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Family, friends attend court opening

The accused showed no emotion throughout the hearing, the content of which cannot be printed.

Lori Culbert and Neal Hall
Vancouver Sun

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Friends and family of the dozens of women missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside attended the opening of the murder trial Monday of Robert (Willy) Pickton, the man accused of being Canada's worst serial killer.

Family and supporters gathered outside the New Westminster courthouse ahead of Robert Pickton's pre-trial hearing. Photograph by: Canadian Press

As the clerk read out the names of the 27 victims and asked Pickton how he would plead, his voice was at first loud but became nearly inaudible as he repeated "not guilty" 26 times.

He refused to enter a plea on the one count that involves an unidentified victim, Jane Doe, therefore the judge entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf.

Outside court, Pickton's lead defence lawyer, Peter Ritchie, told reporters his client didn't enter a plea on one count because the defence position is "there appears to be a flaw in the indictment . . . so arguments will be raised whether it is technically proper."

Pickton, who often hasn't attended court for procedural motions over the last two years, listening instead through video-conferencing, was in the New Westminster courthouse Monday. Only a thick bulletproof glass partition in the high-security courtroom separated him from the missing women's relatives and friends.

Dressed in a short-sleeved grey shirt, black jeans and new white running shoes, a thin-looking Pickton scribbled notes on a pad that he kept shielded from journalists and leaned his head on his left hand as he listened intently to a witness on the stand. His shoulder-length hair was streaked with grey and he wore a prison-issued pink bracelet on his left wrist.

Pickton showed no emotion throughout the hearing, the content of which cannot be printed because of a court-ordered publication ban.

As difficult as it was for relatives to hear, all over again, the details of Pickton's alleged crimes, there was relief that the proceedings were finally starting -- nearly four years after the suspect's February 2002 arrest.

"I'm just glad it's finally underway," said Sandra Gagnon of Alert Bay, the sister of Janet Henry.

Henry is one of 68 women who vanished from the Downtown Eastside between 1978 and 2001 but is not among the 27 women Pickton has been accused of murdering.

Gagnon previously attended Pickton's preliminary hearing in 2003. "I've been here since the beginning," she said.

Leona Phillips of Mount Currie said: "I'm here to support my cousin Sherry [Irving], to give some closure to this whole thing."

Pickton has been charged with the murder of Irving, whose DNA was found on his Port Coquitlam farm.

"It's been really long," she said of the waiting.

The trial began with a voir dire, sometimes called a "trial within a trial," that will hear applications to determine the admissibility of certain evidence and applications for remedies under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The applications will be heard in the absence of a jury, which has not yet been selected, so the publication ban on the proceedings will continue. The voir dire is expected to last several months.

Outside court, defence lawyer Ritchie said his client is healthy but would not answer any other questions about the accused.

The lawyer said about 750,000 pages of material have been disclosed to the defence. "It is a formidable challenge to the defence team," he said.

Stan Lowe, speaking on behalf of Crown counsel, said outside the courtroom: "This case is unprecedented in its magnitude.

"It's a mega case on the same scale as Air India."

Also outside the courthouse, a dozen native drummers sang songs in memory of the women who began disappearing from the Downtown Eastside in 1978.

"A lot of my friends disappeared at the Pickton farm," said drummer Cee Jay Julian, who works in the Downtown Eastside with the group Prostitutes Empowerment Education Resource Society (PEERS) Vancouver.

"I was drumming to honour my sisters," she said. "We were singing a women's warrior song."

Edna Brass, a longtime activist from the Downtown Eastside, knew six of the 68 women who vanished from Vancouver's poorest neighbourhood.

"These people have names, they're somebody's mother, sister, aunt ... They should not be forgotten. There's no need for them to be gone."

Dozens of other people from the Downtown Eastside held up a 70-panel quilt with the names of the missing women.

"We're here to remember the women from the Downtown Eastside," said Marlene Trick, a community services programmer with the Carnegie Community Centre at Main and Hastings.

She said the memorial quilt was started a year ago as a way for people to remember their friends and sisters. "For a lot of people in the Downtown Eastside, they have no other way to express their grief."

Referring to a Vancouver Sun story on the weekend, she noted that the women left behind 75 children. She said the missing women "won't witness their [children's] graduations or marriages."

Trick also pointed out that a reported $70 million has already been spent on the investigation and prosecution of Pickton, with the cost estimated at $120 million.

That money, she added, could have been spent on resources such as alcohol and drug treatment, sorely needed in the Downtown Eastside.

Trick said a Valentine's Day march, which will be held again this year, was started 15 years ago to honour the missing women.

Back then, she said, most of the violence against women was alcohol-related but now is fuelled by drugs and severe drug addiction.

Trick said she would like to see tougher sentences for drug dealers who supply addicts. "As far as I'm concerned, they are murdering people and walking free."

She said it appears the Vancouver experience is being repeated in Edmonton, where, the bodies of nine women who worked in that city's sex trade have been found in the past three years, mostly on the city's outskirts.

lculbert@png.canwest.com

nhall@png.canwest.com

 The Vancouver Sun 2006

 

Email: wleng#missingpeople.net 

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

Updated: August 21, 2016