VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
For families, not knowing is hardest of all
Missing women case set to start First evidence to be heard Monday
Saturday, January 11, 2002
VANCOUVER—When Jay Draayers walks into a suburban courtroom Monday and once again sees the man accused of killing his sister and 14 other women, he will take a deep breath, hold it and then slowly exhale in an effort to compose himself.
Like most in the public gallery, he will also strain to hear the voices of the judge and lawyers as he struggles to make sense of their often-complex legal language.
It's a routine that has played out three or four times in recent weeks. But this time, as Draayers takes his seat in Port Coquitlam provincial court, he, along with the friends and families of others on the list of Vancouver's missing women, will hear the first grim details of how their loved ones are alleged to have been killed.
A preliminary hearing is to begin detailing evidence on Monday in the case of Robert William Pickton, 53, a Port Coquitlam pig farmer charged with 15 counts of first-degree murder in connection with women who vanished from Vancouver's downtown eastside since 1996.
They are among the 61 women — predominantly drug addicts and prostitutes — reported missing from Vancouver's poorest neighbourhood as far back as the late 1970s.
The preliminary hearing, which is expected to last into the summer, will determine if there's enough evidence to take the case to trial. Details are covered by a publication ban that Canadian media are expected to respect. But it will be difficult to stop American and other foreign outlets from reporting on the proceedings, including on Internet Web sites.
For Draayers, 28, attending the hearing is a chance to find out what happened to his older sister, Sereena Abotsway. She disappeared in the summer of 2001, just weeks before a 30th birthday party that her family was planning. It was an event she was so excited about attending that she called her foster mother almost daily to talk about it. But as the Aug. 20 party approached, the calls stopped.
Abotsway's death accounted for the first charge against Pickton.
"I'm not totally prepared to hear it. I know it's going to be rough," Draayers says softly. "But I need to know and, I hope, it's something that helps us find closure in the end."
He and his wife will be the only members of his family in court. The foster parents who raised Draayers and his sister are subpoenaed as witnesses and cannot go.
The families and friends of the missing women share Draayers' sentiments. Theirs is a quest for answers, whether a loved one is an alleged victim, has been identified at the Pickton farm but is not part of the murder counts or is still unaccounted for.
Some need to hear how Pickton allegedly killed their sister, daughter or mother. Others want to get a sense of whether the list of victims will be lengthened to include the name of the woman they mourn. Still more are simply looking for clues to the whereabouts of women who have gone from the fringes of society to the centre of what police call the largest serial murder investigation in Canadian history.
"Nobody is looking forward to hearing the details because they're going to be horrible," says Wayne Leng, who runs a Web site — http://www.missingpeople.net — dedicated to the cases, life stories and families of the missing women. That includes his pal, Sarah deVries, whose DNA has been found at the farm. No charges have been laid related to her.
"But we want to know," Leng says. "We need to know."
Leng, who had a brief physical relationship with deVries before they became friends, is in frequent contact with families of at least half a dozen of Pickton's alleged victims.
Leng met some of the family members while searching for deVries after her disappearance in 1998. He also regularly talks with others who are connected to the missing women.
"Anxiety has hit everybody," says Leng, who hopes to travel from his new home in Los Angeles to spend time in court later in the preliminary hearing. "How do you prepare?
"We all want to hear that it was quick, but we doubt that's going to be the case."
Few details have emerged from the investigation at the farm Pickton co-owns with his brother and sister in Port Coquitlam, about 35 kilometres east of Vancouver.
Police broke open the case and converged on the site in early February. At a news conference in April, they announced they had "uncovered human remains on the property," but refused to be specific.
Spokespeople for the joint RCMP-Vancouver police missing women's task force also told reporters that they expanded their search to include off-site storage lockers and a nearby parcel of Pickton family-owned land that was home to Piggy's Palace, the name by which locals knew a building that hosted illegal, all-night parties.
In updates to the media over the past year, police report that thousands of DNA samples have been collected from the primary farm property. When they first arrived there, the site was filled with derelict buildings, abandoned vehicles, heavy equipment and a trailer that Pickton once lived in.
Several dozen university archaeology students and graduates, who are specialists in human bone, have spent months sifting through mountains of soil at the farm.
In a probe that officials boast "can get right down to molecular details," investigators scour the site by moving from one small area to the next in a specific grid pattern.
Pickton was arrested and charged with the killing of Abotsway and Mona Wilson in late February. He has been in custody since then as the number of his alleged victims has increased on five separate occasions with the discovery of more evidence. The probing at the farm is expected to continue for months, raising the possibility of further murder counts as the case makes its way through the courts.
The families of at least four other missing women have been told that the DNA of their loved one has been found at the Pickton property. These relatives include Marilyn Kraft of Calgary, who said this week that police have told her their investigation turned up evidence of her daughter, Cindy Dawn Feliks, who was 43 when she disappeared from the downtown eastside in the fall of 1997.
No charges have been laid in connection with the discovery of evidence of any of those women.
Also among that group is Rick Frey's daughter, Marnie, who disappeared just before her 24th birthday in August, 1997. Two months ago, police went to Frey's house in Campbell River on Vancouver Island to say they found her remains at the farm.
It was news Frey and his wife, Lynn, long expected. But that made it no less devastating.
"In some ways, it's even tougher now," Rick Frey says. "Before, we had a slight hope, a small wish, that things would be different. But now, that's all gone."
In its place is anger. The Freys were among a group of families and friends of missing women who say they first approached police about strange goings-on at the Pickton farm more than four years ago. But, they say, their news was not acted upon — part of what, in their opinion, was indifference among police and politicians to women deemed disposable.
The absence of an investigation is even more inexplicable, the families say, given that Pickton was charged in 1997 with attempted murder and aggravated assault after an alleged knife attack on a prostitute at the farm. Those charges were eventually put aside.
Police and municipal politicians vigorously deny that they were indifferent or failed to act in a timely way.
At least two of the families of missing women — one confirmed dead, the other unaccounted for — filed lawsuits against police and government officials over the handling of the investigation. The Freys are planning to do the same.
"We're still looking for answers," says Rick Frey.
He and his wife might go to court later in the preliminary hearing after the "circus" atmosphere calms down or when Pickton's case finally makes its way to trial, he says.
"We're just not at that point yet. It's going to be very tough to do it.
"Our daughter's gone. Do we really want to go through the gory details?"
It became clear this week just how many details there are in the case. One of Pickton's lawyers, Marilyn Sandford, told Provincial Court Judge David Stone that the defence team had received from the crown details of 150 witness statements from A through M in the alphabet as well as 50 binders, each as thick as a brick, containing wiretap information. Much of the next month is expected to be spent arguing about the admissibility of key evidence.
In December, Pickton's lead lawyer, Peter Ritchie, warned Stone that the evidence to be presented at the preliminary hearing will be of "an exceedingly grim nature." For that reason, he called on the judge to close the proceedings to protect the impartiality of a jury.
Stone rejected the request to bar families, the general public and media from the courtroom but made it clear he's open to reconsidering his ruling if there's widespread dissemination of evidence into the Vancouver area, home to any future jurors.
Interest in the case from international media has been nearly as intense as that from Canadian outlets. Four Seattle-area television stations representing the American networks have regularly sent reporters to court, while stringers for the British Broadcasting Corp., the Washington Post and the New York Times have also shown up.
Given that, it will be virtually impossible to prevent details of the case against Pickton from becoming available to anyone with Internet access.
David Sutherland, a Vancouver lawyer representing Seattle's four main television stations in the argument last month over closing the preliminary hearing, told reporters after Stone's decision that his clients would "do everything in their power to block direct transmission" of their telecasts into Canada. But, he added, Web sites are fair game.
"It is the position of the Americans that going to a Web site is a little like going to the courtroom," Sutherland said. "The courtroom itself is not closed."
At least two of those Seattle television stations posted details on their Web sites last month of evidence that's expected to be brought forward at the preliminary hearing. That prompted Stone to broaden the publication ban and Ritchie to send letters to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Vancouver police urging them to monitor American media for further breaches.
Jay Draayers has no intention of leaving details of the case to the media. He needed to go to court for himself to see Pickton through the bulletproof glass of the prisoners' box — "he looks so straggly in pictures but is more well-kept in person." And he must hear details of Pickton's alleged crimes with his own ears to draw his own conclusions.
For Draayers, it's important someone from the family is in court. He wants that. His parents, who not only cannot go but must not hear details until after testifying at a trial, want that.
And, he's sure his big sister would want that.
But as Draayers steels himself for what will surely be a difficult week, he — like so many among the families of alleged victims — also takes time to turn his attention to those who, through all the upcoming heartache, horror and tears, may not get any closer to answers.
"Our sympathies go out to all the families who don't know what's happened to their missing people," he says. "It's probably going to be harder on them because they're still waiting to find out.
"For us, it won't be easy, but at least we'll know. At least we'll have that."
Updated: August 21, 2016