Police agencies tested by huge numbers of missing and murdered women

Greg Joyce

Friday, December 19, 2003

VANCOUVER (CP) - The body count of women - missing or murdered - is mind-numbing.

Poster showing some of the women missing from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver who worked in the sex trade or were involved in drugs: Diana Melnick, Tanya Holyk, Janet Henry. Kerri Koski, Sarah de Vries, Sheila Egan, Catherine Knight, Catherine Ganzalez, Stephanie Lane, Olivia Williams, Inga Hall, Cindy Beck.

Three current investigations, all in close geographic proximity and involving missing women going back two decades, have galvanized public attention with thorough shock and horror - and questions.

In the Vancouver area, the RCMP's Project Evenhanded deals with a list of more than 60 missing and murdered women that dates back to the early 1980s.

The project was set up shortly before the arrest of pig farmer Robert Pickton and includes many suspects other than Pickton, although he remains the primary focus and faces 22 first-degree murder charges.

In Edmonton, the RCMP's Project Kare tries to find answers to more than five dozen women missing and murdered in Alberta.

In Seattle, the Green River task force still searches for more bodies after police finally caught their monster, Gary Ridgway, who has confessed to 48 murders.

Striking similarities stand out among the three cases: the women were almost all drug addicts and prostitutes, they began disappearing as far back as two decades ago, and police took a long time to make a significant arrest.

In Edmonton's case, there still have been no arrests.

Inevitably, questions arise about the attention - and personnel - that police put towards finding answers and making arrests regarding the huge number of missing women.

Project Kare has only been set up recently, replacing the former "high-risk missing persons project."

Project Kare involves only the RCMP, not the Edmonton city police, even though many women disappeared in Edmonton.

Project Evenhanded was only set up in late 2001 and is a joint task force involving the RCMP and the Vancouver city police, which was getting nowhere in its investigation of missing women through its solo Project Amelia.

The Green River task force has been in action for many years, but didn't catch Ridgway until November 2001.

Pickton now stands accused of being Canada's worst accused serial killer and Ridgway is the worst convicted serial killer in U.S. history.

Police investigative techniques have come into question ever since Clifford Olson, the self-styled Beast of B.C., pleaded guilty to 11 murders in 1981.

At the time, the RCMP came under intense criticism for their handling of the investigation, and it was revealed that detachments within Greater Vancouver failed to share and pursue information they had on Olson.

That inability or slowness of police agencies to work together seems still to be a problem in the Edmonton investigation.

"We are working in harmony with Edmonton (city) police services but they are not represented on the project," said Alberta RCMP spokesman Const. Al Fraser.

"Although we may not have a representative of whichever municipal police agency sitting at the table, that does not mean we are not sharing information back and forth."

Project Kare's predecessor, the "high-risk missing persons project," involved many Alberta municipal police forces sharing information about more than 80 missing and murdered women across the Prairies.

But those cities aren't included in Project Kare, either.

Like the Vancouver missing women joint task force, Project Kare is slow to get rolling.

"We're getting it set up right now," said Fraser. "We just moved into the investigative stage from the analytical."

So far, only three RCMP members - an inspector, staff sergeant and sergeant - are working full-time on the project, "putting together infrastructure and going through applications for people of expertise," said Fraser.

The plan, he said, is to increase those numbers significantly early in the new year.

Project Kare's slowness in getting rolling has come under criticism from a former Edmonton city cop.

Recently, JoAnne McCartney, a former vice officer who now runs a program aimed at getting hookers off the street, said Project Kare may be a "public relations exercise" to calm anxious families and secure government funding.

She said she had hoped the new task force would be a joint venture by RCMP and Edmonton Police.

After media reports in Vancouver in the late 1990s began to point out the huge number of missing women, Vancouver city police became besieged with questions about what was going on.

Their consistent reply was that there was no evidence to suggest a serial killer was responsible, or that the women were even being killed.

Without hard evidence they were being murdered, the conclusion was that they likely moved on to another city.

The Vancouver city police investigation was understaffed. It took until late 2000 before the RCMP was brought on board.

The joint investigation was still getting set up, establishing DNA databanks and sorting through lists of primary and secondary suspects when a tip led police to Pickton's farm and his eventual arrest in February 2002.

Advancements in DNA technology have greatly assisted investigators and the Pickton investigation has also stimulated scientific discovery.

Dr. David Sweet, a forensic dentist involved in the Pickton case, told a scientific conference a couple of months ago the case has offered manufacturers of detecting equipment a chance to say "try this out and we'll see how it works, and we'll see where we can improve it."

Despite the overwhelming number of missing and murdered women and missing children, Canada still is only talking about a national DNA databank.

At another conference in Quebec last fall, former solicitor general Wayne Easter said Canada needs a DNA databank for missing persons to spare families the pain and frustration of searching, often for years, for loved ones who may be dead.

But Easter said the idea needs further study because of the costs involved and privacy issues, particularly those surrounding adults who seemingly disappear but who might not want to be found.

Bruce Northorp, the now retired RCMP superintendent who was in charge of the Clifford Olson investigation more than 20 years ago, says there is a "structure" to the Pickton investigation that didn't exist for Olson.

"When I got the Olson case, I had to use men that were available," he said. "I didn't get to pick and choose."

He said information may have been shared but not necessarily pursued between detachments about Olson, whose murders crossed several different RCMP detachments.

"You have these individual little territories that are seemingly looking after their own little bailiwick," he said.

He suggested the Pickton joint task force should have been set up much earlier.

"It may have been hard to interest the RCMP in following it up because the women are missing from Vancouver," which is under city police jurisdiction.

Perhaps the comments of one of the leading investigators in the Green River killings sums up the seemingly continuous problem of information-sharing.

"We don't have any connection with the Vancouver task force," said Det. Kate Larson of the Green River task force.

"We have records that (Ridgway) had come up there (to the Vancouver area) but it was with a family member and at this point we don't have connection to Gary Ridgway and any victims in Vancouver."

The investigators in Seattle and Vancouver do talk - sometimes.

"We haven't in quite some time," she said.

"Certainly we exchanged information early on but at this point we're so focused on our cases down here that we really haven't had a great deal of exchange with the Canadians."

 Copyright  2003 Canadian Press

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Updated: August 21, 2016