Chief defends police actions

Missing women case targeted by television's Dateline

Lindsay Kines and Kim Bolan
Vancouver Sun

Monday, November 25, 2002

Vancouver police Chief Jamie Graham has launched a spirited defence against what he calls "scandalous" and inaccurate attacks on his department over its handling of the missing women case.

CREDIT: Denise Howard, Vancouver Sun.
A candlelight vigil was held at Portside Park Sunday evening to honour Angela Jardine, one of the missing women from the Downtown Eastside. Friends lit candles and signed cards for Angela's family at the bench dedicated to the missing women.

In an exclusive interview with The Vancouver Sun, Graham said history will show that investigators did far more on the case than they are receiving credit for.

"There is a much more positive side to what we did than is being reported," Graham said. "I wish I could get into great detail; I just ask you to stick with the story.

"At the end of the day, I think we'll be able to stand up and be proud of what we did, of what the VPD did."

Graham said that he and other members of the department were particularly upset with a recent report on NBC Dateline, which suggested Vancouver police had the name of the prime suspect all along and did nothing with it.

"I think it's journalism of the lowest calibre -- that kind of sensationalism, where you're bashing at people that cannot or will not defend themselves."

Graham said he has been advised by the department's lawyer to refrain from discussing details of the investigation to protect the integrity of the case against Robert William Pickton. The 53-year-old Port Coquitlam farmer has been charged with murdering 15 of the 63 women reported missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside over the past two decades.

"I feel almost like a member of the judiciary where you get bashed and you can't defend yourself," Graham said. "I'd love to be able to speak about this case. I'd love to be able to open the books and let you read everything we've done, but I can't, and I won't anyway."

The Sun's ongoing coverage, however, has shown that Vancouver police detectives did aggressively pursue tips about Pickton in 1998 and 1999, developing two independent sources of information pointing at the farmer as a potential suspect.

Vancouver detectives and a Coquitlam RCMP investigator worked closely together on the case, and at one point, Pickton was placed under surveillance. The investigators also hoped to get permission to use wiretap on the case and gather enough evidence to search the farm.

But as B.C.'s unsolved homicide unit, including both RCMP and VPD officers, became involved, they questioned the accuracy of some of the source information and the investigation eventually stalled.

Senior members of the Vancouver police are incensed that the VPD is taking the brunt of the criticism for failing to make an arrest earlier, despite the fact both agencies were involved in the Pickton probe early on and the suspect lived in RCMP jurisdiction.

Graham would discuss none of this during the interview, though he admitted that he is under pressure from within the department to defend its reputation.

He said there was a "big debate" after the Dateline piece aired. "We did a lot of discussion about what our response should be," he said. "There are mixed views, but I'm the boss and this is as strong as you're going to get."

Asked for specifics, Graham would only say that he objected to the finger-pointing in the piece and the suggestions that the VPD did the wrong thing and was somehow a second-rate police force.

"They haven't got the facts. They speculate and they interview people who are upset -- who have a right to be upset." But what the people said is inaccurate and hurtful, Graham added.

"As soon as it came out, I thought I'd love to be able to tell my side of the story. I'm confident that we will some day, but it won't make Dateline."

Graham also said he has hired Vancouver lawyer George Macintosh to vigorously defend the department against two lawsuits linked to the missing women case.

In addition, Graham has appointed Inspector Doug LePard, a former major crime detective who now heads the planning and research section, to conduct a thorough review of what the department did and when.

LePard could make recommendations on how the department should handle similar investigations in the future, Graham said. But the chief refused to acknowledge any problems with the original Vancouver police probe.

The Sun revealed last year that the case was assigned to inexperienced or overworked officers without the time or resources to do a proper job. In some instances, the officers distrusted one another, withheld information from the rest of the team or lacked the proper training to handle such a complex case. There were also problems with the computer that was used to manage the case.

Eventually, the investigation stalled, and a joint RCMP-VPD review team took over the file in the spring of 2001.

Almost a year later, on Feb. 22, 2002, the first charges were laid against Pickton, in connection with the deaths of Mona Wilson and Sereena Abbotsway.

While Graham said he felt The Sun's coverage has been fair, he took exception to statements that the original VPD investigative team was inexperienced or ill-equipped or that the department failed to devote enough resources to the case.

"I take exception with that," he said. "I don't think that's true that inadequate resources were thrown at this case."

But when pressed, Graham was unable to refute The Sun's findings and admitted he didn't yet know all the details. He took over the chief's job in July after previously heading the Surrey and North Vancouver RCMP detachments.

"Whether they were the right people, I just don't know," he said. "I haven't gone into that in any depth. I have a feeling that we are going to find out as this evolves."

Graham said it's always easy to look back and say what should have been done. "But maybe at the time the inspector -- or whoever was making decisions -- had on his plate before him a series of facts that didn't lend itself to go a certain way.

"I'm very comfortable with the preliminary information I'm hearing about the response of the Vancouver police."

Graham said the department's commitment to the case continues to this day. Of the 100 or so people scouring the Pickton farm, 27 are from the Vancouver force, he said.

"These are some of our very best. The co-lead investigator is one of our people and three of our people are running actual teams," Graham said.

"The level of cooperation and the level of expertise that is being shared by us and the RCMP is a model now for major crime investigations in Canada."

Graham said he has done a tour of the site and is amazed at the complexity of the technology being used by investigators there.

He said police officers from forces across Canada are asking to work at the site to gain experience they can use on their own forces. "They want to come up and see how this case is evolving and what is going on."

But it is also going to be a lengthy process, Graham said, adding that those excavating at the Port Coquitlam pig farm are less than a third of the way through the process.

The way major serial killer cases are investigated has changed dramatically as technology has improved, he said.

"The manner of investigating big crimes like this has evolved tremendously in the past three or four years. It is just done differently. We train people. We send people away on major case management training session. It is just not the same. What used to be done with two detectives with a shoebox and a dirty raincoat, it is not like that any more."

The cases are "extremely sophisticated," he said.

"It is not unusual for the lead investigator to have not very much to do with the actual file. His job is to manage the investigation and to manage the interrogation teams and the surveillance and the wiretaps and all that. It is a huge undertaking and very expensive."

While Graham does not admit any flaws in the initial Vancouver investigation, he says he is always looking to improve the way investigations are conducted within the department. "I am bringing an inspector forward to do some high-level studies for me -- one of them is to aggressively look at issues of integration as it relates to the Vancouver police," Graham said.

"The RCMP are moving to an integrated model and it seems only reasonable at the same time to see what we can work with smarter and better and what agencies work well together."

He said training can be offered jointly by several forces to make it more efficient. And information-sharing between forces and departments is essential.

"There will always be issues where I make notes, I have a piece of paper in my notebook and I don't share it with somebody. That is a never-ending issue in policing," Graham said. "The issue is when stuff goes into a computer and a data base, then other people have access."

 Copyright  2002 Vancouver Sun

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Updated: August 21, 2016