Brian Hutchinson on the Pickton Inquiry: Whole story still untold

  Jun 15, 2012 – 11:09 PM ET | Last Updated: Jun 17, 2012 8:34 AM ET

Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press

Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press

There’s worry the final report of Missing Women’s Inquiry commissioner Wally Oppal, above, will be read as incomplete, because the whole truth about Robert “Willie” Pickton, below, and the crimes he committed never came out. Pickton was arrested in 2002, but police had been “on to” him years before.

Near the end of the hearings, with questions still hanging and more tempers flaring, and police and their counsel pointing fingers again, a lawyer for one RCMP witness approached this reporter.

“What are we doing here? Look at all of us,” he said, scanning the room where the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry held its hearings. A room in downtown Vancouver, filled with some of the city’s finest legal minds, but also with anger, recrimination, loss. The lawyer shook his head. “What’s been the point?”

The inquiry was called to examine why, from 1997 to February 2002, the Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP failed to stop Robert (Willie) Pickton — their prime suspect in dozens of cases of missing women — from apprehending his victims and chopping their corpses into pieces. He was killing prostitutes, right under the noses of police. Wally Oppal, the former provincial attorney general appointed to lead the inquiry, called an end to the hearings last week. He says he wants to make recommendations to ensure such an outrage never happens again.

But some believed the entire process was unnecessary. Pickton is in prison, serving life sentences on six murder convictions. Twenty other murder charges he faced have been stayed; there will not be another trial, but he’s locked up for good.

Others thought the inquiry’s design and mandate were fatally flawed. Aboriginal groups refused provincial funding to hire their own lawyers and participate as equals. They called the inquiry a “sham” and held protests outside.

The inquiry was called in 2010, one of Gordon Campbell’s last acts as B.C. premier. Some critics said that appointing his former attorney general was a glaring mistake. Mr. Oppal proved an impatient commissioner whose strange behaviour outside inquiry hours — in particular, his decision in April to play the role of a serial killer’s victim in a violent slasher film — raised additional questions about his judgment and common sense.

Police had known quite a lot, it would emerge

But the point was never lost on the victims’ relatives. Nor was it lost on certain police officers, men and women who had been “on to” Pickton years before his 2002 arrest, and knew of his predilection for skid-row prostitutes, and his violence and threats, and the illegal cockfights he hosted on his grubby pig farm every weekend during summer and the illegal booze can across the street that he ran with his younger brother, David. The one frequented by minors and Hells Angels and people off the street. Police had known quite a lot, it would emerge.

“It has been determined that [a stabbing victim whom Pickton allegedly attempted to murder] is an East Hastings area hooker and Pickton is known to frequent that area weekly,” read a March 1997 RCMP report entered into evidence at the inquiry. “Given the violence shown by Pickton towards prostitutes and women in general, this information is being forwarded to your attention…”

“Discussed Pickton again,” a staff sergeant at the RCMP’s Coquitlam detachment wrote in his notebook in April 2000, the inquiry learned. “If he turns out to be responsible — inquiry! — Deal with that if the time comes!”

Officers involved in the botched missing women and Pickton investigations all lawyered up. Dramas unfolded, inside and outside the inquiry room. Some lawyers quit. Mr. Oppal is now writing his final report, due Oct. 31. There’s a fear it will read as incomplete, because the whole truth never came out. Shocking evidence was presented, but documents were missed and potential witnesses thought to have critical information weren’t called. Not every detail was read, nor every voice heard.

Mr. Oppal’s hearings ran almost nine months before time ran out. Near the end, even the commissioner was raising concerns about late disclosure from police. “Here we are at the end of the inquiry and we’re getting — we’re getting material that should have been produced months ago,” he said in May.

Yet he suggested more than once that he’d heard enough. Current and former VPD officers and their lawyers had outlined their position, and it didn’t budge: There were good cops, women and men who had tried to investigate cases of missing women despite their inexperience and inadequate resources. Yes, mistakes were made. “Systemic” problems existed. Some officers, especially senior management types, seemed to care not a whit about missing “hookers.” They thought the women would eventually turn up alive.

During hearings, the VPD criticized the RCMP, and vice versa. Vancouver police were late to identify women as missing and as potential victims of homicide. But look where the murders took place: On a pig farm, five kilometres from an RCMP detachment in Coquitlam, B.C. This was RCMP turf. And Pickton was known to local Mounties, years before his arrest.

In 1997, Pickton allegedly stabbed a Vancouver prostitute on his farm, nearly killing her

In 1997, Pickton allegedly stabbed a Vancouver prostitute on his farm, nearly killing her. Attempted murder charges against Pickton were dropped by B.C.’s Criminal Justice Branch the next year, something that flummoxed RCMP Corporal Mike Connor, the local Mountie who investigated the case.

By 1998, the inquiry heard, Cpl. Connor was convinced that Pickton was responsible for missing women, and that police sources were giving straight goods about mayhem and death on the farm. The veteran, barrel-chested Mountie spent countless off-duty hours thinking about the suspect, even sitting outside the Pickton farm in his car, looking for unusual activity.

In mid-1999, he received a promotion, and against his wishes, was yanked off the case. Cpl. Connor’s transfer “had a devastating impact on the investigation,” the inquiry was told. Cpl. Connor, who is retired from the force, testified in February. Like some other officers who had been close to the case, he said he has suffered depression and post traumatic stress. He described his frustration with the manner in which colleagues handled the Pickton investigation, once he’d left the case. It had literally made him sick.

With the clock ticking, Mr. Oppal became more impatient, telling lawyers to speed up their performances and chastising those who requested more time. By April, key witnesses were being bundled into four-person “panels” and giving fragmentary testimonies. Lawyers had an hour or less to cross-examine an entire panel at once, a perversion of “natural justice,” complained Cameron Ward, counsel for families of 25 missing and murdered women. Mr. Oppal replied that the new format, while “unusual,” was fair.

Some witnesses were called to testify with little notice; others were suddenly knocked off the inquiry’s list, with no reasons given to participants. The whole process seemed ad hoc.

Four crucial police witnesses — three former Mounties from the Coquitlam detachment, and one retired member from the RCMP’s Provincial Unsolved Homicide Unit — were called to testify as a panel over two days in May, near the end. Their appearances were long-anticipated; these officers had been there. They could explain a lot.

In 2000, the inquiry heard, Mr. Henley was assigned to assist Coquitlam with their flagging Pickton file. He did anything but help, it has been alleged

Earl Moulton was the Coquitlam detachment’s former operations boss. Darryl Pollock was its former supervisor, and Ruth Chapman was a former corporal who took over the Pickton investigation from Cpl. Connor. And there was Frank Henley, a former homicide investigator based in Vancouver.

In 2000, the inquiry heard, Mr. Henley was assigned to assist Coquitlam with their flagging Pickton file. He did anything but help, it has been alleged.

In one extraordinary episode, characterized by a lawyer representing the Downtown Eastside community (where Pickton trolled for victims) as “quite contrary to police practice and possibly amounting to sabotage,” Mr. Henley made a solo trip to the Pickton farm, without telling his colleagues. He secretly met with Pickton a year before the killer’s arrest; Pickton was still murdering women. It was “like really, very much a social visit,” Mr. Henley would recall, in an interview conducted prior to his inquiry appearance.

He spent about an hour with Robert Pickton, wandering his cluttered property and looking at old cars. Incredibly, he told Pickton about a confidential police informant, a man who had shocking, incriminating knowledge of him. Mr. Henley also revealed to the suspect the name of another potential informant, a woman who eventually testified against Pickton at his murder trial.

Did you consider whether or not you were putting a potential informant … at risk?

“Did you consider whether or not you were putting a potential informant … at risk?” senior commission counsel Art Vertlieb asked Mr. Henley, on May 14.

“No,” replied Mr. Henley. “I just wanted to meet [Pickton] and see him.” And that was the end of that; lawyers for other inquiry participants complained they had not enough minutes allocated to conduct proper cross-examinations of Mr. Henley, let alone the other police witnesses.

Things went from bad to worse. Mr. Ward, lawyer for the families of Pickton’s victims, had previously asked Mr. Oppal to call other witnesses: police informants already identified at the inquiry, and widely discussed; David Pickton, who was never charged and never testified at his brother’s trial; more RCMP officers. Those requests were denied.

Mr. Ward also wanted to hear from an RCMP civilian employee named Bev “Puff” Hyacinthe, who had worked in the Coquitlam detachment. Mr. Ward argued that Ms. Hyacinthe had known the Pickton brothers “personally” and had shared alarming details about them with her police colleagues. Details were sketchy; Mr. Ward wanted the inquiry to hear from Ms. Hyacinthe directly. Mr. Oppal denied the application in April. He gave no reasons.

Mr. Ward subsequently read into the inquiry record some extracts from interviews that, he said, Ms. Hyacinthe had conducted with police after Pickton’s arrest. Ms. Hyacinthe told investigators that she’d known Pickton for 20 years. Her husband had grown up with the Pickton brothers; he had once helped the Picktons bury stolen vehicles on their farm. Her son had worked on their farm, she had told investigators, and he’d been “in Willie’s truck one time and there was bloody clothing in it that stunk.”

According to Mr. Ward, Ms. Hyacinthe had also described to investigators parties she’d attended at Piggy’s Palace, the Picktons’ illegal booze can. She described it as “a zoo with people in attendance,” said Mr. Ward. “There were Hells Angels, there were people off the streets.”

‘Coquitlam RCMP just slipped away.’ So did the full story, and some of the truth. Too often that seemed the real point

Ms. Hyacinthe told police about a 1999 New Year’s Eve party she attended at Piggy’s Palace. “Willie brought a date,” she told police, according to Mr. Ward, referring to police documents. She told police she saw a photo of the same woman a few weeks later, in a newspaper. The woman had gone missing; she was “later determined to have been murdered by Willie,” said Mr. Ward.

Bev Hyacinthe had taken photos at that New Year’s Eve party, said Mr. Ward, again referring to police documents. She had offered the photos to police. What about all of this, he asked the four RCMP panelists.

“Ms. Hyacinthe told me nothing,” said Mr. Pollock, the former Coquitlam detachment supervisor.

“All I can say is, if this is the state of Puff’s knowledge at some earlier point, I sure wish she’d made it known to us,” said Mr. Moulton, the detachment’s former boss.

If she had not made her story known earlier, then why? What else had she not shared with her police colleagues? Could her information have cracked the Pickton case earlier? No one knows, because Ms. Hyacinthe didn’t testify. Mr. Oppal didn’t want to hear from her, and now it’s too late.

“Those two days in May were a procedural and evidentiary low point in the inquiry,” another lawyer reflected later. “Coquitlam RCMP just slipped away.” So did the full story, and some of the truth. Too often that seemed the real point.

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Updated: August 21, 2016