Women continued to vanish, even with Pickton in sights


Oct 8, 2011 – 4:11 PM ET | Last Updated: Oct 8, 2011 4:17 PM ET

Women were disappearing from Vancouver’s crime-infested Downtown Eastside. Missing, without a trace. Someone had to be responsible, perhaps a serial killer.

Police had a prime suspect: William Pickton, a Port Coquitlam, B.C., pig farmer.

By January 2000, officers of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were aware of the creepy middle-aged loner and his predilection for prostitutes.


Pickton had been under loose surveillance for months, yet street workers continued to vanish from the Downtown Eastside. They would continue to disappear and die. Pickton would continue to kill.


Another two years would pass before he was arrested and charged with the murder of 26 marginalized sex trade workers from the area.


On Tuesday, a provincial Missing Women Commission of Inquiry begins hearings that should reveal how police and B.C.’s Criminal Justice Branch failed the dead women.


Some of the Pickton case is well known; much of it is not.


In 2007, Pickton was tried in B.C. Supreme Court on six counts of murder and convicted of all six. (The remaining 20 charges were eventually stayed.)


The court heard Pickton had lured women from the Downtown Eastside to his farm, on the promise of money, alcohol and drugs. He had savagely butchered them.


But how was he able to do this while under investigation as a prime suspect? Why had authorities not stopped him earlier, before he could kill more women?


Some aboriginal and women’s groups will be on hand Tuesday to protest the hearings. They claim the inquiry has slid off the rails, that it’s a sham, because they have been denied funding and therefore cannot hire lawyers to represent them during the process.


Their concerns have been taken seriously. Inquiry commissioner Wally Oppal, a former appeal court judge and former B.C. attorney-general, has repeatedly asked the B.C. government to provide funding so these groups can hire counsel.


In July, Mr. Oppal left a pleading voicemail message for then-attorney-general Barry Penner on behalf of “the poor aboriginal women.” It fell on deaf ears.


On Thursday, two more organizations — the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Amnesty International Canada — added their names to the list of those who will not take part in the hearings. Families of 17 Pickton victims have been funded and have a lawyer representing them.


The boycott is a distraction. The commission’s formal mandate, after all, is to examine how police conducted the missing women investigation and to recommend ways to improve future investigations, including those involving “more than one investigating organization.”


Scrutiny will fall where it should, directly on police, members of the VPD and the RCMP who worked the Pickton file, and on B.C.’s Criminal Justice Branch. They will be expected to provide answers.


Crucial to this process is a revelatory VPD review of how police handled the missing women investigation. Prepared in 2005 by Deputy Chief Constable Doug LePard and released to the public last year, the review will be entered as evidence when the hearings begin.


It finds serious flaws in the police investigation and the manner in which some individual VPD and RCMP officers conducted themselves and their work.


By 1998, the VPD and RCMP had zeroed in on the killer and the scene of his murders, the pig farm.


Tips had started coming in the previous year, from multiple sources familiar with Pickton and his sleazy underworld. A missing women investigation undertaken by a single VPD officer in 1997, then formalized and expanded, seemed finally to be gaining momentum.


A caller to Vancouver’s Crime Stoppers’ tip line in July 1998 “described a man he knew as ‘Willie’ and stated that Willie was a ‘sicko’ who picked up prostitutes from Burnaby, New Westminster and Vancouver,” reads the LePard review.


“He also stated that a recent visitor to Willy’s [sic] trailer observed at least 10 purses and womens’ identification in the trailer. The tipster also reported that ‘Willy’ [sic] had made comments to other people that he can ‘easily dispose of bodies by putting them through a grinder which he uses to prepare food to feed his hogs.’ ”


The same source — plus another man also in touch with police — claimed to know of a woman who helped Pickton procure prostitutes from the Downtown Eastside.


The woman was a local drug user named Lynn Ellingsen; she would become a key Crown witness at the Pickton serial murder trial. Ms. Ellingsen testified that she had once seen Pickton carve up one of his victims inside his barn.


In August 1998, according to the LePard review, Vancouver police learned Pickton had been investigated a full 17 months earlier by the RCMP, after an episode of “extreme violence” with a prostitute at the pig farm. According to the review, Pickton picked up the woman from the Downtown Eastside and attempted to handcuff her inside his trailer. The woman fought back and slashed at Pickton’s throat with a knife. Pickton grabbed the same knife and stabbed the woman repeatedly.


The woman escaped and was hospitalized; she nearly died. Pickton was charged with attempted murder, assault with a weapon, forcible confinement and aggravated assault.


This was a seminal event. Had Pickton been prosecuted, his killing spree likely would have ended. But he did not go to trial. And the murders did not stop.


All charges from the March 1997 incident were stayed by B.C.’s Criminal Justice Branch early the next year, according to the LePard review, “for reasons not confirmed for this review, but apparently related to [the victim’s] perceived lack of credibility or reliability due to her drug use.”


The missing women inquiry led by Mr. Oppal will closely examine this monumentally bad decision not to prosecute Pickton on the 1997 charges, and will make findings of fact regarding it.


Pickton was entered into the Canadian Police Information Centre databank, under an “observation” category for “being dangerous to prostitutes,” according to the LePard review.


Through the rest of 1998 and 1999, VPD and RCMP officers met more sources — people who had visited the Pickton pig farm and who claimed to have witnessed disturbing behaviour. But a schism developed between the two police services; the RCMP seemed to push aside the VPD, at least according to the LePard review.


A second seminal event occurred in January 2000, when a pair of RCMP constables interviewed Pickton, who had been under intermittent police surveillance for months. The interview did not go well. It was unproductive. “It should have been planned better,” one of the constables told Mr. LePard. “I look back and I know I flubbed it.”


But Pickton did offer the two Mounties something very significant: He gave them consent to search his property. Incredibly, they did not take up his offer.


“I was told that if we found anything we’d need a warrant, everyone was so leery about getting on board with the investigation, worried about his rights,” the same constable told Mr. LePard.


More prostitutes would go missing, women whom Pickton would murder. Women whose possessions — and later their remains — would be found on his farm, after a police search was finally conducted in February 2002.

That’s not all; more details will come out once the missing women inquiry hearings start next week.


The process won’t be perfect, and some voices from the Downtown Eastside won’t be heard. The inquiry won’t bring any women back.


But it will help explain why so many could vanish, even with their killer fixed in police sights.


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

Updated: August 21, 2016