VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
DNA bank would have aided probe into serial killer Robert Pickton, inquiry hears
BY SUZANNE FOURNIER, THE PROVINCE FEBRUARY 15, 2012
The RCMP officer who headed the Missing Women task force blamed the lack of a national DNA bank for missing persons as one of the roadblocks that slowed investigators trying to solve the disappearance and murder of dozens of Vancouver women.
Retired RCMP Insp. Don Adam, who was a Mountie for 34 years, took the stand at the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry Wednesday to explain how an RCMP-VPD task force struck in late 2000 took until 2002 to halt an ongoing serial killing spree by Robert “Willie” Pickton.
Adam said he does not want to appear “bitter” but told Commissioner Wally Oppal: “I cannot overstate to you how damaging it is that our country has not chosen to have a DNA databank for the missing.”
Adam said a national databank that holds DNA from missing people would be highly useful, rather than the current system where police are forced to wait for proof of a homicide before DNA tests are conducted. Nor is DNA information typically shared between provinces or even between police agencies in the same province.
And the DNA technology used by the Vancouver police, who had identified by late 1999 at least 27 missing women from the Downtown Eastside who had likely met with foul play, did not mesh with the RCMP system, Adam noted.
Activists and grieving family members had identified as many as 60 missing women by the late 1990s but police were slow to accept those numbers or that a single killer might be responsible.
The VPD’s Project Amelia had “busted their butts, or worked very hard in a search for the missing” and had even obtained “biological material”from the family members of the missing women, but it wasn’t analyzed for DNA, Adam noted.
“They didn’t collect DNA because they were not allowed to develop the DNA,” said Adam. “It was an appalling situation. They ended up being forced to keep it in a cardboard box under their desks.”
Vancouver police had even sent nine samples of biological material to a lab in Virginia because they couldn’t obtain a DNA analysis in Canada on an unsolved missing person “and the American system was useless to us,” Adam noted.
Adam said Pickton now is known to have been a “fully-functioning”serial killer as early as 1991, who was luring women from the Downtown Eastside to his farm, where they were murdered and their remains either taken to a rendering plant or buried.
But Adam said that the initial job of the task force Project Evenhanded was not only to consider 27 women missing from the Downtown Eastside, but also the so-called “Valley murders” of three DTES sex-trade workers whose bodies were found near Agassiz, as well as the case of the unidentified Jane Doe half-skull that had been found in 1995, as well as a “cluster”of murders on Vancouver Island. There were also hundreds of “very good suspects,” some of whom were “very vicious’ people,” said Adam.
As Adam started the multiple homicide investigations, he said it “took me a while. Things occurred that jarred me. I thought our (police) systems would be working but they weren’t working.”
Adam admitted that he was “appalled” by the fact that the disappearances or murders of sex trade workers appeared to have no better than a 50 per cent “solve rate,” compared to typical solve rates of 60 to 70 per cent.
Pickton was not arrested until Feb. 5, 2002, when rookie RCMP Const. Nathan Wells wrote up a firearms search warrant for Pickton’s Port Coquitlam farm.
Adam said police quickly found Heather Bottomley’s identification and the asthma inhalers of Sereena Abotsway, two of the missing women from the Downtown Eastside, on the farm.
A spot of blood on a Salomon ski bag turned out to match Abotsway’s DNA and another blood sample retrieved from a camper on Pickton’s farm was found to be that of Mona Wilson, another missing woman. That information moved Crown counsel to finally charge Pickton with first-degree murder on Feb. 22, 2002.
The lengthy forensic search of Pickton’s farm in fact found human remains buried and strewn throughout the farm, including bone fragments, but as well identifiable body parts in plain view, including bones in the farmyard as well as pails with women’s heads and hands, in a freezer.
The investigation into Pickton would become Canada’s largest serial killer case and would take years and cost more than $100 million, eventually requiring the resources of virtually every police lab in Canada capable of testing DNA.
Pickton was convicted of murdering six women but the DNA of 33 women was found on his farm. He boasted in jail to an undercover officer in 2002 that he had murdered 49 women in total but was starting to get “sloppy,” leaving human remains scattered on the farm.
Both VPD and RCMP junior officers have complained they were hampered by a lack of resources and senior managers reluctant to give them the time and money they needed.
But Adam repeatedly emphasized that a lack of resources was not an issue, in his view.
He said that neither the VPD or the RCMP had any difficulty in mustering resources, once it was known that multiple murders were involved. VPD top brass was labouring under the misapprehension that women had stopped disappearing in 1999 and Adam admitted that he himself thought it impossible that a single, active serial killer might be responsible for the DTES disappearances.
“It just didn’t seem possible to me that it was the work of one person and I believed that we needed to be open to multiple killers in this story . . . it was my mandate to catch them all,”Adam said on the stand.
Once Pickton was clearly identified as a serial killer, resources flowed to the file, Adam said.
He noted that “if Napoleon said armies march on their stomachs, police departments march on their budgets.”
Nothing gets done until a police manager allocates funds and people to a project, said Adam, and it was his job as an investigator and manager, starting in late 2000, to solve a massive number of unsolved homicides, mostly of women who were marginalized sex trade workers.
The inquiry hearings are slated to continue until the end of April, with Oppal pledging to hand in his final report by the end of June 2012.
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Updated: August 21, 2016