Pickton inquiry: "Erin Brockovich of Downtown Eastside" refuses to stay silent on missing women
David P. Ball Posted: Apr 20th, 2012
Bonnie Fournier is making a last-ditch appeal to testify at the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry.
When Bonnie Fournier saw a black shape being dragged out the passenger side of a large vehicle on Cordova Street late one night in 2000, she thought someone was dumping a garbage bag on the unlit sex worker stroll she patrolled in her mobile nursing van.
Then, she recalled to the Vancouver Observer, the shape wriggled and she saw a flash of skin.
“It's a person!” she screamed, and the driver of the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society (DEYAS) health outreach van floored the gas and leaned on the horn. “We only had a matter of seconds to get the girl – she was dropped to the ground and they took off.
“She had hair and tissue torn from her head, contusions on her knees, and road burn. I didn't know how far she was dragged, but she was screaming and hysterical. I knew her from the Downtown Eastside.”
Missing women: Dave Pickton among 20 outstanding witness requests ignored since 2011
Missing Women Inquiry: Ex-Pickton worker echoes lawyer allegations of police cover-up
Fournier, a now-retired nurse who worked in the Downtown Eastside since 1968, says that what she saw – and what happened next – needs to be heard by the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, which is probing into why police did not catch serial Robert "Willy" Pickton sooner. But so far, requests to let her testify have fallen on deaf ears, and only nine hearing days remain.
“Who was it?” Fournier asked the sex worker, when she had calmed down and her wounds dressed.
“'They wanted a date and I didn't want to go – so they grabbed me by my hair,'” the young woman replied.
Fournier was almost certain the vehicle was one she'd seen Robert Pickton with regularly in the Downtown Eastside (DTES), years before his multiple murder conviction. Word-of-mouth among sex workers -- and on "bad date sheets" DEYAS published -- was that the "stinky" Port Coquitlam pig farmer was killing women, but police ignored the rumours and reports. If the truck Fournier saw was his, it meant Pickton had an accomplice. She asked the woman if it was him.
“'I can't say, because I'd be dead,'” she told Fournier. “'They'll kill me.'”
No chance to speak at missing women's inquiry
On April 2, 2011, Fournier said she attended a meeting with commission lawyers in preparation for the long-anticipated – and hard-fought – inquiry. The lawyers were interested in her because she had been DEYAS' only full-time nurse from 1999 to 2003, and before that the only full-time nurse at the Vancouver Provincial Courthouse's holding cells from 1978 to 2003. She practiced narcotic addiction and criminal nursing in the DTES since graduating in 1968. DEYAS' van was shut down after its funding was cut by the regional health authority in 2009.
On Dec. 23, 2011, her name was among 20 key witnesses submitted by Cameron Ward, a lawyer representing more than 20 families of women whose remains were found on Pickton's farm.
“No other nurse, arguably, has worked the streets of the DTES as much or for as long as Ms. Fournier,” the submission stated.
But no call has come. With only nine hearing days remaining – after the province refused requests to extend the inquiry's June deadline – this is Fournier's last chance to share her experience.
“I don't know what their resistance is to me,” she told the Vancouver Observer. “The police don't want me to testify.
“I'm like the Erin Brockovitch of the Downtown Eastside,” she said, referring to a famous California whistleblower who fought the powerful energy industry in 1993.
Robert Pickton, the "smelly pig farmer" in the DTES
Fournier remembers many of her encounters with women like Sereena Abotsway, Marnie Frey and “Sharon” in detail – down to the clothes they were wearing – and recalls the night Pickton was jailed after allegedly stabbing a woman known as “Anderson” nearly to death in 1997. Court jail staff phoned her to ask about any health hazards because he smelled so terrible, she said. After the Crown mysteriously dropped all charges against him, and then destroyed its files, she began seeing the pig farmer around Hastings Street at least twice a week.
“That's when I started seeing Pickton again,” she said. “I got to know him through his vehicle being around, and through the girls talking.
“When I did flu shots at the Waldorf Hotel, he happened to be there. I saw him and his vehicle hanging outside. When you see him, you don't forget – the same as Dave (Pickton). They were well-known.”
Word-on-the-street was that the “smelly pig farmer” was killing women on his farm, often lured there by several other women he was paying with drugs.
“All we have are descriptions: a creepy guy trying to get girls to go to a party, maybe in 1998 to 1999 and continuing on,” she said. “It was word-of-mouth among the women, that other women were acting as lures for the Pickton parties.
“They called him a 'smelly guy, a creepy guy with long, greasy hair. He smelled rotten. When I came downtown, I'd drive down Hastings, past the Waldorf (Hotel). If he was standing outside, I'd think, 'Oh sh*t, here he is.'”
With her first-hand experience of the police, numerous missing women, and seeing Pickton himself, she asks, why have requests for her testimony been ignored for a year?
“I've been put off – apparently, 33 years working in the Downtown Eastside isn't 'expert'?,” she said, her voice fierce. “I've worked with youth; I was director of a street program since the 1970s.
“There isn't one area – from psychiatric to dual diagnosis to prostitution to hard-core criminals – that I haven't dealt with in my career since 1966. They can't dispute what I have to say. I'm still working at being heard."
But the senior lawyer for the Commission told the Vancouver Observer that the inquiry could not comment on the remaining witnesses to be called, although Commissioner Wally Oppal set a deadline today for final requests.
“The Commissioner will be dealing with future witnesses next week,” Art Verlieb said. “It is not the policy of Commission Counsel to discuss why a witness was or was not called to testify.”
Narrow escape from Pickton's farm
In another chilling incident – forever burned into her memory – a young woman Fournier calls “Sharon” told her that in 1999 or 2000: “'Bonnie, I escaped from the farm.'”
“Sharon” said she was in Surrey, shoplifting at a mall -- she supported her drug addiction by stealing, not prostitution, Fournier said -- when two women who knew her from the Downtown Eastside approached and invited her to a party, “with free booze and drugs.” The women went to a “well-known Hells Angels spot” located on the King George Highway, just before it enters Surrey: a rental house they called the “House of Pain.”
“They went there, and then were moved by station wagon or van – 'We're going to a party with good music,'” Fournier was told. “They were taken to the (Pickton) farm from this house in Surrey.
“After they got to the farm, Sharon said everyone was into the drugs – lots of drugs. When they pulled in there, she got a gut feeling that this was scary. . . she got a gut feeling and bolted from the car and ran to Lougheed Highway. She was picked up by a bus on Lougheed and given a ride in to Vancouver by a sympathetic driver.”
When Fournier pushed “Sharon” to tell police about her experience linking the Hells Angels to the Pickton property, she refused.
“'I'd be dead,'” the woman replied. “'Do you know how many others out there have escaped? I'm not the only one.'”
Her experiences – and knowing many of the Downtown Eastside's missing and murdered women personally – are too troubling for her to give up on testifying, she told the Vancouver Observer over lunch. She'd practically abandoned hope when Commissioner Wally Oppal shifted the inquiry into a series of expert panels instead of single-witness cross-examination on Feb. 21.
“I am hopeful that individuals who have important information to contribute will be more willing to come forward and participate in this less adversarial hearing process,” Oppal announced.
“He said he wants to make it better,” Fournier recalled. “It was very articulate.
“I thought, 'Okay, he said what I want to hear, I'm going to talk to him.' So the next morning I asked for an appointment. Before they brought the inquiry to order, (inquiry registrar Leonard Giles) came up and said, 'The Commissioner will see you at 4 p.m.' -- that's verbatim.”
But according to Fournier, just two hours before the meeting, Commission staff pulled Fournier out of the public gallery and told her she would not be meeting with Oppal, instead asking her to sign a document agreeing to participate in a policy discussion forum instead of testifying, she claimed. Fournier said she refused that, as well as attempts to have her record an affidavit – she wants to be cross-examined on the stand, and ensure her words are both public and in appropriate context. Commission counsel would not comment on the alleged meeting.
Missing women "like daughters to me"
Fournier paused emotionally as she described her decades of work as a nurse in a neighbourhood described as Canada's poorest off-reserve postal code. She considered many of the murdered women as her own daughters, she said – and said that her own experience being abducted by her father at age two, and her mother's four-year search for her, inspired her to never give up searching.
“Imagine going to work every day, seeing the faces on the (missing woman) bulletin, and longing for them, wondering where they are,” she said of her and other Downtown Eastside workers. “They didn't pay attention to any of us who reported these women missing.
“They worked so hard and hurt so much. To come to work and be told. . .” - tears filling her eyes, Fournier's voice strained to a halt. We sit in silence for a moment.
“After Marnie Frey disappeared, that hit me very hard,” she continued. “They were like my girls – like daughters to me. Quite a few of them I knew from various stages of life, since they were juveniles.
“I thought I could do something, could make things better for the missing women, and women who worked the stroll.”
Identifying Sereena after Pickton murders
Fournier believes she is the last person to have seen Sereena Abotsway – a woman who called her "Mom" – alive in 2001. The two even discussed her asthma inhalers, which were later found on Pickton's farm the night when police first raided – on a coincidental gun warrant filed by a rookie cop – in 2002.
“It was a hot night,” she recalled, when Abotsway approached the DEYAS van near Cambie and Hastings Street. “'Hi Mom, can we talk?' she said.
“Sereena got on board, we had a hug. She looked fantastic, and I said, 'You look great.' She announced she was going to a party; she was waiting for her ride to pick her up at the Cenotaph. Obviously she was going somewhere – it wasn't her normal clothing. When she got in the van, she was yacking and joking. She was so excited to be singled out and made to feel special. She said, 'See you tomorrow night.' But I didn't see her the next night. Nobody saw her anywhere.”
Months went by, and Fournier and WISH drop-in centre coordinator Elaine Allen searched frantically for the young woman – going to her residence in (the Vancouver Native Housing Society), contacting her foster family in Pitt Meadows, speaking to police. In spring 2002, Fournier was called to the Vancouver Police Department and asked to identify missing women and assist the investigation, which now spanned several police departments after years of delays.
Looking at pictures the officers put in front of her, she pointed to Abotsway's instantly.
“'This is Sereena Abotsway. I was the last one to see her. Nobody listened to us.'”
For many families of the missing and murdered women, Fournier – like Elaine Allen, who testified last fall about her work at a sex worker drop-in centre – is a key witness with too much experience to ignore. But Fournier said her thoughts are also about the future.
“Am I going to be here in 25 years to say I don't want Pickton released (on parole)?” she asked. “No, I'll be six feet under. Who'll be here?
“The man was only charged with second-degree murder. Putting someone through a meat grinder? Give me a break! Mr. Oppal: Think about your reputation. You're making a decision by omission. Your decision will not include evidence that's pertinent.”
For now, Fournier -- who wrote a 2010 book on her DTES work, Mugged, Drugged and Shrugged -- is waiting to hear whether Oppal hears her plea in his final witness announcement on Monday.
“I'm still working at being heard,” she said, gripping her floral-pattern cane with determination as she sorts through stacks of inquiry documents, only blocks from the hearings.
“I've been brushed off for long enough.”
Editor's note: on April 25, Fournier was selected to testify at the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, in part as a result of this story.
The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry -- in its final weeks of investigating why police did not catch serial killer Robert Pickton sooner -- has never responded to a request for 20 witnesses by families of Pickton's victims, the Vancouver Observer has learned.
Missing Women Inquiry: Ex-Pickton worker echoes lawyer allegations of police cover-up
Missing women inquiry lawyer resigns, saying police given priority over Aboriginal voices
Internal documents obtained by the Vancouver Observer – submitted, with no response yet, on Dec. 23, 2011 – reveal that the families' requests included a sex worker who says she fought off Pickton before getting in his car, Pickton's brother Dave, and a Coquitlam RCMP worker who claims she saw the serial killer with murder victim Dawn Crey before her death.
In light of Commissioner Wally Oppal announcing his last call for witness submissions tomorrow -- leaving only nine hearing days left for them all -- Pickton victims' families believe their requests have simply fallen on deaf ears all along.
The only witness on the list who was shown any interest by the commission is Bill Hiscox, a former Pickton employee who suspected his boss was behind the missing women cases and practically begged police to let him go undercover. But his attempt to testify on the stand were rebuffed, and he was only allowed to make an affidavit statement.
Former Downtown Eastside street nurse Bonnie Fournier – who will be featured in an upcoming Vancouver Observer interview – has similarly failed in her attempts to testify. Fournier claimed to have seen a vehicle she believes was Pickton's dragging a sex worker by her hair after she refused to get in the car.
“The witnesses we hereby propose should be added to the list are primarily non-police witnesses, whose evidence may complement or contradict the anticipated evidence from police witnesses,” stated the Dec. 23, 2011 document, submitted to the commission by Cameron Ward, lawyer for more than 20 families of missing women. “We submit that if this Commission is to properly achieve its mandate it must hear all sides of the 'story,' not merely the police version.
"As any criminal lawyer or judge would be aware, there is often a substantial difference between police and civilian accounts of an event. It would be extremely presumptuous, and probably inaccurate, to make findings of fact concerning any transaction between police and civilians without hearing the civilians’ version of the event.”
With testimony from evidence specialists at Pickton's earlier trial that roughly half the 80 DNA profiles found on Pickton's property were male, not female -- and police failing to investigate earlier reports that a Hells Angels associate was killed and buried on the farm -- the refusal to allow key witnesses raises questions for many families.
The witnesses in the document include:
The former Pickton employee – who told his story to the Vancouver Observer in an earlier exclusive in-depth interview – was likely the first person to go to police with detailed information about Pickton as a missing women suspect. On July 27, 1998, a full four years before Pickton's arrest in an unrelated gun warrant search, Hiscox offered police tips on his employer Robert Pickton's address, hair colour, height, age and build.
The convicted serial killer's brother lived with Robert at 953 Dominion Avenue in Port Coquitlam, a property they co-owned, during the period of dozens of women being killed. In 1993, Dave himself was convicted of sexual assault, and was accused of violent sexual assault in 1999 -- in which the alleged survivor said he restrained her with a bungie cord and forced pills in her mouth. Though that charge never went to trial, police found the bungie cord and pills described in his room.
Police have alleged that Dave was associated with the Hells Angels, and was known to police for illegal activities including cockfighting, prostitution, petty theft and drugs, according to the document. On at least two occasions, Dave persuaded police not to investigate the Pickton farms – including one incident in Oct. 22, 2001 when police responded to an emergency 9-1-1 call from inside Robert Pickton's trailer.
During her Jan. 19 inquiry testimony, Jennifer Evans -- the Peel, Ont. deputy police chief who authored a report on the Pickton investigation -- said she saw documents indicating Dave Pickton was a Hells Angels associate. Her report itself stated that "(RCMP) Corporal Connor . . . advised that the Pickton's had connections to the Hells Angels Outlaw Motorcycle Club and owned a 'booze can.'" Furthermore, during Robert Pickton's murder trial, his defence lawyer Peter Ritchie said, "I'm going to suggest to you that there was considerable association between Dave Pickton and the Hells Angels."
But a spokesperson for the city's Hells Angels chapter told the Vancouver Observer that neither Pickton brother was ever a member or associate of the group.
"Dave Pickton is not now nor has he ever been a member of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club," Rick Ciarniello, head of the East Vancouver chapter of the group. "To call him an associate of the Hells Angels is, in fact, stretching the truth.
"A person that has, at one time, met or knows a member of the Hells Angels is not an associate of our club."
Another intriguing aspect of the brother is why he was not required to testify at his brother's trial, just as at this inquiry. Some family members expressed outrage that the co-owner of a dumping ground for murder victims has effectively been offered legal immunity. Last December, the Vancouver Observer revealed for the first time that Dave appeared on “bad date sheets” handed out to sex workers, who had spotted him cruising the Downtown Eastside sex work strolls.
Dave Pickton recently started a charity, the Pickton Foundation, for Ghanaian poverty relief.
After Hiscox, Caldwell was likely the second person to provide information to police about Pickton. In July 1999, he told the Vancouver Police Department that his friend Lynn Ellingsen had seen Pickton skinning a dead sex worker from a pig hook in his barn. She told Caldwell that he threatened to kill her if she told anyone. Caldwell also claimed Pickton boasted he could dispose a body “without a trace” if needed.
This star witness in Pickton's eventual murder trial lived with Pickton in 1999, and only left after she claimed she saw her friend skinning a sex worker who the two had picked up in Downtown Eastside Vancouver. Pickton allegedly told her that if she told anyone, she would be up there beside the other victim.
Much has been said about witness “Anderson” -- a sex worker who escaped Pickton's trailer after a bloody knife attack in 1997, who miraculously survived despite her heart stopping twice en-route to hospital. But another sex worker said she was picked up by Pickton in late 2000, realizing too late he was the smelly pig farmer other girls were warning each other about.
Pickton wanted to take her to a biker party on his farm, but when “Jane Smith” accused him of being behind the missing women, “he confessed that he was,” the lawyers' submission states, and threatened to kill her. She jumped out of his moving vehicle and called the police – but says cops were rudely dismissive of her story, telling her they were “too busy,” and that their “hands were tied.”
Robert Pickton's lawyer, the document argues, could shed light on the inquiry, particularly since revelations last week that police destroyed the files in 2000 relating to a 1997 attempted murder charge against Pickton. In Jan. 1998, the Crown dropped all its five charges, despite Pickton being accused of handcuffing a sex worker in his trailer and attempting to strangle her before stabbing her repeatedly. With the Crown's files mysteriously destroyed, only Ritchie may hold the remaining copy – which could explain how Pickton was allowed to continue killing women in the same way he tried to kill the witness known as “Anderson.”
A civilian employee at the Coquitlam RCMP Detachment, which investigated the Pickton farm on several occasions, Hyacinthe claims she saw Robert Pickton with Dawn Crey -- a missing woman whose remains were found on the pig farmer's land -- at the brothers' nightclub, Piggy's Palace, on New Years Eve 1999. When she told police that Pickton had become aware of their months-long surveillance on him during their investigation, police officer Mike Connon allegedly failed to include the information in his report of the investigation. Furthermore, just before Pickton's arrest – on coincidental gun warrant charges – Hyacinthe met with police on Feb. 1, 2002 and told them her own son had discovered bloody clothing in Pickton's truck.
Police found the DNA of this butcher and Robert Pickton employee mingled with that of murdered women found in his boss's slaughterhouse, as well as on the doors going in. Despite protestations of his innocence, police also found a saw – similar to the type used to saw apart women's skulls and hands – in his house that contained human DNA, though they were never able to identify victims from it. After years of families' demanding his presence at the current public inquiry, Casanova died last year, months before the Commission began – likely on May 29, 2011, according to obituaries.
A then-22-year-old civilian staffer with the missing women investigation – Project Evenhanded – Oger was extremely troubled by what he saw, according to the document. He wrote an internal report, “The Serial Killer Theory: A Report on the Downtown East-side Missing Prostitutes,” which made him the subject of “reprimand and criticism” from other police.
This Crown Counsel lawyer was assigned to the Pickton investigation in 1999, three years before his arrest. He soon requested a warrant to conduct electronic and video surveillance of Pickton's property – but his request was either ignored or refused for unknown reasons.
The province's Attorney General from Aug. 1995 to Feb. 2000 – when many women were disappearing from the Downtown Eastside – Dosanjh allegedly kept close watch on the police investigations, and was in charge when Pickton's attempted murder of the sex worker known as “Anderson” was mysteriously dropped by police and the files destroyed.
Fournier, a street nurse, served the Downtown Eastside for more than 30 years, including operating a sex worker outreach van during the key Pickton killing spree in 1999-2003. Fournier claims she saw a vehicle she believes was Pickton's dragging a screaming sex worker by the hair out the passenger side – implying that two people were involved – but that woman refused to report the attack, out of fear of being killed by organized crime.
Det. Cst. Darcy Sarra
Sarra is one of the key Vancouver Police Department officers in charge of collecting and researching relevant documents on the missing women and Pickton investigations.
Sgt. Brian Honeybourne
Deployed to the Provincial Unsolved Homicide Unit during the worst period of missing and murdered women, this sergeant “appears to have been the only member of that Unit to have attended the February 10, 1999 meeting with the Missing Women Review Team, at which it was determined that no assistance of that Unit would be provided,” the document states. “The Unsolved Homicide Unit refused to get involved in the missing women investigation at that time as there were 'no bodies.'
Cst. Dave Strachan
This RCMP officer – a member of the Serious Crimes Section – searched Pickton's bloody trailer following his attack on "Anderson", the sex worker who escaped Pickton in 1997. He was one of two officers who interviewed her after the attack, which, if it had led to a conviction, would have taken Pickton off the street five years before his killing spree ended.
Insp. Gord Spencer
This VPD officer, who become the force's Major Crimes Section head in April 2000, repeatedly requested more officers be assigned to the missing women investigation. His concerns appear to have been sidelined.
Det. Phil Little
This detective's job was to examine how the VPD prioritized its murder suspects, in relation to the department's joint operation with the RCMP in Feb. 2001.
Little ranked suspects and, according to the lawyers' request, “is uniquely positioned to explain how suspects were prioritized, what factors were considered and how these factors were weighed.” His notes, the document alleges, suggest that “Pickton was not always considered to be the top-priority suspect and that Pickton was lower on draft lists than in the final lists.” But given allegations that the VPD “witheld all information about other suspects under consideration during the time period,” Little's testimony could shed light on failures to zero in on the serial killer years before he stopped murdering.
Cpl. Ted Van Overbeek
This Burnaby RCMP officer received a key tip from informant Leah Best – who strongly believed Pickton was the murderer they sought – on Aug. 6, 1999. But that tip was never investigated, according to the submission, and families want answers as to why Project Evenhanded “made no progress” as a result in catching the killer.
Cst. Nathan Wells
This rookie officer, on the advice of a would-be drug informant, obtained a search warrant of Pickton's property on Feb. 5, 2002 searching for illegal firearms. Though unrelated to the sprawling, inter-agency investigation underway – which had fingered Pickton as a possible suspect and had him under surveillance at times – Wells entered Pickton's trailer and found possessions belonging to missing women. His lucky break turned into the largest police investigation in Canadian history, all over a coincidental gun warrant.
RCMP Sgt. (now Commissioner) Robert Paulson
Paulson – today's top cop in the national force – was a member of the agency's Southwest Major Crime group during the missing women investigation. He was part of the 2000 push to create a joint operation, which took a year to implement.
The lack of response from the Commission to the lawyers' requests seems to be part of a pattern – earlier this month, lawyer for Aboriginal interests Robyn Gervais resigned in protest after claiming her witness requests were not taken seriously and Aboriginal interests sidelined in an inquiry set up to find why Pickton was allowed to continue killing for years after he came to attention of police as a suspect.
But with Commissioner Wally Oppal releasing a new directive calling for final witness list submissions today, the fate of these 19 living witnesses will not be known until Monday.
"The Commissioner will be dealing with future witnesses next week," Art Verlieb, senior Commission Counsel, told the Vancouver Observer.
"It is not the policy of Commission Counsel to discuss why a witness was or was not called to testify," he added.
* April 23 update: Police alleged Dave Pickton was associated with the Hells Angels, but the club denies he was ever a member or associate. "Associate" is a formal designation in the organization.
Missing Women Inquiry: Ex-Pickton worker echoes lawyer allegations of police cover-up
Prompted to remember serial killer Robert Pickton's pig farm, Bill Hiscox pauses only for a second, adjusting his blue baseball cap, before he calmly describes his time as Pickton's employee and his stilted efforts to become a police informant in 1998. Four years later, Pickton would be arrested by a rookie cop unconnected to the investigation.
Hiscox and several lawyers connected to the case allege a cover-up or even conspiracy related to the police's botched investigation, particularly given extensive Hell's Angels links to the Pickton farm.
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The 52-year-old warehouse worker – now living in Alberta in an attempt to put his former boss' gruesome murders behind him, “to get far away from all of this” – sat down with the Vancouver Observer for a lengthy interview. He remembered Pickton's farm vividly – and why he and his sister-in-law had a correct hunch that women were being killed there.
“There was something not right there,” Hiscox recalled over lunch at a White Spot restaurant, during a break from the Inquiry. “You can't put your finger on it, but it's there. It's kind of a really weird feeling – kind of a turning, wrenching feeling – where you know something's wrong.
“Did you ever see the movie Sixth Sense, where they see dead people? It's almost like people were trying to reach out, 'Oh, we're here.' That's the kind of feeling you got. That's exactly how it felt, it was really weird walking there.”
But to this day, Hiscox's story has not been heard in court – and despite being invited to be interviewed last week for a potential affidavit submission in the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, he has been so far rejected from the witness list despite first-hand experience of the botched police investigation and a two-month standing request from Inquiry lawyers.
Hiscox began working with Pickton in the spring of 1998, helping salvage materials from the demolished King George Motel in Surrey. Like others who knew Pickton, he described the serial killer – convicted of six second-degree murders, although he confessed to a police interrogator he had killed 49 women – as “unsociable” and quiet. But as someone introverted himself, Hiscox didn't hold it against him.
In fact, what disturbed him most were stories he began to hear from his sister-in-law, Lisa Yelds – Pickton's best friend at the time – about Aboriginal status cards and bloody women's clothing she said she saw inside Pickton's trailer.
“I saw clothing piled up outside the trailer – women's blouses and that sort of thing,” Hiscox said. “Not clean, not bloody – just dirty. It was around the corner of the trailer.
“I put the information together when me and Lisa were talking about what she was finding and what I was seeing. We sat and talked about it, in 1998. She said, 'I've got a feeling that's where all the women are going, Bill.' And I said, 'I'm getting the same feeling, as well.' She said that someone has to go to the police with this.”
A few months after starting salvage work for Pickton, Hiscox was walking in Surrey when he saw a disturbing poster on a telephone pole. It was for Sarah de Vries, one of Vancouver's many missing women, most of them Indigenous sex trade workers from the Downtown Eastside.
The poster was one of many plastered around the Lower Mainland by de Vries' friend, Wayne Leng. Like Hiscox, Leng journeyed from Alberta to Vancouver last week to attend the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry as well as the annual memorial march for missing and murdered women, which this year drew roughly 5,000 people.
Hiscox phoned the number on the poster and spoke to Leng.
Since de Vries' disappearance, Leng has campaigned unceasingly for police to investigate missing women cases with greater urgency. Leng recorded his conversation with Hiscox and passed on the tip to the Vancouver Police Department's Det. Cst. Lori Shenher, who testified last week at the inquiry.
“Wayne Leng received a call from male (later identified as Hiscox) who provided information that Willie Pickton had bragged about being able to dispose of bodies and grind them up for feed for his pigs on his property in Port Coquitlam,” according to a summary of Det. Shenher's source log marked July 27, 1998, submitted as an inquiry exhibit. “The caller told of a female named Lisa Yelds who had been in Pickton's trailer and seen women's identification and clothing.”
But after several initial calls and meetings between Shenher and Hiscox in September 1998, as recorded in Det. Shenher's log, contact ceased in mid-October. Shenher wrote that he told her “Pickton wants to 'finish off' Ms. Anderson,” the pseudonym for a woman Pickton handcuffed and stabbed in his trailer in 1997, but who escaped – only to see attempted murder charges against the farmer dropped.
“(Hiscox) heard from Yelds that Pickton has ordered a bunch of syringes and wants half of them new and half of them used,” Det. Shenher wrote. “Yelds did not know why he wanted them as Pickton is not an IV user but told Hiscox that Pickton wants to find Ms. Anderson and that the syringes were in some way related to her.”
In fact, after Pickton's arrest, syringes full of windshield fluid – some bearing human DNA – were discovered in his trailer, presumably used to murder people. Why Hiscox was not accepted as an undercover informant is still unclear – some officers on the stand suggested he was hard to get a hold of, and Det. Shenher's log shows a handfull of missed calls and meetings. But Det. Shenher saw it differently.
“He had shown himself to be someone who would contact me if he had something new,” Det. Shenher said on the Inquiry stand. “Secondly, I didn’t want to push him on [an undercover operation] because he was in recovery himself and he had indicated to me at varying times that he was trying to stay away from that world.”
However, Hiscox had a different story.
“I can knock holes in Shehner's statements easily,” he said. “I want to be put on the stand, because I've got something to say.
“Shehner said I disappeared for four years – but they've got documented proof that she talked to me right up until 1999. I was a drug addict and an alcoholic, I was in and out of rehab and on probation – don't tell me you couldn't find me.”
To this day, Hiscox does not know why contact with him was abandoned in 1999, nor why police turned his alleged offer to be an agent.
“I was willing to go inside – I was more than willing, and more than happy, to do whatever it took to stop this guy,” he said. “I went as far as to suggest they put a wire on me.
“'If you guys are too chicken to do this sh*t, I'll go do it for you' – I told them that. They were willing to do that. They had the break right in front of them. What were they waiting for?”
Hiscox's only explanation is that police believed he had become inappropriately interested in Det. Shenher – something he denies.
“It was mentioned that I was infatuated with Shenher, that it was more than just a friend relationship,” he said. “That's bullshit if that's why she didn't want to come look for me.
“Shenher was just nice to me – and when someone's nice to me, I tend to be nice back. That's the way it was, and that was the extent of the relationship. I phoned her up a couple times after Willie was arrested and tried to share some more information with her. Subsequently, I was phoned back by the RCMP saying, 'Any more contact with Shenher and you're going to be charged with harassment.' There was no harassment.”
Det. Shenher made no mention of harassment on the witness stand during her testimony. But families of several women whose DNA was found on Pickton's farm want Hiscox to testify himself so police can answer for the alleged inconsistencies.
“If Bill (Hiscox) gets on the stand, it will be the first time that someone says the truth in quite a few weeks,” said Lori-Ann Ellis, whose 26-year old sister-in-law Cara's DNA was found on Pickton's farm. “In the last few weeks, we've only heard from the cops.
“Now we're going to hear the truth from someone who dealt with it. We need that. We don't just need cops, we need who they talked to as well.”
Ultimately, both Hiscox and Ellis believe that Pickton neither acted alone in all the murders, nor that police simply erred in their investigation of him. Last Monday, Commissioner Wally Oppal rebuffed lawyer Cameron Ward – who represents Ellis and several dozen other murdered women's families in the Inquiry – after he said, “I fear this commission is enabling a cover-up to be perpetrated on the public by the police interests.”
The lawyer for the VPD, Tim Dixon, condemned Ward's accusations as “spurious … The allegations of a police cover up are completely unfounded.”
On the stand today, the VPD's police chief at the time, Chief Cst. Terry Blythe, responded in turn to the cover-up allegations: "I do find it offensive (given) all the good work we did and the commitment we made to this troubled neighbourhood."
Earlier this month, Oppal also overruled lawyer Jason Gratl – who represents Downtown Eastside interests in the Inquiry – for questioning police on the extensive connections between the Picktons and the Hell's Angels organized crime gang. Robert's brother Dave was an alleged member of the gang; police knew of a Hell's Angels building across the road from the pig farm; and gang members frequented the Picktons' illicit nightclub, Piggy's Palace, revealed RCMP homicide investigator Mike Connor in his Inquiry testimony.
Investigators searching the Pickton farm found 80 unidentified DNA profiles there – approximately half of them male – and Connor stated that he never investigated a tip that a murdered male Hell's Angel member was on the farm.
“They're covering up a lot of stuff, and I just can't fathom some of the things being said here in this Inquiry,” Hiscox told the Vancouver Observer. “The truth will set you free – we'll see what happens.”
Was Robert “Willie” Pickton acting alone?
“I don't believe it one bit, no,” Hiscox said. “Dave, his brother, lived on the farm. How the hell can you live on a farm with this guy Willie, your brother, and not know what he was doing all these years? Don't tell me you don't know.
“Why has this one person got immunity? Why haven't we heard from Dave in the trial or here in the Inquiry? We've never heard a peep from him. I think there's a lot more than meets the eye.”
In December, the Vancouver Observer was the first to report alleged sightings of Dave Pickton by sex workers in the Downtown Eastside, which were more recently reported by national newspapers. However, Dave was neither called to testify at his brother's murder trial, nor in the current Inquiry.
Both the Vancouver Police Department, and more recently the RCMP, have apologized to murdered women's families and friends for delays in arresting Pickton, acknowledging women could have been saved had he been caught earlier.
The 21st annual Women's Memorial March. Photos by David P. Ball. Video (below) by Daniel J. Pierce
Vancouver's streets pulsed with hundreds of drums and singing voices on Tuesday as nearly 5,000 people joined the Women's Memorial March to honour hundreds of missing and murdered women, only a day after groups blocked Georgia and Granville Streets for five hours to protest against the Missing Women's Inquiry.
The Vancouver Observer has also learned that former Robert Pickton employee (and would-be informant) Bill Hiscox – who attended the march with missing women's families – may be allowed to testify this week at the Inquiry, after he was initially rejected from the witness list. Hiscox unsuccessfully offered police information and help in 1998, he said, four years before the serial killer was arrested.
Tensions at Missing Women's inquiry boil over
Stevie Cameron on the high stakes in Missing Women Inquiry's final round
Pausing outside the Regent Hotel near Hastings and Main Streets, one of many ceremonial stops on the route, First Nations elders prayed near the spots where two women – Verna Simard and Ashley Machiskinic – fell to their deaths one year apart in separate but suspicious incidents.
“Ashely (Machiskinic) loved my children,” Machiskinic's aunt, Trina Strongarm, told the Vancouver Observer. “She used to come visit me to see them all. She sowed a lot of joy – she was very cheerful and loved her family very much.
“I'm here to honour her – to show that the missing women are all part of us, and I'm just very grateful that everybody's here to share that.”
Standing beside Strongarm, another relative of Machiskinic added his thoughts.
“I remember Ashley when she was just a little baby, when she was in Pampers,” recalled Kyle Desjarlais, a cousin of Machiskinic's. “She had these big, beautiful eyes.
“I wanted to support people. I have a couple of sisters who passed on down here, through drugs and alcohol. As a guy, I want to just be some kind of support – to show my love, my respect.”
The Women's Memorial March has been held annually since 1991, when community groups began calling for police to investigate dozens of women – mostly First Nations sex workers – who had gone missing from the Downtown Eastside. As the numbers of missing women rose, the memorial march grew in size. It's largest turnout yet was during the 2010 Olympics, when an estimated 6,000 people joined the march.
This year, the march took place during the fifth month of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, where families of missing women – many of whose DNA was found on serial killer Robert Pickton's farm -- testified that their concerns were dismissed and minimized repeatedly by the police. Commissioner Wally Oppal suspended the hearings during the memorial march.
Among the large crowd – many wearing Indigenous regalia and carrying hand drums – was former Robert Pickton employee Bill Hiscox, who went to the police in 1998 offering to be an informant against Pickton, who he suggested was killing sex workers.
“I'm here to offer my support to the families,” Hiscox told the Vancouver Observer. “Certainly, we need to bring attention to the Vancouver police and the RCMP to make sure this won't happen anymore.
“We can't tolerate this kind of stuff – they knew they had Pickton in '97, but allowed him to somehow slip away and continue murdering women right up until 2002, which for the life of me I cannot fathom. It's like I'm standing here going, 'Can you hear me now?! It's too bad that you had to wait all this time to do something about this.' There were needless lives wasted because of their stupidity.”
Hiscox remembers attending Pickton's pre-trial hearing in 2034, and said he is haunted to this day by knowing police failed to accept his help six years – and many women's deaths – earlier.
“When Willie was first arrested (...) they brought him into court,” Hiscox said. “And the reason I went is I wanted to sit there and I wanted him to see me – I wanted to look at him and let him know that it was me (who helped turn him in).
“He saw me. It feels really good to know I've done something good in my life. Today, it's important to be here.”
Hiscox revealed to the Vancouver Observer that, despite initially being rejected from the commission's witness list, he was invited this weekend to submit an affidavit at the Commissioner's office, and may, in fact, testify on the stand this week.
While Pickton's admission of killing 49 women weighed heavily on the minds of many, many other women have gone missing over the years -- the national number stands near 600, according to the Native Women's Association of Canada. Many speakers during the march pointed to larger, systemic reasons behind the high murder and disappearance rate among poor, Aboriginal women.
“The public inquiry taking place right now is projecting out a lot of the injustice, things the system should have done to prevent a lot of the deaths that took place,” said Carol Martin, a member of the march's organizing committee and a victim services worker with the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre. “Our system really needs to start changing – they really need to start looking at lives, versus material stuff."
Stevie Cameron on the high stakes in Missing Women Inquiry's final round
David P. Ball
Posted: Jan 10th, 2012
Much is riding on the The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. Reputations. Money. Possibly even careers.
Tensions at missing women's inquiry boil over
LePard insists detectives, not VPD, 'compromised' Pickton case
So says Stevie Cameron, Canada's foremost reporter on the Robert Pickton serial killer investigation and trial, as the inquiry resumes into why authorities did not catch the serial killer earlier – and why he was only convicted of six second-degree murders after admitting to 49.
And to watch it unfold, Cameron told the Vancouver Observer, is heart-breaking.
“It's a very painful thing to watch,” the author of On the Farm and The Pickton File said. “So much is at stake -- so much financially, when you think about it. Are they going to have to pay out more to the families? Are there going to be lawsuits?
“You have both police forces (RCMP and VPD) pointing fingers at each other -- blaming each other. It's a jurisdictional problem and they're all at each others throats to try to place blame.
“The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) are culpable, we all know that,” Cameron said, summarizing the inquiry's findings so far. “The police who should have investigated this and done something about this at the beginning refused to touch it.”
But Cameron insists that the VPD eventually took the investigation seriously.
“There was no one who wanted those women to die. The Vancouver Police Department were reprehensible, but eventually after the Vancouver Sun began publishing stories, they took it seriously.
“I spent nine years on this story.... People don't know some of the really important details of this. They need to know that police tried to get a search warrant on that property for two locations.”
One of the factors in police dropping an attempted murder case against Pickton in 1997 concerned a sex worker who had incredibly managed to fight Pickton off, after being stabbed and mutilated by him at his Port Coquitlam pig farm. She fought back, stabbed Pickton, and escaped, bleeding profusely to be rescued by an elderly couple whom she flagged down on the road. But when the court day came, she was too terrified off Pickton hunting her down and murdering her to testify against him in court. She didn't show up. On top of that, she had been ignored in a previous attempt to report a dangerous offender, Cameron recalled. Without the key witness coming forward out of fear, prosecutors had little to go on.
“People forget that Robert Pickton was a wealthy man -- he could afford lawyers,” Cameron said. “(The woman who got away) was afraid of Pickton.
“She twice grabbed a police car, explaining that she thought she saw (Pickton). She was afraid – he spent $80,000 on lawyers to defend himself in that case. He had a private detective following her. She refused to testify, to go to court, and I don't blame her. Who'd blame her? She was up against a guy with all the money in the world. That's why that case fell apart, they had to drop the charges.”
Although Cameron alleges the VPD's Missing Persons Unit – which has come under heavy criticism even from the police department – was “hopeless, even criminal” in its activities around the Pickton investigation, she cautioned people to remember that the hunt for Pickton also involved some heroes.
She cites forensic dental expert David Sweet, of UBC, who was recognized for his work on the case with an Order of Canada. Or a prosecutor who broke down and cried in front of the court when victims were removed from those being tried.
"It's the saddest, grimmest story I've ever worked on and probably anyone's seen in Canada in a long, long time," Cameron said.
“It's a heart-breaking story, but it's an important story. It's a sad story. It's a terrible story. So much in this is heroic and noble and inspiring. It's not just a horror story.”
Cameron described often being the only reporter attending court in Port Coquitlam, day-in and day-out. She followed the case for years.
“This thing dragged out for years,” she said. “I followed every bit of it.
“I hope people understand that there were wonderful people who brought this guy to justice and gave everything they had to it. This (inquiry) isn't the place for it – this is a place to get to the bottom of why it went off the rails.”
One of the most touching moments, she recalls, was seeing a prosecutor cry in court after an unidentified female victim -- “Jane Doe” -- was removed from the murders for which Pickton was being tried.
“They were devastated with the loss of Jane Doe,” Cameron recalled. “The prosecutor wept in front of the courthouse, because she said that woman represented those women Pickton murdered who were unidentified still.”
Cameron admires Missing Woman Inquiry Commissioner Wally Oppal for the job he has done during the hearings.
“Given what he's got to work with – it's very limited. He's not re-trying Pickton. He's letting families air their grievances. They needed the chance to do that, and no wonder they're angry. The families needed that. They all felt pushed aside and ignored.”
Cameron she is judge this year for the Charles Taylor literature prize, currently at its short-list stage.
It is an award that Cameron's most recent Pickton book, On the Farm, received last year.
Watch for coverage of the Missing Women inquiry in The Vancouver Observer.
Photo of Cara Ellis, whose remains were found on Robert Pickton's farm. Image sourced from Missing Persons website.
B.C.'s missing women's inquiry hearings saw long-time tensions boil over yesterday in a pointed argument between the lawyer for families of Robert Pickton's murder victims, and beleaguered commissioner Wally Oppal – leaving several of the families enraged and the inquiry increasingly in question.
Oppal's reluctance to allow new witnesses to be called – amidst concern for the inquiry's length, as it has already been extended to April 30 – was met by Cameron Ward, the lawyer for 25 families. He criticized the entire process, a frustration shared by several victims' families with whom the Vancouver Observer spoke.
“Frankly, I'm getting really sick of getting re-victimized by this system,” said Lori-Ann Ellis, whose 26-year old sister-in-law, Cara, was murdered by Pickton, although charges stemming from her death were among the 20 stayed by the Crown.
“It's very tilted towards people in power – police, the RCMP, court lawyers. Anyone who's dealing with sex trade workers and impoverished people isn't getting a fair time in there.”
Another family member expressed deep dissatisfaction with Oppal, whose appointment was widely criticized by victims' families.
Longtime tensions spilling over in court
From day one of the inquiry, some families and friends have held drum circles blocking the Georgia and Granville intersection, laying down quilts in memory of the missing women. But concerns are now spilling over into the courtroom.
The Missing Women's Commission of Inquiry, which is in its final week of meetings until January, was established to investigate why police took years to investigate serial killer Robert William Pickton, who admitted to murdering up to 49 Downtown Eastside women – but was only charged with the second-degree murders of six.
When the Vancouver Observer asked Ellis what motivates her, she said she is motivated by a commitment she made to seek justice for her sister-in-law. Cara Ellis, 26 when she died, was close to her two brothers and her half-brother, even after years of absence. She had run away at age 13, Ellis said, but when she returned “she hugged them with all of herself, it was like the gap never existed.
“Every day I wake up and think, 'What do I need to do today to bring her justice and help her rest in peace?'” Ellis said, recalling how she returned to her Calgary home after the Pickton case with only a small bone fragment to remember Cara by.
“I brought a little piece of her bone home, but I think I need to bring her dignity back.”
Interruptions and denials
What was supposed to be a procedural day escalated into a heated exchange, after Oppal challenged Ward's request for three new witnesses to testify – all of whom had direct connection to the police's botched Pickton investigation – because of concern the trial would go on too long and the witnesses would only repeat existing police information. In response, Ward said if police's account of themselves were accepted wholesale, there would be no point in the inquiry at all -- and alleged that victims' families were increasingly frustrated, a fact Oppal denied outright.
“I'm going to tell you right now, Mr. Commissioner: my clients, the families of 25 missing and murdered women, have been watching this proceeding – are following it – and they are extremely unhappy with the way it is being conducted,” Ward told Oppal. “They and their advocate are getting the same treatment today in this inquiry room as they got when they took their concerns (about Robert Pickton) to the authorities back in the years before 2002.
“They are not being listened to, they are not being respected, and they are not being appreciated.”
Cutting Ward off, commissioner Oppal countered the lawyer's claims of falling support from the families of Pickton victims and rebuked him.
“Let me interrupt you there, Mr. Ward,” Oppal warned. “First of all, your clients have been treated with respect.
“The families came here, we heard about the pain and suffering they've gone through, we listened carefully to the way they were treated by the authorities, in fact they were treated with so much respect that nobody cross-examined them – in fact the lawyers got up and apologized to them. The fact is, we are most grateful for them to come forward and they have been heard for the first time... For you to stand up here and say that they've been disrespected is wrong, and you know this as an officer of the court.”
A "cruel, mean, vindictive bully"
Another murdered woman's family reacted with fury to Oppal's claim that they had been treated fairly, and accused the commissioner of lying in asserting that the families had not been cross-examined.
“The way they treated me on the stand was totally ludicrous,” said Lynn Frey, whose 25-year-old daughter Marnie, was one of the six murders Pickton was charged with. Marnie had a daughter, Brittney, who is now 19.
“When I was on the stand, I was the first family member up there – they weren't supposed to cross-exam us but they did – they made me feel I was a victim all over again.
“Wally (Oppal)'s saying we're happy, he's never even talked to us families. He's full of sh*t. There's not one family member who's happy.”
Ellis agreed, and accused Oppal and the inquiry of bullying the families -- a particular betrayal since he had assured concerned families early in the inqury it would be a fair and impartial hearing.
“For him to say that is just a bald-faced lie, or he's just inattentive to what's happening in the room,” she said. “It was untrue – I was cross-examined by Vancouver Police Department lawyers, who tried to put words in my mouth I didn't say.
“When this inquiry is over, in the mind of the families, (Oppal) will be known as a cruel, mean, vindictive bully.
"We already dealt with Pickton, who's a bully – do we have to go through that again when our lawyers can't even get a word in without getting interrupted? The very words he used today show a lack of respect for the families; he, as well as the system, is again victimizing us.”
The heated courtroom exchange came after Ward put forward a list of new witnesses to testify at the inquiry in the new year. Three of the list's most prominent names on the list include Bill Hiscox (a former Pickton employee who offered to help police in 1998, but was turned down), Bill Ritchie (Pickton's lawyer, who pushed the Crown to stay its 1997 charges against Pickton), and a woman referred to by the alias “Jane Smith” (a sex worker who claims Pickton confessed his killings to her in 2000 but who said she was ignored by the police).
Oppal argued that the witnesses would be “repetitious” -- and furnish no new evidence not already revealed in deputy police chief Doug LePard's testimony. LePard takes the witness stand again today, his last day on the stand, after testifying last month that the investigation was hampered by police attitudes in Vancouver's missing-women unit – where officers referred to sex trade workers as “whores” and “hookers” -- but that there was no systemic bias across the Vancouver police.
UN inquiry request shot down
The Oppal-Ward spat came as the United Nations acknowledged receiving a request from Canadian Indigenous groups for an inquiry into the country's missing and murdered Aboriginal women – which the Native Women's Alliance of Canada (NWAC) has listed at nearly 600 women. However, the federal government said today that no UN inquiry will take place.
Since the inquiry started in October, all but one of the community groups and national organizations have pulled out of the hearings in protest over their legitimacy and fairness – particularly the provincial government's refusal to fund legal counsel for the organzations, which include Amnesty International, the Assembly of First Nations and the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre. Only the Vancouver Area Drug Users Network remains in the federal courtroom where the inquiry is unfolding, and their representative expressed frustration with the process.
Asked what the families would like to see at the Missing Women's Inquiry, Frey responded without hesitating:
“I want our lawyers to be treated with respect,” she said.
“I want them to get the cops who were there (involved in the investigation at the time) – I don't care where they've gone – get them there. (We want) the truth of what really happened ...I want to be told exactly what happened and why these women weren't found on the farm.”
Deputy police chief Doug LePard – who authored an internal review into the botched Robert Pickton murder investigation – fended off suggestions of wider police department failures, standing by his report at the Missing Women's Inquiry today and its conclusions that although the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) failed to act, two Vancouver detectives in particular “compromised” the Pickton case with sexist and racist bias and a refusal to follow orders.
Tensions at missing women's inquiry boil over
Kevin Woodall, lawyer for one of those two officers -- detective constable Doug Fell – interrogated the deputy chief for several hours on how Fell (along with his partner, detective constable Mark Wolthers) were able to allegedly “compromise” the investigation without any documentation of complaints or wrong-doing at the time.
Robert William Pickton, who is currently serving a life sentence in federal prison for the second-degree murders of six women, was linked to 33 women's deaths by DNA evidence, and admitted to murdering at least 16 more. However, the Crown stayed most of his charges in a contentious decision.
"If they weren't so dismissive of Pickton"
Rehashing his testimony at the end of a gruelling 12 days on the stand, LePard admitted under questioning that, in fact, Fell and Wolthers were early adopters of the theory that a serial killer was murdering women from the Downtown Eastside in the late 1990s, at a time when others were dismissive and reluctant to adopt such a view. The problem was, they were busy chasing another suspect – a serial rapist from Alberta, “Person of Interest 390,” who was arrested.
“If they weren't so dismissive of Pickton as a suspect, they might have been more alive to what information they might have been able to receive about him that might have been helpful,” LePard testified about Fell and Wolthers' refusal to follow up on tips about Pickton.
“I have spoken to Detective Constable Wolthers personally about that issue and he was extremely dismissive.”
Abusive language toward victims and female staff
LePard claimed that the officers had compromised the investigation by using "abusive and using inappropriate language towards victims and female staff", and claimed that Wolthers and Fell "compromised the investigation in terms of team dynamics.”
But Woodall countered by asking whether any of the files reveal complaints made at the time against the two officers – at very least, notes about their conduct.
The answer: No -- except for a single hand-written memo from Vancouver Police Department (VPD) sergeant Geramy Field, head of the investigation, which read, “Meet with Doug (Fell) and Mark (Wolthers) re: duties and tenure,” followed later by, “Advise Doug and Mark will remain on team.”
The cross-examination then turned to what LePard agreed was the key finding of his report:
“The VPD should have recognized that there was a serial killer at work and responded appropriately, but the investigation was plagued by a failure at the VPD's management level to recognize what it was faced with.”
Woodall pushed LePard to admit that, if that were indeed the VPD's main failure – which allowed Pickton to continue killing women for four years until his 2002 arrest -- blame could not be pinned on Fell and Wolthers as LePard insisted.
“Whatever criticism might be levelled at other members of the Vancouver Police Department, that criticism can't be levelled at Fell and Wolthers, because they were very early adopters of the serial killer theory,” Woodall argued.
“Yes, that's very true – they were convinced early on,” LePard agreed.
On Friday, the Missing Women's Commission of Inquiry meets for the last time until 2012, and will hear from Marion Bryce, whose daughter Patricia Johnson went missing from the Downtown Eastside in 2001 – though her death was linked to Pickton, hers was among the dropped charges. The inquiry – chaired by former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal -- has come under fire from families of Pickton's victims, as well as community groups, who said they are being “re-victimized” by the process.
Note: An earlier version of this story made reference to a photo of one man hogtying and holding knife to a woman’s throat. Information has since revealed the identity of that man was not, in fact, Cpl. Jim Brown. This Magazine apologizes for any embarassment or confusion caused by the error.
Now overgrown and derelict, even a decade ago Robert “Willy” Pickton’s property felt like ghosts were reaching out of the ground. Crying for attention.
That’s the recollection of Bill Hiscox, one of the serial killer’s employees, from Pickton’s Port Coquitlam, B.C. pig farm back in 1998—where DNA of 33 women, mostly indigenous, was found. Pickton confessed to killing 49.
“There was something not right there,” Hiscox says, describing piles of women’s clothing he saw outside Pickton’s trailer, and Indian status cards his sister-in-law found inside. But his attempts to tip police were rebuffed.“It’s almost like people were trying to reach out, ‘Oh, we’re here.’ Kind of a turning, wrenching feeling where you know something’s wrong.”
Ten years after Pickton’s arrest, disgust at his crimes has crystallized into rage. Rage at the police, for ignoring tips and missing person reports. Rage at the justice system, for failing to catch him sooner, then dropping 20 of his murder charges. And now, rage at the very public inquiry his victims’ families sought for years.
“We need to get the answers,” says Lillian Beaudoin, showing a picture of her sister, Diane Rock, who was killed on the farm. “We will get to the bottom of this, to find out why they did what they did. We fought hard and we’re still fighting hard. There’s so much hidden in the closets with this Pickton case, it would go on for a century.”
Cover-ups and closets? Hiscox—who was barred from testifying despite lawyer requests—concurs, with unflinching certainty.
“They’re covering up a lot of stuff, and I just can’t fathom some of the things being says here in this inquiry,” he says. “The truth will set you free. We’ll see what happens.”
In June, the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry (MWCI) concluded 92 days of public hearings. The province’s appointed Commissioner, Wally Oppal—who as ex-Attorney General had overseen the controversial dropping of charges—will submit his final report on Oct. 31.
But the inquiry was marred by a mounting barrage of scandals, from baffling to sinister.
Starting with the province’s refusal to fund organizations’ legal counsel—leading to a mass boycott by Amnesty International, the Assembly of First Nations and others—the MWCI’s executive director was suspended after a string of anonymous sexual harassment allegations within its own ranks. Another officer testified that police were having sex with the very women Pickton targeted.
Oppal himself was lambasted for moonlighting as a serial killer victim in a slasher ﬁlm. He was later seen publicly embracing a Hells Angel (HA) member, despite banning discussion of Pickton-HA links: a club property across the road and, on the farm, Piggy’s Palace nightclub, the rumour of a buried HA member and the discovery of male DNA. “There are some that have been trying to bring the Hells Angels into this tragedy from the beginning,” says HA spokesperson Rick Ciarniello, dismissing “conspiracy theories” about his group. “[We] had nothing to do with the missing women.”
But amidst mounting controversy, Oppal would tolerate no rumblings of a conspiracy.
“That any such suggestion may have been made is disturbing,” he retorted in February. “I take a dim view of any such suggestion having been made. There is absolutely no evidence that the commission may be, quote, enabling a cover-up, unquote.”
“If MWCI does not re-open the hearings, it will be perpetuating a police cover-up of the circumstances surrounding Canada’s worst serial killing case,” wrote Cameron Ward, lawyer for 25 victims’ families, on his website.
“Willy Pickton didn’t kill up to 49 women by himself,” Ward’s statement continues. “The women whose remains were found at the pig farm were likely the victims of a group of sexual sadists and torturers, who likely included convicted murderer Willy Pickton himself.” How many murderers, Ward asks, remain at large?
For Ward and others, such questions are essential to finding any semblance of truth or justice.
“This is a dirty shame,” says Bridget Perrier, whose step-daughter Angel Wolfe lost her mother to Pickton. “This was a sham, a waste of our time. In Canada, you’re allowed to murder by race and class. These women—these families—need justice.”
Suspicions of a cover-up grew even more pronounced when the Crown Prosecutor who dropped Pickton’s 1997 attempted murder charge—after a sex worker barely escaped, bleeding, from his farm—admitted her documents had been inexplicably destroyed.
“There’s so many unanswered questions,” says Michele Pineault, whose daughter Stephanie Lane was among those killed. “Look at all the documents they lost … It seems too convenient.”
As Oppal crafts his report, will his recommendations prevent future cases where missing women reports are rudely dismissed, police agencies fail to cooperate, and killers continue killing?
“The report, in the end, is not going to be of any relevance or importance in the long run to us,” says Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. “How can we look on this as something positive—that might do some good—when there was too much of a cover-up?
“If I were to think of an actual outcome—a good, positive outcome—it would be for them to recommend a national inquiry.”
For Corbiere Lavell, justice would include ratcheting up accountability for Canadian police, who she says operate with virtual impunity. Such failures have brought Canada under the investigative microscope of both the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
“This inquiry is not going to really touch on key areas of racism, discrimination, delivery of services, access to justice,” she adds. “We talk about systemic racism right from First Contact. Aboriginal people haven’t been conquered … and yet, we’ve been treated as if we were a conquered people, conquered nations, and told, ‘This is what you get.’”
And so the question of what justice looks like for Pickton’s victims—or the 600 missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada—hinges on causes far more profound than any single officer or detachment. They, too, raise questions about prostitution’s criminalization, and poverty in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. And they strike at the root of Canada’s history of colonialism, racism and discrimination against Indigenous women.
One night, long before Pickton’s arrest, that dark past collided with another Native woman’s life.
“I had to flee for my life from the farm,” Cee Jai Julian, a former sex worker, recalls. “When I approached the RCMP, I wasn’t listened to. When I found out my friends were missing, I tried to tell the Vancouver Police Department, but they wouldn’t listen to me either.
“During the investigation no one believed me. They didn’t believe me because I was Native, drug-addicted, transient and a prostitute … All I can say is shame on them. They’ve got to start pulling up their socks and start doing their job more … We’re sex trade workers, we have the right to get the help that we need down here too. We’re human just like everyone else.”