VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Trial set to begin for pig farmer who could be Canada's worst serial killer
Friday, December 8, 2006
VANCOUVER, British Columbia
The women began disappearing from Vancouver's seediest streets in the 1980s, hookers and dope addicts abandoned on the margins of society. Desperate friends and families were outraged when the police appeared to do little to find them.
Now, the man accused of murdering at least 26 of those missing women is finally going to trial. Jury selection was to begin Saturday for the case against Robert "Willie" Pickton, a pig farmer who, if convicted of all the murders, would become the worst serial killer in Canadian history.
Some 600 potential jurors were being called in Saturday. Justice James Williams has ruled that the trial will be divided into two parts, with the first six counts being tried first.
The gruesome allegations against Pickton fall under a publication ban which prevents the media from revealing details of the alleged crimes until opening arguments on Jan. 8.
Journalists covering the preliminary hearings have been so haunted by the courtroom revelations that some have sought psychological help to deal with their anxiety and nightmares.
What can be reported is that Pickton, 56, was arrested in February 2002 by police investigating the disappearances of sex-trade workers from Vancouver's grubby Downtown Eastside district. Health officials later issued a tainted-meat advisory to neighbors who may have bought pork from his farm, concerned the meat may have contained human remains.
Pickton and his brother, Dave, used to throw parties at the hog farm in a barn they had dubbed the "Piggy Palace," telling neighbors they were raising money for charity. Investigators, however, have said the parties were drunken raves with prostitutes and plenty of drugs and booze.
After Pickton was arrested and the first traces of DNA of some of the missing women were allegedly found on the farm, the buildings were razed and the province spent an estimated C$70 million (US$61, or €45) to excavate and sift through acres (hectares) of soil looking for bones and other evidence.
Friends and family of the missing women say those who survived tell horror stories about what took place at the 7-hectare (17-acre) pig farm outside Vancouver in Port Coquitlam.
"We deal with stories out here that would blow your mind; this story is just the apex," said the Rev. Ruth Wright of the First United Church in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, the most impoverished neighborhood in all of Canada, where the average life span does not even reach 40.
She knew seven of the victims in her decade of work in the neighborhood, where heroin addicts and sex workers line up in front of her mission for a hot meal, a foot bath or free toiletries, to sleep on the church pews, or seek legal advice and help finding a job.
"I deal with it quite well, until somebody from the outside like you comes along," Wright said when asked how she copes with the loss. "I know that tonight I will have the dreams."
Wright remembers with sadness Sereena Abotsway, a sweet-faced prostitute who was 29 when she disappeared in August 2001, shortly after marching at the front of a parade demanding the city help find the missing women. Though the publication ban prevents reporting the details of what prosecutors believe happened to Abotsway, the first count of murder against Pickton is in her name and investigators have said that her DNA was found on the farm.
"She was very childlike, very gentle," Wright says of Abotsway. "The last conversation I had with her, she was holding a teddy bear. She loved stuffed animals."
Wright, relatives of the missing women and others who work or live on the streets of the Downtown Eastside say the city and police ignored their plight until the media began investigations of their own and relatives began holding demonstrations demanding answers.
"I knew a lot of the girls who said they went out to Pickton's to party; that he'd ask them to do weird sexual stuff," said Deanna Wilvers, a 25-year-old drug user and prostitute who said she has been on the streets since she was 16. She said she was close to Jacqueline McDonnell, one of Pickton's alleged victims who was 22 when she disappeared.
"He did it the right way though with those pigs, eh?" said Wilvers, alluding to how Pickton is rumored to have disposed of some of the bodies. "But I don't think he did it by himself."
Neither does Wright and others who have closely followed the case. They are angry that other suspects have not been named in the murders and that it took so long for Pickton to be charged.
But Constable Catherine Galliford of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Joint Task Force told a news conference in March 2002, just after Pickton was arrested and public criticism had peaked, that their resources were limited and the magnitude of the case overwhelming.
"The very sad truth is that horrible things are happening everyday to women who work the streets," she said. "This investigation into missing women is forcing light onto a part of our society that traditionally resides in the very dark shadows."
The task force says it has located at least 102 women believed to be missing. Another 67 women remain on the list, as well as three unidentified DNA profiles from the Pickton farm.
If Pickton is found guilty, he would be the worst serial killer in Canadian history, claiming more victims that Clifford Olson, who pleaded guilty to killing 11 children in British Columbia in 1982.
Hastings Street runs through the Downtown Eastside and leads straight out to the Pickton farm 18 miles (29 kilometers) east of Vancouver. Canadian historians say Hastings is the original Skid Road, where logs once skidded down a so-called corduroy road to the Pacific for shipping.
The farm out in the bedroom community of Port Coquitlam is now surrounded by wire fence, the conveyor belts used to sift the soil for bones are rusting.
Most of the ramshackle homes that surround the farm are being torn down for townhouses. Those who remain on the road alongside the farm live behind chain-link fences guarded by Rottweilers and declined to talk.
Dave Pickton, flagged down in his flatbed truck, gave a friendly laugh through his long beard but said he did not care to discuss his brother. He would only say that he was now hoping to raise cattle on the property before driving on down the road.
In the cramped 35-seat courtroom in New Westminster, Pickton has sat day after day for preliminary hearings over the past year in a specially built defendant's box surrounded by bulletproof glass. The clean-shaven man with a bald crown and shoulder-length hair barely moves, though occasionally he chuckles to himself or scribbles in a notebook.
Maggie de Vries, whose sister Sarah disappeared in 1998, though her DNA was later found at the Pickton farm, said she hopes the public will remember the women as sisters, mothers and daughters, and not simply sex workers and drug dealers undeserving of respect.
She told an Ontario newspaper, The Record, that she likes to remember a letter written by 10-year-old Sarah about her Halloween costume, swimming lessons and gymnastics teacher.
"It was just so chatty, full of so much life and enthusiasm and talent," said de Vries. "I think it challenges people's perceptions about who women are who work on the street. They don't imagine them being a 10-year-old who wanted to dress up as a black cat for Halloween."
Jeremy Hainsworth in Vancouver contributed to this report.
First United Church: http://www.firstunited.ca
Site devoted to the missing women: http://www.missingpeople.net
RCMP missing women joint task force: http://www.rcmp-bcmedia.ca/missing_women
Updated: August 21, 2016