Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Robert Pickton: The Vancouver Missing Women

The Abyss

Tabloid headlines screamed their verdict in Vancouver on 10 April 2002: "54 WOMEN FED TO PIGS!"

But were they?

Suspect Robert Pickton, charged with seven murders so far, is presumed innocent until proven guilty, his tentative trial date still six months away at this writing. Police searching his pig farm have declared that they will not be finished with their work before spring of 2003. With results from that search pending, the fate of 47 other missing women remains conjectural--and some critics suggest that the official list is only the tip of the iceberg.

On February 13, 2002, nine days before Pickton was slapped with his first murder charge, spokesmen for Prostitution Alternatives Counseling Education claimed that 110 streetwalkers from British Columbia's Lower Mainland had been slain or kidnapped in the past two decades. Computer data obtained from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police placed the number even higher: 144 prostitutes murdered or missing with foul play suspected over the province at large.

It may be comforting to think one human monster is responsible for all those crimes, at least within Vancouver, but is it a realistic hope? Before Pickton's indictment, detectives favored other theories. Some believed a long-haul trucker was disposing of Vancouver's prostitutes, while others thought the missing women had been lured aboard foreign cargo ships, gang-raped and murdered by crewmen, then buried at sea. Still others rejected the serial killer hypothesis until the very day of Pickton's arrest. The only thing certain about Vancouver's mystery, at this point, is its bitter divisiveness.

Victoria attorney Denis Bernsten announced on April 17, 2002, that he will file a multimillion-dollar class-action suit against Robert Pickton, the Vancouver Police Department and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, seeking damages for relatives of the missing and murdered women. Bernsten accused police of "willful negligent action" in the case, telling reporters, "Deaths may have been prevented. All of these women were somebody's child. Someone loved them."

Among surviving relatives, meanwhile, there is dissension over calls for a public inquiry into police handling of the four-year investigation. Lynn Frey, stepmother of missing Marnie Frey, told the press, "Everyone's fighting about lawyers, inquiries or fundraising, yet none of that is going to bring our loved ones back." Several Aboriginal families complain of "interference" by Vancouver Police Department's native liaison unit, allegedly telling them not to speak with journalists. Victim Helen Hallmark's mother defied the ban, declaring, "We need to meet among ourselves and I'm tired of the native liaison unit telling us what to do." In response to the perceived whitewash, Kathleen Hallmark announced plans to retain a partner of famed attorney Johnny Cochrane and pursue her legal remedies in court.

In the midst of so much tumult, Canadian musicians declared their intent to release a special song, "A Buried Heart," with proceeds from its sale directed toward construction of a drug treatment and recovery center in Downtown Eastside. Artists signed on for the project at last report included headliners Sarah McLachlan and Nellie Furtado, Colin James, Gord Downey and John Wozniak. No site so far has been selected for the new facility. In a parallel effort, Val Hughes--sister of missing Kerry Koski --told reporters that a Missing Women's Trust Fund has been established at the Bank of Montreal, accepting donations for construction of a "rapid opiate detoxification center in the Downtown Eastside."

Beyond hope for the future, there is anger. Val Hughes supports the ongoing task force investigation, but she told The Province, "Like all family members, I feel molten rage when it comes to the Vancouver city police. Their view was that it didn't matter if a serial killer was at work, as long as it was confined to one geographical area where the women were expendable people no one cared about. They told us our loved ones were just out partying. We want a full public inquiry, not to interfere with the criminal prosecution but to get answers."

Those answers, if they come at all, are still a vague and distant object of desire.

 

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