Jul. 24, 2003. 01:00 AM

B.C. pig farmer to be tried in the deaths of 15 women
Trial not expected until 2004 but families relieved

Judge says more charges could have been added to case


PORT COQUITLAM, B.C.A man accused of being Canada's most prolific serial killer has been ordered to stand trial on 15 counts of first-degree murder.

Robert William Pickton, 53, showed no emotion yesterday as Provincial Court Judge David Stone said there was enough evidence for him to be tried in the deaths of 15 women missing from Vancouver's drug-plagued downtown eastside since the mid-1990s.

"I find that the test for committal on counts one to 15 has been met," Stone told a packed courtroom that included families and friends of alleged victims and other missing women.

Stone called it "a very difficult and emotional case" that was unique in Canadian judicial history because of the number of charges and the fact that investigators continued their work even as dozens of police and civilian witnesses began testifying on Jan. 13.

In fact, Stone concluded, if the preliminary hearing had begun a month later, then Pickton would have been ordered to stand trial on 22 counts of first-degree murder. Even though he heard evidence, the judge noted he was not asked to rule on the additional charges.

The 15 alleged victims are among a group of 63 women most of them drug addicts and prostitutes who have vanished from one of Canada's poorest neighbourhoods as far back as the late 1970s.

All evidence at the hearing is protected by a sweeping publication ban.

But as Stone reviewed some of those details as part of his ruling yesterday, loved ones of the alleged victims and other missing women openly wept in the courtroom.

"The information was read in a very matter-of-fact way," said Ernie Crey, whose sister, Dawn, disappeared in late 2000 but is unaccounted for. "It shocked me. It staggered me.

"It troubled me a great deal," said Crey, who choked back tears several times.

"I don't think there was anyone who sat in that court who was unmoved by what they heard."

He said he hoped the ongoing search might yield details on the whereabouts of his sister.

Pickton, who yesterday had his stringy, receding brown hair cut above the collar for the first time since he was thrust into the international spotlight, is to make his first appearance in British Columbia Supreme Court in New Westminster on Sept. 11.

No trial date has been set. But it's not expected to begin until at least mid-2004.

"I'm happy it's going to trial," said Jay Draayers, whose older sister, Sereena Abotsway, disappeared in the summer of 2001, just weeks before her 30th birthday, and accounts for the first charge against Pickton. "But I'm not happy about how long it's going to take."

Like many of the other families of Pickton's alleged victims, the Draayers have had a memorial service but have been unable to bury her or mark a grave to visit.

"It won't be over until we have a funeral for Sereena," Draayers, 29, said in an interview. "And, even then, we won't have her, we'll just have the pain.

"I wish it was over."

But it's clear that's a long way off. Police expect to be at Pickton's pig farm, in this suburb about 35 kilometres east of Vancouver, until at least the fall.

They are giving no timetable for a second site, about 30 kilometres further east, that they began searching last weekend. That site, on native-owned land in Mission, was where a roadside vendor found half a human skull in 1995. It was turned over to local RCMP and DNA testing later revealed it to be that of an unknown woman.

Pickton's lawyer, Peter Ritchie, told reporters that the ongoing investigation is one of the things defence lawyers will consider when making a case for when the trial should begin. But he refused to speculate on whether it could be delayed months or even a couple of years until police complete their probe into the missing women case.

"We expected it to go to trial ... so there's certainly no surprises about that," Ritchie said. "It looks like a long and complicated trial."

Pickton, who has been in custody since his arrest on Feb. 22, 2002, has been ordered to stand trial on four more charges than admitted to by Canada's most notorious serial killer, Clifford Olson, who pled guilty to murdering 11 children across B.C. in the early 1980s.

Crown Attorney Mike Petrie would not comment on the possibility of additional charges.

"Under our legal system, anything is possible in terms of new charges in relation to new evidence," Petrie told reporters outside court. "But I'm not going to speculate about whether or not that could occur in this case."

Petrie said court availability, lawyers' schedules and the number of witnesses are all considerations in the timing of a trial date. But he made clear that it's the crown's intention to proceed with it regardless of whether the police investigation is complete or Pickton faces additional counts in the case.

Wayne Leng, who started a Web site dedicated to the women after his friend, Sarah deVries, disappeared in April, 1998, said there's a small measure of relief among loved ones that the case against Pickton has been committed to trial.

"At least there's a sense that it's finally moving forward," said Leng, who is in regular contact with many of the alleged victims' families.

"But it's still a long way from over."

Additional articles by Daniel Girard

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Families, loved ones 'in limbo'-July 23, 2003



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