Pickton set to plead not guilty Monday

Saturday, January 28, 2006
Globe and Mail

Vancouver Robert (Willy) Pickton, the former pig farmer accused of being Canada's deadliest serial killer, will stand in the prisoner's box in B.C. Supreme Court Monday morning and tell the judge he is not guilty of murdering 27 women, his lawyer Peter Ritchie says.

Under extremely tight security, Mr. Justice James Williams will then begin a hearing to consider legal submissions on what can be presented to a jury later this year. It could be several months before the court sets a date for selecting a jury and calling witnesses.

Nevertheless, relatives of the 27 women, sex-trade workers who disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, are relieved that the case is finally moving forward almost four years after Mr. Pickton was first arrested.

"This is the long-awaited-for day," said Ernie Crey, an unofficial spokesman for some of the families. His sister's DNA was found on Mr. Pickton's farm in Port Coquitlam, although her name was not included in the list of alleged victims named in the charges against Mr. Pickton.

"This investigation has gone on for years, and finally we're going to see the trial get under way. That is important to me, and I'm sure for other families whose loved ones Pickton faces charges for killing," Mr. Crey said in an interview.

The sensational case has drawn international attention. The trial is expected to unveil details of the most grisly crime scene ever investigated in Canada.

"We are starting that part of trial where a plea will be taken on Monday," Mr. Ritchie said in an interview. He confirmed that Mr. Pickton would plead not guilty but he declined to elaborate further.

Mr. Pickton, 56, stands accused of preying on mostly vulnerable, drug-addicted aboriginal prostitutes who lived and worked in the Downtown Eastside, the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. Police investigating a sharp increase in the number of missing women first identified Mr. Pickton as a person of interest in 1998.

While their investigation continued, the list of missing women continued to grow: 31 names in 1999, 46 names in 2001. The probe gained speed after police raided the Pickton farm, looking for firearms. Media reports at that time said police found personal items of some of the missing women.

Mr. Pickton was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder on Feb. 22, 2002, and more charges were added as the years passed. However, the 27 charges against Mr. Pickton account for less than half of the women listed as missing from the Downtown Eastside.

A court-ordered publication ban prohibits media from reporting the case against Mr. Pickton as detailed in the preliminary hearing. The ban is intended to ensure that those who may be called to serve on the jury will find out about the case from testimony in court, rather than from the news media.

However, some details have been revealed from events outside the courtroom. More than 50 archeological experts who could identify human bone fragments have raked through the mud at the Pickton farm. A team that included forensic experts, biologists, toxicologists and chemists has searched for traces of DNA. Health authorities have said that police did not rule out the possibility that human remains may have been included in meat processed for human consumption at the Pickton farm.

Families of the victims are not expected to be in the New Westminster court on Monday. Because they may be called as witnesses, they were advised to stay away. However, friends and supporters were expected to show up outside the courtroom to mark the start of the trial with aboriginal drumming and the display of a memorial quilt bearing the names of more than 90 missing women.

Mr. Crey, who often listened to testimony during the preliminary hearing last year, said he finds the show of public support helpful. "It helps lift the burden," he said. "It lifts my spirits because I know I am among a lot of people who care, many who worked with my sister when she was there. It's really a comfort and I'm glad they are showing up."

Susan Davis, chairman of Prostitution Alternatives Counselling Education, a community group that advocates for prostitutes, is critical of how the court case has been handled.

"Who benefits from this trial?" Ms. Davis wondered in an interview. "The police get to look good; everyone who works at the courthouse gets paid. It is going to sell a bunch of newspapers. How does that help sex workers?"

The 37-year-old said she has been "a sex worker" for almost 20 years. The disappearance of so many sex workers should be an embarrassment for the entire country, said Ms. Davis, who would like to see significant changes to the prostitution laws. "I don't think anyone can fathom how many [prostitutes] have gone missing."

Mr. Pickton's brother, David, was reluctant to reveal in an interview yesterday whether he would attend the trial. He said that he did not know what was happening, that neither the police nor the lawyers had kept him informed. "I don't want to know. I got enough to worry about," he added, referring to his business activities.

However, he indicated that he is occasionally in contact with his brother. "My brother is doing okay, I guess," he said. "I haven't spoken to him in a while."

The four-hectare Pickton farm in the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam, which was used as a landfill as well as to raise pigs, is surrounded by smart new residential developments and remains much as it was when police completed their investigation. Huge mounds of earth are shoved about. Some heavy-construction equipment and a few trailers remain on the land. Faded "Danger No Trespassing" signs dangle on a rented metal fence on the edge of the property.

Over a noon-hour coffee at a Starbucks five minutes away from the Pickton farm, long-time Port Coquitlam residents talked this week about the impact from reports of the notorious police investigation on their city. Extensive media coverage has put their out-of-the-way suburb on the map, they said. Relatives and acquaintances from far away recognize the name of their city.

But they have no intention of pulling up stakes to escape the association.

"Every town has its problems," said a 47-year old woman who asked that her name not be published. "Where do you move to? . . . You just try and keep as safe as you can."

Copyright 2006 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved

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