Haunting focus in Canada on a long string of deaths

The Boston Globe

By Colin Nickerson, Globe Staff, 6/24/2002

VANCOUVER, British Columbia - In 1983, Rebecca Guno disappeared from this city's Downtown Eastside, a seamy zone where hookers troll for trade, where biker bars compete for customers with strip joints and massage parlors, and where junkies, religion-ranters, and vagrants lurch along the broken sidewalks.

Rebecca Guno

Guno was only the first of scores of women - most of them prostitutes and drug addicts; many of them Indians - who investigators now believe were snatched from the red-light quarter in what police fear may be one of the worst serial-killing sprees in North American history. Police say they were taken by the same predator, a man who chose his victims well.

Canada's murder rate may be just a quarter that of the United States, but in neither country does the disappearance of a heroin-popping working girl usually rate the undivided attention of the homicide division - especially when there is no body or other hard evidence of foul play.

By the late 1990s, however, feminist groups, aboriginal-rights activists, social workers, and family members of the missing women were starting to complain, loudly, that something was amiss - and media reports were focusing not only on the disturbing pattern of disappearances, but what was beginning to seem almost willful indifference by authorities. It wasn't until last year that a Missing Women Task Force was created when police started seriously putting two and two together - and came up with 54. That's the number on the official list of presumed victims.

In February, 19 years after Guno vanished, police with search warrants arrived at a junk-strewn pig farm that sits among the upscale condominiums of suburban Port Coquitlam, 20 miles east of Vancouver.

They weren't looking for bodies, however, but for illegal firearms in an unrelated case. But the raiders found identification and personal items - handbags, shoes, blouses - belonging to at least two of the missing women.

Since then, far grimmer discoveries have been made on the pig farm, today the focus of an extraordinary search for grisly evidence.

''There is every possibility other women will be added to the list,'' said Constable Catherine Gifford of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the federal force that has joined Vancouver police in a painstaking hunt for minute fragments of human bone and tissue on the 11-acre farm.

Using forensic techniques learned in the search through the rubble of the World Trade Center, a task force of more than 80 police officers together with dozens of specialists - including archeologists and osteologists - is literally sifting through every inch of dirt and debris.

The probe for scraps of DNA is likely to take years, but 52-year-old Robert ''Willie'' Pickton, a self-described hog raiser better known as a biker gang hanger-on and operator of ''Piggy's Palace'' - a quasi-legal dance hall/drinking spot on the farm - has been charged with the murders of six of the missing women. He has pleaded not guilty.

Pickton has a police record, but he beat the most serious rap brought against him in the past - a 1997 charge of repeatedly stabbing a prostitute he had brought to the farm. But in a decision that outraged rape counselors and feminist groups, a judge ''stayed'' the case, saying there was no chance of conviction apparently because the victim, Wendy Lynn Eistetter, had a long criminal history, including assault.

According to prostitutes in Vancouver and counselors who work with them, the pig farm was infamous as the scene of drunken orgies in which vanloads of women recruited on the streets of Downtown Eastside were supplied to biker gang revelers along with pallet-loads of beer and cheap wine. ''Every girl knew about the pig farm - and a lot of girls thought it was a good date, because of the free drugs and stuff,'' said Darcy Gwen, 23, who plies her trade on the Eastside's Jackson Avenue. ''But there were scary stories. I got bad vibes and never went.''

If the toll is 54, it ranks among the worst serial killings on record. The ''Green River Killer'' murdered more than 40 prostitutes and female runaways in the Pacific Northwest during the early 1980s. A trucker, Gary Ridgway, was charged with four of those killings last fall, but there is doubt whether he is the true slayer. The infamous Ted Bundy confessed to killing 16 people in the 1970s and is linked to 36 murders in all. He was executed in Florida in 1989. John Wayne Gacy killed 33 boys beginning in the 1970s. In the Mexican city of Juarez, activists count nearly 200 murders of young women in the last decade, some of them thought to be victims of one or more serial killers.

Under fire for failing to act sooner, police are keeping unusually tight-lipped about one of the most intensive criminal investigations ever mounted in Canada. What little information has been divulged to journalists is parceled out at formal and infrequent news conferences.

Parents, siblings, and other family members of missing women have been supplied more information, but not much.

Bert Draayers has been told that the remains of his foster daughter, Sereena Abotsway, have definitely been identified. ''We've been told there is definite DNA evidence that Sereena is no more,'' he said.

Richard Frey is the father of Marnie, missing from the Eastside street scene since 1997. ''They [police] say it's like the scene of a massacre. They keep talking about fragments - that's the key word they use, `fragments.'''

Speculation has focused on the hog slaughterhouses on the farm. And on feed troughs and a powerful wood chipper, which investigators are examining for microscopic traces. The farm is a virtual junkyard of scrap machinery, dilapidated structures, and huge mounds of land fill.

Suzanne Jay, director of a Vancouver rape counseling center, told the Los Angeles Times: ''The police tell us nothing, and we are left to imagine the most grisly scenes imaginable.''

Bulldozers are on the scene. Meanwhile, archeology students and bone specialists are using screens and conveyor belts to sift through the soil in search of tiny bits of bone and teeth. ''Literally no stone will be left unturned,'' said Vancouver police spokesman Scott Driemel.

That's a pledge that has neighbors spooked.

Pickton and his brother, David, inherited the farm from their parents and sold off parcels to real estate developers. That land is now occupied by housing developments, a golf course, and an elementary school.

Surrounded by prosperous suburbia, the pig farm appears a defiant anomoly. The chain link fence at the main entrance bears a warning sign: ''This property protected by: Pit Bull with AIDS.''

Outside the gate, mourners have created a shrine of flowers, candles, and photos of the missing women.

''To Diane Melnick,'' reads one, naming a woman who vanished from Downtown Eastside in 1995. ''I am so sorry. There are so many `If onlys.'''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/23/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

Courtesy of the Globe



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Updated: August 21, 2016