VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
THE PIG FARM KILLINGS
In Port Coquitlam, amidst refuse and slaughtered pig remains, a forensic investigation has turned up the bodies of 15 young women. John Lee investigates Canada’s worst mass-murder.
PHOTOS BY DOMINIC SCHAEFER
It’s 10 am on a bone-chillingly cold January morning in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, day four of the preliminary hearing to determine if there’s sufficient evidence to try the man alleged to be Canada’s worst serial killer. Today’s proceedings are already 30 minutes behind schedule when Robert William Pickton, the local pig farmer charged with 15 counts of first-degree murder, slips quietly into his specially constructed courtroom corner through a cream-colored steel door. Behind inch-thick plexiglass and flanked on either side by large, armed sheriffs, he takes his seat without once looking out into the courtroom.
Seen throughout Canada in endlessly repeated television footage as unkempt, unshaved, and greasy-haired, Pickton’s appearance today, though presumably polished by the expensive legal team funded by the Province of British Columbia, is not much better. Sporting a rough, gray sweater that looks like it’s made from lint, the scrawny 53-year-old faces away from the media, revealing lank, graying hair that starts just above his ears and hangs almost to his shoulders. Like a villain from a novel by Dickens, his gaunt, pallid face has a sharp nose and heavy-lidded eyes that never look up from the black folder and yellow legal pad resting in his lap. Almost immediately, he begins taking notes, a black pen clutched in his fingers.
Quiet descends as Judge David Stone enters the bright, pine-finished room in the city’s provincial court, and a large TV screen—angled to face Pickton and the bench—begins relaying a recorded police interview with the accused. The subject of the interviews, conducted soon after his arrest in February 2002, is the allegation that Pickton befriended sex trade workers and drug addicts from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and murdered them on his decrepit farm, 40 minutes away.
As the monitor plays, the family members of the missing women stare stoically ahead. In chairs marked with small blue ribbons, seated either alone or in pairs, eight women, who have been brought together by tragedy, talk to one another in occasional whispers. Except for one: a slender, stiff-backed middle-aged woman with a large white handkerchief bolded in her lap. Her eyes are closed, as if in prayer.
While the judge and both legal teams make notes for a possible trial, each of the three sheriffs stationed in the room focuses intently on the TV. One turns away every so often and grinds his jaw against his cheek. But Pickton, as he listens to his own reedy voice, appears calm, almost expressionless. His hands do not shake as he delicately turns the pages of his interview transcript, and his think, slight mouth moves as if he’s ruminating. Twice he mouths a silent response to his own testimony, and only once does he shake his head, as if to disagree, his mouth curving into a quick, tight smile.
A region of two million, famed for its laid-back cosmopolitanism and the breathtaking natural beauty of its tree-covered mountains and cozy beaches, Vancouver has long maintained the image of idyllic West Coast living. But the Pickton case has cast a klieg light on an area of town from which politicians and locals had averted their attentions: Vancouver’s troubled Downtown Eastside.
Infamously regarded as the "poorest postal code in Canada," the heavily populated Downtown Eastside was the city’s hub until local landowners succeeded in moving the city’s economic and residential centers to other parts of town. The area’s decay, a slow and graceless decline begun in the 40s, hit freefall in the 70s, and today it stands in stark contrast to the city’s gentrified waterfront Gastown district and central business area nearby.
Here, rooming houses and cheap hotels are found above the pawnshops and squalid taverns. Marijuana and ecstasy are openly offered, hawkers whispering the words as they pass, and harder drugs are easy to find. This is a place where the streets are filled with staggering drunks and lesion-faced men whose vices have aged them prematurely, where track-marked women loiter on even the coldest nights in freshly applied makeup and short skirts.
It is a community of drifters, where identitities are routinely forgotten or purposely avoided, a no-man’s-land of missing souls. But at the end of 1998, some were seriously questioning the number of women who had apparently vanished from the area since the 80s. And by the final months of that year, as Cindy Beck, Kerry Koski, and Inga Hall were added to the burgeoning list of drug-addicted sex trade workers reported missing by friends and families, local residents grew increasingly disturbed by fears of what might have happened on the city’s wasted streets.
Publishing a register of names and photos of what it called "Vancouver’s Missing Women," one local First Nations group, in impassioned and sometimes angry press interviews, demanded an immediate police investigation. Although authorities declared the list flawed—some of the women had died from diseases, drug overdoses or were later discovered alive—the suggestion that sex workers were disappearing like ghosts became a leading convention topic among locals more used to discussing the latest minor scandal in municipal politics or the fate of the Vancouver Canucks.
With newspapers like the tabloid Province openly asking what had happened to the lost women, the Vancouver Police Department was pressured into action. It was the first time they had investigated the missing cases as a single inquiry. They quickly drew up their own list of 16 women, each of whom was reported missing since 1995. The list grew rapidly as the investigation unfolded.
AS CINDY BECK, KERRY KOSKI, AND INGA HALL WERE ADDED TO THE BURGEONING LIST OF DRUG-ADDICTED SEX TRADE WORKERS REPORTED MISSING BY FRIENDS AND FAMILIES, LOCA RESIDENTS GREW INCREASINGLY DISTURBED BY FEARS OF WHAT MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED ON THE CITY’S WASTED STREETS.
Publicly rejecting the idea of a serial killer, officials compiled a list of 600 individuals alleged to have assaulted prostitutes in the area over the previous ten years. Low on that list was Robert Pickton. He was charged in March 1997 with attacking prostitute Wendy Eistetter on his farm, but the four charges, which included one of forcible confinement and another of attempted murder were stayed in January 1998. Later media reports suggested that police didn’t regard Eistetter as a reliable witness. But as other suspects—including one who had attempted to force a rubber ball down a streetwalker’s throat and another convicted of pimping a 14-year-old girl—were laboriously discounted in the disappearances, investigators began to focus on the strange Port Coquitlam pig farmer. And by early 2002, they were ready to move.
Memorial showing eighteen of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside
missing women, fifteen of whose remains
Vancouver's Downtown Eastside:
The Pickton family established itself in the suburb of Port Coquitlam, known as "PoCo" to the locals, in 1905, when William Pickton bought a parcel of land near Essondale Mental Hospital. Forced from the site when his pig farm was expropriated for the construction of a major highway, William—with teenaged sons Robert and Dave in tow—moved the farm to its current Dominion Avenue location in 1963. Linda, the oldest sister, who had been sent away to boarding school, never lived at the new farm.
Following the death of their parents in the late 70s, the sons continued to live on the sprawling lot, which was jointly bequeathed to all three siblings. Dave, bearded and burly, the physical opposite of Robert, well known throughout the PoCo for riding his trademark motorcycle around the area, moved in and out of the farm. Married and later separated, Dave developed other business interests,
YOU COULDN’T SEE ANYTHING FROM THE ROAD WITH THE TRAILER PARKED IN FRONT. THE SLAUGHTERING WAS DONE IN THE MIDDLE, WHERE THERE WAS A BIG HANGING MEAT HOOK. THERE WAS A STEEL TABLE TO THE SIDE FOR GOING THROUGH THE CARCASSES.
Including a salvage firm called P&B Used Building Materials Ltd., headquartered in the nearby suburb of Surrey.
Only Robert, known as Willy to friends and associates, remained on the farm permanently. Never marrying, he spent much of his time puttering around in muddy gumboots, tinkering with old cars, many of which were abandoned vehicles he purchased from the Vancouver Police impound lot. He also bought pigs at local livestock auctions, fattening and selling them to neighbors, skillfully skinning and cutting them up for meat in a slaughterhouse contained in an old two-story barn. Driving the carcass waste to West Coast Reduction’s animal rendering plant, Robert regularly passed through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside on his way.
Taking advantage of the surge in housing demand that the 90s brought to Port Coquitlam, Robert and Dave began rezoning and selling parts of the sprawling farm to developers. Soon, the decaying lot was transformed into dozens of brightly colored, wood-sided homes, which emerged alongside an elementary school and civic park. The final ten-acre parcel to be sold—now closely bordered on two sides by the freshly planted back gardens of new family residences—still has a large development permit notification posted on it.
But if much of the family’s landholdings were transformed into a suburban idyll, the trailer, slaughterhouse, and farm in which Robert lived and worked, remained anything but pastoral. Rick Cope, who was employed as a laborer by the Picktons from 1996 to 1998 describes the slaughterhouse as having been particularly "gross and scummy. It had bay doors in the middle but you couldn’t see anything from the road with the trailer parked in front. The slaughtering was done in the middle, where there was a big hanging meat hook. There was a steel table to the side for going through the carcasses. It was very dark, but out the back you could see a storage area for pigs and some other rooms. I didn’t want to stick around there."
Down the block from the slaughterhouse, a short drive from the farm along Burns Road—a wide, rural tract, poorly lit with infrequent streetlights and flanked by unkempt hedgerows—was the private party venue for which the Picktons were perhaps best known. Named Piggy’s Palace—"Piggy" was Dave’s nickname—and housed in a converted one-story, cream-colored barn, Dave regarded the establishment as his pet project. The venue, which featured a bar, stage, dance floor, commercial kitchen, and seating for up to 150 people, held frequent private parties, often marking graduations and holidays and showcasing local bands playing covers of favorite rock songs by the likes of Kiss and AC/DC.
Mostly attracting a younger crowd, Piggy’s Palace was established enough to see visits from the occasional Port Coquitlam city-council member. In later years, the parties grew increasingly wild, as sex trade workers and Hell’s Angels bikers became more frequent visitors. According to Greg Watt, a local who had attended some of the parties in the late 90s, "There was a $10 cover charge, which included ham cuts from a pig roasting near the entrance. There was no liquor license, so you had to buy tickets for drinks and exchange them at the bar. There were always groupies and hoochie mommas there. Some were better looking than others."
According to Watt, Dave seemed to enjoy the parties, mingling with patrons, clearly the more gregarious of the two brothers, while Robert was a quieter presence, often seen skulking at the back of the room. It is a sentiment Cope confirmed, describing Robert as an oddball with few social skills: "You could look at him and he’d look right through you, like a guy who’d done too much acid. You could never hold a conversation with him. He was always very quiet and in his own little world. And he was very dirty. He looked like he wore the same clothes for ten days at a time. I wouldn’t want to touch him with a ten-foot pole."
Still, the parties continued until late December 1998, when Port Coquitlam officials, concerned that the parties were violating the land’s agricultural zoning permit, closed Piggy’s Palace. Nonetheless, rumors persisted that parties were being staged at the site long after its official demise.
Warranted to search the Pickton farm for illegal firearms on February 5, 2002, police quickly uncovered personal items linked to the list of missing women. Although they remained tight-lipped about what exactly they had found—an approach investigators have maintained throughout the ongoing case—local media reported that purses and identification had been discovered on Pickton’s ramshackle ten-acre property. Police easily secured a second warrant and launched an immediate sweep of the surroundings, this time headed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)-Vancouver Police Department Joint Missing Women Task Force.
Over the next 24 hours, dozens of police officers arrived to patrol the farm, which was soon enclosed by tall mesh barriers and circled with yellow crime scene tape. Soon makeshift shelters, white tents, and a clutch of shiny SUVs eclipsed the property’s sagging barns, rusting vehicles, and skeletal trees. Within days, a bulldozer was brought in to level the land for a police mobile detachment office, as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) trucked away farm hogs, frenzied and squealing. In a statement issued through his lawyer Peter Ritchie, Pickton claimed to be "flabbergasted" by this sudden turn of events, but nonetheless made a show of cooperativeness by offering officers the use of his heavy digging equipment.
Meanwhile, the Canadian media, anticipating one of the year’s biggest stories, descended upon the farm en masse. Jostling TV crews lined the road in front of the property and stationed themselves between the surrounding trees, on which were nailed hand-painted advertisements for locally grown blueberries and fresh honey. Helicopters buzzed noisily overhead, angling for a better view of the police proceedings, while a group of media outlets pooled their resources and hired a cherry picker, taking turns peering over the site for a glimpse of the unfolding investigation.
At a noisy and chaotic media briefing on the edge of the property one week later, Vancouver police spokesperson Detective Scott Driemel finally confirmed that a grimy trailer on the property—later revealed to be Pickton’s living quarters—was the, "focus of intense forensic investigation." He told reporters, "investigators now have in their possession specific items of interest taken from the trailer and certain DNA samples," but refused to detail the nature of what exactly had been found, fueling local media allegations that heads, hands, feet, and bags of bloody clothing, had been recovered. Although police officially denied such reports, they nonetheless brought in blood splatter experts and bone fragment scientists to assist with the investigation, lending further credence to media speculations.
By the third week in February, two DNA matches had been made and on February 22, Pickton was arrested and charged in connection with the deaths of Mona Wilson and Sereena Abotsway. Despite complications including, "moisture, low pH soil, attack by microorganisms, and the length of time some of the site’s DNA samples may have been in the ground," according to Dr Dean Hildebrand, coordinator of the forensic science technology program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology three more matches were made in April. The names Diane Rock, Jacqueline McDonell, and Heather Bottomley were added to the steadily building list of charges against Pickton.
DNA samples from the Pickton farm site:
In the initial months, the investigation presumably employed techniques most commonly used for the examination of mass graves, but as time wore on, the investigation began focusing on locating smaller fragments, suggesting that the recovery of larger body parts had become a less likely scenario. Dr Mark Skinner, professor of forensic anthropology at Simon Fraser University, speculates that by late Spring, investigators had finished, "photographing and mapping the area using a combination of video cameras, still cameras, and aerial photography to look for freshly disturbed earth," and were instead, "removing the farm’s soil to conveyor belts for fine examination, looking for teeth, bone shards, and blood spots among the tens of thousands of fragments recovered."
In early June RCMP Constable Catherine Galliford issued a statement that would shape the remainder of the investigation, calling for a massive expansion of the property search that had previously concentrated on the trailer and specific areas of the farm. Attempting to overcome the conditions that had conspired to make DNA testing difficult, key among them the overwhelming presence of pig DNA, investigators initiated a detailed forensic-archaeological search of the property, necessitating the assistance of archeologists and anthropologists.
To that end, Galliford explained that 26 experts with formal training in human osteology, a sub-specialty of archeology, had been selected to work at the site. Chosen from a pool of approximately 50 upper-level students and graduates of the specialized field, these experts arrived from universities across Canada. Issued white body suits and photo identification, they were obligated to absolute secrecy. To assist in their work, investigators requested the additional delivery of an excavator, a loader, a soil screener, two 50-foot-long conveyor belts, and two dump trucks. At the same time, testing labs across the country prepared for thousands more swab samples, as DNA matches became the main focus of the investigation.
But even with the widespread mobilization of Canada’s forensic resources, obstacles remained in linking the recovered DNA samples of the missing women. Because many of them were transients—lost to family and friends even before their deaths—simply locating a bone or tooth with enough DNA to begin the DNA fingerprinting process using short tandem repeats—the nuclear DNA Test standard across North America—did not necessarily mean that a match could be made. As Hildebrand explains "This process may give you the sample, but it’s meaningless unless you have something to compare it to. The same test must be performed on relatives—ideally parents—in order to make a comparison."
Nonetheless, investigators continued to toil, erecting a giant steel canopy to protect sections of the dig site and piling 40-foot-high mounds of searched earth around the perimeter of the property. As the investigation escalated—including a smaller, five-month forensic search of Piggy’s Palace, ten additional charges were made against Pickton for the murders of Andrea Josebury, Brenda Wolfe, Jennifer Furminger, Helen Hallmark, Patricia Johnson, Georgina Papin, Heather Chinnock, Tanya Holyk, Sherry Irving and Inga Hall. By late October, Pickton had surpassed 80s child murderer Clifford Olson as the most notorious alleged serial killer in Canadian history.
In custody since his February 2002 arrest, Pickton continued to deny the 15 charges of first-degree murder against him, while the prosecution began preparing a massive case. A preliminary hearing to examine the more than 35,000 pages of collected evidence was scheduled for November and then rescheduled for this January as Pickton’s lawyer argued over funding issues, legal technicalities, and media intrusion in the case. Still, investigators continued their inch-by-inch search of the farm, now regarded by the public—fed by unsubstantiated tabloid stories—as a horrific hell on Earth where women mercilessly slaughtered and disposed of among the detritus of hog waste and pig remains.
In the Port Coquitlam courtroom, in the late afternoon, Pickton remains seated, hunched sideways over his notes, his eyes downcast. The only sounds in the room are the rapid scratching of dozens of pens on paper and the nasal drone of Pickton’s voice coming from the TV. At the end of the session, Pickton rises stiffly from his chair. Quickly turning his back on the media and family seats, he stands, head bowed, waiting for the heavy door of his plexiglass enclosure to swing open. With transcript folder and legal pad tucked firmly under his arm, he does not once look up as he steps through the opened doorway, his flak-jacketed guard close behind.
Four rows from the front of the room, dress in a business-like black jacket and skirt, family member Sandra Gagnon also rises from her chair, readying to leave. Her sister Janet Henry, a sex trade worker from the Downtown Eastside, is on the list of missing women, and it is for her that Gagnon walks purposely up these courthouse steps every single day. "My sister was the mother of an 18-month-old daughter.
MOSTLY ATTRACTING A YOUNGER CROWD, PIGGY’S PALACE WAS ESTABLISHED ENOUGH TO SEE VISITS FROM THE OCCASIONAL PORT COQUITLAM CITY-COUNCIL MEMBER. IN LATER YEARS, THE PARTIES GREW INCREASINGLY WILD, AS SEX TRADE WORKERS AND HELL’S ANGELS BIKERS BECAME MORE FREQUENT VISITORS.
She was very loving and she was my best friend. I wish I had a picture of her," says the soft-spoken Gagnon, who has not heard from Janet since 1997. "I want to find out what happened to my sister and I want justice. I know [Pickton] is involved."
Not in the courtroom today, but no less touched by the circumstances of this case is Ada Wilson, sister of Mona, whose body was among the first recovered from the Pickton’s farm. Described by friends as sweet and bubbly, the 26-year-old brunette had struggled for several years with a serious drug problem. Unable to enter a treatment center due to lack of spaces, Mona had been supporting her addiction by working the streets of the Downtown Eastside. When she failed to return home for Christmas, Ada alerted police. But it was too late. For Ada Wilson, who still keeps the gift-wrapped present of a ruby heart pendant and matching earrings that she bought for Mona the year she went missing, there can be little doubt of Pickton’s guilt.
But not every PoCo resident is convinced. "There’s a lot of feeling that if this guy did it, there’s no way he did it alone. I can’t say for sure that he’s slow or developmentally disabled, but people who know him think he couldn’t have done all this without help. There’s definitely others involved," says Richard Dal Monte, editor of Tri-City News, one of the area’s two local newspapers. Some even question whether Pickton was involved at all. "I’ve known him for years. My whole family knows him and we all fully trusted him. He’s a great guy as far as I’m concerned," says Rich Smallwood of Ron Ross Auctioneers, who has sold dozens of junked cars to Pickton.
As early evening slowly descends on this fourth day of preliminary hearings, and an overcast sky gives way to freezing rain, forensic experts continue their work on the other side of the city, sifting the soil at Pickton’s muddy, windswept farm. Across the street, down a steep, rough-graveled service road, between the parking lot of the new Home Depot and a patch of brambled scrubland, a small white makeshift tent has been erected. Now covered in photographs of the loved and lost by the family and friends who congregate to mourn them, a laminated list has been posted as well. Extended many times over, the list and the pictures serve as small reminders of the many women who remain at the heart of this case, ensuring that here, in the shadow of their last hours, their names and faces are not forgotten.
SEED MAGAZINE - NEW YORK
Updated: August 21, 2016