Serial mistakes

National Post

April 15, 2002

With each murder charge laid in connection with the ongoing investigation of a pig farm outside Vancouver, the case for an inquiry into police handling of the disappearance of 50 women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside grows stronger.

The current criminal investigation, a joint RCMP-Vancouver Police Department effort involving up to 85 officers, is one of the largest in Canadian history. It has so far resulted in six murder charges being laid against Robert Pickton, 52. But all this is a far cry from the initial response of authorities to reports of missing women from the ranks of Vancouver's drug-addled sex trade workers. Not all the facts are known. But the available evidence suggests authorities ignored evidence of killings for years.

The first hint that people were dying was a statistical explosion in the number of women who went permanently missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Between 1983 and 1994, there were one or two such cases per year. In 1995, the number jumped to four, and in 1997 it reached nine, leading to speculation that one or more serial killers might be responsible. Kim Rosmo, a former Vancouver police inspector, now director of research for the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., has said that he was frustrated in 1998 when he failed to get the department to issue a public warning about the possibility of a serial killer active in the Downtown Eastside.

In the summer of 1998, the Vancouver police assigned a second officer to its missing persons section to review the abrupt but sustained increase in the number of missing women. Then, in 1999, amid growing public fears, authorities brought in television personality John Walsh from America's Most Wanted, established a $100,000 reward for information, and released a poster of 31 missing women. A Missing Women Review Team was established and two homicide detectives assigned to the case. Even so, police still did not appear to believe a serial killer was responsible. A spokeswoman for the department said at the time the homicide detectives were placed on the file "only to give us a different perspective in terms of the style of the investigation. ... This does not, in any way, indicate, nor should it indicate to anybody that, in fact, we believe that all these women have been victims of homicides."

The slow police response has led to calls for an inquiry from the families of victims, Vancouver politicians and such organizations as the Native Women's Association of Canada. Tim Louis, a Vancouver city councilor, suggests the response from authorities would have been different "if this was 50 missing stock brokers or 50 missing lawyers." No doubt that is true. But is this evidence of a cultural or societal bias? Does this mean that authorities simply judged these women not worth worrying about?

The fact that the victims were junkies and prostitutes certainly created practical difficulties for police. Because the activities they engaged in are illegal, the missing women were forced to live on the fringes. They could not turn to the authorities, and in many cases, they were estranged from family and friends. The missing women, police thought, might simply have left the street, or moved to another city. Yet such practical difficulties do not excuse the police: There was apparently plenty of information to be gleaned from Eastside sex-trade scuttlebutt, and for some reason authorities failed to collect it, or act on it. It was only many months after the RCMP joined the Vancouver police in the investigation that the massive search of the pig farm began.

It is horrible to think that of the six women whose remains have been identified at the Port Coquitlam pig farm, most went missing after 1998. If the court convicts Mr. Pickton for these deaths, that is six lives that might have been spared had police acted sooner. Upon completion of the current investigation and any related court proceedings, an inquiry must be established to determine how so much information slipped through the cracks, and to ensure the underlying mistakes are never repeated.

Just Another Indian-By Warren Goulding



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Updated: August 21, 2016