VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Search for 50 women turns pig farm into crime lab
Joint task force investigates Canadian case
Jefferson City New Tribune
Sunday, February 17, 2002
PORT COQUITLAM, British Columbia -- Every day, outside the pig farm's gate, relatives weep for lost sisters and daughters as police perform their own grisly ritual, picking through the farm's muck and manure to unearth clues about the fate of 50 missing women.
"I'm a basket case, wondering what's going on," said Ada Wilson, peering over the fence. Her sister, Mona Lee Wilson, 27, vanished from the streets of Vancouver in November, and police suspect she may have ended up here.
"I'd like to find her," Wilson said, "but not like this."
Since 1983, drug-addicted prostitutes have been vanishing with alarming frequency from the seedy east side of downtown Vancouver. For years, investigators were stymied by the case. In fact, they long maintained that there might not even be a case. With no bodies or other physical evidence of homicide, it was possible that the women had simply moved elsewhere, detectives said.
As the disappearances mounted, however, police and the public took more interest. A joint task force, pairing Vancouver police with Royal Canadian Mounted Police, formed last spring. In October, authorities announced they suspected homicide.
Last month, five more women were added to the missing roster, bringing it to 50 and surpassing a better-known series of killings south of the border: the Seattle area's Green River slayings of 49 women.
The Vancouver task force's first big break came Feb. 5, as police executed a search warrant on a 10-acre farm in Port Coquitlam, 22 miles east of downtown Vancouver. They charged one of the farm's owners, 52-year-old Robert "Willy" Pickton, with unlawful possession of a .22-caliber rifle and .22-caliber pistol. They also found enough evidence to prompt another search.
Since then, up to 85 investigators have swarmed over the 10-acre farm, a muddy, puddle-pocked jumble of rundown buildings, junk cars and huge mounds of dirt bordered on two sides by new, tightly packed housing developments. Dozens of animals -- pigs, sheep, goats, cows and llamas -- were taken from the farm by animal-welfare agents.
Officials blocked off the property with metal security fences and brought in search dogs and rental trucks, including a refrigerated unit for holding frozen meat. Workers in rubber boots and white "moon suits" walked slowly across the muck, mapping, taking photos and taping black plastic over the windows of a shabby, single-wide trailer.
"Please rest assured investigators will examine every nook and cranny, every square foot of ground and every inch of material if necessary," Vancouver Police Detective Scott Driemel told reporters in a briefing tent set up in a Home Depot parking lot across the street from the farm.
It could take months to search everything, Driemel said.
What they've found so far is a closely held secret. Driemel said "specific items of interest ... that contain certain DNA samples" were found in the trailer. But he refused to comment on news reports that cited unnamed police sources as saying identification and personal items of at least one of the missing women had been found.
Neither Robert Pickton nor his younger brother Dave Pickton, who also lived at the farm, has been charged in connection with the disappearances.
Robert Pickton was charged in 1997 with attempted murder, allegedly stabbing a drug-addicted prostitute in his home, but those charges were later dropped.
The farm was familiar to some prostitutes who work the streets of Vancouver. They talk about a guy, known as "Farmer Willy," who would invite women to parties at the farm and at a nearby house that the brothers turned into a private drinking club known as "Piggy's Palace."
Through their lawyer, the Pickton brothers have denied any involvement in the disappearances, and friends have leaped to their defense. Conceding that the Picktons were "rough around the edges," supporters describe the men as friendly and generous. Robert Pickton's fondness for prostitutes? He felt sorry for them and gave them money, the friends say. The illegal guns? Pickton owned them to rid the farm of coyotes, they say.
The dearth of information from authorities has not kept neighbors in this quiet suburb from speculating what may have gone on at the farm -- especially after news reports that investigators had asked a rendering plant to examine its records about animal carcasses it had accepted from the Pickton farm.
"Everybody's talking about it," said Bill Wells, 77, as he ate lunch at a meat-pie shop in Port Coquitlam. "There's been a lot of grisly jokes -- you know, don't buy the pork chops."
"They're thinking 'pig farm' ...! It just boggles the mind," said Trevor Greene, author of "Bad Date," a book chronicling the hard lives of the missing women.
On one point even the authorities agree: The investigation could have been more effective had more time and money been invested early on.
"Why did they wait so long to dig up this land?" Ada Wilson wailed. Standing outside the farm, near a fence-post sign warning, "This property protected by pit bull with AIDS," Wilson lit a candle to her sister and added it to a small shrine created by relatives of the missing women.
"If they had done something before, my sister might still be here," she said.
The community's denial of the plight of downtrodden women stifled the investigation until recently, one women's advocate said.
"It is the stigma of prostitution that has permitted the disappearances to remain unsolved for so long," said Suzanne Jay, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter.
Yet even some friends and relatives of the missing women understand why the Pickton farm did not come under more intense scrutiny earlier, even though it was known on the street.
In researching his book, Greene said, he had heard women mention "Farmer Willy," but he never followed up on it.
"There are literally hundreds of these guys who could have done this," Greene said. "A lot of guys go downtown not for sex but to perpetrate violence. Every day there are six to 10 bad dates. These guys will take cricket bats, baseball bats, bricks to these women's faces."
If the investigation nets a killer, that will not end the fears of women who work the streets of Vancouver.
Andrea, with flaming red hair and a sleeveless top, shivered in 40-degree temperatures on the corner of Hastings and Columbia, waiting for a customer as junkies drifted by.
She said she has had a few bad dates in her six years on the streets, including one john who took her for a long drive and then told her how easy it would be to smash her head with the rock he was holding.
She said she'd heard of "Farmer Willy," but considered him the least of her worries.
"There are a lot of psychos out there," she said, glancing up and down the street. "A lot of psychos."
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Updated: August 21, 2016