Start of Pickton trial rekindles loss for families but also need for closure

Stephanie Levitz
The Canadian Press

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The curtain finally rises on the next act of the macabre story that plunged a gritty downtown Vancouver neighbourhood into gothic horror, shattered the hearts of two dozen families from across the nation and focused the world’s attention on a quiet, ”goofy” farmer from a small B.C. town.

When Robert "Willie" Pickton takes his seat Monday in the prisoner’s dock at a courthouse in New Westminster, B.C., he’ll do so as the person accused of murdering six women.

It’s taken five years to get here, but for close to a decade

before people were sounding the alarm about women disappearing in Vancouver.

They weren’t phoning home on their children’s birthdays, showing up for Christmas, or cashing their welfare cheques.

Many were heroin addicts and sex-trade workers and their families and friends couldn’t seem to get anyone to pay attention to the fact they were gone.

Maggy Gisle, who once worked the stroll in the crucible of pain and desperation that is the Downtown Eastside remembers trying in vain to have her street sister Georgina Papin declared missing by the police.

They insisted she’d simply gone off on a holiday.

"It didn’t make sense to me. Her kids were in Mission," Gisle said.

It took until 2001 for police to announce the disappearances of dozens of women would be treated as murder.

In 2002, they zeroed in on a former hog farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C., where neighbours remember seeing police officers scouring the ground on their hands and knees.

In February of that year, Pickton was charged with two counts of first-degree murder. Over the next three years, the number of charges hit 26.

The trial on Monday is only on six of the 26 of the charges. Proceedings on the remainder will follow.

The jurors - five women and seven men ranging in from their early 20s to their 70s - were warned by the judge that what they’re going to hear allegedly happened to these women is disturbing.

One of the women they’ll hear about is Papin.

At least two of her seven children were in Mission, B.C. when she was reported missing and her eldest daughter was living in Las Vegas, having been raised by her paternal grandparents.

Kristina Bateman is not attending the first week of the trial.

Two of her aunts have used up the funding supplied to victims’ families by the provincial government to attend.

But Bateman isn’t concerned about the trial tainting the warm memories of sitting up all night talking to her mother when she was 12.

"It won’t bother me, I can handle a lot of things," Bateman, 22, said. "I think she has helped me because she went through a lot and I just try to think of what she would do."

Greg Garley said he’s also ready for the trial. The alleged murder of his foster sister Mona Wilson is also among the first six charges.

"The RCMP have been great, they tell us stuff to prepare us for what’s about to happen," Garley said.

"Because some of the stuff I think, ’Oh the poor public, when they hear these things.’ Because I know how I was when I heard them. And I think ’Oh people are just going to reel.’"

Garley said years of counselling have helped him get to a place where he can forgive what was allegedly done to his sister, but he can never forget.

In a sense, the family members of the alleged victims have suffered through the grief of losing their daughters and sisters time and time again, counsellor Lynette Pollard-Elgert said.

Pollard-Elgert is among the army of counsellors dispatched by the province’s victim services program to work with families.

The first loss could be as far back as when the woman ran away from home, and the painful knife of grief jabs a little deeper with each development - the news of heroin addiction, prostitution, the disappearance, discovery of remains, charges.

The list goes on.

"It becomes so public. Normally people can kind of grieve with their family and support system and nobody really understands the full issues around your loss," Pollard-Elgert said.

"When it’s something like this that becomes a public situation, everybody knows everything or what they think they know they get out of the newspaper so there is no privacy in your grief at all. It is like a revictimization."

Marnie Frey’s murder is also among the first six charges.

Her stepmother Lynn Frey says she’ll be there as often as she can.

"If I think I can handle it, I’ll be in there. If I don’t think I can handle it, I think I’ll get up and excuse myself and go sit outside, walk around, do whatever and then come back," she said.

"As it stands now, that’s part of my grieving, I need to know."      

Frey’s husband Rick has been subpoenaed as a witness for the trial and as a result, can’t go into the courtroom itself, but can go to the court.

Far from the courthouse, in Guelph, Ont., will sit Pat de Vries, whose daughter Sarah was known by many as the poet of the Downtown Eastside.

The charge for Sarah’s death is not among the first set.

”It doesn’t really seem to have anything to do with me," de Vries said. "The whole thing needs to happen in Vancouver and leave me alone."

Eight lawyers will stand in court Monday, with prosecutor Mike Petrie playing the lead for the Crown and Peter Ritchie acting as head lawyer for the defence.

Their audience will be a dozen jurors, but watching from the wings will be the families, the hundreds of journalists, the members of the public who managed to grab a seat.

The average person, like them, isn’t built "to deal with this horror, we can’t take it in, Pollard-Eggert said.

"So everybody will just want to know, why?"

© The Canadian Press



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