VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Digging for evidence at B.C’s notorious pig farm
Archaeologists sift through the debris of an alleged serial killer
PORT COQUITLAM, B.C.
ON A COOL, damp winter day, just hours after the first two murder charges were laid in the case of Vancouver's missing women, a small wooden stand holding lit candles was placed at the gate of a suburban pig farm where their remains were allegedly found.
Nearly eight months later, this silent, flickering tribute to the victims, just like the horror it marks, has grown dramatically and desperately. The stand is now surrounded by a collection of flowers, photographs and poems that attempt to attach faces and personalities to women who make up a murder statistic.
Two. Five. Six. Seven. Eleven. Fifteen. The grim tally of first-degree murder charges has grown against Robert William Pickton, co-owner of the ramshackle farm.
With four more charges this month, Pickton, 52, is at the centre of what is now the largest serial murder investigation Canada has seen. His list of alleged victims surpasses the 11 children Clifford Olson confessed to killing in British Columbia in the early 1980s.
Most expect the number of charges to increase. As Pickton's Nov. 4 preliminary hearing looms, an investigation team scours the 5 1/2-hectare property and a nearby family-owned site known for its wild parties. Archaeology students sift through the soil. Police liken the process to the search of the rubble at the World Trade Center.
Police laboratories across Canada are still processing evidence excavated from the farm 35 kilometres east of Vancouver. Two families of missing women have reportedly heard that some DNA from their loved ones was found there, but not enough to support criminal charges or to even make definitive conclusions on the women's whereabouts.
Pickton's lawyer, Peter Ritchie, said this week there are already 200,000 DNA samples to review, as well as forensic evidence, toxicology and material from other experts.
Ritchie then quit the case over a funding dispute with the B.C. government, saying he'll resume the defence if the province will pay for it. Pickton says he is penniless and cannot afford to pay his legal counsel, while the government believes he has considerable assets from selling off parts of the family farm.
Meanwhile, the number of missing women grows. A total of 50 names, predominantly drug addicts and prostitutes from Vancouver's downtown eastside, were on the list when the pig farm search began in early February. It has since swelled to 63 names dating back to 1978, with police saying at least five other cases fit the profile and may soon be added.
For the families of women still unaccounted for, every phone call causes anxiety. Each police briefing of the media increases the possibility they'll hear the news they are dreading.
"It's just overwhelming," says Rick Frey, who last spoke to his daughter, Marnie, on Aug. 31, 1997 — her 24th birthday. "It's been that way since Day One. But as (the number) grows, it seems to be getting closer and closer to home."
Frey says the four latest charges were particularly difficult to absorb because three of the four women were last seen within a year of his daughter's disappearance. One of them is Tanya Holyk, who vanished in October, 1996, the earliest of Pickton's alleged victims.
"It just makes you ask: `Are we going to be the next ones who are told?'" says Frey, speaking from the home in Campbell River on Vancouver Island, where Marnie grew up.
A picture of the Freys from much happier times is among the growing collection of tributes assembled at the entrance to the farm. In it, the father is holding a huge salmon he just caught while his pint-sized daughter smiles proudly at his side.
The other photographs, flowers, prayers and effects have been moved across the street from the farm's entrance. That's to protect them from damage by construction crews that have begun work on the road, a sign that life goes on even in the shadow of a killing field.
Within the confines of the chain link fence erected around the farm, the investigation continues in earnest. Police spokespeople, who originally talked of the probe lasting months, then a year, said in September it will go for "many months to come."
Nearly 100 police officers, forensic experts and hired students are combing the pig farm — where they confirm human remains have been found — and a 4.5 hectare property nearby that was home to Piggy's Palace, a building where Pickton hosted raucous parties.
Since June, about 50 archaeology students and graduates, many of whom majored in human osteology (the study of bones), have been on the investigation's payroll. Each day, clad in hard hats, safety goggles and reflective vests, they can be seen on the farm combing soil for heavier material, which is then placed on conveyor belts and sifted by hand.
The students and the crews operating the front-end loaders, dump trucks and other heavy equipment were subjected to background security checks and made to sign confidentiality agreements. They face dismissal and possible criminal charges if they divulge any details of their work at the farm.
Abandoned vehicles, heavy equipment, old tires, wires, pipes and oil tanks have been gathered up from across the site and stacked at one end. Some windows on a derelict house are boarded up.
RCMP Sergeant Cate Galliford of the missing women's task force says the case is using "some of the most advanced, state-of-the-art scientific techniques available."
Investigators have designed a grid pattern for combing the farm, moving from one small area to the next rather than rushing to obvious search points, she says.
"Searches actually can get right down to molecular details," Galliford says of the investigation, which by a year's time in February may have cost $20 million.
"This is why it can take a very long time to complete a search. Literally, in some cases, no stone goes unturned."
That has not always been so. For several years, families and friends of Vancouver's missing women complained that the indifference of police and politicians was preventing a link being established in the disappearances. They said that because their loved ones were, in most cases, drug addicts and prostitutes, many people considered them disposable.
They say police were first told four years ago about a likely connection between the missing women and the pig farm, but police didn't begin searching the property until February. They find that even more inexplicable considering that Pickton was charged in 1997 with attempted murder and aggravated assault after an alleged knife attack on a prostitute at the site.
Those charges were eventually put aside.
Given that a dozen of the 15 women Pickton is so far alleged to have killed disappeared since the start of 1999, critics say many lives could have been saved with quicker action. The families of two of the missing — one confirmed dead, the other still unaccounted for — have filed lawsuits against police and government officials over how the investigation was handled.
Police first launched an investigation into the missing women in 1998, but there was no large commitment of resources until a joint task force was formed by RCMP and Vancouver police in early 2001. Police are not responding to any queries on their handling of the disappearances over the years.
Vancouver city officials also refuse comment, while the provincial government is saying it's too early to talk about a public inquiry.
The City of Port Coquitlam has denied any wrongdoing or liability.
But for many of the women's families and friends, the fight continues to make society realize the victims were not disposable just because they lived on the fringe.
"These were not just numbers or prostitutes or drug addicts," says Wayne Leng, who runs a Web site — http://www.missingpeople.net — dedicated to Vancouver's missing women and their families. "These were real people who were loved and are missed terribly."
Leng, who spent months looking for his friend, Sarah deVries, who has not been heard from since April, 1998, is in regular contact with the families of those whose mothers, daughters and sisters are alleged victims of Pickton, as well as those still awaiting word.
"Everyone just wishes the pain could end now, but we know it can't or won't," says Leng, who has heard from the deVries family that a DNA trace of Sarah has been found at the farm but not enough to substantiate criminal charges.
That anxiety will only grow as the case against Pickton moves toward a preliminary hearing, which could still be delayed by the ongoing wrangling over legal aid funding or scrapped altogether if the provincial government chooses to pursue a direct indictment.
Family members know that for the first time they are about to hear details of how the women are believed to have died, exposing their pain and loss anew.
In the meantime, Rick Frey and his wife, Lynn, are trying to carry on with their lives. They have become advocates for women addicted to drugs in the sex trade, hoping to extend help to those in the same situation as their lost daughter, Marnie.
Last weekend, they organized a 45-kilometre walk on Vancouver Island from Campbell River to Courtenay, in which a few dozen people raised more than $5,000 toward opening a second-stage house for recovering addicts on the Lower Mainland. Rick Frey has also spoken, from the heart, to schoolgirls about the dangers of drugs and life on the street.
Each day they know their lives could again be turned upside down by a discovery at the pig farm. If that day comes, Frey says his family is as ready as it can be.
"We're scared to know the truth, but at the same time, we have to know it," he says.
"It'll come as a bit of a relief to finally know where she is."
Updated: August 21, 2016