RCMP bungled investigation, Pickton inquiry told
The RCMP failed to share important information about Robert Pickton with their counterparts in Vancouver, were quick to dismiss credible informants and botched an interview with the serial killer, a senior officer with the Vancouver police told a public inquiry Wednesday.
Deputy Chief Doug LePard spent his third day of testimony highlighting a number of apparent failings with the RCMP's work in nearby Port Coquitlam, where Pickton was butchering sex workers at his sprawling farm even after he was identified as the No. 1 suspect in the disappearance of prostitutes.
Vancouver police and the RCMP each headed up separate but related investigations: Vancouver into the disappearances of sex workers, and RCMP into information implicating Pickton, who had already been accused of trying to kill a sex worker there in 1997.
The disconnect between those two investigations became apparent in late 1999, when Vancouver police realized RCMP investigators were no longer treating Pickton as a high priority — despite the belief in Vancouver that Pickton was the prime suspect in the disappearance of Downtown Eastside prostitutes.
By then, investigators had at least four separate informants alleging Pickton was luring sex workers to his farm, butchering them and disposing of their bodies.
Those informants were all relaying stories told to them by Lynn Ellingsen, an associate of Pickton's. According to the informants, Ellingsen claimed to have helped Pickton pick up sex workers and described an incident in which she saw Pickton with a prostitute’s body in a barn.
But when RCMP officers interviewed Ellingsen, she denied ever telling the story, and the informants' stories were discounted.
LePard said that was a mistake, especially since the informants claimed Pickton was paying Ellingsen not to talk to the police. He added that investigators should have considered her as an accomplice with an incentive to lie.
"Are you telling the commissioner you would not have stopped with the denial of Ellingsen?" asked commission lawyer Art Vertlieb.
"Of course," replied LePard.
In the fall of 1999, the RCMP were finally preparing to interview Pickton.
RCMP Const. Ruth Yurkiw made contact with Pickton, and at some point spoke with Pickton's brother, Dave.
Dave Pickton told Yurkiw his brother was busy on the farm and asked that she wait until the rainy season was over, and Yurkiw agreed. She didn't conduct the interrogation until January 2000.
"Would you have accepted that" Vertlieb asked, referring to the request to put off the interview.
"No," replied LePard.
When Yurkiw and Const. John Cater finally sat down with Pickton, it didn't go well, said LePard.
The officers didn't appear to have a plan, didn't follow basic interrogation techniques and didn't read Pickton a "charter warning" that his statements could be used against him. When Pickton consented to a search of his farm, they didn't take him up on the offer.
"There didn't appear to be an interview strategy at all, there were no signs that they had an interview script," said LePard.
"There were a number of things that showed it wasn't a well-planned interview."
The Mounties didn't tell the Vancouver police they were preparing to interview Pickton and didn't ask for advice, nor did they share the results of the interview afterwards.
"It was an investigation that was obviously of great interest to the VPD, and it's somewhat inexplicable that wasn't shared with the VPD," said LePard.
Vancouver police missteps
On Wednesday, the inquiry heard of two officers in the missing women review team — Const. Doug Fell and Const. Mark Wolther — who LePard criticized for pursuing another suspect with such vigour that they ignored work related to Pickton.
At one point, Fell and Wolther showed an array of photographs, including Pickton's, to sex workers in the Downtown Eastside. Three sex workers said they recognized Pickton, but the pair of officers didn't share that information with the rest of the review team, which was searching for evidence to connect Pickton to the neighbourhood.
In 2001, the RCMP and Vancouver police formed a joint operation known as Project Evenhanded to investigate cases of missing sex workers. It was looking at hundreds of possible suspects, while the Port Coquitlam RCMP's investigation specifically targeting Pickton continued.
In the end, neither investigation cracked the case.
Pickton was essentially caught by accident, when a junior RCMP officer with less than two years on the force, Const. Nathan Wells, followed up on a tip about illegal firearms and obtained a search warrant.
Wells brought officers from the missing women investigation along, where they immediately stumbled upon the remains and belongings of missing women, setting off a massive search of the farm.
"That's what broke the case," said LePard. "[Wells] was not part of the Evenhanded investigation and he was not part of the investigation by Coquitlam serious crime into Pickton."
Investigators found the remains or DNA of 33 women on the farm.
Pickton was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, though he claimed he killed 49.