On Willy’s Pig Farm, Sifting for Clues
Canadian Police Think They've Found the Pieces of a Grisly Puzzle, and 15 Missing Women

By DeNeen Brown
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 5, 2004; Page D01

PORT COQUITLAM, B.C. -- DNA was all that remained of Dawn, police told him. With that announcement, his baby sister, missing for four years, was reduced to three letters.

Nobody told him what parts of her body were found on the notorious pig farm in Canada. Was it her leg, arm, foot, head? Ernie Crey remembers that police came to his door one evening and announced that his sister had been added to the long list of women who allegedly disappeared at Robert William "Willy" Pickton's pig farm. The farm is where police say remains of women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside section were found.

The Pickton farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C., in 2002. In a massive police investigation,
forensic experts - -including 102 anthropologists -- spent two years sifting through 370,000
cubic yards of mud and pig manure, looking for pieces of missing women. (Richard Lam -- AP)

Now, Crey is driving the highway east, driving to that pig farm, hoping himself to find answers. He passes the Downtown Eastside, a version of hell populated by prostitutes, drug addicts and pimps. He passes a rendering plant. His big hands grip the steering wheel. His dark eyes focus on the road. He shows no emotion. He says that when he weeps, he weeps alone. He turns off the air conditioning and rolls down the windows. The traffic out of Vancouver is creeping. Crey is taking the long route to the death site.

Sandra Gagnon, whose sister has been missing for seven years, rides in the back seat. She makes small talk about the weather. It hides her angst. Neither Crey nor Gagnon has recently been to the pig farm, once the site of a massive police investigation. Forensic experts -- including 102 anthropologists -- spent two years sifting through 370,000 cubic yards of mud and pig manure, looking for pieces of missing women.

Crey slows the car and turns off the highway. The farm, 20 miles east of Vancouver, is behind a Save-On-Foods grocery, a Costco and a Denny's restaurant. The farm, or what was once a farm, is quiet. No more yellow tape. No more news cameras. The makeshift memorials have been cleared away. What is left is just dirt. Even the buildings were destroyed as police searched.

Crey parks, and he and Gagnon get out and walk along the chain-link fence that surrounds the site. They look out over the landscape. A red truck pulls up.

"That looks like Dave Pickton, the brother," Crey says.

A short man in dirty jeans with dirty blond hair and burnt-red skin climbs down from the truck. A German shepherd follows him. Crey and Gagnon brace to be told to leave, but the unexpected happens. Dave Pickton, younger brother of the accused serial killer, walks over.

"You must be Ernie," he says to Crey. "I seen you on television."

Then Dave Pickton reaches out to shake the hands of the siblings whose sisters may have been slaughtered.

The Defendant on Display

If Willy Pickton is convicted, he will become one of the most prolific serial killers in Canadian history. He is charged with killing 15 women, and prosecutors have indicated they intend to charge him with seven more as police investigate the cases of 63 women who have disappeared from Downtown Eastside during the 20 years before his arrest.

Canada's most notorious serial killer is Clifford Olson, who killed 11 children in British Columbia in the 1980s. The United States' worst serial killer operated south of Vancouver, in Seattle -- the "Green River Killer," Gary Ridgway, killed 48. By comparison, Jeffrey Dahmer killed 17 men from 1978 to 1991, and Ted Bundy is believed to have killed 28 women in the late '70s.

Crey and Gagnon got their first chance to look at Pickton a year ago during his preliminary hearing at a courthouse six miles from the farm. As relatives crowded into the small courtroom, Pickton sat in a glass cage. Up close, he looked meek. He was wearing a maroon sweater and black pants. His graying hair fell in strings over his blue collar. He cocked his head slightly as he listened to the case against him. Sometimes he smiled faintly to himself as he wrote with his long, skinny fingers on white paper in a green notebook behind bulletproof glass. Sometimes he slept. When he was awake, he stared blankly, never acknowledging the victims' relatives in the courtroom. His eyes seemed to be the color of water.

The relatives came because they wanted to find answers, about what happened to their daughters, sisters, mothers, to find out what kind of man would do "this" to so many women. Many were shocked when they saw the suspect: Up close, Pickton's size was incomprehensible. He was just 155 pounds, a tiny man accused of being a monster.

"If you were to see him, you wouldn't get the hint of pure evil," says Gagnon.

Pickton, 54, ran an unlicensed slaughterhouse. Human remains may have been mixed with pigs' there, officials say. Police have said they recovered DNA, but will give no details, and news reports have cited unnamed police sources as saying personal items -- teeth, purses, identification, bone fragments -- from women were found.

Pickton has pleaded not guilty. His trial is expected to begin next spring. Because of a publication ban in Canada on evidence presented in the preliminary hearing, not all that is known or said can be written about. As a newspaper with international distribution, The Washington Post observes the ban. Still, eerie details have been revealed.

Vanished From the Streets

Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is Canada's poorest postal code. These blocks, littered with bloodstains, crack vials and dirty condoms, are often called the "Low Track," or skid row. They hold Canada's highest concentration of prostitution, drug addiction, homelessness and mental illness. In the shadow of mountains and under broad daylight, addicts poke needles into their arms searching for good veins. Dealers oversee them, as they scratch sidewalks looking for crumbs of drugs. Prostitutes sell their bodies for $10, $15, $20, enough to feed drug habits, then return to these streets for more.

On these corners, sexual predators proliferate. And this is where the story of Vancouver's missing women begins. Each day, prostitutes are beaten, raped, robbed, tied up, held down, doused and burned. Some men slam car doors on their legs. One man tried to cram a ball down a prostitute's throat. Another took women to hotels and forced them to drink until they poisoned themselves.

Prostitutes from these corners, it is said, liked to hang out at Pickton's pig farm or at a nearby place called Piggy's Palace, a barn turned into a bar where Pickton's brother, Dave, threw parties and people ate roasted pig.

The Pickton brothers and a sister, Linda, had grown up in the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam. According to local records, their parents, Leonard and Helen, bought the pig farm in 1963 for $18,000 Canadian. In 1979, after their mother died, the children inherited the farm. Fifteen years later, it was assessed at more than $7 million. Parts were sold to a developer, the city and the school district.

Instantly, the children became wealthy. Dave managed the farm, and Robert worked his slaughterhouse. (By this time, Linda, who had gone off to school before the family moved to the farm, was married and lived elsewhere.)

Neighbors described Willy as slow but not retarded, a man who never drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes. Some say he was nice. They say the Picktons' parties were for charity and his employees.

Relatives say that many women never returned from them, and that they told police but were ignored.

"That farm was the dredges of the earth," says Jamie Lee Hamilton, who works the streets in Downtown Eastside. "It was a hellhole. You can say to someone, 'Don't go,' but if they are an addict, the addiction overcomes the senses. . . . Police had known about the farm for quite some time, but nothing changed."

Police say that, because of the nature of the prostitution life, it was hard to know whether a woman was really missing or just gone.

The first woman on their list disappeared in 1983. It would take 19 years and 62 more women before police admitted that one person might have killed so many.

"Up until three years ago, the Vancouver city police were adamant the disappearance of women could not be attributed to a serial killer," says Crey. "They said the women were too transient, that if you looked hard enough, you would find them in another city."

In 1997, nearly five years before Pickton's arrest, a woman told police she had escaped from the pig farm. She said she had gone there for drugs and booze, but he tried to handcuff her so she stabbed him with a kitchen knife. He stabbed her back, she told police, but she got away.

Pickton was charged with confining and stabbing Wendy Lynn Eistetter, but the charges were later dropped. Eistetter was described in media reports as a drug-addicted prostitute and not considered a credible witness.

The number of missing women spiked from 1998 to 2002, according to a report by the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, an activist group concerned about how the stigma of prostitution allowed so many women to go missing without investigation. "More than 30 women disappeared since police first investigated Pickton as a suspect in 1997," according to the report.

Constable Dave Dickson of the Vancouver Police Department says people on the streets may have suspected the farm but there were no reports to police. "No one was coming forward," he said in a recent interview. "Some people were going out there with no problem."

In 1999, Inspector Kim Rossmo said he believed a serial killer was at work, but the police department dismissed the theory. "We're in no way saying there is a serial murderer out there," Inspector Gary Greer told reporters at the time.

It wasn't until the women's relatives and Eastside organizations started holding rallies and demanding that police investigate that the department created a task force. "They eventually decided to post a reward," Crey says.

On Feb. 5, 2002, after a tip that Pickton had unregistered guns on his farm, police raided it.

What they saw cannot be reported because of the publication ban, but they saw enough to get another warrant, this time to search for missing women.

Pickton was arrested Feb. 22.

For nearly two years afterward, investigators searched the pig farm, stripping trailers and buildings, sifting through tons of dirt, searching for body parts. Forensic experts were flown in to determine whether what was found was from a human or from a pig. When the search ended, police say, they had collected thousands of samples of human DNA.

Cpl. Cate Galliford, Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokesperson for the Joint Missing Women Task Force, says police are still processing thousands of "exhibits" from the farm. "Our investigation is continuing and we are continuing to look at other potential suspects."

Pickton's attorney, Peter C. Ritchie, who has declined requests for interviews, released a statement saying no "remains" have been found at the farm. In what may be a glimpse of Pickton's defense, Ritchie said: "While DNA evidence can be enormously complex, there are some simple and basic concepts that may not be well known. For example, an object that you touch may have your DNA on it. Your DNA may appear in places where you have never been depending on the transportability of an item that you have touched. The bus that you coughed in may contain your DNA. A speck of DNA may be on the candy wrapper that you left on the bus. The pen that you hold has a trace of your DNA and can hardly be described as containing your 'remains.' "

Based on DNA, the first charges laid against Pickton were for the slayings of Mona Wilson and Sereena Abotsway.

As police uncovered more and more evidence, Pickton was charged in the slayings of 13 other women: Diane Rock, Jacqueline McDonell, Heather Bottomley, Andrea Joesbury, Brenda Wolfe, Jennifer Furminger, Helen Hallmark, Patricia Johnson, Georgina Papin, Heather Chinnock, Tanya Holyk, Sherry Irving and Inga Hall. Prosecutors have said they intend to add charges against Pickton for seven others: Marnie Frey, Tiffany Drew, Sarah de Vries, Cynthia Felix, Angela Jardine, Diana Melnick and an unidentified woman called Jane Doe.

Last March, the provincial health officer warned the public that human remains may have been blended with meat at the pig farm, then distributed. People were horrified, particularly in Downtown Eastside.

Officials say the meat was not sold commercially -- Pickton had no license -- but was given away. "Some was served at barbecues and some was given to close associates of Robert Pickton," the officer of health, Perry Kendall, said in an interview.

"We have reason to believe there is a strong possibility that some of the products from the Pickton farm -- how much we simply do not know -- may still be sitting in some people's freezers in the lower mainland."

The alert failed to produce anyone who received meat from the farm, Kendall said. "This case is unique in my experience."

Brothers and Sisters

At the gate surrounding the now-vacant farm, Gagnon is reluctant to shake the hand of the brother. Her stomach is turning. She is about to faint. She has waited so many years for answers about her missing sister, answers that still seem years away. Never did she imagine she would be this close to even the brother of a man accused of killing so many women. And Dave Pickton begins apologizing.

He talks fast for the next 45 minutes. Says he is leveling the ground on the site and putting up a wire fence. Says, "Too many people got hurt here already." Says he knows nothing about the slayings that allegedly happened on the farm. Says he was always away working -- he had construction and demolition business up north. He says he left Robert behind to look after himself. "My brother had it too easy," Dave Pickton says. "Just take care of the property. That's all he had to do. It's horrible. I'm really, really sorry."

He says he hates pigs. Hates the smell of them. Hates the smell of pig blood. Hated the smell of his brother, who liked to slaughter them. "When you kill pigs, you got the funny smell on you. That funny smell. When you butcher animals. Nobody kept track of him. Filipinos, they come and order the meat. I drive down there and everybody is waiting for a pig."

He says Robert was always simple. "I'm baffled. I beat my head against the wall. He couldn't operate equipment. He didn't have the intelligence, the coordination."

He says he doesn't believe his brother did it. "My brother, I don't think he could pull it off because he wasn't smart enough. He had a lot of weird people hanging around him. . . . Somebody had some intelligence. You see weird people pull down there all the time, 'Willy, can I use the phone in the trailer?' "

He says, "Lots of people come down and help him do slaughtering. Do you know how many pigs my brother killed a year? Two thousand. Lots of people down there slaughtering. I walk in and people say, 'Willy told me I could slaughter this pig.' He wasn't the only one."

At some point, Gagnon stops Dave Pickton and asks again whether he had ever seen her sister Janet. Gagnon said the last person who saw Janet alive recalled that she said she was going to "Uncle Willy's to party." Did she go to Piggy's Palace? Gagnon asks. Is Piggy's Palace as bad as she heard?

Dave Pickton says he had not seen her sister and offers to take the grieving siblings to Piggy's Palace to show them it was a decent bar.

There, he unlocks the metal door to the barn made of corrugated steel that was once a notorious nightclub, where many of the missing women were said to have partied. Dave Pickton points at the disco lights and the bar, all salvaged from demolition sites. He says it was a good, clean place to party and nothing bad ever happened there.

Dave Pickton says again that he doesn't think his brother had the intelligence to pull off mass murder. "My brother don't associate with people. When I was going for coffee, he sit in the truck and wait." Then he pauses and says: "I don't know him any more. I thought I knew him like a book. It's devastating."

He says he doesn't watch television or listen to the radio because he doesn't want to hear news of his brother's case. "It's a nightmare for me knowing I was not watching what was going on in my back yard," he says.

Dave Pickton once more says he is sorry to Ernie Crey and Sandra Gagnon. Gagnon recoils again at the outstretched hand. All she wants to know is what happened to her sister. She asks again whether Dave may have seen her sister. "I want to find my sister," she says. "I only know somebody said she was going to Uncle Willy's to get stoned. Then she was gone."

But Dave Pickton says he doesn't know her.

He apologizes: "You go to sleep at night and you think, 'Why, why? How? Not even why, but how? How could he do it with so many people in his yard?' "

The two grieving siblings leave the barn, walk through the mud and climb back into the car to head downtown. Gagnon wants to wash her hands as soon as possible, so they pull over to find a washroom.

"Do you get nightmares, Ernie?" Gagnon asks.

"Yeah," Crey answers. "There are many nights when I don't sleep. Our people would say their spirits are not at rest."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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Updated: August 21, 2016