‘A disaster in every way’ Pickton sister

Suzanne Fournier and Steve Berry
The Province

Sunday, June 23, 2002

Their family roots date back 100 years, their history steeped in the rural traditions of hog farming.

The Province

Forensic osteology students and RCMP sift through excavated soil in their search for human remains on the Pickton pig farm, set eerily amid tony subdivisions.

The Pickton family put down roots in Port Coquitlam in 1905 when William Pickton bought land near Essondale Mental Hospital. There, the family raised hogs until their land was expropriated for the Lougheed Highway.

Their new pig farm -- the now notorious one, splashed across TV screens around the world -- was purchased in 1963, when Leonard and Helen Louise Pickton put down $18,000 for the swampy, 40-acre lot.

The family moved into the ramshackle farmhouse on Dominion Road with teen sons David Francis and Robert William, widely known as Willie. The Picktons' oldest child, Linda, who had spent most of her teen years away at school, never lived in the house.

The Province

Forensic osteology students and RCMP sift through excavated soil in their search for human remains on the Pickton pig farm, set eerily amid tony subdivisions.

Decades later, says one family insider, Leonard and Helen would be "turning in their graves in horror" to see what remains of their homestead -- a 10-acre parcel that resembles a scene from hell, set eerily amid the tony subdivisions now legally divided from the original parcel.

The farm is the scene of one of North America's largest forensic investigations. A virtual on-site police detachment works alongside white-suited scientists and 26 forensic osteology students hired to sift meticulously through excavated soil for minute fragments of human bones and teeth.

Police say they've recovered hundreds of samples of human DNA and there have been reports they discovered grisly human remains of at least two women.

The Picktons' youngest son, Willie, now 51, is in jail, facing first-degree murder charges in the deaths of seven women who are among an official police list of 54 who have disappeared from Vancouver's drug-infested Downtown Eastside since the mid-'80s.

'Willie' Pickton

The Joint Vancouver Police-RCMP Missing Women's Task Force extended its search to a nearby Burns Road site April 17.

Spokeswoman Const. Cate Galliford says police plan to release a statement soon about the results of the new search.

The Pickton children have taken very different paths in life. Willie chose to stay at home, mucking about in his trademark gumboots, tinkering with machinery and trading in abandoned cars and whatever else he could sell.

He was a simple and often strangely quiet man who could sit hours without speaking, says Cheryl Shalala.

Cheryl Shalala

Shalala, who lives in east Vancouver, was a close friend of Dinah Taylor, who lived with Willie for 18 months, leaving only in December 2001.

Willie made the acquaintance of a number of women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside during his frequent trips to the area's West Coast Reduction rendering plant, where he would drop off pig carcasses. Together, Shalala says, Willie and Taylor would invite women back to the farm.

Gary Bigg, a former truck driver who now lives in an eastside hotel, said: "My fiancÈe, Heather Chinnock [who is now on the list of missing women], visited Willie on the pig farm off and on for at least 10 years, ever since I met her in 1991. Willie was quiet. He didn't like me, but he liked Heather.

"Heather went out there to party. There was always lots of . . . alcohol, and she told me in so many words that she was . . . there as a prostitute," says Bigg. "Heather loved animals and Willie was always promising her a job working on his farm.

"Heather was afraid of Willie and she'd have nightmares when she came home from the farm, but then he'd call . . . and she'd head right back out there again."

According to brother Dave, Willie has "always been taken advantage of by losers." He would loan women money and offer them a place to clean up and sleep, says Dave.

A baby picture of Mona Wilson is the centerpiece of a memorial outside the gates of the Pickton farm.

In jail, Willie's gaunt and haggard looks have only deepened. His balding blond hair straggles down to his shoulders. In his rare personal court appearances (he usually appears by video link), Willie has been unabashed, staring boldly back at the angry family and friends of the women he's allegedly murdered.

Dave, 52, describes himself as an entrepreneur who has worked hard all his life, mostly in his landfill, excavation and demolition businesses. He has told The Province he was the brains of the family, the one who had to "push the pencils" and "count the dollars."

It was by the sweat of Dave's brow that the subdivision of the family farm -- which the three siblings inherited after their father died in 1978 and their mother a year later -- was even possible, says sister Linda.

Although the divorced father of two grown children often works 18-hour days, he admits he likes to party hard, admires bikers and is proud of the after-hours club he built on a nearby site on Burns Road. The club was dubbed Piggy's Palace after the nickname by which the burly Dave, often begrimed with oil and dirt, was known around Port Coquitlam.

The Province

This property became known as Piggy's Palace after the Pickton brothers turned it into an after-hours club. 'We had 1,800 people at one of my parties and my parties were cleaner than any bar downtown,' says Dave Pickton.

The club was run by a non-profit group called the Good Times Society that the brothers founded in 1996 to hold "fundraisers" for women's groups and minor hockey leagues. Dave equipped Piggy's, which attracted a varied crowd ranging from bikers to the local mayor of the day, with a dance floor and sound system and hired security from White Knights Security Services.

"We had 1,800 people at one of my parties and my parties were cleaner than any goddamn bar downtown," says Dave.

The club was eventually shut down by bylaw and fire officials in a zoning dispute. The society dissolved in 2000.

Depending on who you talk to, the Pickton brothers were either big-hearted farm boys or slightly creepy characters.

Both brothers did have run-ins with the law. In July of 1992, Dave Pickton was convicted of the sexual assault of a female construction worker at a site he was excavating. Dave was fined $1,000, given 30 days' probation and ordered to have no contact with the victim.

Dave Pickton

The woman later told The Province, "You could smell [Dave] before you saw him. He had no respect for women at all."

Bikers appeared at her home before the trial, the woman says, leading her to relocate to another city.

In 1997, Willie Pickton was charged with attempted murder and forcible confinement of Wendy Lyn Eistetter, a Downtown Eastside prostitute. The charges were eventually stayed by the Crown.

Still, the brothers have their backers.

"Dave and Willie have been pretty good guys -- they're [just] a little rough around the edges," says neighbour Randy Thibert.

"I've known them for quite a few years and I've watched them do a lot of nice things for people. It's too difficult to fathom that they're involved. "

Another woman who lives down the street from Piggy's Palace praised the brothers generally, noting that she "used to take my 90-year-old dad to their parties. These were excellent parties where local people used to go . . . Now it's so tainted a lot of people don't want to admit they went there.

"This is impossible -- unless we've got a real Jekyll and Hyde here."

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While her brothers opted to stay on the farm for most of their adult lives, sister Linda left behind the squalor of the barns and junked cars to become a well-educated businesswoman who leads a very private life in an affluent part of Vancouver.

While she insists that she is not wealthy and that the siblings have not made any money from subdivision of the family farm, she lives a comfortable life with her children in a beautiful home.

"This whole nightmare has been a disaster, an emotional, financial disaster, a disaster in every possible way," says Linda.

While quietly expressing sympathy for the families of alleged murder victims, she also notes the ordeal "has been horrendous, very trying and very difficult for my family and for Dave's family. Dave has young daughters the age of some of the victims and he has just been devastated by this."

Linda says that she has never been close to her brother Willie, whom she calls Robert. She was sent away to school at 12 and now sees Willie only in lawyers' offices to sign papers, she says.

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Land records show the Pickton siblings sold the north end of their farm in 1994 for $1,760,000 to Eternal Holdings, which built the townhouse development now known as Parkside Place.

In July of 1995, the city of Port Coquitlam paid the Picktons about $1.2 million for a site that became Blakeburn Park.

The Coquitlam School District then bought the Blakeburn Elementary School site from the Picktons for $2.3 million.

Last March, the Pickton siblings sold a chunk of land for $769,469. It has become Heritage Meadows, an attractive subdivision of townhouses -- some with a view of Willie's trailer, stripped to its studs by police.

But development costs for landfill, hydro, roads and other infrastructure averaged $196,000 an acre, says Linda Pickton, for a total cost of almost $5 million. That wiped out much of the subdivision sale profits, she says.

The siblings, whose names are still on a development permit application posted on their property, had hoped they'd finally make money from the sale of the remaining farm site -- the one on which police plan to dig and sift for at least a year.

In the end, says Linda, the family has been left nearly broke, without enough money to cover Willie's legal bills. His lawyer, Peter Ritchie, has placed a $375,000 lien on the property.

The total value of all the sales is close to $7 million and the farm itself is assessed at more than $3 million. And the family owns other property.

Linda Pickton confirmed that although she still owns the Dominion Road farm with her brothers -- "it was an inheritance from our parents" -- she is not an owner of the Piggy's Palace Burns Road site, but "I do have a mortgage on it because they [her brothers] couldn't afford to pay me." 

© Copyright 2002 The Province



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