VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Search of pig farm yields missing women's ID
Robert William Pickton a person of interest since 1998
Lindsay Kines and Kim Bolan
Friday, February 8, 2002
Police searching for firearms on a Port Coquitlam farm found personal identification and other items linked to at least two of the 50 prostitutes missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, The Vancouver Sun has learned.
Members of the joint RCMP-Vancouver city police missing women task force were present for the firearms search Tuesday night and discovery of the women's ID prompted them to get a second warrant for the property, according to police sources familiar with the investigation.
Officially, however, police weren't saying Thursday what they found during the firearms search that prompted them to get a second warrant.
"We are very confident in our reasons for obtaining the search warrant and as you know, we need to have some really good information in order for a judge to grant us a search warrant," said Constable Catherine Galliford, who speaks for the missing women task force.
Dozens of RCMP officers patrolled the farm Thursday, while neighbours, schoolchildren and curiosity-seekers flocked to the area, jamming traffic and queuing in front of the throng of television cameras from local, national and U.S. media outlets.
But Galliford refused to comment on whether any human remains have been found on the four-hectare (10-acre) site.
"We are not in a position to disclose to the media or the public any physical evidence that we may find here at this property or any other property, because that may be used as direct evidence in court," Galliford said.
Late Thursday afternoon, however, police forensic identification specialists picked up a small black purse in the entranceway to the property, as well as several other items along a ditch at the edge of the property.
Police sources have identified Robert William Pickton as a person of interest in the case. He is listed on B.C. assessment records as one of three owners of the property being searched.
The farm, which is bordered by new housing developments, has been sealed off since Tuesday, with police stationed at every entrance. On Thursday, police began erecting a chain-link fence to keep out intruders.
Court records show that after the search, Pickton was charged with possession of a loaded, restricted .22-calibre revolver, unsafe storage of a firearm, and possession of a weapon without licence or registration.
Pickton is no longer in custody and has not been been charged with any offences relating to the disappearance of women from the Downtown Eastside. He is due to appear in court on the weapons charges Feb. 28.
Galliford said the missing women task force became interested in the property during its review of all files on prostitutes who have vanished in recent years. The review began last April.
"Over the last few months this became a property of interest to us," Galliford said.
But The Sun has learned that the Vancouver city police began considering Pickton, who goes by the name 'Willy,' a possible person of interest in the missing women case as early as July, 1998.
Investigators received a tip around that time that a woman had been inside Pickton's trailer and had seen bags of bloody clothing as well as women's identification.
Detectives also learned that Pickton had been charged with a knife attack on a Vancouver prostitute in Port Coquitlam on March 23, 1997.
Pickton was also badly wounded in the incident and all the charges against him -- including one of attempted murder -- were stayed on Jan. 28, 1998.
Later, Vancouver police developed a second, independent source who also offered tantalizing information that a woman had seen a body on his property.
Vancouver police detectives pursued the information, but apparently ran into conflict because Pickton resides in RCMP jurisdiction.
As other officers from B.C.'s Unsolved Homicide unit became involved, there was a disagreement over the accuracy of some of the information and the investigation stalled.
Before the disagreement, Vancouver detectives and a Coquitlam investigator had been pushing forward in hopes of getting permission to use a wiretap on the case, but that was apparently abandoned.
Police sources in both the RCMP and Vancouver police department say senior managers are bracing themselves for possible criticism of the way the case was handled.
Already, people are asking why police didn't act sooner.
"If this guy does turn out to be the guy responsible, why wasn't it acted on before?" said Wayne Leng, a friend of Sarah deVries, who went missing in 1998.
Leng has told The Sun that he heard about a farmer named "Willy" while searching for deVries in 1998. Leng had set up a toll-free line for information on deVries' whereabouts, and he received a call from a male tipster.
Leng said he passed the information on to Vancouver city police but never heard what they did with it.
Leng said the name surfaced again a few years later, when family members were again trying to get answers on the case.
"We were all concerned because it didn't seem anybody wanted to take this guy [Willy] seriously, right? We never heard whether they actually did searches of Willy's place or whatever. You know. But we knew he had lots of land and he was fairly well off it seems."
At the farm Thursday, Galliford said police will bring in cadaver dogs and excavating equipment if necessary. But the machinery visible on the farm at present belongs to the owner, she said.
"We are going to go through different stages in our search," she said.
Galliford said the SPCA has been called in to take away pigs on the property and care for them for the duration of the search. The residents of the property are not in custody, nor are they at the scene.
Galliford said police do not know where they are, nor are they trying to locate them.
"We're here to conduct a search. We have a search warrant and that's what we're doing."
While police initially said the property covered 11 hectares (28 acres), much of that has been developed into new subdivisions. The four-hectare (10-acre) remaining farm is the focus of the search.
Galliford was also careful to say that police continue to pursue other leads on the missing women case unrelated to the Pickton property.
"We don't know where we are going to be two months from now or six months from now," she said. "We don't know where our investigation is going to take us."
Galliford also said police worked through the night Wednesday to alert families of a possible break in the missing women case. "And we felt they needed to know that before they found out about it in the media," she said.
"Some of the family did choose to come by the site today and they have also met with some of the investigators."
Val Hughes, whose sister Kerri Koski is among the missing, was one of the family members at the site Thursday, but she declined to comment to the media after meeting with police.
Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education Society (PACE) praised police efforts to alert families members, some of whom arrived at the farm late Thursday to light candles for the missing.
"It is commendable that the families of the missing women were contacted before media and agencies," PACE said in a press release.
The organization also praised the task force's efforts in recent months to meet with women in the sex trade.
"PACE Society applauds their respectful efforts and support investigators in involving these key people without prejudice or punishment."
The police investigation dates back to 1998 and has been marred by problems and controversy throughout. It began when Vancouver police assigned a second officer to its missing persons section to review a sharp increase in the number of missing women.
Then, in 1999, the department formed the Missing Women Review Team amid mounting public pressure over the disappearances, and rising fear that a serial killer was stalking Vancouver prostitutes.
Mayor Philip Owen and senior police officers assured the media at the time that the department was doing everything it could to solve the cases.
The city and province offered a $100,000 reward, brought John Walsh from television's America's Most Wanted to town to release a poster of all 31 women known to be missing at that time and, at one point, police told the media that nine people were at work on the file.
But a Sun investigation last year found the original Vancouver city police investigation was assigned to inexperienced and overworked officers without the time or resources to do a thorough job. The probe was hindered by infighting among officers, a lack of proper training and computer problems.
The investigation eventually stalled until a joint RCMP-Vancouver police probe began in early 2001. The team expanded earlier this year to 30 members, and they have continued to add new names to the list of the missing, which has now reached 50.
Women working the street near the Patricia Hotel Wednesday night welcomed news of a possible break in the case.
But one woman who identified herself as Candy held out little hope for an end to the violence.
"There's always going to be psychos," she said. "They're never going to go away."
Updated: January 01, 2007