Serial killer warning wouldn't have saved women, inquiry told

Warning the public that a serial killer might be stalking Vancouver's Downtown Eastside likely would not have saved the lives of any sex workers who became victims of Robert Pickton, says one of the city's top police officers.
One of Vancouver's top officers testified about why it took so long to arrest serial killer Robert Pickton, reports the CBC's Belle Puri 2:14

Warning sex workers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside that a serial killer may have been stalking the neighbourhood wouldn't have saved women from Robert Pickton, a senior officer within the force told a public inquiry Monday.

A working group within the force was preparing to issue a news release in September 1998 that said police were investigating whether a serial killer was responsible for the murder or disappearance of a "disturbing number of sex trade workers" from the Downtown Eastside, the inquiry heard.

Deputy Chief Doug LePard was put on the defensive when asked to explain why the working group was disbanded after the department decided not to follow its recommendation to issue the news release.

LePard outlined the controversial decision in a critical report issued last year, but he was questioned about it at the inquiry.

He said the head of the force's major crimes section raised concerns  the release was "inaccurate" and "inflammatory."

The working group, which had been formed a month earlier to decide how best to investigate reports of missing sex workers, was disbanded.

Ambivalent about news release

LePard, who conducted an internal review of the force's handling of the Pickton case, said he doesn't think there would have been anything wrong with sending out the news release.

But he said it likely wouldn't have saved any lives, either.

"People with far more expertise than I have said, 'Look, the women were already aware of [the serial killer theory], they believed it, but they're so deeply entrenched in their addictions that it just simply doesn't matter,"' LePard said during his first day of testimony.

"When there was rampant publicity about this, there were still women going missing from the Downtown Eastside who turned out to be victims of Pickton."

The force has long been criticized for waiting too long to acknowledge the existence of a serial killer, with officials repeatedly telling reporters there was no evidence to support such a conclusion.

Despite those public denials, it is now clear there was disagreement within the force.

The working group was formed in August 1998 as pressure increased on Vancouver police to put more resources into cases involving missing sex workers.

By then, the force had already received tips implicating Pickton, and Pickton himself had been charged, but never prosecuted, with attempted murder for an attack on a sex worker from Vancouver that was alleged to have occurred at his farm in Port Coquitlam.

The group included Insp. Gary Greer, who at the time was in charge of the district that included the Downtown Eastside, and Det. Insp. Kim Rossmo, a geographic profile who was developing a blueprint for the force's investigation.

Rossmo has been credited as being among the first officers to warn of a serial killer, only to have his warnings ignored.

The pair were preparing to issue a news release on Sept. 30, 1998, that said, in part: "The objective of this group is to determine if a serial murderer is preying upon people in the Downtown Eastside and, if so, what murders and disappearances are linked together."

It would have marked the first time the Vancouver police had publicly acknowledge the possibility of a serial killer, but just two weeks before the news release was scheduled to be issued, the head of the force's major crimes section objected.

Inspector blocked release

"I found the draft news release unacceptable from my standpoint," wrote Insp. Fred Biddlecombe in a memo to Greer. "I found it to be inaccurate and quite inflammatory."

The news release was scrapped and the working group was disbanded. The force's missing-persons unit, which was under the major crimes section, continued to handle the missing women investigations and Rossmo didn't work on the case again until the following year.

During his testimony, LePard touched on several factors that affected the force's investigation in the years leading up to Pickton's arrest.

There were concerns as far back as the late-1980s that the force's missing-persons unit was poorly structured and understaffed, with just a civilian clerk and a lone officer dedicated to the unit. In 1998, amid concerns about missing sex-trade workers, a second officer was added.

Later on Monday, Lepard was asked to read a transcript of a chilling tip phoned into  anonymous Crime Stoppers call from 1998, which includes details about who might be behind missing and murdered women from the downtown eastside.

"Caller says this single, 39-40-year-old white male, six-[foot]-two, six[foot]-three, stocky build, short brown hair, owns and operates the PNB Used Building Materials at 11947 Tannery in Surrey. There's a phone number. He lives in a trailer on a large farm in Port Coquitlam," Lepard read.

"Tipster indicated he uses the services of prostitutes regularly. A recent female visitor to his trailer noticed there were at least 10 purses and female IDs along with women's clothing in the trailer.

"He has been known to have made comments to other people that he can easily dispose of bodies by putting them through a grinder which he uses to prepare food to feed his hogs."

Lepard called the tip "interesting" but said it was just one of thousands received by police.

Families testify at inquiry

Last week, the inquiry heard from sex workers who testified Pickton was well known in the Downtown Eastside. One long-time sex worker and sex trade advocate testified Pickton violently raped her in the 1990s.

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The inquiry has also heard from victims' families, who expressed frustration at police response when they reported their loved ones missing.

Pickton was arrested five years after his name first surfaced as a suspect in the disappearance of sex workers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, and he is currently serving a life sentence for multiple counts of murder.

The hearings are examining why Vancouver police and the RCMP failed to catch Pickton in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and why prosecutors declined to pursue an attempted murder charge against him after an attack on a sex worker in 1997.

The inquiry is expected to continue well into next year, with a final report due by June 30, 2012.

With files from The CBC's Belle Puri