Canada is no stranger to serial killers, and Robert Pickton represents the lowest, most deranged and most evil depths a twisted mind can descend into. Convicted of murdering six women and charged with the murders of a further 20, this quiet pig farmer from Port Coquitlam, near Vancouver, BC, has spawned a Senate enquiry into the RCMP, a host of books and documentaries and a was featured as a case in the popular show “Criminal Minds”.
Vancouver’s lower-east side is considered one of the sleaziest neighborhoods in Canada. It is famous for poverty, drugs, prostitution and homelessness. Windows are boarded up and walls are covered in graffiti. The sound of police sirens is common in this area.
One day in 1997 a prostitute was admitted to hospital with multiple stab wounds. She was high on crack at the time and bleeding profusely. She claimed she had been taken to a farm and stabbed by a client and identified him as “Rob”. Police found the man, a 48-year old pig farmer named Robert Pickton, from just outside the city, and charged him with attempted murder. However the prostitute went back onto the streets and back to her drug addiction, and as Crown prosecutors tried to build their case against Pickton, the prostitute became too unreliable in her testimony. The Crown was forced to drop the charges and Pickton returned to his pig farm.
Nobody would hear from Robert Pickton again for another decade. In the meantime, police and society at large failed to realize that a growing number of women, most of them prostitutes from East Hastings, were disappearing. In 2001 a social justice group performed a survey of violence among Vancouver’s sex workers and found that an appalling number had experienced violence. Also, many knew of friends and acquaintances who had disappeared. The vast majority of these women were afraid to approach police, and thus these unidentified, homeless and vulnerable women weren’t missed by society. The survey revealed a growing number of missing women, at least 21, between 1999 and 2001. The organizers of the survey brought their evidence to the RCMP.
The Mounties and the Vancouver Police set up a task force to look into the problem, but encountered many obstacles from the get-go, the first being an inadequate amount of funding from a bureaucracy that considered combating the growing Asian gang war in Vancouver a priority. The second major obstacle was the investigator’s inability to get the street people of the lower east side to open up to them. Police had few leads and the investigation took nearly five years before an old piece of evidence would blow the case wide open.
Investigator Kim Rossno, head of Vancouver Police’s criminal profiling department, put forward the idea that a serial killer was working East Hastings, but his superiors flatly rejected the theory. No reason is given for this refusal to look into the possibility of a serial killer in Vancouver, however speculation remains that the low status of the victims, combined with the specialized resources required to hunt a serial killer, may have helped sway the decision.
In early 2002 one RCMP investigator was backchecking cases of reported assaults on prostitutes in Vancouver, and the 1997 charge against Robert Pickton came up. The investigator routinely collected all the evidence on file and discovered that a torn piece of bloody shirt from Robert Pickton had been submitted as evidence, however, once the Crown had dropped the charges it had been filed away and forgotten. The piece of fabric was sent for DNA testing and a week later the results came back: the DNA from Robert Pickton, the stabbed prostitute and two other missing women were present!
Around the same time a rookie RCMP officer was responding to a weapons complaint in Port Coquitlam. The officer came across some articles of clothing belonging to some of the missing women in Vancouver. With the DNA and the clothing found on-site, the police were able to get a search warrant. In 2002 Robert Pickton, a quiet pig farmer, was taken into custody while the farm he and his brother owned was torn apart by the police task force.
What police uncovered there haunts their memories today. In addition to mounds of evidence, including hundreds of items of personal effects from missing women, they discovered blood-covered chopping blocks, tufts of hair and bloodied articles of clothing. As they dug deeper throughout the property the full scale of the horror was revealed. The half-devoured remains of six women were discovered. Their mutilated bodies had been fed to the pigs the brothers raised on the farm. In the pig pen police discovered human bones and even a half-eaten arm. Buried under the barn police found more human remains. Officers left the scene retching, and many were traumatized by the pure evil of what they found there.
Back at the detachment in Vancouver, Pickton was undergoing an interrogation. Investigators questioning him quickly realized that Robert Pickton had a mental disability. His speech was slow and he was unable to grasp complicated questions or more advanced language. Pickton was grilled for 11 hours straight. He completely denies knowing anything about the missing women or the murders or the piles of evidence coming in from his farm every hour. “I’m just a pig man” he kept telling his interrogators.
With the evidence at their disposal, police charged Robert Pickton with the murders of two women, Sereena Abotsway and Mona Wilson. As more evidence came in they added three more counts of first-degree murder. A month later, as the evidence was being analyzed and DNA samples were returning from laboratories across North America, Pickton was charged with an additional two murders, bringing his total to 7. In a prelimary hearing Pickton was remanded to custody without bail while police continued their investigation.
Excavations at the farm continued for another year.It was difficult for police to recover more evidence because most of the victims had been consumed by pigs. However, some evidence of human flesh being ground up and mixed with pork was discovered in Pickton’s freezer, indicating that he may have been involved in cannibalism, as well.
By the time the investigation was over (the farm was handed to the Crown and gated off. The buildings have since been demolished but the land is not open to public access) police charged Pickton with 27 counts of first degree murder. Pickton’s trial began in 2006. In a preliminary hearing the presiding judge split the case into two trials; one with six counts of murder for the airtight case police had using the actual human remains found on the farm, and one with 20 other counts for which police didn’t have much evidence aside from some personal effects of victims found on the farm. The 27th count was dismissed for a lack of evidence.
Jury selection took two days, and the date for the trail was set for January 2007. A publication ban was instituted, meaning newspapers and television wouldn’t have access to the proceedings and could only speculate (the ban was lifted in 2010 and the full court documents were released to the media).
During the trials for the 26 victims, police lab staff were able to testify that the DNA of 80 people, including both men and women, were found ground up in the dirt, in pork and in blood samples taken from around the farm. Investigators were able to present a .22 rifle with a dildo on the barrel which contained the DNA of both Pickton and some of the missing women. Also several syringes filled with anti-freeze were found along with a video tape of Pickton bragging that the best way to kill a prostitute was to inject her with anti-freeze.
In October a juror was accused of having already made up her mind that Pickton was innocent. The judge was forced to suspend proceedings until a new juror was chosen. Finally, on December 9 2007, the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty” on six counts of first degree murder, but “guilty” on six counts of second degree murder. Pickton was sentenced to 25 years without parole, the most a judge can give for second-degree murder. The judge also ruled that the remaining 20 charges against Pickton be dropped.
The Crown wasn’t finished with him, however. In January the Crown launched an appeal, contesting Pickton’s acquittal on first-degree murder charges (first-degree murder would have allowed the court to sentence him to life without parole and label him a dangerous offender). The Crown also wanted to continue to try Pickton for the 20 other counts of murder. The public was outraged at the appeal, as not only did they believe the horror of the Pickton farm was finished but that an appeal could also overturn Pickton’s conviction and release him back onto the streets.
In June the British Columbia Court of Appeals announced its decision. Because there was dissent on a point of law (the trial judge’s decision to drop the other 20 counts of murder may have overstepped his jurisdiction), the Court ruled that Pickton had the right to appeal his conviction to the Supreme Court of Canada. Basically the Appeal Court washed its hands of the whole mess and kicked it up to the top court in Ottawa.
In November 2009, 7 years since the Pickton case broke and Robert Pickton was charged with 26 counts of murder, the Supreme Court of Canada heard the case. 9 months later, in July 2010, the Court came back with a final verdict. The Supreme Court upheld the original court’s decision and found that the judge in question had not stepped over his boundaries, but warned of other judges doing so in the future. The second-degree charges were kept and no new trial was needed.
In August of 2010, shortly after the Supreme Court laid to rest the Pickton affair once and for all, the Vancouver Police Department issued a formal apology to the public. Chief Constable Doug LePard told the public that “..we would have caught him sooner. I wish that…all the mistakes we made, we could undo.”
In 2011 “Missing Women Commission of Inquiry” was established by the BC government to look into the missing women, the role the VPD and RCMP played in the investigation, and the final court battles that took 8 years to settle Pickton’s convictions. In November of 2012 the Commission wrapped up after hundreds of testimonies from victim’s families and friends, police officers, lawyers and the public in general. It determined that Pickton was beyond a doubt responsible for the disappearances of at least 30 women, and probably more. Although he was only finally found guilty of six counts, the Commission made many recommendations to police and the Crown for future cases.
The enquiry stirred up a lot of controversy as the mistakes police made in the investigation, including the 1997 release of Pickton that cost countless more lives, came to light. Public protests became common outside the building the Commission was holding its hearings in Vancouver, and accusations were flung around the media across the country. In the end, however, the enquiry was able to help organizations, from the police to the courts to grassroots groups, learn from their mistakes and better handle the misery and problems of Vancouver’s East Hastings district.
In 2012, after the Supreme Court Ruling, the VPD apology and the Missing Women’s Inquiry, Robert Pickton released several letters he had written from his jail cell. One of the most chilling and evil of what he had to say was his closing line on his last letter. It read “I was one short of a perfect 100 when they caught me.”