Families of Pickton's victims want public inquiry into police handling of case

Canadian Press

December 15, 2007

VANCOUVER - Long before the discovery of severed heads, hands and feet at a suburban pig farm, there were the pleas of family members about their missing loved ones - mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts who'd disappeared without a trace.

One by one, the women who'd spent much of their time in the drug ghetto of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside seemed to vanish, some after paying their rent and leaving savings in bank accounts.

As the list of missing women grew, so did complaints about police by desperate relatives who say their concerns fell on deaf ears because the women were drug-addicted prostitutes.

Now, after serial killer Robert Pickton has been found guilty of murdering six women, families say a public inquiry is needed to get to the bottom of why the Vancouver Police Department waited so long to launch an investigation.

Pickton was convicted Dec. 9 on six counts of second-degree murder after a 10-month jury trial and sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 25 years. Hearings leading into a second trial begin next month on another 20 murder counts.

Sarah de Vries, who was last seen on April 13, 1998, is among those 20 other women Pickton is charged with killing.

Maggie de Vries, Sarah's sister, said police were getting tips about women going off to Pickton's Port Coquitlam, B.C., pig farm as far back as 1997.

It wasn't until the spring 2001 that a joint RCMP-Vancouver police task force took over the file that the missing women's case appeared to move forward.

Less than a year later, on Feb. 22, 2002, the first charges were laid against Pickton.

That's when archeological experts and the Missing Women's Joint Task Force - led by the Mounties - began scouring his 4.5-hectare property for clues.

"I want to know why so many women had died before they (police) got onto that property," de Vries said.

"I was there at the beginning, pressing for the investigation to be taken more seriously and I saw the resistance to that by the police in early 1999. There was no willingness to admit to the possibility of crimes, let alone murder, let alone serial murder."

Former Vancouver police officer Kim Rossmo, now a research professor in the criminal justice department at Texas State University, warned officials in his department in May 1999 that a serial killer may be at work.

But in June 1999, the force was still saying publicly that the women could be living elsewhere.

"We don't have anything that indicates that in fact there have been 20-plus homicides," spokeswoman Const. Anne Drennan said at the time.

Rossmo, who developed geographic profiling as a crime-fighting tool now used by police forces around the world, said an inquiry is needed but shouldn't serve as a soap box for bashing police.

Rather, it should ensure that the necessary systems are in place so a tragedy on such a massive scale never happens again, he said.

"It's something where you actually would have wished to be wrong," he said about his serial-killer theory. "It would be better if I was wrong and they were right and the women were found alive.

"The general attitude of Major Crime was, 'Well, we don't have any bodies so what can we do?' I've argued that's akin to a fire department saying, 'We see smoke and no fire so we're not going to do anything.' "

Rossmo said police in all jurisdictions need to look at how they respond to missing persons cases, including on the so-called Highway of Tears - along the western stretch of Highway 16 across northern British Columbia.

In October, the RCMP announced the investigation of missing and murdered women in the area had grown to 18 victims from nine.

Police in Edmonton also revamped their approach to a string of unsolved prostitute murders over several years after stinging criticism.

Former Vancouver mayor Philip Owen, then the head of the city's police board, defended his officers and criticized Rossmo, who lost a wrongful dismissal suit against then deputy police chief John Unger and the police board.

"It's absolutely unjustified," Owen said of the criticism the force has faced.

"The (Vancouver police department) moved on this very early and was very serious and was concerned about it and did a lot of things. They're taking a bum rap and it bothers me."

Rossmo disputed Owen's remarks.

"The bottom line is we have 26 confirmed deaths by DNA," Rossmo said. "Does he really think that was a system that was working?

"There's at least 10 of those murders confirmed by DNA that occurred after Pickton was known to be a hot suspect. I'd like to know what he considered bad policing if he thinks that was OK."

Much of the criticism was crystallized 2002 in outrage directed at Vancouver Det. Scott Driemel. The spokesman for the missing women task force, told an off-colour joke about a prostitute to some officers and reportedly quipped to a journalist that the women in the Downtown Eastside are so "ugly, they can't get a date."

Driemel claimed his comment was taken out of context but some of the missing women's families remember it as an example of the attitude that permeated much of the department.

Deputy Chief Doug LePard said the force has tried to build better relationships with Downtown Eastside residents, including hiring a former police officer in 2003 as a liaison between the department and sex-trade workers.

LePard has conducted an internal review of the missing women's case and wrote a comprehensive 449-page report that includes several recommendations, some of which have already been enacted.

"It was essentially a management review of what occurred in the Vancouver police department," he said.

The report considers events from the mid-1990s, when women in the Downtown Eastside began disappearing, to February 2002, when police executed search warrants on Pickton's property that led to his arrest.

LePard said he couldn't discuss the report pending an appeal of Pickton's verdict, a possible second trial or a public inquiry.

The B.C. government would decide if an inquiry should proceed after a request to cabinet by the Attorney General's Ministry.

Attorney General Wally Oppal would not make such a request before a decision on whether Pickton will face another trial, said spokesman Shawn Robins.

Sue Davis, a co-ordinator with Prostitution Awareness Counselling and Education, said she's not so sure a costly public inquiry is necessary.

"It's just going to give a bunch of money to people to sit around and talk about us, not to us," Davis said.

Sex workers need a safe place to take customers so they don't have to drift out of the Downtown Eastside to places such as Pickton's pig farm, where they may become vulnerable prey, she said.

"If they had somewhere to take him (Pickton) they wouldn't have been on the farm," Davis said.

Marilyn Kraft, whose daughter Cynthia Feliks was last seen alive in 1997, is one of Pickton's alleged victims in the second indictment.

Kraft said she wants an inquiry into police inaction for the sake of her daughter, who left behind a daughter of her own and would have had her 53rd birthday this week.

Like the other families of missing and murdered women, Kraft is seeking answers to why police didn't take the disappearances seriously when there was an obvious pattern early on.

"If the police had done their job in the first place I'm sure that Mr. Pickton would not have killed as many women or been allowed to because people told the police many times about him, about the pig farm, and they didn't act on it," said Kraft.

"The usual response they gave to a lot of the parents when they reported their children missing was: 'She's around, she went on a holiday.'

"Of course, these girls never went on holidays."

Copyright 2007 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

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Updated: August 21, 2016