VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Deadly Dysfunction: Scathing undisclosed details from inside the Pickton investigation
May 25, 2012 – 10:33 PM ET | Last Updated: May 25, 2012 11:11 PM ET
Sam Cooper/Postmedia News
“It is only now that I recognize all of the signs and signals of burnout and post traumatic stress disorder brought on by doing a horrible job for an unsupportive and incompetent organization,” Lori Shenher wrote, a year after Pickton’s arrest
Lori Shenher thought her career as a police officer was over. The reasons: Pickton trauma. Burn-out. Guilt, the result of failure. Anger. For more than two years, from 1998 to 2000, Ms. Shenher had led a Vancouver Police Department unit tasked with finding missing women. And in that time, more women went missing and were murdered by Robert Pickton. The Port Coquitlam pig farmer had been in police sights — her sights — a long time.
Pickton was her prime suspect. He was placed under police surveillance, yet he continued to kill and dispose of bodies at his farm. When he was finally arrested in 2002, Ms. Shenher didn’t celebrate. She despaired, knowing a serial killer had slipped through her fingers. While on leave, suffering from post-traumatic stress and thinking she would never return to police work, she decided to spill her guts. Ms. Shenher sat in front of her computer and began to write.
The result was a 289-page manuscript that Toronto-based publisher McClelland & Stewart planned to have in bookstores by September 2003. But circumstances changed. The manuscript was never published. It was buried and stayed that way until this year, when lawyers representing the families of Pickton’s victims at the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry in Vancouver forced its disclosure and requested that it be made public.
During hearings in April, several passages from the Shenher manuscript were read into the inquiry record. Some lawyers argued the entire document should be entered as evidence. Commissioner Wally Oppal rejected their arguments last week. The National Post has obtained a copy of the manuscript and is publishing previously undisclosed details for the first time.
David Clark/Postmedia News Files
Robert Pickton's farm in 2002.
‘It is only now that I recognize all of the signs and signals of burnout and post traumatic stress disorder brought on by doing a horrible job for an unsupportive and incompetent organization,” Ms. Shenher wrote, a year after Pickton’s arrest. “I was no longer able to bear the weight of our ineptitude and rationalization…. It had always been Pickton.”
Her book is the rawest, most immediate and revealing account of the botched missing women and Pickton investigations. It describes a major Canadian police department plagued by indifference, in-fighting, sexism, racism. And it reveals much about Ms. Shenher herself.
She was a fish out of water, a young lesbian trying to work her way up in an alpha male world. The VPD was not an exceptionally tolerant or progressive workplace in 1991, the year Ms. Shenher joined. Hostilities were common inside headquarters and on the street. She recalls how officers sometimes played it old school, kicking down doors and roughing up suspects.
After working on various assignments — patrol, surveillance, a prostitution task force in Vancouver’s crime-infested Downtown Eastside — Ms. Shenher joined the VPD’s Missing Persons Unit in July 1998. Despite her lack of seniority, she was made the unit’s lead investigator and file co-ordinator. It seemed the VPD brass had finally accepted that prostitutes from the Downtown Eastside were vanishing without a trace. Those cases became her focus.
no real plan to
find these women’
Early in her assignment, she wrote, then-VPD inspector Peter Ditchfield suggested it “would very likely turn into a serial killer investigation.” She felt she had arrived. But her enthusiasm for the job waned when she discovered how thinly resourced the missing persons unit really was. It was moribund, perhaps by design, Ms. Shenher suggests in her account.
“There was no real plan to find these women,” she wrote, in one of the few passages that were read into the inquiry record last month. “I see now that I was merely a figurehead, a sacrificial lamb thrown into an investigation the VPD management was convinced would never amount to anything and would never grow into the tragedy it has become. An investigation they could care less about.”
Ms. Shenher is extremely critical of her colleagues; few are spared from her bitter attacks. She began at the top.
“At the time, beleaguered former chief constable Bruce Chambers was running the VPD,” she wrote. “Between trying to manage a highly dysfunctional organization and sniffing out snakes in his own senior management team, he was busy and not particularly interested in a bunch of missing hookers and drug addicts.”
The passage was read back to Ms. Shenher last month, when she returned to the inquiry for cross-examination by Cameron Ward, a lawyer for the families of the murdered and missing women. “I stand by that,” she testified.
The unit operated from a tiny, “airless and windowless” room inside department headquarters on Main Street. Missing person complaints were handled by a civilian clerk named Sandra Cameron, whom Ms. Shenher alleged in her book was prone to “diatribes and rants.”
On one occasion, “I listened to [Ms. Cameron] speaking to someone on the phone, obviously growing more and more impatient and agitated. Finally, she shouted into the receiver, ‘SPEAK ENGLISH, THIS IS CA-NA-DA.’ This was not the first time I had witnessed [such] behaviour on her part and I had had enough.”
In another passage read aloud into the inquiry proceedings by lawyer Ward, Ms. Shenher recalls asking Ms. Cameron “who she had ‘blown’ to manage to retain her job all of these years. She just laughed, perhaps thinking I was kidding. I wasn’t.”
Ms. Shenher received compelling information that summer, tips that identified Robert “Willie” Pickton, a creepy loner living on a messy pig farm in suburban Port Coquitlam. According to police sources who came forward in 1998, Pickton bragged that he could dispose of bodies on his farm using a meat grinder. Sources claimed that women’s purses and identification were inside Pickton’s trailer. Shenher met one of the sources and thought him to be honest.
‘I became more convinced that Pickton was our man’
She learned that a year earlier, Pickton was charged with the attempted murder of a Downtown Eastside prostitute, whom he had lured to his farm. An RCMP officer who had investigated the stabbing and had recommended the attempted murder charge to Crown prosecutors believed the case was a slam dunk, an easy conviction. But the Crown stayed the charge, on the belief — not shared by the RCMP or Ms. Shenher — that Pickton’s alleged victim was too drug-dependent to make a reliable witness.
“I became more convinced that Pickton was our man,” Ms. Shenher wrote in her book.
She had a potential ally inside the VPD: Kim Rossmo, a geographic profiler with a doctorate in criminology. He believed one or more serial killers were preying on Downtown Eastside prostitutes and he shared his perspective with Ms. Shenher.
Mr. Rossmo was not well-liked by certain colleagues, who thought him an inexperienced flake and unworthy of the unique title he had been given, detective inspector. Ms. Shenher had similar opinions. “His own arrogance and insecurity are his greatest faults,” Ms. Shenher wrote. “Rossmo told me he felt the offender or offenders had the ability to dispose of bodies in privacy, was likely Caucasian and probably used a vehicle, all things I had surmised on my own without the use of any computer program.”
Of course, the description fit Robert Pickton. If Ms. Shenher had already drawn similar conclusions, and was convinced he was the perpetrator, then why was Pickton not apprehended in 1998? How could Ms. Shenher have failed, knowing all that she did? In her manuscript, she blames the old boys, the apathetic men in charge.
“[The missing women] were dead, we had a strong suspect and, still, VPD management put their collective hands over their ears, loudly sang la-la-la and pretended we didn’t have a responsibility to find these women,” she wrote, in another passage read aloud at the inquiry by Mr. Ward, the lawyer.
She could have pressed harder, she admits. “I, too, should have complained long and loud about the lack of resources to properly investigate these files and I really didn’t.”
By 1999, she had decided it came down to this: Rock the boat and watch her career go up in flames or go with the flow and keep climbing the VPD ladder. She chose the latter course. “The best I could hope to do was try my best for these women and cover my own ass,” she wrote.
Robert William Pickton
Mr. Rossmo’s VPD contract expired in 2000. He filed a wrongful dismissal lawsuit that ended up before the courts. This “became an embarrassing display of VPD upper management accusing each other of lying on the [witness] stand, like a bunch of school boys in a playing field arguing over a goal,” wrote Ms. Shenher.
She portrayed her immediate boss, a VPD sergeant named Geramy Field, as a well-intentioned yet powerless, even befuddled, cop. Ms. Shenher wrote that at one point, it seemed as if “we had changed roles and I was now the supervisor, guiding and advising her as to the right thing to do. She appeared lost and pleaded with me to tell her what she should do.”
In May 1999, with more women disappearing from the Downtown Eastside, a formal missing person review team (MPRT) was established and additional resources and VPD officers were put to work. Initially, Ms. Shenher was thrilled. Then she compared her resources to the Home Invasion Task Force which was set up next door. “New detectives dreamed of being asked to join the Home Invasion Task Force,” she wrote, “while those same people avoided the MPRT like the plague, uninterested in searching for a bunch of missing ‘whores’…. Apparently, victimized homeowners warranted the big guns; missing, drug-addicted hookers did not.”
Her assessment of two VPD officers assigned to her team is scathing. Detective Constables Doug Fell and Mark Wolthers are depicted as renegades whom nobody liked. “Not only did they have even less experience dealing with major files than I had, they brought with them a dubious reputation, both on the street and among their fellow officers,” she wrote.
The pair annoyed Ms. Shenher from the start. She was especially upset by the close attention they paid to a previously convicted sex offender and drifter named Barry Niedermeyer, whom she did not believe had any connection to Vancouver’s missing women. But arrangements were made with RCMP in Alberta to put Niedermeyer under surveillance. Ms. Shenher was miffed.
“Fell and Wolthers strutted and preened as the surveillance was going on, basking in the glow of their perceived new importance as the detectives overseeing this large undercover operation that was the collection of [Niedermeyer’s] DNA,” she wrote sarcastically. “[Another VPD officer] and I were so annoyed, we took to snorting like pigs in the office — our way of staying sane in such a manic environment and of saying they were pursuing the wrong man and that we believed Pickton was a far more worthy suspect.”
‘We believed Pickton was a far more worthy suspect’
Niedermeyer was eventually charged with more sex offences and was convicted and imprisoned, thanks to the work of Messrs.. Fell and Wolthers. Yet Ms. Shenher slams them in her book, giving them no credit at all.
In testimony this month at the inquiry, Messrs. Fell and Wolthers claimed that information about Pickton was kept from them while they worked under Ms. Shenher. Other officers have denied the allegation. Mr. Wolthers also said the pair was unfairly criticized in the VPD’s official missing women investigation review, written by Deputy Chief Constable Doug LePard and entered as evidence early on in the inquiry. Mr. Wolthers called the deputy chief’s findings “disgusting.”
Both officers were removed from the review team in 2000. Mr. Wolthers, now retired, does not believe the VPD ever completed its job, even after Pickton was arrested. “I believe strongly that there’s two to three serial killers,” he told the inquiry. “I don’t believe that Robert Pickton is responsible for all of ‘em.’”
Ms. Shenher turned to clairvoyants and psychics to help her crack the missing women cases. She “didn’t exactly broadcast it around the office,” she wrote. One psychic seemed to have a gift, but nothing useful materialized.
By the summer of 2000, the number of names on the VPD’s missing women list had surpassed 30. Ms. Shenher and other officers were told the review team was winding down, that the RCMP was going to review the entire investigation and basically assume the missing women files. The Mounties took review team documents to their offices in Surrey, a Vancouver suburb; some have not been seen since, according to frustrated inquiry lawyers.
The RCMP had already been conducting an on-again, off-again investigation into Robert Pickton and had shared the same graphic tip information with the VPD. The farm that Pickton shared with his younger brother David was in the RCMP’s jurisdiction; it was just a few kilometres from the RCMP’s Port Coquitlam detachment, in fact.
The Mounties were also aware of Piggy’s Palace, a booze can the brothers owned and operated; it sat across the street from their farm. It was widely understood to be frequented by Hells Angels members and associates. The RCMP had great interest in such characters and had various biker investigations underway.
Then there was Bev “Puff” Hyacinthe, a civilian who worked inside the RCMP’s Port Coquitlam detachment. She was a Pickton family friend and neighbour, the inquiry has heard. She allegedly attended a New Year’s Eve party at Piggy’s Palace in 1999 and saw Robert Pickton cavorting with a woman later identified as missing. Remarkably, Ms. Hyacinthe was also aware that Robert Pickton had learned he was under RCMP surveillance, the inquiry has heard. (Inquiry lawyers wanted Ms. Hyacinthe to testify; David Pickton, too. Commissioner Oppal refused their requests, without offering any explanation.)
‘It became obvious the VPD was looking for an opportunity to dump this case’
Like others, Ms. Shenher thought the Mounties’ on-again, off-again interest in Pickton was odd. Why, she wondered, had they suddenly offered to review Vancouver’s missing women investigations? “It became obvious the VPD was looking for an opportunity to dump this case,” she wrote. Perhaps the RCMP felt they needed to show “acceptance for some of the responsibility for the file.” The truth may be far more complicated.
Pickton kept on killing. Lori Shenher became fed up with the review team, and left in November 2000. This was “sooner than planned,” she wrote, explaining that “a murder took place in my own family and the only place I felt I should be was with my partner.” She and her same-sex partner had a baby boy early the next year. Ms. Shenher took maternity leave. When she returned to work, she joined the VPD’s Diversity Relations Unit.
But the missing women investigation gnawed at her conscience. The following summer, Ms. Shenher met with a Vancouver Sun reporter, Lindsay Kines, and she unloaded. “I told him of the set-up of the MPRT, of the shell game that was the VPD’s response to these women’s disappearances, of the incompetent people we were forced to work with,” she wrote in her manuscript. “I placed him in an awful position, knowing he wouldn’t be able to use any of it, but feeling someone needed to know this — the public needed to know this.”
She also discussed details with television producer Chris Haddock, the creator of the CBC drama da Vinci’s Inquest, which was shot in Vancouver. Ms. Shenher had been a journalist before joining the VPD and she often worked as an advisor for Mr. Haddock on his hit series. She couldn’t resist sharing with him her “frustration with the lack of progress on the Pickton file.”
Jason Payne/Postmedia News
Former VPD Const. Lori Shenher (centre) at the missing women inquiry in Vancouver, BC Wednesday, April 4, 2012
The RCMP had all kinds of information on Pickton: The 1997 knife attack on a Downtown Eastside prostitute. Reports from various sources in 1998 and 1999, about women’s clothing and firearms on his farm. About Pickton talking about his ability to dispose of corpses. A witness account, about Pickton purportedly skinning a female corpse in his barn. Bev Hyacinthe’s alleged knowledge of Pickton. And yet senior RCMP officers claim they lacked information to obtain a warrant to search the Pickton farm.
But in February 2002, a young RCMP corporal applied to the courts for permission to enter the property. His search warrant application was based on the suspicion that Pickton possessed an illegal handgun. Once on the farm, more macabre discoveries were made: Items that had belonged to missing women. The farm became a massive crime scene investigation and Pickton was soon arrested.
Ms. Shenher was invited to witness RCMP investigators interview Pickton at their Surrey detachment. She was told that Pickton “had masturbated almost immediately upon entering the cell the previous night and, to the horror of his poor cellmate, would do so several times throughout the night.” Pickton would give the RCMP a confession, of sorts, hinting that he might have killed as many as 49 women. By then, his fate was practically sealed. He was eventually charged with 26 counts of first degree murder and was convicted by a jury on six counts of second degree murder. But his trial was not held until 2007.
‘… nothing in policing appealed to me’
Ms. Shenher felt no satisfaction after his arrest. The RCMP had taken most of the credit for nabbing Pickton. VPD investigators were cast as failures. Truth was they had failed. Ms. Shenher wrote that she had come “to a startling and sobering realization — nothing in policing appealed to me.” She was done. Or so she thought.
She went on medical leave in mid-2002 and began working on her manuscript. It was a cathartic exercise, she told the inquiry and, clearly, she felt she had some scores to settle. She and her partner had another baby. Ms. Shenher went on a long maternity leave in February 2003. She hired a literary agent, signed a book deal with McClelland & Stewart, and began delivering chapters. She wrote 289 pages.
Inevitably, reporters caught wind of her book project. Families of Pickton’s victims were outraged. The VPD claimed Ms. Shenher was not writing a book. But she was, and was still collecting a VPD paycheque. She had been part of the Pickton investigation, and she had filled her manuscript with details about evidence. Yet Pickton hadn’t even been tried. There was confusion.
So the book disappeared.
It “just died a death,” Ms. Shenher testified last month, when inquiry lawyers quizzed her on it. “The VPD really had no knowledge that I had written it…. They had nothing to do with the decisions around it at all.” The VPD had not ordered her to kill it. “I wasn’t in any way pressured by them.”
On the other hand, she told lawyer Cameron Ward, “I stand by most of what I wrote, for the most part. There are a couple of things that I have come to, you know, in the fullness of time, have come to understand a little bit differently, or I have had more information provided to me, which has changed my view. But I think the overall tenor of the book I would stand by.”
Ms. Shenher returned to the VPD in 2004 and to a promotion. She is now a Detective Constable with the Emergency and Operations Planning Section. Reached at her work late this week, she declined to discuss her book. “I still have to work here,” she said. “I do intend to rewrite it as a memoir one day.”
Updated: August 21, 2016