British Columbia

Robert Pickton case torments former detective Lori Shenher

In her new book Shenher writes that she got a tip about Willie Pickton on the second day on the job - but a lack of resources and a culture of indifference in the police delayed his capture.

Book gives inside look at botched investigation into convicted serial killer Robert "Willie" Pickton

Vancouver Police Detective Const. Lori Shenher arrives to testify at the Missing Women Inquiry in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday April 4, 2012. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

They finally had him.

In February 2002, a search warrant carried out on Robert Pickton's Port Coquitlam farm would lead to evidence that the pig farmer had been luring women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to his property, where he killed them and disposed of their remains.

But as Pickton was arrested and charged for murder, Lori Shenher, the former Vancouver Police Department detective assigned to the missing persons' file, felt nothing but "grief."

That's because she had known about Pickton for years — but couldn't get her superiors to listen.

Police found the remains or DNA of 33 women on Robert Pickton's Port Coquitlam farm. (CBC)

Shenher has written about the investigation in a recent book called That Lonely Section of Hell:  The Botched Investigation of a Serial Killer Who almost Got Away.

"I had people coming up to me in the couple of days, weeks after his arrest, saying 'Oh, wasn't that your guy? That's your guy!' and every time I heard that I just about threw up," Shenher told The Current host Anna Maria Tremonti.

From day one

Shenher said that it was on her second day on the job in July 1998 when she received a CrimeStoppers tip that gave the name "Willie Pickton" — the name Pickton went by.

"It said you should look at the guy, and he's probably responsible for the missing women from Vancouver, and that he had a grinder of some type and there was bloody clothing in bags seen around his property," she said.

My mind went immediately to how many women died in that period of time...- Former detective Lori Shenher

Shenher said she was excited by this news — and met with the tipster in person.

Because Port Coquitlam is in RCMP jurisdiction, she searched in RCMP databases and came up with a file for Pickton that showed charges for attempted murder and forcible confinement.

Shenher worked with the investigator on the file, but couldn't get the RCMP to act on the information they had.

"It was difficult, we had third-hand information from a woman who my source knew, and she was a very difficult person for us to get close to, and I had some ideas around undercover operations and those sorts of things to use as tools to get some information from her," Shenher said.

She said those ideas were "never acted upon", and she still doesn't know why.

The RCMP declined an interview on CBC's The Current.

Indifference and apathy

In her book Shenher describes the Vancouver Police Department as appearing indifferent to the plight of these missing women — many of whom had been prostitutes — and writes that the RCMP also mishandled many steps in the investigation.

Serial killer Robert Pickton was convicted on six counts of second-degree murder, but is suspected of killing dozens of women who went missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Vancouver Police Dept)

"There was a mindset that these were disposable women, that these victims chose this we're not going to put ourselves out in quite the same way that we might if it's somebody's daughter from UBC."

The VPD declined an interview request for The Current, but a spokesperson said: "The VPD did "an extensive self-autopsy after the Pickton investigation. There were mistakes made and we could have caught Pickton earlier. We made a number of changes as a result of looking at how we could do things better and prevent such tragedies from happening again."

Shenher's trauma

Shenher said she was not given the appropriate resources or staff for her investigation — and despite her efforts, could not bring attention to the information she had.

She said all of these factors began to affect her mental health — "it was a slow kind of unraveling," she said — and led her to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Her reaction to Pickton's arrest in 2002 was feeling physically sick.

"My mind went immediately to how many women died in that period of time, basically from 1999 when we got a second tip from Pickton," she said.

"That period of time, when we had what we needed, we could've got him and we didn't."

Wally Oppal headed up the 2012 inquiry into how police handled the Robert Pickton investigation. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Despite a number of reports that have been done looking at the issue of missing and murdered women across Canada, Shenher is adamant that there could be another Pickton — and another flawed investigation — unless changes are made.

"These are not easy investigations...and I don't think these are easy people. Whether it's the Downtown Eastside or anywhere in the country where you're working with people who are drug-addicted, who are suffering from horrible neglect, who have mental health issues. These are not easy people. They're not easy witnesses. They're not easy clients."

"Just because they're not easy doesn't mean they don't deserve...a full investigation and the full weight of our ability to do the best we can by them."

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Robert Pickton case haunts former detective Lori Shenher

With files from Liz Hoath