B.C. police were told years ago of pig farm


Seattle, Washington

Feb. 9 - PORT COQUITLAM, B.C. -- Lynn Frey has made the half-day trip countless times from her home in Campbell River on Vancouver Island to the avenues of British Columbia's biggest city.

For the past four years, she and her sister have braved the sleazy streets of Vancouver's Eastside tenderloin district, questioning the unfortunate women who haunt the streets, in a lonely search for Frey's troubled daughter.

     About two years ago they began hearing from drug users and prostitutes who might have known Frey's daughter, Marnie, who was 24 when she disappeared in 1997. The bits and pieces of information seemed to point to an inconspicuous, muddy pig farm 22 miles out of town.

     One of the men who lived at the farm was well-known to girls who work the streets, and in 1997 had been arrested for trying to kill a prostitute, she heard. It was a dirty place on a potholed road amid a blossoming bedroom community, the girls told her. It was a place many only heard about and refused to go to even though its hosts threw great parties, lest they be left with no way back to Vancouver, Frey recalls.

     The stories resonated with Frey. The swampy farm was too close to home, blocks from the home of her own sister. The pig farm seemed eerie to both of them, she said.

     "It was like a magnet," alternately attracting and repelling, she said.

     Yet when Frey suggested that Vancouver police investigating the disappearances of dozens of missing women in recent years look at the place, her words seemed to fall on deaf ears. Her fading hopes were buoyed, though, when a joint police task force of Vancouver police and Royal Canadian Mounted Police was formed last year to look into the disappearances of 50 women in what is believed to be Canada's most prolific string of serial slayings.

     Two days ago, Frey steeled her heart again.

     "The task force called me (Wednesday) night to let me know there was going to be something on the media the next day," Frey said. "I thought nothing of it. I've been in touch with the police and called umpteen times in the last four years."

     On Thursday, images of the pig farm flashed across television screens and newspaper pages as the task force searched the farm amid speculation of a major break in the case. Frey felt her heart soar, then crash.

     "My heart went to my stomach," she said. "I hope this doesn't sound callous, I don't know how else to say it, but I am hoping -- I'm willing to believe -- that they will find bodies.

     "Over the years you get your hopes up high to find her, only to have them drop like a falling elevator. I need closure now to carry on with my life. How many times can a mother do this?"

     Mothers, fathers, family and friends of many of the missing women have driven to the farm now under police seal. Like Frey, they believe police waited too long to take their fears seriously. Some say they also alerted investigators to their suspicions and tips about one of the farmers, even as the list of missing women grew.

     Two brothers, Robert William and David Francis Pickton, and their sister, Linda, own the farm where they grew up. They became wealthy, by some reports, by selling off parcels for development. Rows of townhouses border the north of the farm, a golf course flanks the east, where the nearby Pitt River flows toward the Fraser River. The brothers live on the last 10 acres.

     Early yesterday, investigators could be seen shoveling dirt or manure mounds in a plank barn on the property near the confluence of the Fraser and Pitt rivers.

     Robert Pickton, 52, was arrested Tuesday on three weapons violations after police served a search warrant on the pale yellow house. According to the Vancouver Sun, officers found identification cards and other personal items belonging to two missing women, prompting another search.

     Pickton was released from custody Wednesday, but is due in court on Feb. 28. Police yesterday declined to say if they know where he is or whether he is under surveillance. Police also declined to call Pickton a suspect in the disappearances, saying only that he is among "hundreds" of people still under scrutiny.

     Asked at a news conference about the criticism that Vancouver police bungled by not looking sooner at the Pickton farm, Detective Scott Driemel, spokesman for the department, said any information gathered years ago was "shared, and whatever could be acted upon was."

     "We're not about to go back and defend ourselves for something that happened years ago," he said, adding that resource constraints and time needed to track thousands of leads complicated early investigation efforts. But authorities are now "aggressively pursuing the investigation," he said.

     Other officials said they have been diligent, but it takes time to examine hundreds of tips to determine what was hearsay and what was legally actionable, and that it is difficult to track down prostitutes and drug users who live a transient lifestyle, often using different names.

     While the list of 50 missing women dates back to 1983, most dropped out of sight in the 1990s, including 31 since 1997.

     Last fall, the new task force said the missing persons cases were being treated as multiple homicides. While task force members have consulted King County investigators looking into the Green River slayings of 49 women -- many of them prostitutes -- between 1982 and 1984, police in both countries see no link.

     Neighbors say Pickton and his younger brother, David, sometimes threw late night parties and pig roasts in a makeshift, unlicensed nightclub known as "Piggy's Palace."

     Over the years, the brothers raised fewer pigs, instead selling fill-dirt and gravel from the farm and dabbling in building demolition, friends said.

     One woman who declined to giver her name said she has known the brothers for more than 10 years and often joined them for outings to a biker bar in Burnaby. The brothers rode Harley-Davidson motorcycles and mingled with biker gangs, she said.

     She described David Pickton as generous and friendly, but said "Willy" was creepy.

     "He kind of kept to himself, hanging out back there in the piggery all the time," she said.

     Willy, a tall, thin man with a halo of long and curly dirty blond hair, once showed the woman how he boiled pigs in a large vat, she said.

     "It kind of freaked me out," she said.

     Friends and relatives of the missing women say they became aware of Robert Pickton after his name surfaced in 1997, when a prostitute and drug addict accused him of trying to stab her to death during an encounter at the farm in 1997. Pickton was charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault and unlawful confinement, but charges were later dropped. The woman, who had run screaming from the farm in handcuffs, reportedly refused to testify. Her whereabouts is unknown.

     Those who know Pickton, who was also seriously wounded during the incident, have a different version of the attack. They say a prostitute pulled a knife and tried to rob Pickton, slashing him across the chin.

     Yet those who tried to point police toward the farm over the years believe authorities missed their chance to stop the disappearances.

     "They dropped the ball on this," said Wayne Leng, a B.C. native who now lives in California. His friend, Sarah deVries, is one of the missing women. He said he first told Vancouver police about a pig farmer known as "Willy" in mid-1998, after a man told him about an assault of a prostitute, and of finding women's clothing and identification at the farm.

     "I think that more women would be alive today if they would have acted sooner," Leng said yesterday.

     That authorities knew of tips and Pickton's past run-ins with the law years ago, but did not key in on the pig farmer until now "really pisses me off," said Carrie Kerr, a 28-year-old Maple Ridge woman whose sister went missing in 1997.

     When Kerr's older sister, Helen Hallmark, a drug user and known prostitute, didn't show up for Christmas that year, "we knew something was wrong," Kerr said. "They knew about this guy for years, and they didn't do anything about it," she said. "How many women are dead now because of it?"

     Frey, meanwhile, wonders what might have happened to her daughter. The tale of Marnie's slide into prostitution, and the battles to save her, is a familiar one to the victims' families she has met.

     "Marnie was a very loving person. If a stranger walking down a street needed 50 cents and that was all she had, she'd give the last 50 cents in her pocket," her mother said.

     "Marnie got mixed up with the wrong people, started doing cocaine, then heroin. She was 19 or 20 when it started. When she got on heroin, she went to the streets of Vancouver to support her heroin habit, and started living that life. We couldn't stop her."

     Frey said her daughter, however, worried about her family and called several times a week to let them know she was OK. That stopped almost five years ago.

     Frey and her husband, Dean, a commercial fisherman, kept their doors open to their daughter and waged a battle over the years for her life.

     She came back home several times, thin, sick, vomiting, determined to clean the toxins from her body.

     Once she made it into drug treatment in Victoria.

     Always she bolted in less than a week, surrendering to heroin. Marnie's body would ache from withdrawal, her mother said, the shakes, vomiting, her bones aching. Her family's heart ached, too.

     "The doors were never closed and they still are not," her mother said.

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

Updated: August 21, 2016