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True Crime Canada: The Willy Pickton case

Warning: This story contains details that may be distressing to some readers. The article is written from the perspective of a journalist who covered the case.

Warning: This story contains details that may be distressing to some readers.

Women had been vanishing for decades from Vancouver's poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside before police found a way onto a trash-strewn property doubling as a pig farm in a Vancouver suburb.

It quickly became Canada’s largest crime scene.

Those of us in the courtroom for Robert William “Willy” Pickton’s preliminary hearing knew we were about to bear witness to one man’s creation of hell at his Port Coquitlam pig farm after hearing about the evidence found on the scene. 

Police had uncovered countless blood stains, missing women’s clothing and IDs, bisected skulls, ground human meat, bones, and a gun with a dildo attached to the muzzle.

Robert William “Willy” Pickton was charged with murdering 26 women. He was convicted of six counts and sentenced to life in prison.

In a jail cell conversation, he told an undercover police officer that he had killed 49 people. He was planning to kill one more and then take a break before continuing.

Pickton said he got caught because he got sloppy by the time he was arrested, for the last time, in February 2002.

As we will see, it was not his first encounter with police on a violent charge.

The Downtown Eastside 

It was in 1995 that Dianna Melnick vanished — 11 years after a decision from B.C. Supreme Court's chief justice moved sex workers out of Vancouver's West End. That was after police began cracking down on strip clubs.

That court decision began the slow push of street sex workers around the city until the trade became centred in the Downtown Eastside, where drug use and alcoholism had been rampant for decades.

As many have observed, governments and the courts played a significant role in creating the perfect hunting ground for a human predator.

Between then and Pickton's capture, almost 60 women's names joined Melnick's on the list of the missing.

Before we go any further, let's have a look at Pickton's background.

The Pickton family

The Pickton family was somewhat infamous in Port Coquitlam. Their once-large land on Dominion Avenue had slowly been sold off and built up with subdivisions.

By 1995, it was a junkyard of machinery, old cars and trucks. Mounds of dirt testified to the family dirt-moving business.

With the pigpen roof fallen in, Pickton would stuff pigs bought at auction into a horse trailer kept on site before he slaughtered them.

An unpainted Dutch barn became the property's identifying feature as media cameras honed in on the farm after Pickton's arrest.

The land on which police descended on was owned by Pickton, as well as his brother David and sister Linda Wright. She changed her name and left B.C. after her brother's arrest.

Pickton's upbringing cannot be described as normal.

He was born in 1949 with the umbilical cord around his neck, which led to speculation he had brain damage.

Mother Louise had rotten teeth, very thin hair, which she kept covered in a kerchief and chin hair that resembled a goatee. She generally wandered around in gumboots and a dress over blue jeans. Father Leonard was similar.

Pickton was put in special education classes, but he preferred the freedom of the farm — whose closest neighbour was the infamous Essondale mental hospital.

One acquaintance described the place as a scene from the movie Deliverance. Cue the banjos.

At about the age of 12, Pickton saved $35 to buy a calf at auction. He treasured the animal, wanting to keep it the rest of its life. One day he came home and couldn't find the calf. After looking everywhere, likely at his father's suggestion, he looked in the barn. There hung the slaughtered calf.

Another family tale involves his brother hitting a 14-year-old with a truck and their mother rolling the still-living youth into a slough, where he drowned.

History of violence

Pickton was known to working girls as a bad date by the mid-'90s.

Sarah de Vries, who vanished in 1998, had written about the missing women in her journal only three years earlier: "Am I next? Is he watching me now? Stalking me like a predator and its prey." 

Her DNA was later found on Pickton’s farm.

By 1997, Pickton was picking up sex workers in the Downtown Eastside and taking them to the farm.

That same year, he was charged with the attempted murder of one woman. She injured him before escaping the property, and both wound up in the same hospital.

Clothes seized from him that day would later yield DNA profiles of other missing women.

Those charges were stayed, but an RCMP officer noted on a police database that Pickton was a threat to women on the street.

But by that time, women were regularly disappearing from the Downtown Eastside. Many had been reported by the police, but with little follow-up.

Coming from the Downtown Eastside as a beat cop, Kim Rossmo became the first working Canadian police officer to earn a Ph.D. in criminology. His concepts of geographic profiling were attracting attention from around the world.

It earned him a promotion but officers treated him like an outsider. At Vancouver Police Department (VPD) headquarters, the old boys' network shunned him.

Rossmo suggested evidence of a serial killer at work. The department denied that was happening.

About the same time, July 1998, VPD Detective Const. Lorimer Shenher became the lead investigator in the missing women investigations.

Shenher has made no secret since of the frustration at having no resources and no support from senior management.

Horrors on the farm

Things pretty well remained that way until the VPD and RCMP joined forces with Operation Evenhanded in 2000.

de Vries' sister Maggie went to the Vancouver Police Board to ask for help only to be told by Mayor Phillip Owen, "we are not operating a locating service here."

At the same time, the board approved a $100,000 reward for garage break-ins in a wealthy neighbourhood. The missing women's families were infuriated, asking why property was more important than their children.

That’s when people began taking things into their own hands.

Lynn Frey and sister Joyce Lachance began their investigation after Lynn's stepdaughter Marnie vanished in 1997. The two women eventually found their way to the Pickton farm in 1998 and told police to look into Willy. Other family members also found their way to the farm that year without police help.

Still, the disappearances continued.

Pickton was on the cops' radar. When the chance came via an informant's revelation that firearms were being stored improperly on the farm, a team went in via the back of the property and served a warrant to get into Pickton's house trailer.

Inside, they found women's clothing, IDs of some of the missing women and other items.

Senior missing women's task force officers, who were listening to the radios at the farm's gate, ordered the search team out.

A new warrant was applied for and police entered the property for what would become the start of the serial killer investigation. It was February 2002.

Witnesses testify to Pickton’s violence

As the property search began, Pickton's court appearances in Port Coquitlam also began. Day after day, more charges would be laid until it hit 26 counts of murder.

Eleven months later, those in the courtroom for Pickton's preliminary hearing began to hear the horrors of what had happened on his farm. However, it was covered by a publication ban so strict that even signals of U.S. TV stations were blocked for Canadians when a Pickton story aired.

In an article for the Associated Press, I mentioned that a videotape had been played. The judge warned me I would be ejected if I repeated such behaviour. I made no mention of the fact that Pickton confessed to the murders on the tape.

In that preliminary hearing, day after day, we heard evidence of unimaginable horror — while Pickton sat there calmly.

We heard of police finding bisected skulls in buckets in freezers, hands and feet tucked inside.

We heard of bags of human ground meat.

We heard of a mattress soaked in a woman’s blood.

We heard the testimony of Andy Bellwood, who said Pickton asked him if he wanted to go and pick up a sex worker. And we heard Bellwood's evidence that Pickton said he would garrote the women while having sex with them.

Then, Bellwood said, the dead women were taken to the barn. Pickton would bleed them and gut them, feed some remains to the pigs. Other remains would go into barrels that were taken to a rendering plant in Vancouver.

We heard the testimony of Lynn Ellingsen. She was with Pickton when he picked up a woman one night.

Back at Pickton's trailer, he went off with the other woman. Ellingsen heard a noise and saw the light on in the slaughterhouse.

Going to inspect, she walked in on a body hanging from a hook, a mass of hair on the table. Behind her, the door closed, and there was Pickton covered in blood.

The image from Ellingsen's testimony seared in my mind is that of the dead woman's painted toenails.

Pickton warned her to keep her mouth shut, or she'd be hanging from the hook too, Ellingsen told the court.

The trial was not without its oddities.

Pat Cassanova helped Pickton slaughter pigs at the farm.

As Cassanova testified about the butchering process, Pickton's face registered a feral sneer, his skin red and tight across his skull, teeth bared. That sight horrified me. He looked like a rabid rat.

Cassanova's testimony was given in an almost mechanical tone as he had to keep a tracheotomy hole in his throat covered with his thumb to speak.

And there was the day Pickton's lead lawyer fell asleep for a few minutes — a snooze media wags called the $75 nap.

Pickton was found guilty of six counts of second-degree murder in December 2007. The decision was upheld as far as the Supreme Court of Canada.

While 20 other counts were stayed, and there is potential evidence for even more charges, Pickton received life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years.

He is now in the Port-Cartier maximum-security prison in Quebec. 

Only serial killer Robert William Pickton knows when his spree of killing women began.

What is known is that starting in the '70s, Vancouver police began crackdowns on strip clubs, which forced sex workers into the city's streets. By the '80s, the City of Vancouver and the courts began a series of crackdowns which pushed sex workers into the Downtown Eastside.

As Vancouver sex workers-rights advocate Jamie Lee Hamilton said, the stage for the "killing fields" was set.

Timeline: from Pickton's killing spree to his conviction

  • September 1977: Cindy Beck last seen
  • July 4, 1984: B.C. Supreme Court Justice Allan McEachern orders sex workers out of Vancouver's West End neighbourhood, forcing them into the Yaletown area. Subsequent Yaletown gentrification forces sex workers into the Mount Pleasant area. Public pressure once again forces them to move, this time to the Downtown Eastside where Pickton hunted his victims
  • Feb. 14, 1991: first Missing Women's March
  • Dec. 27, 1995: Diana Melnick last seen
  • Oct. 29, 1996: Tanya Holyk last seen
  • 1997: List of missing women created
  • 1997: Andrea Borhaven last seen, specific date unknown
  • Jan. 7, 1997:  Kerry Koski last seen
  • Jan. 10, 1997: Stephanie Lane last seen
  • Jan. 20, 1997: Cara Ellis reported missing
  • March 1997: Pickton charged with attempted murder of an unidentified sex worker
  • April 1997: Sherry Irving last seen
  • Aug. 14, 1997: Jacqueline Murdock last seen
  • Aug. 29, 1997: Marnie Frey last seen
  • Oct. 1, 1997: Helen Hallmark last seen
  • Nov. 26, 1997: Cindy Feliks last seen
  • January 1998: Attempted murder charges against Pickton dropped
  • Jan. 24, 1998: Missing women investigators meet with families to discuss obtaining familial DNA
  • Feb. 26, 1998: Inga Hall last seen
  • April 14, 1998: Sarah DeVries last seen
  • March 21, 1998: Sherry Irving reported missing
  • Aug 6, 1998: Bill Hiscox calls police with Pickton information
  • September 1998: Vancouver police set up a team to review missing women files
  • September 1998: Marnie Frey's stepmother Lynn hears tape about Pickton farm and goes there with step-sister Joyce Lachance
  • Sept. 18, 1998: Bill Hiscox tells police he believes Pickton is a killer
  • Sept. 18, 1998: Vancouver Sun reports Insp. Fred Biddlecombe said he wasn’t ruling out the possibility of a serial killer but that there was no evidence of one
  • Nov. 12, 1998: Angela Jardine last seen
  • Jan. 6, 1999: Jacqueline McDonell last seen
  • Feb. 17, 1999: Brenda Wolfe last seen
  • March 2, 1999: Georgina Papin last seen
  • March 22, 1999: Police check Pickton on New Westminster sex worker stroll
  • April 21, 1999: Police agree Pickton should be under surveillance
  • April 28, 1999: Vancouver Police Board agrees to seek $100,000 reward in case after families protest similar reward for garage break-ins
  • May 18, 1999: Andrea Borhaven reported missing
  • May 25, 1999: Vancouver Det. Insp. Kim Rossmo puts forward serial killer hypothesis
  • June 1, 1999: During a police check, a sex worker identifies a photo of Pickton as the man who, days earlier, had tried to pick her up in New Westminster. She said he had threatened to assault her if she refused and described him as “having a creepy smile and that he wanted to devour her in an evil way.”
  • June 23, 1999: Missing women segment was taped for “America’s Most Wanted”
  • July 1999: Vancouver police and B.C. attorney general published poster offering a reward of $100,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people involved in the disappearances
  • Sept. 1, 1999: RCMP investigators attend Pickton residence but can't find him. Pickton later calls, agrees to speak to an officer the next day to “clear the air.”
  • Nov. 27, 1999: Wendy Crawford last seen
  • Dec. 27, 1999: Jennifer Furminger last seen
  • Jan. 19, 2000: Pickton interviewed by RCMP
  • March 10, 2000: Tiffany Drew last seen
  • Apr. 25, 2000: Brenda Wolfe reported missing
  • August 2000: Vancouver police raid and close Grandma's House, a safe house for sex workers operated by advocate Jamie Lee Hamilton
  • Nov. 1, 2000: Dawn Crey last seen
  • Dec. 21, 2000: Debra Jones last seen
  • March 2, 2001: Yvonne Boen last seen
  • March 3, 2001: Patricia Johnson last seen
  • April 2001: Heather Chinnock last seen
  • April 17, 2001: Heather Bottomley last seen
  • May 31, 2001: Patricia Johnson reported missing
  • June 6, 2001: Angela Joesbury last seen
  • August 2001: Sereena Abotsway last seen
  • September 2001: RCMP and Vancouver Police Department establish joint missing women's task force
  • Sept. 23, 2001:Vancouver Province newspaper reports a new Vancouver police spokesperson warned: “it’s premature to conclude a serial killer is running loose, terrorizing hookers and junkies.”
  • Oct. 19, 2001: Diane Rock last seen
  • Nov. 25, 2001: Mona Wilson last seen
  • Feb. 5, 2002: Police enter Pickton farm on firearms warrant
  • Feb. 6, 2002: Police start search of Pickton farm. The investigation becomes the largest serial murder case in Canadian history
  • Feb. 14, 2002: Pickton arrested. He tells an undercover officer in the jail cell that he killed 49 women but  got "sloppy." He said he disposed of the remains at a rendering plant
  • Feb. 22, 2002: Pickton charged with the first-degree murder of Abotsway and Wilson. Charges continue to be added over the next several years
  • June 6, 2002: Police and archaeologists begin excavating Pickton farm
  • Jan. 13, 2003: Pickton preliminary hearing begins to assess evidence
  • July 23, 2003: Preliminary hearing judge commits Pickton for trial on 15 murder counts. Stone says he would have committed on a further seven counts
  • Nov. 18, 2003: Investigators complete excavation and search of Pickton property
  • Charges continue to be added
  • Aug. 9, 2006: Trial judge severs 26 counts to six for trial
  • Sept. 8, 2006: Crown announces decision to proceed first on the six counts, with the rest to be tried separately later
  • Oct. 4, 2006: New indictment is filed for victims Sereena Abotsway, Mona Wilson, Andrea Joesbury, Brenda Ann Wolfe, Georgina Faith Papin, and Marnie Frey
  • Dec. 22, 2006: Jury selection is completed after hundreds of potential jurors called
  • Jan. 22, 2007: Trial begins with massive media attention
  • June 25, 2007: Lynn Ellingsen testifies she was with Pickton when he picked up a sex worker. She walked in on a blood-soaked Pickton butchering the body, which was hanging from a hook
  • July 16, 2007: Andy Bellwood testifies Pickton told him how he lured women to the farm to kill them
  • Oct. 16, 2007: Presentation of evidence ends with 128 witnesses called
  • Dec. 9, 2007: Jury finds Pickton guilty of six counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of Sereena Abotsway, Mona Lee Wilson, Andrea Joesbury, Brenda Ann Wolfe, Marnie Lee Frey and Georgina Faith Papin
  • Dec. 11, 2007: Pickton sentenced to 25 years in prison before the possibility of parole
  • June 25, 2009: British Columbia Court of Appeal upholds Pickton's conviction in a split decision
  • July 30, 2010: Supreme Court of Canada rejects Pickton's final appeal. The remaining 20 murder charges are stayed
  • Aug. 20, 2010: Vancouver police apologize for "not having caught this monster sooner."
  • Sept. 9, 2010: B.C. attorney general announces inquiry into police investigation and decision not to proceed on 1997 charges
  • Nov. 15, 2010: B.C. government reveals investigation and trial cost ($102 million)
  • Oct. 11, 2011: Inquiry begins with former judge and attorney general Wally Oppal as commissioner
  • Oct. 24, 2011: Lynn Frey tells inquiry she told police about pig farm in 1998. Testifies police told her Pickton was a person of interest
  • Jan. 27, 2012: RCMP apologizes for not having caught Pickton earlier
  • March 5, 2012: Robyn Gervais, the independent counsel appointed to represent aboriginal interests at the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, resigns citing delays in calling witnesses, the failure to provide adequate hearing time for panels, lack of support from the Indigenous community and disproportionate focus on police evidence
  • Dec. 17, 2012: Inquiry Commissioner Wally Oppal delivers his 1,448-page report concluding there was systemic police prejudice toward the drug-addicted, poverty-stricken sex workers Pickton targeted in Vancouver. He said police failed in following up reports which could have led to Pickton, and failed to warn women of the dangers they faced

Sources: Jeremy Hainsworth's personal notes and files, Supreme Court of British Columbia, British Columbia Court of Appeal, B.C. Department of Justice, RCMP, CBC, Vancouver Police Department, Street Prostitution and Public Sex in Vancouver’s West End by Mary Sherman, Xtra Vancouver.

Further reading

The Pickton File – Stevie Cameron

On the Farm – Stevie Cameron

Missing Sarah – Maggie de Vries

Bad Date: The Lost GirlsVancouver'ser's Low Track – Trevor Greene

Lonely Section of Hell: The Botched Investigation of a Serial Killer Who Almost Got Away – Lorimer Shenher