Robert Pickton trial cruel twist on parlour game of six degrees of separation

By Stephanie Levitz, THE CANADIAN PRESS

December 28, 2007

VANCOUVER - Lawyers are drawn into criminal cases by phone calls from clients, police officers by orders from those higher-up the chain of command.

But scores of people whose jobs aren't linked to the criminal justice system were connected to the case of serial killer Robert Pickton. It's a cruel twist on the parlour game of "six degrees of separation," the theory that everyone in the world is connected to everyone else by only six other people.

Christopher Trottier's connection is only three degrees.

Trottier, 26, remembers the day in 2001 his mother came home with a door for the new bathroom in his house, which she'd picked up at a salvage company in Surrey.

Quite pleased with the $50 purchase, she remarked in passing how the man who sold her the door was a "grease monkey" who thought it was quite normal to just eat a sandwich while conducting business, which she found funny but disgusting.

Fast forward a year and the news broke that Pickton was the focus of the investigation into the disappearances of women from Vancouver.

Trottier said he didn't think much of it, figuring people go missing all the time.

Then the news surfaced that Pickton and his younger brother Dave ran a salvage company in Surrey.

The same company where his mother bought the door.

The man who sold it to her was Dave Pickton.

Trottier said no one in his family could look at their new bathroom door quite the same way.

"It began to take on some bigger significance to me," he said.

"I didn't like having the door in the house, whenever it made that creaking noise it kind of reminded me of whatever kind of things happened on that farm."

Pickton, arrested in 2002, was convicted Dec. 9 of six counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 25 years. He faces trial next year on another 20 counts of first-degree murder.

Though the door was in no way connected to the missing women, Trottier said the presence of it in his home somehow made the case more personal to him and it changed his perspective on addicts and the homeless.

"Beforehand when I would see these folks, I would just want them to go away," he said. "Now when I see these people I think this is someone's daughter, this is someone's son.

"They don't just disappear, obviously. Something happens to them."

Putting a face on the denizens of British Columbia's poorest communities was perhaps a silver lining to the cloud of the 11-month Pickton trial.

Even a juror said in an interview with The Canadian Press shortly after the verdict that the case changed his perspective as well.

"I was thinking these girls, they are on the streets, misbehaviour or something like that," said the juror, who can't be identified.

"In one year I learned something more. Society gave them these things ... those drug people, they used them. "

"Why did somebody kill them, you know? It should not be that way in this society."

It was rare to be at a social gathering and not be told a story of someone's personal connection to the case and how it was changing their life.

There was the school teacher at Blakeburn elementary who recalled the shocked looks on children's faces as news broke that human remains were found on the Port Coquitlam, B.C., farm owned by the Pickton brothers.

The stuff of nightmares became the children's reality - their school sits on land formerly owned by the Picktons and rumours ran wild that the remains of more women could be buried underneath their classrooms and playground.

Though the rumours were never substantiated, school officials spent weeks working with the children to calm their fears through assemblies and art projects.

Then there was a 40-something accountant who grew up in Port Coquitlam and remembers heading down for parties at the infamous Piggy's Palace.

A social club run primarily by Dave Pickton on another of the family's properties, Piggy's Palace was once a see-and-be-seen mainstay of the suburban city's social circuit.

Robert Pickton used to hang out there. The accountant never met him but now shakes her head and wonders what was going on and whether there was something she could have done.

The case brought the city of 52,000, 30 kilometres east of Vancouver, a notoriety they wished they didn't have.

"It used to be when you said you were from PoCo, people said 'Oh yeah, Terry Fox,' " said one resident in the days before the trial.

"Now I say I'm from PoCo and people go, 'Oh, the pig farm.' "

Though they died on the property, the last days of the women's lives were spent in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, where some were well known, others just a shadow on the street corner.

At the trial, jurors heard from aid workers, hotel clerks and acquaintances of the women, who gave some detail of their hard scrabble lives as addicts and prostitutes.

But besides the 100-plus witnesses who took the stand at trial are many more who have a hole in their own lives after the women's deaths.

Photographer Lincoln Clarkes found himself connected with the case when photographs he took of heroin addicts in the neighbourhood turned out to contain snapshots of some of the missing girls.

He developed a friendship with at least one and it haunts him to this day.

And there's a sometime volunteer worker at WISH, a drop-in centre for prostitutes, who remembered trading makeup tips with Sereena Abotsway, one of the women Robert Pickton was convicted of killing.

Pickton was also convicted of murdering Mona Wilson, Andrea Joesbury, Georgina Papin, Brenda Wolfe and Marnie Frey.

Connections to all of the 26 women Pickton was charged with killing reach beyond that beleaguered neighbourhood as well.

Over the last five years, dozens of people have left messages on an online guest book run by Wayne Leng, a friend of Sarah de Vries, who is among the other 20 women that Pickton has been charged with killing.

A date for that trial has not been set, though lawyers are scheduled to convene in late January to discuss the indictment.

Childhood playmates and neighbours have marvelled at the lives these women led before ending up on a bleak roll call of murder victims.

"She loved staying awake after lights out to talk and ask all kinds of questions about everything," Dawn Schneider, Wilson's former camp counsellor wrote. "She was so curious."

Traffic to Leng's site hit more than one million page views at the start of the trial last January, with people writing in from as far away as Sweden about how the case touched their hearts.

Polling conducted by the University of British Columbia during the trial, however, suggested that the news coverage of the case didn't register in quite the same way.

At the beginning of the trial in January, 16 per cent of British Columbians reported being very interested in the case, according to the poll conducted by the Feminist Media Project at the UBC School of Journalism.

That number dropped to seven per cent by June.

The poll is expected to be repeated in January to gauge how interest in news coverage fared in the final days of court proceedings.

Journalism professor Mary Lynn Young, who oversaw the polling, said the numbers don't reflect disinterest in the Pickton trial itself, but just crime coverage in general.

But she said she too has heard countless anecdotes about people connected in some way to the Pickton case.

"We're such a small town to some degree and this case covers so many victims who came from so many communities and it spread out over the Lower Mainland that it makes sense to me that it would touch a variety of different people's lives in different ways," she said.

"You have got the media touching people who may not have first-hand knowledge and then you've got the fact that it is such a major crime and Vancouver is still a fairly small town."

The question however, Young asked, is what people are doing with the impact the trial has had on their lives?

The Vancouver police department, which took a great deal of criticism for brushing off reports of scores of women going missing before Pickton was arrested, has promised a complete accounting of what happened in those years once the remaining 20 charges are handled.

Thought it is hard to attribute it entirely to the trial, WISH reported that its donations are up this Christmas season and that because of the trial more people seem aware of the realities facing prostitutes working on the streets.

Some family members of the victims have become vocal in calling for more support for the marginalized community their daughters called home, while former sex-trade workers themselves have chosen to also add their voices to the calls for change.

But what of those who were drawn into the tangled web woven by Pickton's deceit?

"If so many people have been touched by these tragic events over such a long period of time, why aren't more people making calls for some accountability?" said Young.

"Some people are, and why hasn't it happened?"

The Canadian Press



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Updated: August 21, 2016