Inside the Robert Pickton case and why it still matters after the B.C. serial killer’s death

Vancouver reporters Kim Bolan and Lori Culbert covered this story before Pickton’s 2002 arrest. What they learned then is still vitally important today.

The ramshackle outbuildings and squalid trailers that kept horrid secrets about the deaths of so many women are now a distant memory on the former Port Coquitlam pig farm.

A few withered roses looped through an industrial fence surrounding the now-razed property are the only reminders that the DNA of 33 missing women was found among the rusted vehicles, junk piles and filthy structures that once covered the acreage.

Also gone is the farm’s infamous co-owner, Robert (Willie) Pickton, who served nearly 17 years of a life sentence for murdering six of those women before he was killed last month in a Quebec prison.

The death of the serial killer, though, does not mean the case — the largest crime-scene investigation in Canadian history — is fading away.

Far from it.

Victims’ families and their advocates say Pickton’s death makes it even more important to continue their fight for justice for the women that he was not tried in court of slaying, despite forensic proof they had been on his killing fields.

“Every hope that the families had of finding truth, justice, and accountability dies with Robert Pickton if the evidence is disposed of,” said Sasha Reid, an academic researcher who is working with several families on the court application.

The number of families without answers is shockingly high.

Pickton bragged to an undercover officer that he had killed 49 women, and the police list of victims who disappeared from Vancouver streets before his arrest had more than 60 names. A disproportionate number of them were Indigenous.

Debbie Benning goes through press clippings and other information and momentos she has kept over the years to help her remember her friend Yvonne Boen.
Debbie Benning goes through press clippings and other information and momentos she has kept over the years to help her remember her friend Yvonne Boen.Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

“I’ll never give up hope that we’ll finally get answers … and if there’s any hope of anything, they have to keep that evidence,” an emotional Benning said Thursday.

“For 22-plus years, we hoped that (Pickton) would give us something. But, you know what, the day that I found out he died was one of the happiest days of my life. But I also didn’t realize how much emotion I still had inside me over it.”

Pickton’s case was so horrific it spawned two major missing women inquiries, which analyzed how police failed to investigate and society failed to care about these vulnerable women. But more than two decades after his arrest, many of their findings haven’t been addressed.

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National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak, speaks in Ottawa in April.Photo by Adrian Wyld /The Canadian Press

“The government’s response to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls represents another historic low. And it echoes a persistent pattern of failure,” the Assembly of First Nations national chief, Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak, told Postmedia this week.

“We want to let all families and advocates know that we will never stop fighting for them.”

There are some positive legacies from this case, including identifying the systemic discrimination toward disenfranchised women that allowed Pickton to prey on his victims with impunity for so long.

That sparked a national conversation and movement — much of it led by Indigenous groups and victims’ families — that has brought some improvements in collaborative policing, child welfare policies, and social safety nets to better protect women and girls.

But, advocates say, the fight must continue because so much more still needs to be accomplished.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think our streets are any safer for deeply marginalized and mainly Indigenous women and girls. We have a lot of work to do,” said Sue Brown, the lawyer for Justice for Girls, who has filed court documents to oppose the RCMP’s evidence-disposal application.

To better understand what has changed since Pickton’s arrest and what more needs to be achieved, we look back on this high-profile case, including the role played by The Vancouver Sun. Reporters Kim Bolan and Lori Culbert, the authors of this article, along with their former colleague Lindsay Kines, became part of this story — long before anyone had heard Pickton’s name.

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Sandra Gagnon looks through photos of her missing sister Janet Henry in 1999. Photo by Colin PricePhoto by Colin Price /PROVINCE

‘Something had gone terribly wrong’

Lindsay Kines was the Sun’s police reporter in 1997 when he received his first call from a desperate relative of a woman missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

It was Sandra Gagnon, wanting him to write about her sister Janet Henry, who had vanished that year.

“I wrote one story and a followup a year later but, at the time, I had no idea that Henry’s case was part of a growing number of disappearances from Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood,” Kines, now retired, recalled.

The next year, Wayne Leng came to the Sun newsroom to talk about his missing friend Sarah de Vries. “He’d been looking for her on the Downtown Eastside and had heard about a number of similar cases being investigated by the police,” Kines said.

His police sources confirmed there was a rising number of disappearances, but there was little public acknowledgment. Kines wrote many more stories in 1998 and 1999 about these largely ignored missing-person cases.

“The families kept in constant touch with me over the years, often calling me in the evenings to see if I had heard anything new about their loved ones. Their persistence kept me digging and searching for answers, but it was often frustrating to have so little to tell them,” Kines said.

The series reported on the growing frustration of family members, the problems plaguing the initial Vancouver police investigation, and the efforts being made by a new RCMP-VPD task force.

“I think the resulting series obviously focused more attention on the disappearances and likely helped investigators secure whatever resources they needed for their task force. But it was the (victims’) friends and families who really pushed things forward,” Kines said.

“They knew from the beginning that something had gone terribly wrong.”

About two months after the last story in the series ran, Kines got a message on his pager. It was Feb. 5, 2002.

“They told me police were on the Pickton farm.”

RCMP searching the Pickton pig farm
RCMP were searching the Pickton pig farm in in Port Coquitlam when this photo was taken in 2002.Photo by Ian Lindsay /Vancouver Sun

Kines and Bolan drove to 953 Dominion Ave. in Port Coquitlam, a cluttered property about the size of six city blocks that was pitch black except for large lights erected by police. “No trespassing” signs hung from a huge wired gate, including one threatening an attack by a pit bull infected with AIDS.

A friend of Pickton’s showed up to speak with police, but couldn’t enter the farm. The man agreed to an interview as long as Kines gave him a ride home. On the way, he said he had a bag full of stolen hammers and insisted his friend was innocent.

Kines and Bolan broke the news of Pickton’s arrest in a story they filed late that night from a local diner.

Police would find the belongings of several missing women during their first night on the farm. That led to an 18-month search that involved excavators digging up the property, 100 archeology and anthropology students sifting through soil on conveyor belts looking for human remains, and so many DNA samples they clogged the nation’s labs.

‘He was just evil’

Don Adam, a now-retired RCMP inspector, was in charge of the farm search as head of the missing women task force formed in 2001.

He had worked in Coquitlam before that, and had heard stories about the parties on the Pickton properties and that Willie was known as “simple-minded.”

But Adam, who interrogated the suspect after his arrest, told Postmedia this week he found Pickton cocky and dismissive. At one point, Pickton put his feet up on the desk in the RCMP office.

He tried to negotiate, Adam recalled, saying he would give police “everything” if they’d just walk away from his farm.

“You started to see the fellow that those victims saw — just arrogant. There was a meanness to him,” Adam said.

“He was just evil.”

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Photo illustration by Sun graphic artist Roger Watanabe in 2007.Photo by PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY ROGER WATA /VANCOUVER SUN

Nearly 200 pieces of evidence were entered as official exhibits in the deaths of Sereena Abotsway, Marnie Frey, Andrea Joesbury, Georgina Papin, Mona Wilson and Brenda Wolfe.

Witnesses testified that they knew women were disappearing from the Downtown Eastside long before police alerted the public.

Helene Major, who worked the front desk of the rundown Roosevelt hotel, testified that many sex workers who lived there, including Joesbury, would walk out the door and never return for their handful of personal possessions.

“The girls would disappear one by one,” Major testified. “And you’d wonder where they went.”

Major also knew Pickton, who often visited the hotel. “He was friendly, he used to talk to everybody.”

Although Pickton, who had no criminal record, was on a long list of possible suspects in the missing women case, his arrest was entirely accidental. A rookie officer conducting a firearms search on the farm stumbled across items belonging to some of the missing women.

Officers initially found an inhaler prescribed to Abotsway in Pickton’s office, a gun with a dildo on the barrel, bearing the DNA of Wilson, in his laundry room, and identification and a notebook belonging to missing woman Heather Bottomley in his bedroom.

Five of the six women Pickton was convicted of killing.Vancouver Sun

Pickton’s bedroom also contained two fur-lined handcuffs and other sex toys, some jewelry and a purse in the headboard of his bed, and bags of women’s clothing, including a leather jacket and two lipsticks bearing Wolfe’s DNA.

The police task force ballooned to 270 employees from just 30.

The farm and its many outbuildings, including a slaughterhouse, workshop and motorhome, was divided into 216 grids that were excavated down to virgin ground to retrieve 383,000 cubic metres of soil, enough to fill more than 153 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Heart-wrenching discoveries were made, including skulls in buckets and hand bones on the dirt floor of the piggery. The task force would never find an intact human body, so they identified the victims and their time of death with the help of various experts: pathologists, anthropologists, an entomologist, a botanist, a radiologist, an anatomist, and a forensic odontologist.

Evidence such as hairs, blood, semen and other stains was removed from many of the 235,000 items seized by the task force, creating 600,000 exhibits that needed to be tested.

Every available white anti-contamination suit in the country was being used by the searchers and, as a consequence of the Pickton case, overloaded police forensic labs started using robots for some tasks.

The defence argued the police search wrongly focused only on evidence connected to Pickton, and did not as aggressively look for other possible suspects, such as his brother who also lived on the farm and friends who frequently visited.

Prosecutors maintained none of the DNA conclusively linked the victims to any alternative suspects. Adam, the former task force head, echoed that again this week.

The fence surrounding the pig farm today.Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

When it came time for the verdict, the jury foreman announced Pickton was not guilty of first-degree murder, which elicited screams of disbelief from relatives in the courtroom who feared he would walk free. The foreman then said they had found him guilty of the lesser charge of second-degree murder.

Adam visited Pickton in prison several times after the verdict, hoping to get the killer to confess about the whereabouts of other missing women.

“He’s put them somewhere,” the retired inspector said. “If we could figure that out and do something for the families.”

But Pickton never revealed a thing.

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An elder passes by a poster of the missing women at the provincial inquiry.Photo by Ian Smith /PNG

Police ‘dismissed’ the victims

Oppal made 65 recommendations for change. While some have been adopted, others have not, including his call for a regional police force for Metro Vancouver.

Efforts, though, have been made to improve collaboration among Metro’s municipal forces and RCMP detachments, such as better communication and record-keeping systems, and the creation of regional units for serious crimes such as homicide.

“We’re trying our best to make sure that the next generation of girls are not facing such horrific, horrific things in their lives. … Significant and substantive action is needed now more than ever,” said the national chief, who wrote to the federal and provincial governments last week demanding the Pickton evidence not be destroyed.

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Wayne Leng holds a poster of his friend, Sarah de Vries, in 2010.Photo by Lyle Stafford /Vancouver Sun

“The fact that Pickton has passed means that’s another potential avenue to answers that has now been closed, and therefore it renders the exhibits much more important,” said Brown, the lawyer fighting to keep the evidence.

“Dozens of families are awaiting justice and accountability.”

His death brought this story back to where it began.

Wayne Leng, who searched for Sarah de Vries when she disappeared in 1998, sent a message to Culbert the day Pickton died. He still doesn’t know what happened to his friend.

And Sandra Gagnon, who sparked Kines’s first missing woman story while looking for her sister 27 years ago, remains in regular contact with Sun reporters as she carries on seeking answers about Janet Henry’s whereabouts.

Pickton may have taken secrets to the grave, but families and friends will continue to fight to unearth them.


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