VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Police foresaw Pickton inquiry, noted bungled investigation, almost two years before serial killer's arrest
Brian Hutchinson Jan
20, 2012 – 10:06 PM ET | Last
Updated: Jan 20, 2012 10:22 PM ET
VANCOUVER • It was April 2000, the height of Robert “Willie” Pickton’s killing spree. Dozens of women were already missing, and 23 more would vanish. The Port Coquitlam pig farmer was trolling for skid row prostitutes, driving them to his farm, murdering them, disposing of their bodies and going back for more. He would continue this horrible pattern for at least another year, and right under the noses of police.
Pickton was by then a prime police suspect. Documents disclosed recently at the Missing Women Inquiry of Commission in Vancouver offer stunning details of what police knew — or thought they knew — and what some officers didn’t seem to want to know.
Major crimes investigators were already aware, for example, that Pickton had a predilection for prostitutes. They knew of his episodic, sadistic violence. They had sources who claimed he was murdering women and chopping them to pieces. And yet investigations launched by both RCMP and the Vancouver Police Department seemed low priorities, the inquiry has heard. Little effort was made to co-ordinate efforts. Promising leads were discounted or dismissed altogether.
Perhaps most telling, on April 25, 2000, RCMP officers were already discussing the possibility that bungled police efforts would lead to a public inquiry.
On that date, a staff sergeant named Brad Zalys had a conversation with a superior officer, RCMP Inspector Earl Moulton. Staff Sgt. Zalys made the following observation in his notebook: “Also discussed Pickton again–>if he turns out to be responsible–>inquiry!–>Deal with that if the time comes!”
What led Staff Sgt. Zalys, Inspector Moulton, and others to such a state? What did they know? Why hadn’t Pickton been stopped by then? And why did B.C.’s criminal justice branch decide, in 1998, to stay proceedings against the loathsome pig farmer, after he’d been charged with attempting to murder a prostitute on his pig farm?
The present inquiry, led by former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal, has a mandate to find out all of that, and to recommend changes to the way police homicide investigations are conducted.
Proceedings have moved at a snail’s pace since hearings began in downtown Vancouver last fall, frustrating everyone involved, including Mr. Oppal. None of the officers who actually investigated Pickton have testified. That’s about to change. Next week, the inquiry will start hearing from as many as 33 police officers involved in the Pickton investigations.
One of them is Coquitlam RCMP Staff Sgt. Mike Connor, who likely knew more than any other officer about Pickton from 1997 to 2002, the crucial five years under review.
Staff Sgt. Connor, then a corporal, was assigned to investigate Pickton’s near-fatal stabbing of a Vancouver prostitute at his farm in March, 1997. Pickton was barely known to police at that point. While women were going missing from Lower Mainland streets, there was still no inkling they might have been murdered, let alone by a serial killer.
The stabbing was an ugly but straightforward case that Staff Sgt. Connor conducted quickly. Both Pickton and the prostitute whom he had repeatedly stabbed were interviewed, and conclusions were easily drawn.
The woman’s story became eerily familiar: She was “working” in Vancouver’s crime-infested Downtown Eastside when Pickton approached and offered her $100 for sexual favours. She climbed into his pickup truck, and Pickton drove her to his Port Coquitlam farm. He escorted her inside his filthy mobile home, where they had sex. Afterwards, Pickton refused payment. “Suddenly from behind Pickton put a handcuff on her,” reads a report made by Staff Sgt. Connor, released to the public last week.
A violent struggle ensued. The prostitute, who cannot be named by court order, grabbed a filleting knife with an eight-inch blade and swung at Pickton, slashing his throat “almost from ear to ear.”
Pickton took the knife from her and retaliated, stabbing her, “to the hilt of the knife, in the chest,” reads Staff Sgt. Connor’s report. They stumbled outside the trailer and the fight continued, until Pickton fell to the ground. The woman, bleeding profusely, ran away and flagged down a car.
According to Staff Sgt. Connor’s report, the woman “died” in a local hospital emergency room but was revived. Pickton was also treated in hospital. He admitted to having stabbed the woman, but claimed not to have provoked the attack. He was charged with attempted murder, and released on bail.
Four days after the attack, Staff Sgt. Connor prepared an incident summary, distributed to police across B.C.’s Lower Mainland.
“It has been determined that [the stabbing victim] is an East Hastings area hooker and Pickton is known to frequent that area weekly,” it read. “Given the violence shown by Pickton toward prostitutes and women in general, this information is being forwarded to your attention should you have similar offences.”
The attempted murder charge was dropped, according to notes prepared by Staff Sgt. Connor, because the victim was a heroin addict and presented herself late to interviews with Crown counsel.
Regardless, Pickton became stuck on Staff Sgt. Connor’s radar. Over the next two years until his promotion from corporal, the Mountie would build his Pickton file.
Staff Sgt. Connor would heard from other women who had encountered the “creepy” pig farmer, women who had lived to talk about it. He would also hear stories about women who hadn’t survived. Those stories, incredible as they first seemed, added to a body of evidence that he could not simply sweep aside.
Between April 1997 and April 1998, eight more women from the Downtown Eastside were reported missing. Their names were added to a list of cases that would keep growing.
In July, 1998, police received a valuable tip. A man called a Crime Stoppers hotline and described someone called “Willie.” He used prostitutes and kept a collection of their clothing and personal items inside his trailer, the tipster said. Willie had recently been in a knife fight with a prostitute. Willie had boasted to others that he could easily dispose of human bodies if he wished, by putting them through a meat grinder.
A week later, the same tipster called Crime Stoppers again, and said Willie might be responsible for the “missing prostitutes.” Willie, he added, lived on a farm in Port Coquitlam.
Vancouver police detective Lori Shenher tracked down the tipster, whose name is Bill Hiscox. She introduced him to Staff Sgt. Connor. It became clear to both officers that Mr. Hiscox was passing along information he had gleaned from a close Pickton associate, a woman named Lisa Yelds.
“Even at this stage of the investigation,” Staff Sgt. Connor wrote with hindsight, in records filed at the inquiry, “given what I knew of Pickton, I felt this person certainly could have been responsible for attacks on other prostitutes. I was not absolutely convinced on the homicides, as like most investigators of the time period, we all asked where are the bodies. Even though I was sure Pickton was capable.”
Staff Sgt. Connor was informed that Pickton was killing prostitutes as “pay back” for the 1997 knifing incident on his farm.
More sources came forward, and potential witnesses were identified and approached. By mid-1999, Staff Sgt. Connor wanted to launch an undercover operation on another known Pickton associate, Lynn Ellingsen. She had told police sources that she’d once picked up a prostitute with Pickton, that she’d later seen him skinning the woman’s body inside his barn. Ms. Ellingsen would eventually became a key Crown witness at Pickton’s serial murder trial. Thanks in part to Ms. Ellingsen’s testimony, a jury convicted Pickton of six counts of second degree murder. Another 20 murder charges laid against him were later stayed.
But in 1999, she wanted nothing to do with authorities. She denied everything to police. “There was no doubt in my mind that Pickton and Ellingsen were involved in the murders of prostitutes,” Staff Sgt. Connor recalled, in documents tabled at the inquiry. “It was suggested by some members [that an undercover operation on Ellingsen] would be a waste of time and money. That she was ‘crazy,’ cocaine addicted and hallucinated and what she saw was actually a pig hanging in the barn and not a human…There was a difference of opinion as to whether the information [was] reliable enough for the investigation to continue.”
Staff Sgt. Connor looked for other investigative routes. He recommended that surveillance be conducted on Pickton. Some attempts were made, then abandoned. Pickton had been alerted to the surveillance, Staff Sgt. Connor discovered.
In late August, 1999, Staff Sgt. Connor was promoted from corporal and pulled from the case. He requested secondment back to the investigation. His request was denied. New RCMP investigators were assigned; they made a series of unfortunate mistakes, the inquiry has heard. And Pickton kept on killing, until his arrest in February, 2002.
The inquiry resumes Tuesday, with testimony from former VPD criminal profiler
Kim Rossmo. Staff Sgt. Zalys, Insp. Moulton and Det. Const. Shenher are among
the other officers expected to testify before hearings conclude April 30.
© 2012 National Post, a division of Postmedia Network Inc. All rights reserved.
Updated: August 21, 2016