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How the police investigation was flawed

Too few officers, police infighting and lack of experience undermined first probe into disappearances

The Vancouver Sun
Saturday, September 22, 2001

Lindsay Kines, Kim Bolan and Lori Culbert


The original Vancouver city police investigation of missing women on the Downtown Eastside was assigned to inexperienced and overworked officers without the time or resources to do a thorough job, The Vancouver Sun has learned.

In some cases, the officers distrusted one another, withheld information from the rest of the team, or lacked the proper training to handle such a complex case.

The Sun has also learned that there were data entry problems with the computer system that was used to manage information about the case.

The result was a deficient investigation into what may be the largest serial murder case in the city's history.

And at least one officer familiar with the case has said the investigation was so rife with problems that the case should be the subject of a public inquiry.

The investigation goes back to the summer of 1998, when Vancouver police assigned a second officer to its missing-persons section to review a sharp increase in the number of missing women.

Then, in 1999, the department formed the Missing Women Review Team amid mounting public pressure over the disappearances, and rising fear that a serial killer was stalking Vancouver prostitutes.

Mayor Philip Owen and senior police officers assured the media at the time that the department was doing everything it could to solve the case. The city and province offered a $100,000 reward, brought John Walsh from television's America's Most Wanted to town to release a poster of all 31 women and, at one point, police told the media that nine people were at work on the file.

"The women's families and friends, and the entire Downtown Eastside community need to know what has happened," Owen said in a July 1999, press release. "We're doing everything we can to get answers."

But The Sun's two-month investigation has found the police response left much to be desired.

Based on interviews with more than a dozen active and retired police officers, as well as internal police documents obtained by the newspaper, The Sun has determined that the Vancouver police either lacked the resources to investigate the disappearances properly or resisted shifting them to a difficult case where they had no bodies, no crime scenes, no forensic evidence, and too many possible suspects.

Among The Sun's findings:

*Although Vancouver police told the media and the public they had up to nine people working on the file, many of those officers were either assigned part-time or were working two jobs at once -- meaning the actual number of officers on the case at any one time was far less than reported.

*The sergeant in charge of the investigation was essentially doing the work of two or even three people -- supervising an on-call homicide team of eight officers, overseeing the coroner's liaison and missing person's units while leading a probe into a possible serial murder case rivalling that of the Green River Killer in Washington state.

*The two homicide detectives assigned to the team were still doing work on a number of unsolved murders, as well as assisting with fresh homicides -- even as they pursued a growing list of suspects in the missing women case.

*Two of the initial investigators on the case were junior members of the department who had less than 20 years experience between them and had never worked in the homicide squad.

*Initially, nobody on the review team -- including the sergeant -- had received major case management training from the Canadian Police College, which is considered the standard requirement for officers conducting complex investigations.

*The investigation was hampered by infighting between investigators and allegations that at least two members of the team were withholding information from other officers and running parallel investigations without alerting the others. The Sun has learned that the situation was so bad that some investigators refused to sit in the same room with each other.

*There were too few data entry people and those in place lacked the necessary training on the case management computer system. At one point, material was lost from the computer -- although the team still had back-up copies on paper.

The computer problems raised concerns among some investigators that any future court case would be compromised or, worse, that the key tip needed to solve the case had yet to be processed.

*Officers became so frustrated with the lack of time and resources to do a thorough job that they began burning out and requested transfers to other sections.

Despite all the problems, the review team did make significant progress on the case before the investigation was scaled back last fall.

Even critics of the department have praised individual officers on the review team for their sensitivity and dedication to the case, and for overcoming a lack of resources to achieve a measure of success.

For instance, detectives, located four of the women by following up leads, monitoring bank accounts, e-mailing pictures to psychiatric hospitals, border crossings and police departments; and checking databanks across the country for medical, social service, vital statistics and coroner's records. Two of the women were located alive, while two had died -- one of a heart condition, the other of a drug overdose.

But the myriad problems with the investigation and the lack of resources meant that important tasks were never completed.

The team began, but never finished a survey of sex trade workers to get their ideas on who might be responsible for the disappearances -- something that proved effective in a similar investigation of missing prostitutes in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Investigators looked at 1,348 tips, but a number received only cursory treatment and still required more analysis and follow-up by the time the team was scaled back last fall.

And although they contacted other jurisdictions to see if they had relevant cases, the team was unable to do the kind of thorough file review now being done by the new joint forces team of RCMP and Vancouver city police, which assumed control of the cases earlier this year.

As a result, police are still turning up cases three years into the investigation and now have more than a dozen possible additions to the list. They are also checking all murders of prostitutes, attempted murders and sexual assaults across the province for potential links to the missing women case.

"We did a pretty good investigation given what we had," said Sergeant Geramy Field, who headed up the missing women review team.

"In hindsight, if we'd had more people, we could have done a better investigation -- a faster investigation."

Field, for instance, said she would have preferred to respond more quickly to new missing women cases, which conceivably offered the freshest leads on a potential serial murder suspect. "But there weren't enough people to do that," she said.

"I would have liked to have had time to meet with the families on a more frequent basis," she said. "But there wasn't enough time."

And Field said it would have been nice, in retrospect, to have had a person heading up the investigation who was trained in major case management and had no other responsibilities. But at the time, there were only two people in the entire department with major case management training.

Officers interviewed for the story say the problems with the investigation were typical of a department so strapped for resources that it barely has enough people to handle day-to-day responsibilities -- let alone properly investigate a case as overwhelming as the disappearance of 31 women.

"Most police departments -- and Vancouver's no exception -- they're all trying to be leaner and meaner and trying to reduce their budgets," said retired Detective Ron Lepine, who worked on the case. "They don't want to commit resources or people or money and time into anything that they're not sure about."

And the missing women case was unlike anything the department had faced before, he said. Investigators had no bodies, no forensic evidence, and no clear idea when the women disappeared, since they were often reported missing months or even years after they were last seen.

The vague time frames made questioning suspects next to impossible since there was no way to verify their stories and alibis. As a result, police were unable to eliminate suspects, the list grew, and the investigation expanded rather than narrowed.

"I don't think any one police department can do this type of investigation, because of the fact that it's so general and there's just so many possibilities," Lepine said. "There's just so many people that you can't eliminate. You can't narrow it. You can't focus. That's what it's all about; you can't focus."

The lack of focus, or even a clear idea of the problem, made it difficult for managers to lobby for more resources in a department already stretched to the limit.

A confidential report on the Vancouver department's workload changes from 1993 to 2000 notes that "one of the greatest stresses in an investigation is attempting to acquire and maintain enough human resources."

The report, which was obtained by The Sun under B.C.'s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, shows the department lost 42 officers due to budget cuts over seven years, even as its workload increased by the equivalent of 89 jobs -- positions that were filled by pulling beat cops off the street and putting public safety in jeopardy.

"Whenever there is an extraordinary investigation such as that into the missing women in the DTES (Downtown Eastside) or the home invasions of the elderly, investigators are borrowed from other squads whose workload is such that they can't be spared," the report says.

"This creates stress for the investigators, stress in the organization, and increased overtime whenever staff shortages are created. There are not enough investigators available to provide the flexibility to create short-and medium-term task forces when an extraordinary need arises."

Yet despite the obvious pressures on the department, it appears nobody in senior management ever alerted the public to the fact that it had too few resources to handle the missing women case.

Chief Constable Terry Blythe, who took over as acting chief in June, 1999, admits he inherited a department vastly understaffed. But before he could demand additional resources, Blythe says, he first had to put a strong case together.

"We can't just do things willy nilly overnight and tell somebody well, we need this or that," he said. "We've got to be able to justify very clearly why we're doing what we're doing."

Blythe said one of his first moves as chief was to assign the planning and research section to prepare a comprehensive report on workload changes -- the first in seven years. The report, which was presented to him last December, painted such a shocking portrait of the state of the department, that council immediately responded by approving funding for 50 permanent positions.

But in the spring and summer of 1999, senior officers endured in silence.

They had already committed 10 of their top investigators to the home invasion task force, which formed in February of that year to probe attacks on the elderly. So they scrounged officers from throughout the department to work on the missing women case.

The result was a team of inexperienced or over-worked investigators who were specifically instructed to avoid calling themselves a "task force."

"This was not a task force," Lepine said. "And they made sure that we never did call it a task force. It was a review team to review the information."

And it was far from the nine-member team advertised. A number of the officers carried other duties, some were doing the work of two or three people, and others were assigned on only a part-time basis.

"It may have been under-resourced," Blythe acknowledged in an interview this week. "But I don't want anybody to believe that we didn't think it was serious. We've been hit with this criticism so hard that it's tough to defend yourself.

"But right from the beginning, I think we've acted very responsibly and we've done as much as we could with the resources we had and with the information we had."

As for the fact that two of the initial investigators on the case had less than 20 years on the job between them and had never worked in homicide, Blythe said they were still skilled investigators.

"So even if they didn't have a lot of experience investigating a homicide, they were good police officers."

The senior officers, meanwhile, were overworked. Lepine confirmed that he and his partner, who were pulled from the homicide squad, were juggling several jobs while working on the missing women case. They assisted with new murders, pursued leads on their own unsolved homicide files and, the rest of the time, tried to build a list of suspects for the review team.

"You're trying to do several things at the same time, trying to do a balancing act, trying to focus on the missing women," Lepine said.

"But at the same time, as situations were coming up on homicides that we were involved in, we could not ignore those ... so we're trying to balance our time between that and, as a result, working long hours."

Field, who was in charge of the missing women team, also was doing double duty, according to the confidential report to Blythe on workload changes.

The report notes that the missing person's and coroner's liaison units originally were supervised by a staff sergeant. But department downsizing eliminated that position and the duties were downloaded on Field, who was already overseeing eight homicide detectives.

She was also on call for the homicide squad every second weekend, further harming her quality of life, the report says.

Field confirmed in an interview that workload issues and frustration with the lack of resources on the missing women case played a role in her recent transfer to the department's mounted squad. "There was just too much being asked of us," she said. "You want to do this and you want to do it right. You just can't."

The Sun has also determined that, initially at least, neither Field nor anyone else on the review team had received major case management training, which is taught at the Canadian Police College and is considered a standard requirement for people handling major investigations.

Ontario, for instance, implemented major case management province-wide in the wake of the inquiry into the bungled Paul Bernardo murder investigation in that province.

Field subsequently received the training a year later. But the workload report to Blythe notes that major case management has never been fully implemented in the Vancouver department -- again because of staffing problems.

"Several members of the major crime section have been trained in the MCM model, but it has not been fully implemented because of the additional investigators required," the report says.

On the matter of infighting amongst team members, a number of officers, including Lepine, confirmed it was a problem.

"There was a conflict there; I can say that now because I'm retired," he said."There was a conflict."

Lepine did not identify anybody by name, he but indicated there were officers on the team who had their own agenda and were working at cross-purposes to other investigators.

"It's like anywhere -- you can't have this Starsky and Hutch thing," he said. "That doesn't happen in police departments. Police have to work together. Everybody has to know what each other's doing. Everybody takes a responsibility as part of the team. These guys were not team players."

As for the computer problems, police officers told The Sun the data entry people were also overworked and unable to keep up with the massive amount of information being gathered by investigators. As a result, some of the information still had not been entered by the time the team was disbanded, and the file passed to the joint forces team of RCMP and Vancouver police.

The data entry people also lacked the proper training and, as a result, the team lost a chunk of material -- although it still had back-up copies on paper. However, the team had no way to know exactly what had been lost, requiring investigators to go back and somehow determine what was in the computer and what was not.

Field acknowledges there were problems with the investigation.

"But that isn't to say that the people that were there didn't have their hearts in the right place," she said. "They certainly did. That may explain some of the burnout. Because we did care so much, it took a toll on us personally."

Lepine, who worked in the vice squad for years, agreed.

"I personally have dealt with prostitutes for many, many years," he said. "I sympathize with their situation and if I had gone through life with the things that have happened to them, I might be on the street, too. And to say that we don't care about prostitutes is an absolute, bald-faced lie."

In many ways, Field said, the case overtook her life.

"I never, ever stopped thinking about it," she said. "Not only the internal issues, but you're also thinking who or how could this happen and what can you do about it. And it's your responsibility."

As team leader, Field also worried about the strain on the other investigators, who desperately wanted to solve the case.

"How do you help them carry on when you know, yourself, that everybody's over-worked. Because you do care about the people you work with."

In the end, the team contacted other departments and asked if there was anything more they could be doing. Field says they were told: "'Other than forming a 50-man task force -- no. Given what you've got, you've done everything you can do.'"

Still, Field said, the case bothers her to this day. "I see the articles in the paper or I get a call and I get this little pang," she said. "It's important to me. The case is important. Everyone there was dedicated. It wasn't a perfect investigation and I think we've all learned things. But nobody's ever investigated a case like this.

"The investigators that are working on it now know what they have to do and, unfortunately, it's going to take a lot of money and manpower to do that," she said.

"I just hope they get the support to do it."

Investigation turns up more missing women-Sept 21, 2001
DNA Samples not used-Sept 24, 2001
Police didn't pick up suspect who later murdered-Sept 25, 2001
B.C. slow to adopt lessons from Bernardo case-Sept 26, 2001
A killer's slip-up gave police a break-Sept 28, 2001
Sexual predator case prompts review-Sept 28
The lesson is: every human life matters-Sept 27, 2001

Vanished without a trace-July 29, 2001

 

Email: wleng#missingpeople.net 

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

Updated: August 21, 2016