Wally Oppal heads inquiry into police work in Robert Pickton serial murders

By Suzanne Fournier, The ProvinceSeptember 28, 2010 12:35 PM
Attorney General Michael de Jong Tuesday announced the terms of reference and the appointment of Wally Oppal, pictured here, as commissioner of the Pickton public inquiry.

Attorney General Michael de Jong Tuesday announced the terms of reference and the appointment of Wally Oppal, pictured here, as commissioner of the Pickton public inquiry.

Photograph by: Ian Smith, PNG

The new head of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry — former Liberal attorney-general Wally Oppal — has pledged to hear from all witnesses with information about the “horrific crimes” of serial killer Robert Pickton.

That will include the case of a feisty sex-trade worker who testified at Pickton’s preliminary inquiry that she stabbed Pickton to get away from his handcuffed and vicious attack. She was slashed herself, but escaped naked.

Crown counsel decided on Jan. 27, 1998, not to charge Pickton in connection with her case. Potential charges would have included attempted murder, assault with a weapon, forcible confinement and aggravated assault.

DNA from 33 women was found on Pickton’s farm. He told an undercover officer planted in his cell that he had murdered 49 women.

B.C. Attorney-General Mike DeJong announced Tuesday morning that Oppal will be limited in his inquiry to the dates between Jan. 23, 1997 and the date of Pickton’s arrest on Feb. 5, 2002.

Pickton was eventually charged with the first-degree murder of 26 women, but proceeded to trial and was convicted of second-degree murder in only six cases.

In October 2009, the RCMP Missing Women Task Force recommended more charges against Pickton in the death of another six women, including Yvonne Boen and Dawn Crey, but Crown counsel did not lay charges.

In July, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Pickton’s second-degree murder conviction in the deaths of six women and the Crown put a stop to any further prosecution of Pickton, who will spend the rest of his life in jail.

Oppal noted that “absolutely horrific crimes took place” against victims who were disproportionately marginalized and aboriginal women, most of them sex-trade workers on the Downtown Eastside who were vulnerable to predators.

“I can assure you I want the advice of aboriginal women,” Oppal promised, after Tuesday’s announcement of his appointment by DeJong.

Oppal noted that when he headed up a policing inquiry from 1992 to 1994, he held two full days of hearings at the eastside Aboriginal Friendship Centre.

He promised he will seek the input of women’s groups such as WISH, which runs an eastside drop-in for survival sex-trade workers, as well as native leaders.

Oppal cited Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, who was present at Tuesday’s announcement, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo and First Nations Summit leader Ed John, a lawyer and Tl’azt’en Grand Chief.

But Phillip was among aboriginal leaders critical of the government’s choice of Oppal, who gave up his safe seat in Vancouver-Fraserview in the last election, only to lose in South Delta to Kash Heed.

(Heed resigned twice as solicitor general last May and is waiting for a special prosecutor’s report into alleged election irregularities.)

“I can’t think of anyone with more political baggage than Wally Oppal. He seems the worst possible choice for this job,” Phillip said after Oppal spoke.

Phillip said the B.C. government was “circling the wagons” by choosing a perceived insider.

“We met with Oppal twice during the Frank Paul inquiry when we he was attorney-general and he was adamant that he wouldn’t allow Crown counsel to give evidence,” said Phillip.

Sto:lo Tribal Council leader Ernie Crey, whose sister Dawn’s DNA was found on the Pickton farm, said he will keep an open mind on the choice of Oppal.

“This is not a popularity contest. He’s got a job to do and he has assured us that he will consult fully with First Nations,” Crey said at the press conference.

Oppal confirmed that his terms of reference confine him to the “missing women investigations conducted between Jan. 23, 1997 and Feb. 5, 2002” by B.C. police forces “respecting women reported missing” from the Downtown Eastside.

Oppal admitted he will not be scrutinizing the Criminal Justice Branch decisions in what charges to lay against Pickton, although he was in cabinet for part of that time.

“I was briefed on it . . . and dealt with a lot of families and explained why the Criminal Justice Branch made that decision,” Oppal said.

Oppal insisted that his role as attorney-general from 2005 to 2009 and his 23 years as a judge in county court, B.C. Supreme Court and the B.C. Court of Appeal had proven his ability to act without bias.

“I see no conflict with respect to anyone in the criminal justice system. We deal often with decisions where we have to set aside personal opinions and sentiments,” said Oppal.

“We’re prepared to deal with anyone with relevant evidence . . . as to what went wrong and why the information wasn’t acted upon appropriately.

“I’m encouraged that some police agencies have accepted responsibility” for some of what went wrong, Oppal said, citing the Vancouver Police Department report — and apology — issued by Vancouver deputy police chief Doug LePard.

“We have to move forward, we want to find out why that happened.

“We have to set our personal biases, opinions and personal feelings aside.”

Oppal’s inquiry will look at all police investigations into missing women, including possibly Highway of Tears victims, from Jan. 23, 1997 to Feb. 5, 2002.

Oppal, 70, was attorney-general for B.C. from 2005 to 2009. A Vancouver native, he served as a judge in the County Court of B.C. from 1981 to 1985 and in B.C. Supreme Court from 1985 to 2003, when he was appointed to the B.C. Court of Appeal.

In June, 1992 Oppal was appointed commissioner of an independent commission of inquiry into policing in B.C. and recommended in 1994 that regional policing be considered.

The inquiry will focus on how dozens of women disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside over several years and how Pickton was able to prey on them.

Families of missing women charged that Vancouver police ignored their reports of missing daughters, mothers, sisters and aunts.

A $100,000 reward offered by the VPD was split six ways by several people who warned various police agencies about Pickton predation on women and evidence that was obvious at his Port Coquitlam farm.

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Updated: August 21, 2016