RCMP officers who were investigating Robert Pickton allowed the case to lie dormant for months at a time and didn't know they were dealing with a possible serial killer, several officers with the force told a public inquiry Monday.
The inquiry has heard allegations the RCMP in Port Coquitlam, where Pickton's farm was located, failed to realize they were investigating a multiple murderer and allowed their case to sit inactive for weeks and months at a time when officers in Vancouver considered Pickton their top suspect in the disappearance of Downtown Eastside sex workers.
Retired officer Ruth Chapman, then a constable, took over the RCMP's Pickton investigation in late August of 1999. The force was looking into a tip received by Vancouver police that Pickton had murdered a sex worker on his farm.
'The Pickton file was always a priority, but it didn't have continuing action.' —Retired RCMP officer Ruth Chapman
Chapman's predecessor, Cpl. Mike Connor, has already testified that by late summer of 1999 he saw Pickton as a potential serial killer who may have been actively picking up sex workers to murder.
But Chapman said she was never given a detailed briefing about the investigation when she joined the case, and neither she nor her boss, Sgt. Darryl Pollock, had any idea they had a potential serial killer on their hands.
"Did you know that you were investigating a possible serial killer?" asked commissioner lawyer Art Vertlieb.
"No, not at that time," Chapman, whose surname was Yurkiw at the time, told the inquiry.
"No," added Pollock, "I wasn't investigating a serial killer at that time."
Pickton interview delayed
Chapman came onto the case when the force was investigating a tip from an informant, who relayed a story from one of Pickton's friends, Lynn Ellingsen. Ellingsen recalled walking in as Pickton was skinning a prostitute in his barn, the informant said.
When the RCMP contacted Ellingsen, she denied ever telling the story and refused to take a polygraph test. She later told the story at Pickton's murder trial.
Chapman then attempted to interview Pickton, but he asked to put off the interview until the rainy season was over. Chapman agreed to that request, and nothing happened with RCMP's investigation until the end of December.
Two months passed in which nothing was done on the file, said Chapman. She had other homicides to deal with and felt she had run out of leads in the Pickton case, she said.
"When homicide files and other high-priority major crime files came in, they were acted upon on a priority basis," said Chapman.
"The Pickton file was always a priority, but it didn't have continuing action, because there wasn't incoming tips to further the investigation."
The Vancouver Police Department was investigating the disappearance of Downtown Eastside sex workers, but officers have testified they left Pickton to the RCMP because he was in their jurisdiction.
Vancouver police and the RCMP appeared to be in regular contact when Connor was running the Mounties' Pickton investigation, but that communication appeared to dry up when he left. For example, no one from the RCMP ever told the Vancouver police that the Pickton investigation was effectively on hold.
The communications chasm between the two forces has emerged as a key factor in the failure to catch Pickton sooner, as officers in two nearby communities conducted investigations that were almost entirely separate from one another.
Former inspector Earl Moulton, who was in charge of major crime in the RCMP's Coquitlam detachment, said the Mounties didn't provide Vancouver police officers with updates because they never asked.
"They never asked, and in my term of service, I've never encountered a situation where you would [share such information]," said Moulton.
"There would be no reason to do so, and there's no practice of doing so."
Interview technique criticized
Chapman eventually resumed work on the Pickton file, notably when she interviewed Pickton in January 2000.
The interview was conducted by Chapman and another officer, neither of whom had interrogation experience, and has been widely criticized as sloppy and poorly planned. One of Pickton's friends was allowed to sit in on the interview, and when Pickton invited the officers to search his property, they never took him up on the offer.
Chapman said she didn't have access to specially trained homicide interrogators.
"There was some discussion that we wanted someone with more experience to conduct the interview, but I don't believe it met the criteria for the [RCMP's interrogation] team to assist us," said Chapman.
Neither Chapman nor Moulton could recall just what those criteria were.
As for the search, Chapman and Moulton said they didn't believe Pickton would provide the formal consent required before such a search, and they noted he wasn't the only owner of the property.
Pickton co-owned the property with his brother, David Pickton.
Pickton was arrested in February 2002, when RCMP officers armed with an unrelated warrant searched his property.
He was eventually convicted of six counts of second-degree murder.
The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm. He once told an undercover police officer that he killed a total of 49.