VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
O brothers, what art thou?
Opinions are deeply divided over the mysterious Picktons of Port Coquitlam. To some, they're just hard-working, fun-loving party animals who struck it rich. But this week, Willy was charged yet again in connection with the 50 women missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Younger brother Dave has gone into hiding. And, reports JANE ARMSTRONG, the people of 'PoCo' are rapidly losing patience with The Case of the Infamous Pig Farm
Louise and Leonard Pickton scraped by for decades, raising hogs near the Essondale Mental Hospital on the outskirts of Port Coquitlam in British Columbia's Fraser Valley. Then the provincial government bought them out so it could expand the highway.
Their next move was a step down. In 1963, the Picktons purchased a swampy rectangle across town just west of the Pitt River, a tributary of the Fraser with a water table so high that livestock wind up with foot rot and blueberries spoil on the vine.
Neighbours still recall the Picktons towing their blue and white farmhouse down Dominion Avenue to transplant it on their new property. Port Coquitlam was a sleepy, blue-collar satellite of Vancouver. It had fewer than 10,000 residents and the Picktons did not stand out among the other struggling stump farmers in the area.
But the world changed.
Leonard died in 1978 and Louise the next year. They bequeathed the muddy property to their three grown children, Robert William (known as Willy), David and Linda. Their sister married a businessman and moved to Vancouver; the boys, as all of Canada now knows, stayed on the farm.
Before long, the community began to mushroom. Housing developers scouting for flat land zeroed in on the Picktons' farm. The brothers cashed in handsomely, grew beards and, not surprising for newly minted millionaires, started to attract a cadre of new friends and hangers-on.
"They came into a real windfall, by virtue of this swamp," said Keith Kolodiazny, whose parents also owned property near the river. "Fifteen years ago, nobody wanted to be near there. And now it's the prime growth area of Port Coquitlam."
Today, the town has more than 50,000 residents. Many travel the 35 kilometres each day to work in downtown Vancouver. Transportation and traffic issues used to be the hot debate at City Hall, but that was before the Pickton brothers became the only topic in town. Willy is in jail facing charges in connection with the most infamous serial-killing case in B.C. history, and David has packed up and left, at least for the time being. Their sudden notoriety has brought unrelenting attention to Port Coquitlam, whose previous claim to fame was that it had spawned Canadian hero Terry Fox.
The homicide investigation has driven a wedge between friends and neighbours, who often have vastly different opinions of the men at the centre of the storm. Neighbours are suspicious of one another, couples have fights over the guilt or innocence of Willy, and, like Dave, many of the brothers' friends have skipped town.
"A lot of people said they
went to these parties," Mr. Kolodiazny explained, referring to raucous all-night
affairs once put on by the Picktons. "Now, we're looking at them and going,
'What there hell were you really doing there?' "
David married, had two children and eventually divorced, although his ex-wife worked as his assistant. Willy remained single. By the time the brothers reached adulthood, their names were synonymous with a club they had formed called The Good Times Society.
Flush from land sales to the city and the local school board -- the first netted $1.2-million, the second $2.3-million -- the Picktons bought a second derelict farm about a half-kilometre closer to the river on Burns Road. They renovated the barn into a roadhouse called Piggy's Palace and started inviting hundreds of people over to eat and drink and dance.
For $15, guests were fêted with roast pig or beef, mashed potatoes, salads, and desserts. Drinks cost $2.50. There was a raised dance floor and live music. Once, pop group Doug and the Slugs was scheduled to appear, but the event was cancelled when the brothers failed to get the proper permits.
They formalized their role as hosts by registering The Good Times Society as a non-profit organization, whose parties were referred to as "fundraisers." Minor-hockey leagues and women's groups benefited from the soirées.
Piggy's Palace attracted a who's who of Port Coquitlam, including the former and current mayors, city councillors and staff, neighbours and local reporters. Soon, the Picktons were better known for parties than for pigs.
Thirty-five kilometres to the
west, meanwhile, scores of drug-addicted prostitutes had begun to disappear from
Vancouver's poorest and most neglected area, a 10-square-block district known as
the Downtown Eastside. The women lived in squalor, largely in the residential
hotels that line the East Hastings Street strip, and as the number grew, some
suspected that a serial killer might be stalking skid row. A police expert on
serial killers even warned his bosses a predator might be at work, but they
persisted in their speculation that the women had simply upped and moved.
Dave lived in a brown-trimmed split level house just off the main road; Willy's home was an old bus he converted into a trailer set back on the property.
The brothers looked different and talked different. Their hands were dirty and their clothes grimy. Their large, muddy properties were scattered with equipment and junked vehicles. But Dave wasn't too shy to show up at the offices of local reporters or city officials to complain about the coyotes that chased his cows, or to beef about assessment increases he thought were unfair.
Beyond that, there are conflicting accounts. As a woman who once worked for Dave put it: "Everyone knew the Picktons and no one knew the Picktons."
Some people thought that their parties were orderly, festive affairs. "Everybody on the street said it was the best place in the world to have a party," recalled Vera Harvey, 78, who operates a nearby blueberry farm. "And they wouldn't let anyone drive home drunk. They'd get a cab or they drove you home."
Others remembered them as debauched, out-of-control binges. Mr. Kolodiazny never went himself, but he said "their millennium party was infamous. There were cars in the ditch. Why this place wasn't shut down, I don't know. The bylaw officers, they turned a blind eye. Nobody did their jobs."
Loyal friends portray them as workaholics, just like their parents, people who put in 16-hour days and only then liked to kick back with friends at their party house. Although famous as hosts, neither smoked nor drank, to speak of. Dave rode a motorcycle and there were rumours that a "booze can" located across the road from the Dominion Avenue farm was a Hells Angels hangout, an accusation he denied in an interview with a Vancouver newspaper.
Joanne Traboulay, the widow of a long-time mayor, said she considered much of the brothers' apparent bravado as an act. "They walked the walk and talked the talk," she said. "But they weren't really tough."
And a local bartender (she gave her name only as Kay) defended both brothers, describing Dave as a "pussycat" and Willy as a "simple, farm boy." She insisted that Willy is so generous and kind-hearted that he gave money to people who asked him for it, which made him a target for hangers-on.
"I've known him for 28 years. He's the kind of guy who, whenever you saw him, he'd be like: 'Hi, How are you? How are the girls?' This is so hard to believe. I've lost a lot of sleep over it."
Kay's two daughters are grown now, but she said that years ago Willy let them all stay on the farm when she couldn't find a cheap place to live. "He was good to my girls. He'd bring them hot chocolate. He never laid a finger on either of them. He never laid a finger on me."
When he was arrested, Kay said, she was stunned. "I don't believe he did it. There's no way. I want to go down to that jail cell and put up a banner that says, 'Free Willy.' "
She claimed that Willy doesn't have the cunning to kill. "He wanted three things out of life: to be financially secure, to own a ranch and settle down with a good Indian woman," she said.
His goals were modest and he took pleasure in being outside, on his land. "He liked to muck around with his animals and go to auctions. He loved his horses. He loved the look of a beautiful animal."
Others also speak of the Pickton generosity. "If a stranger came up to him and said, 'I haven't eaten for days,' Willy would give you money to go eat and say, 'Come to work tomorrow,' " said Ms. Harvey, the blueberry farmer. "That's what he was like."
Dave, meanwhile, organized a toy drive every Christmas, and delivered the presents to charities. But he also ran afoul of the law.
In 1992, he was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman co-worker on a local construction site the year before.
"You could smell him before you saw him," she recalled recently (on condition that her name not be published). She said she was pinned to the wall of a trailer on the work site and told she was going to be raped, but the attack ended when another employee walked in.
Dave was found guilty, fined $1,000 and sentenced to a year's probation, while the woman lost her job and eventually left the area, fearing for her safety. Before the trial, she said, bikers appeared at her house and warned that she would end up in concrete if she testified.
"He's got no respect for women," she said. "He thought he could get away with what he did."
But Kate Trotter, a reporter for the Tri-City News, said the Dave she knew was quite different. She once attended a Pickton party, and found that he was proud of what he had built. "He invited scrutiny," she said.
According to Ms. Trotter, Piggy's Palace looked like any midwestern-style saloon with a big dance floor and blinking neon signs on white-washed walls. To her, the building appeared safe and well constructed. There were fire doors, exit signs and a commercial kitchen with a walk-in cooler.
Dave patrolled the bar with a radio in hand, making sure cars were parked properly. Some patrons arrived on motorcycles, but Ms. Trotter said she recalls seeing no one who appeared to be a prostitute.
The Picktons obtained several
special-occasion licences to hold the fundraisers for minor hockey and women's
groups, but their land was zoned for agricultural use -- not a nightclub -- and
eventually bylaw and fire officials started to raid the place.
The good times finally ended on Feb. 5, 2002, when a police task force investigating the missing Vancouver women -- who now numbered 50 -- descended on the property with a search warrant.
Two weeks later, as dozens of white-suited forensic investigators settled in for what may turn out to be years of digging, Willy Pickton was charged with two counts of first-degree murder. Since then, the police have added five more names to the list of slain women he is accused of killing, the most recent coming just this week.
The police search, the multiple murder charges, the arrival of dozens of reporters, TV trucks and news helicopters from across North America, and the fantastical rumours that sprouted when police stopped holding daily news briefings have taken their toll on the pretty valley community. The big-city problems that residents thought were miles away in Vancouver -- drugs, murder and prostitution -- have landed in their midst.
"My husband spent years putting Port Coquitlam on the map," Joanne Traboulay said with a sigh. (First elected as mayor in 1981, Len Traboulay died in office in November, 2000.) "But not for this. We wish it would go away."
Friends of the Picktons say they are tired of being hounded for scraps of information. One neighbour hung up the phone, claiming that his comments always end up being twisted, and city councillors said to have attended Pickton parties refused even to return a call.
But the publicity circus is just beginning. The gravity and scope of the investigation grow every day. Willy Pickton faces seven counts of murder, but that still leaves at least 43 women missing, and now the task force is hiring 50 bone experts to help identify remains. They plan to excavate the entire 4.5-hectare property -- if not more. Last month, the search area was expanded to include the Burns Road site of Piggy's Palace.
Every detail of the Picktons' life -- from their grooming habits and speech patterns to their taste in music and cars -- has been pored over and scrutinized. People across the nation now know the original homestead simply as The Pig Farm; it is irrevocably linked -- along with its owners and their community -- with the missing women of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
To make matters even worse, both of the two other communities that make up the Tri-City area are linked to famous killers. Coquitlam is the hometown of notorious child predator Clifford Olson, now behind bars for life, while Port Moody is where Donald Hay kidnapped 12-year-old Abby Drover in 1976, then chained and tortured her in a bunker under his garage for six months.
Residents hate to dwell on
such notoriety and the backlash against the media is in full swing. Now, when
asked about the Picktons, people refuse to give their names, even those who have
something good to say about the brothers. The Picktons, they claim, have been
demonized to the point that even if the charges against Willy prove to be
groundless, they'll never be able to go back to their former lives.
Down the street, the stainless steel gate leading to the original Pickton farm is still a portal for a steady stream of visitors -- only now it's the police who are coming and going.
Out front, a shrine to the missing women of Vancouver's skid row has sprung from the gravel. There are photographs, candles, stuffed animals and poems, all dedicated to the missing and presumed dead.
With the arrival of spring, someone has dug a proper flower bed and planted primroses. Families of the missing are often seen at the gate reading inscriptions, laying flowers and lighting candles. Teenagers, mostly girls, from the nearby high school also gather to ogle Port Coquitlam's much-photographed new monument to bad times.
Courtesy of the Globe and Mail
Updated: August 21, 2016