Pickton Searchers offered counseling

Hunt for clues on accused serial killer's farm involved over 600

Lori Culbert
Vancouver Sun

Monday, July 10, 2006

Police and civilians investigating Canada's worst serial killer case were offered trauma counselling while searching a messy Port Coquitlam pig farm, where many had cuts from junk heaps, waded through piles of bird and animal waste and uncovered the gruesome evidence of 26 murders.

CREDIT: Canadian Press files

Forensic investigators make their way back to work after a lunch break at the Port Coquitlam pig farm of accused serial killer Robert Pickton in 2003.

Details of the evidence found by police on the farm are protected by a court-ordered publication, but The Sun has obtained a health report prepared for the RCMP that illustrates some of the challenges faced by officers and civilian employees as they searched the property of Robert (Willy) Pickton.

"A lot of cuts needed to be dealt with because of the amount of metal, junk, old equipment laying around the farm. Ensuring that workers had up-to-date tetanus shots were an issue and concern," says the report, written after police concluded a 21-month search of the 6.8-hectare property in November 2003.

"Bruises were common as well, due to having to climb in and around buildings and equipment.... During some months, heat stress was an issue with staff."

The report was prepared by the health services section of the RCMP in B.C., and was obtained by The Vancouver Sun under Access to Information laws.

Pickton, who was taken into custody in February 2002, has been charged with killing 26 women who vanished from Vancouver's drug-infested Downtown Eastside.

There have been limited media reports about working conditions on the farm because civilian searchers signed confidentiality contracts, and testimony given by police officers at Pickton's court hearings fall under a sweeping publication ban.

The Sun has obtained two reports and a memo relating to the search that give glimpses into the complex operation, which police have said was "unprecedented in Canadian history" for its investigative and forensic challenges. An RCMP press release has said the search involved sifting through 370,000 cubic yards of soil, tearing down the many buildings on the farm, and seizing thousands of exhibits that were tested in labs.

The documents obtained by The Sun indicate there were about 500 police and civilians employed by the task force, not including 102 anthropology students, operators of heavy machinery used to dig up the grounds and other civilian workers.

The report by the RCMP health services section says a first aid station was set up on the farm to deal with cuts and bruises because police didn't want the injuries to be handled externally "due to the secure nature of the investigation."

There were constant health concerns that needed to be addressed on the farm, which had at one time been home to pigs and other livestock, and more recently had been the base of a landfill operation.

"Water and soil analysis had to be done on a regular basis to check for contaminates that may cause health concerns for on-site personnel," the RCMP's health services report reads. "The investigators had to go through a lot of bird waste and animal waste, and infections from this was always a concern. . . . Gloves and masks [were] worn by all working on the site."

The report also notes that Dr. Roland Bowman, the RCMP's staff psychologist, monitored the well-being of police and civilian searchers.

"Supervisors were always watching for persons becoming distraught on the job and would ensure that Dr. Bowman was contacted immediately," the report said. "Students came from across Canada to work on this project. The supervisors were very conscientious of watching the students to ensure they received help immediately if they became distraught."

However, the report noted that more off-site administrative civilian workers became "distressed" than the investigators on the farm.

A memo written July 28, 2005 by task force leader RCMP Insp. Ward Lymburner, in response to an information request submitted by The Sun, said "a small number of individuals received some form of voluntary psychological assistance."

But he did not offer any specific details, saying it could take weeks or even months to manually search the files or notes of employees involved with the Pickton case for information on health and/or psychological services.

The cost of providing psychological services to task force employees was $17,000, but that didn't include any bills incurred by police or civilians who saw a psychologist who wasn't contracted by the RCMP, his memo said.

Lymburner said a small number of the injuries treated by first aid personnel on the farm resulted in employees taking time off work, but noted the details may be subject to privacy or confidentiality concerns.

Dr. Brian Johnson, a psychologist contracted by Bowman to assist civilians or police who became distressed on the farm, assessed the mental well-being of task force employees through a report he wrote on May 15, 2003, when the search was 15 months old, and still had six months to go.

Johnson interviewed 126 employees -- including 39 Mounties and six Vancouver police officers, 18 RCMP civilian employees and four excavation crew members -- who all averaged more than nine months working on the farm.

Also interviewed were 54 temporary civilian employees, presumably many of them anthropology students, who averaged 4.5 months on the farm.

Johnson's goal was to give the employees a chance to debrief about any "emotional distress" and to identify anyone experiencing "psychological symptoms requiring intervention."

His conclusion, two-thirds of the way through the search on the farm, was positive: "None of the employees interviewed demonstrated signs of being traumatized."

The 126 employees interviewed by Johnson filled out questionnaires that asked them about sleeping, eating and drinking habits; personal relationships; and physical and mental health issues.

Johnson's report said a very high percentage of police and other employees were happy working for the task force, and "did not look forward to the project ending."

However, the exceptions were a few of the temporary civilian employees, which included the anthropology students, who found their roles somewhat "repetitious," were concerned about the long hours on site, and were thought to have experienced interpersonal conflicts with other civilian searchers.

(The students mainly worked on conveyor belts searching for evidence in debris that was dug out of the ground by the excavators.)

Police officers working for the task force were among the most experienced and talented in the province, and Johnson's report said a number of them said they had never before been offered an individual psychological debriefing.

"At the conclusion they frequently remarked that it was a useful exercise and perhaps should happen more often," Johnson wrote.

RCMP spokesman Staff Sgt. John Ward said he would not discuss the contents of the material obtained by The Sun for fear of violating the publication ban on Pickton's pre-trial hearings.

"(The report) speaks to the enormity of what we were facing, but we just want to stay away from anything that could show up in the media saying this was the kind of event [we were investigating]," Ward said.

Ward refused to say how many, if any, RCMP employees went on sick or stress leave as a result of working on the farm.

The RCMP's health services report was prepared to give the Mounties advice on how to handle equally sensitive investigations in the future. It recommended that the health services unit become involved at the beginning of a case -- which didn't happen on the pig farm -- so that first aid attendants or nurses are on-site as soon as possible.

"The regional psychologist needs to be involved at the beginning to ensure early detection that an investigator is distressed to ensure they are dealt with before they derail," it says.

Pickton's pre-trial hearings began in New Westminster Supreme Court in January. His trial is scheduled to start Jan. 8, 2007.

 The Vancouver Sun 2006

The Vancouver Sun



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