Missing women report calls for regional policing, points to 'blatant errors' by police

B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal today released 1,400-page report, entitled "Forsaken"


The long-awaited missing women inquiry report makes 65 recommendations to try to avoid another serial killer preying on vulnerable women - chief among them to create regionalized policing in the Lower Mainland.

The fractured, and oft-criticized, Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, led by former B.C. Appeal Court Justice and B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal, today released its 1,400-page report, entitled "Forsaken."

"I think there is enough commitment to bring about change," Oppal said in an interview. "While I have pointed out many critical mistakes that police made, it is unfair and wrong to lay these mistakes solely at the feet of the police."

Oppal noted there were other systemic issues that led to the victims ending up on the street, including poverty, racism, drug addiction and a lack of affordable housing.

The inquiry was struck more than two years ago and heard from dozens of witnesses, as it examined why it took so long for the Vancouver police and RCMP to identify Willy Pickton as a serial killer, despite warnings he was preying on a sex workers on Vancouver's downtown east side.

Many of the recommendations have been previously voiced by advocates and family members of Pickton's victims. However, in listing them in the hefty document, Oppal hopes policy makers will listen and act.

He made 63 recommendations within the scope of his inquiry, including a regionalized police agency, creating an Aboriginal liaison position within the Vancouver police, the province making legislative changes to protect women in the sex trade, and steps to "clean up" the Downtown Eastside to reduce the risk of another Pickton using the neighbourhood as a breeding ground.

He made two additional recommendations: the need for a 24-hour drop-in centre in the Downtown Eastside, and the need for a shuttle bus along Highway 16 in Northern B.C., where many vulnerable women have disappeared while hitchhiking.

Some type of regionalized policing across the Lower Mainland - which is policed by a patchwork quilt of municipal agencies and RCMP detachments - is necessary, the report argues, because communication in the missing women case was poor. The women disappeared from Vancouver police's jurisdiction, while Pickton lived in Port Coquitlam, which is policed by the RCMP.

"We are the only major city in Canada without a regionalized police force," Oppal said in an interview.

Oppal's report concludes that Vancouver police showed a lack of urgency in responding to the mounting numbers of women going missing from the neighbourhood, in part because police failed to "get to know" the victims.

"This failure to get to know the victim group meant that inaccurate information about the women, and in particular the belief in the likelihood that they would 'turn up," infiltrated all aspects of the missing and murdered women investigations," the document says.

Also, that police wasted time trying to "confirm" a woman was missing, instead of following protocol and believing the family members, "was fundamentally wrong and had perverse effects."

Oppal found that three "overarching faulty risk assessments" by police were not corrected over time, despite more and more evidence to the contrary piling up: that the women had been murdered, that a serial killer was potentially responsible, and that the number of victims would continue to grow.

"The three main flawed risk assessments were at the epicentre of the police failures in these overlapping investigations," he wrote. "Police decision makers discounted the known risks to violence and murder this group of vulnerable women faced and continued to mistakenly believe the women were transient, despite clear evidence to the contrary."

Oppal argued Vancouver police had an obligation to warn women in the Downtown Eastside about the danger they were in, "and utterly failed to do so."

Oppal also found that police failed to properly pursue this case, including "unreasonably restricting" input from families and use of the media in their investigations.

The police investigations were also "wholly inadequate" when following up tips, were "plagued by unacceptable delays", and failed to properly use other techniques such as surveillance, undercover operations, search warrants and forensic evidence, the report says.

Since Clifford Olson's killing spree decades ago, there has been recommendation after recommendation to regionalize policing in the Lower Mainland so agencies better communicate on major cases. Oppal makes the suggestion in his report, saying there was a "general systemic failure" on the part of the Vancouver police and the RCMP to deal with cross-jurisdictional issues.

"Communication and co-ordination were inconsistent and erratic, and the irregular meetings were of negligible benefit," Oppal wrote.

In particular, there was a "wholly unacceptable delay" in forming a joint-forces task force. The RCMP and VPD did not officially launch this until mid-2001, and by then an estimated 60 women had disappeared from the Downtown Eastside over a span of about 20 years.

Fragmentation of policing in the Lower Mainland led to "serious communications failures," a "failure to share key evidence" between the VPD and the RCMP, and a low prioritization of the missing women and the Pickton investigation, Oppal's report says.

He concluded that the investigation was "under-resourced," not because there wasn't enough money to fund it but because it wasn't given enough prioritization by government or police.

Oppal was also critical that this case was void of any leadership by any police agency, which ultimately led to PIckton's crime spree going on for so long.

"No senior management at the VPD, RCMP E Division Major Crime Section, Coquitlam RCMP, or Provincial Unsolved Homicide Unit took on this leadership role and asserted ongoing responsibility for the case."

At a press conference at 1 p.m. today, Oppal took the podium but was just two words into his speech when he was heckled by members of the victims' families.

"The story of the missing women ..." he began.

"Story? What story? This is reality!" a family member yelled from the audience.

He thanked the families for their support of the victims and for attending the press conference today, and for their unwavering fight for justice in this case. While most listened quietly to his words, one woman yelled "hogwash" from the crowd.

It is the inequality and the poverty that breeds the type of violence that is seen in this case, he said.

"Even though Pickton is in jail, the violence against women in the Downtown Eastside and other areas of this province continues. It is time to stop the violence. It is time to stop talking about it, and do something about it," Oppal said.

Families in the audience broke out in applause, and one woman yelled, "Amen!"

Fifteen minutes into Oppal's press conference, it was interrupted by aboriginal drums. All the victims' families -- Aboriginal and white -- stood in unison to sing a native song.

Lori Ann Ellis, sister-in-law of Cara Ellis, and Lilianne Beaudoin, sister of Dianne Rock, raised their arms in support of all the missing women.

Family members hugged and wept. Oppal stood respectively at the podium, silenced.

Sandra Gagnon, sister of missing woman Janet Henry, stood up in the front row of the family seats and said she wanted to hear what Oppal had to say. Oppal then continued his press conference.

"After reviewing the evidence of the investigation, I have come to the conclusion that there was systemic bias by the police in the missing women investigation," he said, noting the women were poor, addicted, and marginalized..

That elicited applause from the public gallery.

"They did not receive equal treatment from police. As a group they were dismissed," Oppal said.

"These women were vulnerable. They were treated as throw-aways.... The police thought that, well, if they disappeared one week they would be back."

Oppal noted the women, often as a result of their troubled backgrounds, "had the misfortune" of becoming drug addicted.

"Would the reaction of the police and the public be any different if the women came from the Westside? The answer is obvious," Oppal said.

"Why haven't we done something about the poverty?"

"Because of your government!" yelled someone in the crowd.

"Racism!" yelled another.

When Oppal said the families and advocates had been heard by his inquiry, and encouraged often at-odd advocacy groups to work together to make change, he was again heckled by the audience members who believe they didn't get equal billing at the inquiry.

"No change. Nothing is going to happen from this!" one woman yelled.

Oppal said police made "blatant errors" in the case. Vancouver police failed to pass along strong enough information to the RCMP about the case, and the RCMP made mistakes when investigating Pickton.

"[The victims] were never taken seriously," Oppal said in an interview. "They received un-equal treatment from the police."

Among the mistakes Oppal says were made:

That society - including most police officers, politicians and members of the public - dismissed these women as "nobodies," as there was systemic bias against them because they were poor, vulnerable and marginalized.

Vancouver police took poor reports when families phoned to say loved ones were missing, and acted without urgency in many of the cases.

In March 1997, a Downtown Eastside sex worker called Anderson (her real name is protected by the courts) escaped from Pickton's farm near-death after being violently stabbed. Pickton was charged with attempted murder (although the charges were later stayed) and a concerned RCMP officer attached a warning to his name on the police computer system. Anderson told police she saw women's belongings in Pickton's home. And yet, Pickton was not investigated that year when an alarming number of sex trade workers also disappeared from the Downtown Eastside.

There was "an unseemly fight" between former Det. Kim Rossmo, then-head of the VPD's geographic profiling unit, who wanted to warn the public a serial killer may be preying on vulnerable women, and his boss, then-Insp. Fred Biddlecombe, who vetoed the suggested press release, arguing there was no evidence to support it. "Public safety was compromised by not warning the public," Oppal said in an interview.

Vancouver police's missing person unit was under-staffed, and had an administrative assistant criticized by the families as indifferent and rude.

Between 1998 and 1999, there were four informants pointing fingers at Pickton, and yet Vancouver police did little with the information. Informants included Bill Hiscox, who said his friend Lisa Yelds had seen women's clothing on the farm and thought Pickton was killing women, and Lynn Ellingsen, who said she saw Pickton butchering a woman in his slaughterhouse. (Police have said these witnesses were problematic because they were drug users and often changed their stories.)

Retired Mountie Mike Connor was dedicated to this case, working well with Vancouver police Det. Lori Shener, who also was committed to helping the victims' families. But when Connor was promoted, his bosses wouldn't let him keep the missing women file. Oppal said in an interview that when RCMP Const. Ruth Yurkiw later phoned Pickton's brother Dave to ask to visit the farm, he asked her to phone back in the "rainy season" when they weren't as busy. She agreed.

Project Evanhanded, the joint RCMP-Vancouver Police task force, thought it was investigating historic murders when it was first formed, and was working under the assumption that there were no new murders - despite the fact that that women continued to disappear from the Downtown Eastside.

Project Evanhanded spent too much time looking for a connection between three murdered sex-trade workers found near Mission and the Downtown Eastside cases. (Pickton's DNA was eliminated as the suspect in the Mission-area cases.)

Oppal, however, pauses to acknowledge a few officers within the Vancouver police and the RCMP who did care about this case and its victims, but noted they often didn't receive support from their bosses.

He also commended The Vancouver Sun for writing a series of stories before Pickton's arrest to try to raise the public profile of the missing women, and for demanding more attention be given to the case. Among Oppal's recommendations is for the police to liaise more with the media on these high-profile stories in order to get more information out to the public.

Pickton was arrested in February 2002. He was charged with killing 26 women who disappeared from the Downtown Eastside between 1995 and 2001. The DNA of even more women were found on his farm.

He was convicted of killing six of the women, while the government stayed the other 20 charges against him. During his 2007 trial, Pickton bragged to an undercover officer posing as his cell mate that he actually killed 49 women.

Oppal finished writing the report in November and gave it to the provincial government, who studied it before its release today.

In an interview Monday, before the 1,400-page report's release at 1 pm, Oppal said he was confident his recommendations would bring about change to protect at-risk women in the future.

"I believe this inquiry is extremely important because we are dealing with the worst mass murderer in Canadian history, and in particular we deal with the causes and the mistakes made. It's my hope that we can make significant changes to protect vulnerable women," he said.

"That's really what this inquiry is about: violence against vulnerable women and treating these women with dignity."

The Liberal government will be responding to it publicly later today, as will the RCMP and groups representing women, Aboriginals and the Downtown Eastside.

The inquiry itself, however, was divisive. Families of the victims, women's groups and Aboriginal leaders were highly critical, accusing the inquiry of focusing too narrowly on the issue of policing and not calling witnesses to speak about systemic issues that led to many of the victims ending up on the street.

Most of the victims were poor, worked in the sex trade and used drugs; a disproportionate number were Aboriginal.

When the terms of reference were not expanded and the province denied funding for lawyers for the advocacy groups, many organizations decided not to participate.

Two lawyers were appointed to broadly represent the interests of Aboriginals and people living in the impoverished Downtown Eastside, which critics said was not fair as more than two dozen lawyers represented police and government.

Oppal said he was disappointed by some of the criticism of his inquiry. Groups representing women, Aboriginals and the Downtown Eastside need to limit the in-fighting and come together to lobby for change, he added.

Forsaken Report




Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016