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Search for B.C. missing women will be long, gruelling, say experts

DENE MOORE
Canadian Press

Sunday, April 28, 2002

VANCOUVER (CP) - It will be a long and gruelling task for police to search property belonging to accused serial killer Robert Pickton, say experts who have investigated some of the grisliest war crimes of the 20th century.

Searching the two Port Coquitlam properties for clues to what happened to some of the 50 women missing from Vancouver's downtown eastside will require patience and a lot of "grunt work."

"This is difficult because most crime scenes you're dealing with aren't on the scale that these guys are working," says Brian Strongman, a retired RCMP inspector who has worked for the United Nations investigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

Peter Ritchie, lawyer for Robert Pickton, talks to
reporters outside provincial court in Port Coquitlam, BC.
(CP/Richard Lam)

Members of a joint RCMP-Vancouver city police task force began searching Pickton's four-hectare farm on Feb. 5. Almost two weeks ago they expanded their search to a similar-sized property around the corner that he owns with his brother.

"To start on a large site you'd have to narrow it down," says Strongman.

In Bosnia and Kosovo, investigators had aerial photographs to help them pinpoint the location of mass graves.

In a situation like the one in Port Coquitlam, they would have to use remote sensing devices, cadaver-sniffing dogs, ground-penetrating radar, methane gas detectors, infra-red photography to detect decompositional heat and simple common sense to try and locate possible crime sites.

The technology helps "but it still doesn't replace the old trained eye who's done this for years," says Strongman.

Searchers work their way down, layer by layer, looking for anything that could help them identify victims and determine what happened.

In Bosnia, they found watches.

"We found, in many cases, self-winding type watches that had stopped almost on the time that the atrocities had occurred," Strongman recalls in an interview from his home in Nelson, B.C.

"They were a very good piece of evidence."

Any item could turn out to be significant evidence so each is photographed, its location recorded and the item packaged and logged.

"You have to collect everything because you don't know when you're going to go to court and you can't very well pick and choose your evidence. You have to pick everything and then eliminate it or identify it," Strongman says.

Searchers will initially search shoulder-to-shoulder, possibly on hands and knees, says Mark Skinner, a professor of bioarcheology at Simon Fraser University.

All material has to be collected and logged, says Skinner, who is currently in Belgrade monitoring exhumations and autopsies from mass graves in Serbia.

"Often, such sites are clandestine and the upper layer may contain a lot of evidence of attempts to hide or obliterate the actions of the perpetrators," he says.

"Thus there may be covers of garbage, couches, extraneous soil types and so on."

The upper layer of turf and vegetation is stripped away by small tools or with a small machine.

"Hopefully, this will expose the grave cut marked by abrupt changes in soil consistency and colour," he says.

In New York at the site where the World Trade Centre once stood, conveyor belt equipment has been brought in to process large amounts of debris at a time.

Any item could be potential evidence.

"The experienced investigator will use their judgement but will err on the side of collecting more than less," says Skinner.

He has helped police with searches in 135 forensic cases, 53 of them homicides. In the past four years he has helped exhume mass graves in Afghanistan, Bosnia, East Timor, Yugoslavia.

Pickton has been charged with the first-degree murders of six of the 50 missing women since the search first began.

Police say the search will continue for another year and the task force has swelled to about 80 officers borrowed from city police and area RCMP detachments.

"We have the resources and expertise required to do a thorough and detailed search," Det. Scott Driemel of the Vancouver police has said.

Police have found human DNA at the farm and the task force has collected DNA from family members to try and identify any human remains.

The International Commission on Missing Persons did the same in the former Yugoslavia and are currently using family DNA to try and identify remains.

But the more time that has passed, the more complex the search becomes, says Skinner, and some of the women have been missing for many years.

Thirty-nine women have disappeared since March 1995.

 Copyright  2002 The Canadian Press

Courtesy of The Canadian Press
http://www.cp.org 

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Updated: August 21, 2016