Robert William Pickton
The missing women of Vancouver
January 19, 2007
Robert William Pickton is on trial, accused of killing (clockwise from top left) Sereena Abotsway, Mona Wilson, Andrea Joesbury, Marnie Frey, Georgina Papin and Brenda Wolfe.Rebecca Guno, a drug addict and prostitute, vanished from Vancouver's downtown eastside in June 1983. Her name was the first of 61 that would eventually be placed on the list of women to disappear mysteriously from the drug-infested area over the two decades that followed.
It wasn't until 19 years later, early in 2002, that charges were laid in any of the cases. The charges came not long after police focused their efforts on a farm in Port Coquitlam, outside Vancouver. Dozens of officers scoured the farm in search of evidence.
Within months, the owner of that farm, 53-year-old Robert William Pickton, would face seven murder charges.
In July 2002, police made a plea for the public's help in locating nine more missing women, and said that if they cannot be found, their names will be added to the list of 54 other women who are missing.
In September 2002, Pickton was charged with four more murders. One month later, four additional charges were added, bringing the total to 15. On January 9, 2003, days before Pickton's pretrial hearings began, traces of another missing woman were found on the pig farm. Police told the woman's mother that they did not want to lay any more charges until the pretrial started, fearing it would delay the case.
Courtroom sketch of Robert William Pickton. (Canadian Press)
Pickton's preliminary hearing, which began January 13, 2003, was winding down on July 20 when police expanded their investigation to include a roadside marsh in Mission, B.C. RCMP said the new search, to involve 52 anthropologists and two soil sifters, was prompted by findings made by searchers at the Port Coquitlam farm.
A publication ban was placed on the pre-trial hearing to ensure information was not broadcast to potential jurors before the case is brought to trial. Nonetheless, evidence from the preliminary hearing was reported in newspapers, broadcasts and Web sites in the U.S – something Pickton's lawyer was afraid of. "Our concern all along is that we cannot control that," said Peter Ritchie. "And so we're going to have to follow that to see what has been published."
The Pickton case is now the largest serial killer investigation in Canadian history (Clifford Olson pleaded guilty in 1982 to killing 11 children in B.C.).
Families of the missing women have accused Vancouver police of mishandling the investigation from the beginning by ignoring evidence that a serial killer was at work. The RCMP became involved in 2001.
The families also say police neglected the cases because many of the women were prostitutes and drug addicts.
It wasn't until August of 2001 that Vancouver police began hinting that a serial killer could be responsible for the disappearance of the missing women. At the time 31 women had vanished, but four had been accounted for and two of those were confirmed dead.
Dr. Elliott Leyton, an anthropology professor at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland, who wrote a book on serial killers called Hunting Humans, says that police are rightly reluctant to identify serial murders because public panic often follows.
"Responsible people have to be careful about making wild pronouncements about possible serial killers," Leyton says. "And when we are not sure if it is true, then it is inappropriate to throw people into a state of panic. Prostitution is a very dangerous profession and many of the people in it are wanderers and not well-connected to any conventional system of government controls or social services. So they can drift away from the system without being noticed for a very long time, even when nothing may have actually happened to them."
Leyton argues that it may be irresponsible to assume that a serial killer may be at work in Vancouver. The RCMP task force has repeatedly said that it cannot speak about the ongoing investigation and only concedes that a serial killer may be involved.
But Leyton admits that when you have a number of people missing from a particular social type you have to ask questions.
The first indication that there was a significant number of prostitutes missing as far back as 1978 came to public attention in July of 1999, when the Vancouver Police and the Province's Attorney General published a poster offering a reward of $100,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people involved in the disappearances. Even the popular U.S. TV program America's Most Wanted aired a segment on the missing prostitutes, but few leads surfaced.
In the spring of 1999, two Vancouver detectives teamed up with two RCMP detectives to review the file pertaining to the 31 missing women. In August of that year police began investigating an account by a woman, not a prostitute, who said that a man snatched her from the stairwell of a hotel in Vancouver's downtown eastside. The woman jumped from her captor's moving vehicle to escape.
Police investigation at a B.C. pig farm
Accusations that police haven't done enough reached a fever pitch when former detective and geographic profiler Kim Rossmo claimed he told police that a serial killer was at work in the Vancouver area and was ignored. Rossmo said that disappearances from the neighborhood were normal, but that the number of incidents was abnormally high between 1995 and 1998.
Rossmo, who sued the Vancouver department for wrongful dismissal when they failed to renew his contract, claimed that a single predator was responsible for killing prostitutes in downtown Vancouver. The Vancouver department dismissed his claims as sour grapes.
Leyton says that the difficulty in assembling a case is that these kinds of killers typically prey on strangers, so it becomes much more difficult for police to make the connections required to confirm the presence of a serial killer.
- Main page
- Trial timeline
- Trial notebook
- Reporter notes from videotaped interrogation [pdf]
- Q&A: Selecting a jury for the Pickton trial
- Forensic science
- Missing lives
- Special Report by the Canadian Press
- Your View:
- How willing would you be to serve on a jury?
- Your View:
- What you think should be reported and how on the Pickton trial