Two VPD officers raised alarm in 1998 about missing women, inquiry told

NEAL HALL, VANCOUVER SUN  November 8, 2011

VANCOUVER -- Two Vancouver police officers wrote memos to their superiors in 1998 raising the alarm about the growing number of missing women in the Downtown Eastside, the Missing Women inquiry heard Tuesday.

Const. Dave Dickson, who worked in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES) for years, wrote a memo Nov. 5, 1998, expressing his concern about the number of missing women in the area.

"I feel very strongly that a large percentage of the women have met foul play," Dickson said in his memo, which was read out at the inquiry, which is probing why it took so long to catch serial killer Robert (Willy) Pickton.

Dickson stated in his memo that in his experience, women involved in the street sex trade may disappear for a week or two, then they return to the streets.

He suggested the missing women "deserve some attention" from the police department and the number of women vanishing seemed to be escalating.

Deputy Chief Doug LePard testified Tuesday at the inquiry that Dickson's concern wasn't taken seriously enough.

The inquiry also heard that Constable Lori Shenher, who was assigned in July 1998 as a second detective in the Vancouver police missing persons unit, wrote a similar memo on Aug. 27, 1998.

Shenher's wrote that the women reported missing disappeared under "suspicious circumstances."

She added: "I believe we're going to find these cases are related and should be treated as such."

"They were both raising the alarm," LePard told the inquiry.

At the time, LePard testified, he was the sergeant in charge of the home invasion task force, a well-funded temporary investigative unit that had no trouble with funding and resources because it was considered a high priority because it involved elderly citizens being targeted.

He admitted the missing women case wasn't given the same priority, mainly because managers in the upper ranks did not believe there was a serial killer preying on women prostitutes in the DTES.

"Had management of the day truly accepted the nature of the problem, it could have been resourced," LePard told inquiry commissioner Wally Oppal, a former judge and B.C. attorney general.

As it turned out, VPD loaned 29 officers to the joint forces investigation with the RCMP after Pickton was arrested in 2002 and police spent almost two years doing an exhaustive forensic search of the farm -- the largest police search in Canadian history.

At the time, in July and August 1998, Vancouver police had received two tips from the same man about Pickton being a suspect. The tipster said "Willy" was a "sicko" who lived on a farm in Port Coquitlam, worked for P&B Used Building Supplies and may be responsible for all the missing women.

The tipster also said Willy had 10 women's purses inside his trailer at the farm, as well as women's identification, and had slashed a woman's throat in the past.

That was a reference to Pickton's 1997 knife attack on a prostitutes from the DTES. The woman had fled naked and bleeding from Pickton's farm and had later died in hospital, but was revived.

Pickton was charged with attempted murder and unlawful confinement but those charges were stayed by the Crown in early 1998. The inquiry will later examine the reasons for the Crown's decision to stay the charges.

LePard testified the 1998 tips were passed along to Coquitlam RCMP because it had jurisdiction to investigate Pickton after the 1997 attack.

He said the Shenher met with the tipster a number of times and believed the man, Bill Hiscox, was considered credible but there were no bodies or crime scene, so Vancouver police had no way to confirm whether Hiscox's information was accurate.

The inquiry was told Monday that Kim Rossmo, an expert in serial crime who headed the VPD's one-man geographic profiling unit in 1998, had wanted to issue a press release advising the public that police were looking into the possibility of a serial killer preying on women in the DTES.

But a commanding officer at the time, then inspector Fred Biddlecombe, felt the press release was inflammatory, so it was never released.

LePard testified he thought the press release should have been released but added even if it had been released it likely wouldn't have deterred women from working the streets because of their addiction problems.

"Shouldn't that choice have been up to the women who are the potential victims of a serial killer," commission counsel Art Vertlieb asked.

LePard agreed but pointed out that the street prostitutes already believed a serial killer was at work.

He added that between 1993 and 1998, 10 sex trade workers had been murdered, "so it wasn't a secret that this work was extremely dangerous."

LePard will continue his third day of testimony Wednesday at the inquiry, which began hearings Oct. 11.

Police found the DNA of 33 women on the farm of Pickton, who confessed to an undercover officer that he killed 49 women and planned to kill dozens more.

Pickton was charged with 27 counts of first-degree murder, which were divided into two trials. The first trial ended in 2007 with Pickton convicted on six murder counts. He now is serving six life sentences.

The Crown decided not to proceed on a second trial involving another 20 murders.




Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016