The Current

'No body, no crime': Prevailing wisdom stops police catching killers, says former detective

As the Toronto police force faces criticism over the handling of an alleged serial killer in the city, a former detective details the challenges he faced trying to convince colleagues that a killer was at work in Vancouver.
A court sketch of Bruce McArthur during his first court appearance over first-degree murder charges. (Pam Davies/CBC)

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When Lorimer Shenher was a young police officer almost 20 years ago, he told his bosses that he thought there was a serial killer in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.

Not many believed him.

"I had all sorts of responses," Shenher recalls, "ranging from that I read too much, and had an active imagination, to we couldn't have a serial killer, because I didn't have any bodies."

The investigation dragged on for years, eventually resulting in the arrest of Robert Pickton. He was convicted in 2007 of the second-degree murders of six women.

But the struggle to catch Pickton left Shenher suffering from PTSD, he says — not because of the violence of the killer's crimes, but the obstacles within the police force itself.

"It ruined my zest for police work," he says.

"I joined this job to help people, and to put people in jail who had done bad things.

"And when I realized … there were no tools or resources provided to do that job, that was incredibly demoralizing."

Now, watching the case of Toronto's alleged serial killer, he says he sees a lot of the same mistakes being made.

This combination of photos shows the six men Bruce McArthur is charged with killing. Top row, from left to right: Skandaraj Navaratnam, 40, Andrew Kinsman, 49, Selim Esen, 44. Bottom row, from left to right: Dean Lisowick, Soroush Mahmudi, 50, and Majeed Kayhan, 58. (CBC/Toronto Police Service)

Bruce McArthur is accused of six counts of first-degree murder, preying on men from the city's LGBTQ community.

The city's police force has been criticized for initially dismissing the suggestion that there was a serial killer, as well as later insinuating the LGBTQ community hadn't done enough to help catch the alleged killer.

Det.-Sgt. Hank Idsinga, the Toronto Police Service's lead investigator, defended the force's work last month, telling CBC they "work in a world where we need evidence to proclaim something and we didn't have that evidence so we're not going to say it."

For Shenher, the case feels familiar.

"Overwhelmingly I feel a lot of frustration on behalf of those investigators," he says, adding that his criticism is of "police leadership, more than anything."

Shenher was a young police officer in B.C. when a clerk in the missing persons section noticed a spike in the number of women missing from the Downtown Eastside.

Lorimer Shenher was assigned to look into women missing from Vancouver in the late 1990s. (Andrew Friesen/CBC)

He volunteered for the job — which became the investigation into Vancouver's missing women — because no one else seemed interested, and to him it seemed like a "real-life mystery."

"I was young and keen and thought that would be a great case to cut my teeth on," he says.

Shenher believes he was given the case to rule out a problem, rather than follow a suspicion there was actually a killer.

Pickton's name came up early in the investigation.

"I received a Crime Stoppers tip and it named Pickton by name," he says, "and indicated that he had the ability to dispose of bodies, and that somebody close to him felt quite strongly that he could be responsible for Vancouver's missing women."

Shenher found a previous allegation against Pickton of attempted murder and forcible confinement. But attempts to get a search warrant to investigate him were frustrated by a lack of evidence.

"If you had no body, you had no crime; that was the prevailing wisdom," he says.

"There was literally no trace of our women, and so it was very hard to get any interest from the higher-ups in my department to pressure the RCMP of the jurisdiction ... to take the investigation and run with it."

A vigil in the heart of Toronto's LGBTQ village on Feb. 13, 2018. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Names get lost in 'big, thick files'

Some mistakes are repeated, says Glenn Woods, an experienced criminal profiler, because these cases can happen decades apart, and become the responsibility of an entirely new generations of police officers.

Woods worked on the Clifford Olson case in the early 1980s. Olsen was convicted of killing 11 children and young people.

He says that case was hindered by the tools available at the time, in particular because the murders happened across different jurisdictions, which could not easily share the information needed to join the dots.

"I've been involved as a profiler in hundreds of cases like this, and almost all of them the main suspect, the guy who committed the offence, his name comes up in the file early on," he says.

"The problem we had in some of these cases is there such a plethora of information, that we don't manage it that well ... so names like Pickton and Olson get lost in these big, thick files."

Modern systems allow police to find this kind of information more easily.

Robert Pickton was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder. (CBC)

Officers must speak out

Toronto police have now backed the idea of an external review into the handling of missing persons cases, as well as the establishment of a dedicated missing persons unit and a community outreach plan involving its LGBTQ liaison officer.

But criticism without all the facts isn't helpful, says Woods.

"The police have a daunting task ahead of them," he says. "I have difficulty with all criticism towards an investigation, when it just adds to the stress and the difficulty of the overall case."

Shenher is encouraged that police leadership have acknowledged difficulties in the case early on, but hopes the general culture has changed since his day.

"I think you've got to speak out in policing," he says.

"Unfortunately it's not a great culture — when you're in it — to speak out, but if they can do that, I think that that will help a lot."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's John Chipman and Jason Vermes.