VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Police could have caught Robert Pickton earlier and prevented deaths: police report
BY LINDSAY KINES, VICTORIA TIMES COLONIST
VICTORIA — Police could have caught serial killer Robert Pickton years earlier and likely prevented the deaths of more than a dozen women, an internal Vancouver police investigation concludes.
The report has remained under wraps for more than a year because of court proceedings, publication bans, and now because the B.C. government wants time to study the findings.
But sources familiar with its contents say one of the report's main conclusions is that women's lives could have been saved.
The report, which runs to more than 400 pages, is likely to stir controversy because, while it finds considerable fault with the Vancouver police investigation, it also lays much of the blame on the RCMP for failing to nab Pickton sooner, sources say.
The report says RCMP officers from the Vancouver suburb of Coquitlam took the lead on pursuing Pickton as a suspect as early as 1998, because he resided in their jurisdiction where the murders were suspected to have occurred. Yet while some RCMP investigators took the file seriously at first, the detachment eventually let it languish for months on end despite frequent prodding from Vancouver detectives, the report says.
The review concludes that there was enough evidence pointing at Pickton as the prime suspect by mid-1999 for the RCMP to start pulling out all the stops in their investigation — some 2 1/2 years before Pickton's eventual arrest in February 2002.
During that period, more than a dozen women, some of whose DNA was later found at the farm, vanished from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Vancouver police Deputy Chief Doug LePard authored the report, which Vancouver police officers have been allowed to read at police headquarters for training purposes. It is also circulating in the government.
LePard spent years reviewing the case, interviewed all the major players, and does not spare his own department, detailing extensive problems with the Vancouver police's handling of the file, sources say.
A number of those problems were first documented by the Vancouver Sun in a 2001 report, which found that the department relied upon overworked police officers without the time or resources to do a thorough job. The investigation was also hampered by infighting, computer problems and inadequate training, police sources told the newspaper at the time.
LePard confirms a number of those concerns, according to some of the same sources for the original Vancouver Sun report. But LePard's report notes that while the Vancouver police investigation was inadequate, it still identified Pickton as a suspect, only to have the RCMP drop the ball.
In one instance, Pickton agreed to a voluntary search of his property, but the RCMP never followed up on that offer, the report says.
The Vancouver police have been seething for years that they have borne the brunt of criticism for the case, while the RCMP took credit for finally arresting Pickton.
Former Vancouver police chief Jamie Graham, who assigned LePard to do the review, told the Vancouver Sun in 2002 that the attacks on the Vancouver police were "scandalous" and inaccurate. At the time, the department was incensed by an NBC Dateline report, which suggested Vancouver police had the name of the prime suspect all along, and did nothing with it until the RCMP rode in to save the day.
Graham, who is now chief of the Victoria police department, declined to comment on the contents of LePard's report Tuesday.
But sources say the report sets the record straight by showing that the RCMP were leading the pursuit of Pickton from the outset and let him get away.
The report says police never fully committed to the theory that a serial killer was at work, and that undermined requests for more resources, sources say.
Those findings, combined with the recent revelation that DNA evidence linking Pickton to two of the missing women remained in an RCMP storage locker for seven years before it was tested, are likely to fuel calls for a public inquiry into the police investigation.
Attorney General Mike de Jong has so far refused to commit to an inquiry, saying he needs time to read the internal Vancouver police and RCMP reviews.
He is expected to take the matter to a provincial cabinet meeting next month.
The Vancouver police service, which has supported calls for a public inquiry, will not be commenting on its internal review until after the cabinet meeting, Const. Jana McGuinness said Tuesday.
Former Vancouver police officer Kim Rossmo, who has written a book on criminal investigative failures, said LePard's report suggests the need for a "focused, productive inquiry."
Now teaching at Texas State University, Rossmo was given a copy of LePard's report after signing a confidentiality agreement.
"Fascinating is the word," he said, when asked for his reaction to the report. "It is a significant autopsy into a failed criminal investigation, and there's much to be learned from it.
"Despite my involvement with the case, and my continued connection through various people, I've learned a lot that I did not know before."
Rossmo said any politicians or journalists already dismissing calls for an inquiry should wait until they've seen the report.
"I think it's absolutely essential that this be made public for the good of policing and for community safety," he said.
It's well known that Pickton first surfaced as a suspect in the summer of 1998. At the time, Wayne Leng, a friend of one of the missing women, had set up a toll-free line for information on her whereabouts. He received a tip on the line about Pickton and passed it along to Vancouver police.
Investigators followed up and interviewed the tipster, who told them a woman had spotted bags of bloody clothing and women's identification while cleaning Pickton's trailer.
The detectives also knew that Pickton had been accused of trying to murder a sex-trade worker at his farm in March 1997. Both he and the woman suffered serious injuries in the incident and all the charges against him were later stayed. It was in the aftermath of this incident that police seized Pickton's boots and clothing, but the items were never tested until 2004 — two years after his arrest. The tests detected the DNA of two of the missing women.
The tip about the bloody clothing, along with the earlier attempted murder charge against Pickton, elevated him on the list of suspects. RCMP and Vancouver police investigators pursued Pickton throughout 1998 and into 1999, showing his picture to sex trade workers on the Downtown Eastside and even putting him under surveillance.
By mid-1999, Vancouver police had developed a second source who told them about a woman who claimed to have seen a butchered body on Pickton's property. Police tracked down the woman and interviewed her in August 1999.
The woman would later become a key witness at Pickton's trial, but at the time of the first police interviews, she denied seeing a body.
Up to this point, there had been talk of getting wiretap or running an undercover operation. But the provincial Unsolved Homicide Unit got involved, challenged the reliability of some of the source information, and the investigation apparently stalled at this point, sources say.
Coquitlam RCMP continued to take responsibility for pursuing Pickton as a suspect. But LePard's report suggests the RCMP went for months without doing anything on the file. The report also criticizes senior managers within the Vancouver police for failing to press the RCMP to do more.
It wasn't until February 2002 that a rookie RCMP constable gained access to the farm on a warrant looking for firearms, and found items belonging to the missing women.
Pickton was eventually charged with murdering 27 women whose body parts or DNA was found on his farm. He was convicted on six counts on Dec. 9, 2007, one other charge was stayed, and the Crown recently stayed the remaining 20 charges after the Supreme Court of Canada rejected Pickton's bid for a new trial. The DNA of six other missing women was also found at the farm, but Pickton was never charged in those cases.
© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist
Updated: August 21, 2016