Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Robert Pickton: The Vancouver Missing Women

Searchers

The official search for Vancouver's missing women began in September 1998, after an Aboriginal group sent police a list of victims allegedly murdered in Downtown Eastside, with a demand for a thorough investigation. Authorities examined the list and pronounced it flawed--some of the "victims" had died from disease or drug overdoses; others had left Vancouver and were found alive--but Detective Dave Dickson was intrigued by the complaint and launched his own inquiry, drawing up a list of Low Track women who had simply disappeared without a trace. There were enough names on that second list to worry Dickson and inspire his superiors to create an investigative task force.

The four-year search for answers had begun.

Inspector Kim Rossmo, Vancouver Police
Inspector Kim Rossmo, Vancouver Police

Vancouver police began their review with 40 unsolved disappearances of local women, dating back to 1971. The lost came from all walks of life and all parts of Vancouver, but the search for a pattern narrowed the roster to 16 Low Track prostitutes reported missing since 1995. By the time detectives made their first arrest in the case, that list would grow to include 54 women, vanished between 1983 and 2001, with 85 investigators assigned to the case, but in the early stages of the search police were busy trying to decide if they had a serial killer at large in Vancouver.

One who thought so was Inspector Kim Rossmo, creator of a "geographic profiling" technique designed to map unsolved crimes and highlight any pattern or criminal "signature" overlooked by detectives assigned to individual cases. In May 1999 Rossmo reported an unusual concentration of disappearances in Downtown Eastside, but police dismissed the notion in their public statements, insisting that the vanished women might have left Vancouver voluntarily, in search of greener streets. Inspector Gary Greer advised the press, "We're in no way saying there is a serial murderer out there. We're in no way saying that all these people missing are dead. We're not saying any of that." Rossmo, meanwhile, stood by his theory and resigned from the force after receiving a punitive demotion. His subsequent lawsuit against Vancouver P.D. was dismissed.

Internal dissension was not the only problem faced by police in their search for Low Track's missing women. Canada's Violent Crime Linkage System did not track missing persons without some evidence of foul play, and task force investigators were so far empty-handed. In the absence of a corpse or crime scene, even a specific date for most of the disappearances, forensic evidence was nonexistent. Pimps and prostitutes were naturally reluctant to cooperate with the same officers who might throw them in jail. (At one point, detectives identified a man who had serially assaulted five streetwalkers in two months, but none of the victims would file a complaint.) Resources were perpetually limited, despite increasing media attention to the case.

Still, the detectives forged ahead as best they could. In June 1999 they met with relatives of several missing women, seeking information and DNA material for prospective identification of remains. Police and coroners' databases were reviewed throughout Canada and the United States, as were various drug rehabilitation facilities, witness protection programs, hospitals, mental institutions and AIDS hospices. Burial records at Glenhaven Cemetery were examined, going back to 1978. Grim news came from Edmonton, Alberta, where police had logged 12 unsolved prostitute murders between 1986 and 1993. Closer to home, four hookers had been killed and dumped around Agassiz in 1995 and 1996, but none of them were from the Low Track missing list.

The search went on, each new day reminding officers that they were literally clueless, chasing shadows in the dark.

 

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