VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
'He is a nice guy'
Friends speak highly of man at centre of serial murder investigation
Kim Bolan, Lindsay Kines and Lori Culbert
Saturday, February 14, 2004
VANCOUVER -- It has been nearly two years since police arrested Robert (Willy) Pickton in what has become the largest serial murder investigation in Canadian history.
ROBERT PICKTON: Although a rough start in life, he spent school years in special classes, and dropped out at about age 15.
He has since been charged with 15 counts of first-degree murder, and is facing another seven charges. Police investigating the missing women case say they have found DNA belonging to nine other women, but it is not clear if additional charges will be laid.
Most of the 31 victims were on a list of 65 -- many of them drug-addicted sex-trade workers -- who have disappeared from the Downtown Eastside. As police continue to search for the rest of the missing women, the RCMP lab is analysing thousands of exhibits found on Pickton's pig farm in Port Coquitlam.
Although the case has made headlines for two years, the public knows relatively little about the allegations against Pickton, 54. That's because the evidence heard in a six-month preliminary hearing in 2003 cannot be revealed under a publication ban designed to protect Pickton's right to a fair trial. His trial is not expected to start until later this year, at the earliest.
However, there was information about Pickton -- details about his personal life, facts about the million-dollar properties he co-owns, and some clues about the police case -- which CanWest News Service uncovered between his arrest in February 2002 and the beginning of the preliminary hearing the following January.
Here is an update on what the public can know about the man now accused of being Canada's worst serial killer:
Robert (Willy) Pickton was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. He was never tested for brain damage, but his mother was always very protective of him.
He was more shy than his younger brother Dave who ran the properties they co-own and his older sister Linda who went on to lead a separate life as a real estate agent.
"Robert, he just adored Mom. He and Mom were so close," Linda Pickton said. "Robert was never close to Dad. Robert was kind of Mom's boy."
During several interviews in 2002, Linda Pickton said her little brother was marginalized by society and had few friends. "He was in a special class in Coquitlam. He dropped out (of school) about the age of 15," she said.
Their parents died in the late 1970s, and Linda found it odd her younger brother chose to follow in his father's footsteps by working in the pig business. However, Dave Pickton ran the farm, and was an authoritative figure to his more naive brother.
At times, Willy Pickton would refer to his older brother as his father, and plead with people not to tell him things.
"I'll tell you, but don't go tell my Dad," Linda quoted Willy as saying. "Keep the secret from Daddy."
She said Willy Pickton was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1997. He still battles the illness.
Tom Hyacinthe, who said he has known Willy and Dave since elementary school, and has worked for them at different times over the years, described them both as kind, generous and hard-working. "I don't care what anybody says, he is a good guy and I like his brother too," Hyacinthe said in an interview in April 2002.
He said Dave was the decision-making brother and always "looked after" Willy. "Dave ran the business. He is just as sharp as they come."
The family owned several properties in Port Coquitlam and Maple Ridge worth millions of dollars, as well as P&B Used Building Materials Ltd. in Surrey.
According to public land-title records, it appears the three Pickton siblings made more than $6.6 million from the development and sale of about 10 hectares of the pig farm. But Linda Pickton said the family didn't make much profit because of high costs to develop the land, which is now the site of new condominiums and single-family homes.
The value of the remaining pig farm was recently assessed at $4.67 million, but it is unclear what the family intends to do with the site.
The farm has been well known to local residents.
The city of Port Coquitlam went to court in 1996 seeking an order against Dave and Willy Pickton and their "Piggy Palace Good Times Society" to bar them from holding large parties on their nearby Burns Road property.
The Picktons' statement of defence said the parties were for "sports organizations or other worthy groups." Nevertheless, the brothers were barred on Dec. 31, 1998 from using their property, zoned for agricultural use, for large bashes.
On Feb. 6, 2002, the RCMP sealed off the 10-acre pig farm. The night before, Coquitlam RCMP executed a warrant to search for firearms on the ramshackle property, cluttered with a house, trailer, several outbuildings, farm machinery, abandoned vehicles and mounds of landfill. The next day, the missing-women task force moved in.
CanWest News Service learned that week that police had found personal identification and other items, such as a small black purse linked to at least two of the missing women in the entranceway to the property and along a ditch at the edge of the farm.
Pickton was charged with possession of a loaded, restricted .22-calibre revolver and released from custody.
The missing women task force said at the time it became interested in the property during a review of all files on missing prostitutes that began in April 2001. But police sources told CanWest News Service that Pickton was a possible person of interest in the case as early as July 1998. One woman, sources said, had seen bags of bloody clothing and women's identification in the trailer where Pickton lived.
Bill Hiscox, who worked for Pickton in 1997 and 1998, said in an interview he told police in 1998 that he had concerns about the farm as well.
But Vancouver police ran into conflict with the RCMP, which has jurisdiction over the farm. Efforts to get a wiretap on the case failed and the investigation stalled, police sources said.
Families and friends of the missing women, who criticized police for not taking the disappearances more seriously in the 1990s, were critical of why they didn't do more to investigate Pickton's farm.
Once police did raid the farm in 2002, more than 80 officers were working the case. Police also put out an appeal to anyone who had been in the trailer where Pickton lived to help investigators prioritize the DNA samples they were finding in the building.
The police investigation also included analysing records from West Coast Reduction Ltd., a Vancouver rendering plant that had for about 20 years processed pig entrails from Pickton's farm, company executive Humphry Koch said in 2002.
On Feb. 22, 2002, Pickton was charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of missing women Mona Wilson and Sereena Abotsway.
Pickton's friend, Ross Contois, said Pickton had been interviewed previously by police in connection with the disappearance of downtown Vancouver prostitutes but added his friend is innocent. "These guys are totally on the wrong trail," Contois said in February 2002.
Another friend, Drisanto Diopita, said shortly after Pickton's arrest that Pickton helped him build a house and gave him second-hand building supplies.
"He was always a nice person. He was very well-spoken," said Diopita's son, Chris, 25, who called Pickton 'Uncle Willy.'
Friends said Pickton didn't drink, smoke or do drugs.
"Willy's a quiet-type person," said Gloria Bidwell, who lived on a nearby farm in Port Coquitlam. "Usually when I ask him what's bothering him, he'd say 'I don't want to trouble you with my problems.' "
Don Leslie, who estimated he has known the family for 30 years, said he does not think Pickton was capable of murder. "They don't strike me as killers," he said.
But the case against the accused murderer grew. Pickton was charged with three more counts of first-degree murder April 2 in the deaths of Jacqueline McDonell, Heather Bottomley and Dianne Rock; another count was laid a week later in Andrea Joesbury's death; yet another was laid May 22 in the death of Brenda Wolfe.
Joesbury's mother, Karin, launched a civil suit.
As the numbers of confirmed dead mounted in the case, Linda Pickton said the family felt numb.
She said the family had enormous sympathy for the victims, but added her brother's arrest was also difficult for them. "The unfolding of this horrific tragedy has been devastating to our family. We are still in a state of shock and disbelief and going through tremendous turmoil," she said.
In mid-April 2002 , police started searching a nearby 11-acre Pickton property on Burns Road, site of the Piggy's Palace.
That spring, archeology students with training in identifying human bones were hired to help with an expanded search of the pig farm. Heavy machinery began excavating the farm and conveyor belts were used to search the soil for evidence.
That resulted in thousands of exhibits being sent to the RCMP lab for analysis and comparison to the DNA profiles police compiled of the missing women.
In September, Pickton was charged with four more counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Helen Hallmark, Georgina Papin, Jennifer Furminger and Patricia Johnson. A month later the charges against Pickton reached 15, as he faced four more counts in the deaths of Heather Chinnock, Inga Hall, Tanya Holyk and Sherry Irving.
Pickton's preliminary hearing began in January 2003. As the court hearing proceeded, so did the police probe.
In March 2003, the number of forensic anthropology students sifting through dirt and looking for bone fragments on the farm went to 103 from five.
In July, police started searching a marshy patch of land west of Mission, but would not say why their probe had expanded beyond Pickton's properties.
Later that month, Pickton's six-month preliminary hearing came to an end. He was ordered to stand trial on 15 counts of first-degree murder. The judge also said that, based on evidence he heard during the hearing, he would have committed Pickton to stand trial on seven more counts if they had been part of the original indictment. Those pertain to Tiffany Drew, Sarah deVries, Marnie Frey, Cindy Feliks, Angela Jardine, Diana Melnick and a woman the court calls Jane Doe.
The Crown has confirmed Pickton will be charged with seven more counts of murder, bringing the number of women he is accused of killing to 22, but that has not happened yet.
By November, police had ended their 21-month search of the pig farm, where every building was torn down and excavators dug up 370,000 cubic yards of topsoil.
Solicitor General Rich Coleman estimated the cost of the investigation at more than $70 million by the end of 2003.
Police held another press conference last month to announce the task force had found the DNA of six more missing women on the farm, belonging to Yvonne Boen, Andrea Borhaven, Wendy Lynn Crawford, Dawn Crey, Cara Ellis, and Kerry Koski. They also had the DNA of three unidentified victims, but wouldn't say where it had been discovered.
Police have not said whether any charges will be laid in connection with the nine new DNA discoveries, which bring the number of victims linked to the Pickton serial murder investigation to 31.
Pickton is to return to court in June, to begin the process of setting a date for his trial.
Profile of Robert (Willy) Pickton.
© Copyright 2004 Times Colonist (Victoria)
Updated: January 01, 2007