Ontario and eight in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Alberta between 1973 and 1988 before becoming a lawyer.

He has become what he terms "a sort of resource person on disclosure in major cases." He teaches disclosure law at police centres in BC and Alberta, and major case management to police officers at the RCMP’s college in Ottawa. Beyond that, he chairs the regional Information Technology committee and develops standards and courses to teach prosecutors how to deal with disclosure.

Retirement is now only four years away for him, about the time he calculates the Pickton trial will end. In the meantime, he is finishing a Master’s degree in Humanities and says that he might go into civil law for a change. "I’ve been in this work since I was 18," he said of his service in various forms of law enforcement, including customs at Toronto airport. "Essentially, I like chasing the bad guys."

Copyright © 2004 Bermuda Sun

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Updated: August 21, 2016