KARE learns lessons of Pickton 'disaster'

David Staples
The Edmonton Journal

Sunday, November 13, 2005

EDMONTON -- A harsh critic of North American police forces' handling of prostitute murder investigations says the Project KARE task force has learned from past mistakes and is doing "excellent" work.

"Edmonton is ahead of the curve, and they are primarily ahead of the curve because of Vancouver," says criminologist Steven Egger of the University of Houston-Clear Lake, a former homicide detective and an expert on the police response to serial killers.


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"The Pickton case there was an absolute disaster." The Vancouver police and RCMP took far too long to respond to reports of street prostitutes going missing in the 1990s, Egger says.

CREDIT: CanWest News Service

This photo shows Edmonton Investigators examining a crime scene after a woman's body was discovered in a field in early May.

Eventually a task force was formed and pig farmer Robert Pickton was arrested, but not before dozens of women were murdered.

The same problems haven't happened in Edmonton, Egger says. In the spring of 2003, shortly after five prostitutes were murdered and dumped outside city limits, a team of profilers for the RCMP determined a serial killer was at work here.

The Project KARE task force was assembled that fall and is now looking at roughly a dozen cases in the Edmonton area.

Edmonton police "identified the pattern (of killing) fairly rapidly," Egger says. "That is atypical of law enforcement today."

Supt. Glenn Woods, an RCMP profiler for 10 years, credits Edmonton police for making sure that the murder of local prostitutes was dealt with quickly and correctly.

"We learn from our mistakes," Woods says of the police.

It's not easy to look at the crime scene of a prostitute murder and determine if the same killer is responsible, Woods says. "To this day we can't absolutely say that there is a number of these committed by the same offender (in Edmonton), but we can say ... there are some very similar behaviours."

In the early 1980s, Egger first noted the failure of police to catch the serial killers of prostitutes, who along with other street people are by far the most likely victims of such killers.

"They're the throwaways of society, they're the people that society places less value on, and as a consequence you've got a different police response to prostitute murders than you would to murders of middle-class women, or other members of society," Egger says.

American crime writer Ann Rule says police work hard to catch prostitute killers. "I've never seen the detectives themselves say, 'Oh, don't bother.' "

But the cases of missing and murdered prostitutes are also extremely difficult to solve because there are either no witnesses or the witnesses are unreliable. Homicide detectives have so many cases that the missing-prostitute files go to the bottom of the to-do list, Egger says.

Serial killers often pick up a prostitute in one place, kill her in another, and dump her body in still another. In general, police haven't shared information between jurisdictions, Egger says, so they fail to identify the habits of a particular killer, a phenomenon he calls "linkage blindness."

But he says that hasn't occurred with the RCMP and the Edmonton police, which work together on Project KARE.

The Edmonton task force also employs a number of other innovations. When a sex-trade worker goes missing, the case is investigated as if it were a homicide, says Staff Sgt. Larry Wilson of Project KARE, so the trail isn't cold if the woman does turn up dead.

The police have also collected DNA from prostitutes so the women can be identified if needed in an investigation. Almost all local prostitutes have contributed samples, an extremely high compliance rate compared to other jurisdictions, Egger says.

In November 2004, Project KARE also brought in a dozen lead investigators from other major task forces that investigated prostitute murders across North America "to ensure that we were doing everything that we possibly could do, and to develop best practices from them," Wilson says.

Finally, unlike most such task forces, Project KARE has used a high number of psychological and geographic profilers to look for insight into the killer's mindset and habits.

 The Edmonton Journal 2005

Edmonton Journal

Canadian Crime Report



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