Pig farmer faces horrific murder charges in sleepy Vancouver suburb
It’s 10 a.m. on a bone-chilling January day in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. The two rows of media seats facing the bullet-proof enclosure in a specially-adapted City courtroom are full to capacity, but only a few others in the bright, pine-finished room are occupied. Sensation-chasing reporters alone seem to have the stomach for a pretrial process expected to last at least four months. Some of the journalists talk amiably with three quarterback-sized sheriffs and each is poised with an open, dog-eared notepad and a clutch of spare pens.
This is day four of the hearing to determine if there’s sufficient evidence to try Canada’s worst alleged serial killer, suspected of befriending drug-addicted sex trade workers from Vancouver’s troubled Downtown Eastside and murdering them 40-minutes away on his decrepit pig farm, where the splintered, shattered remains of more than 15 lives — from a list of 61 being actively linked to the case — have so far been uncovered.
In the almost empty third and fourth row seats marked with small blue ribbons, sit some of the family members of the missing. The eight in court today are all women, mostly over 40 — the age of mothers or older sisters. They sit alone or in pairs, occasionally talking in whispers. Many of First Nations decent, some are dressed smartly in skirts and jackets, while others wear jeans and sweaters. One slender, stiff-backed, middle-aged woman, a large white handkerchief folded in her lap, has her eyes closed in silent meditation. She will soon be within almost arms reach of the man to which many are pinning their hopes for closure.
Quietly slipping into his specially-constructed courtroom corner through a cream-colored steal door, the subject of the largest police forensic investigation in Canadian crime history enters the courtroom. Followed by a large, armed sheriff behind the inch-thick plexiglass, while another sits mirroring his position outside the barrier, Robert William Pickton sits in his blue, high-backed executive office chair without once looking out into the courtroom.
Mostly seen in endlessly repeated television footage as unkempt, unshaved and greasy-haired, Pickton’s appearance today — presumably advised on by the expensive legal team funded by the Province of British Columbia — is not much better. Sporting a rough, gray sweater that looks like it’s made from lint, the scrawny 53-year-old faces away from the media, revealing a bony head with lank, graying hair that starts just above his ears and hangs almost to his shoulders. His gaunt, pallid face has a sharp nose and heavily-lidded eyes that never look up from a black folder and yellow legal pad resting on his lap. He is already taking notes, holding a black pen with his long, skinny fingers. He could easily play a villain from a Dickens novel.
Silence descends as the judge enters the room and a large TV screen — angled to face Pickton and the bench — begins relaying a recorded police interview with the accused, conducted soon after his arrest in February 2002. The families of the missing women stare stoically ahead, as the judge, defense and Crown teams make their notes for a possible future trial that won’t start for at least another year. Each sheriff focuses intently on the TV, one occasionally turning away and grinding his jaw against his cheek. Listening to his own reedy voice, Pickton appears calm and almost expressionless, never lifting his eyes to watch the screen. His hands do not shake as he delicately turns the pages of his interview transcript. His thin, slight mouth moves occasionally as if he’s ruminating, and twice he mouths a silent response to his own testimony. Only once does he shake his head and curve his mouth into a quick, tight smile.
A region of two million, famed for its laid-back cosmopolitanism and the breathtaking beauty of its cozy beaches, tree-covered mountains and healthy outdoor lifestyle, Greater Vancouver is a leading contender to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. In its bid campaign, the city brags about its clean streets, friendly locals, vibrant night life and colourful First Nations heritage. Beautiful young people are depicted in glossy brochures enjoying rich, active and successful lives, the stunning natural vistas always framing the image of idyllic West Coast living. But not everyone in the Lower Mainland has lived the affluent, sophisticated urban dream.
The Pickton family established itself in the suburb of Port Coquitlam — known as “PoCo” to locals — in 1905, when William Pickton bought a parcel of land near Essondale Mental Hospital. Forced from the site when his pig farm was expropriated for a highway construction, the family — with teenaged sons Robert and Dave — moved to its current Dominion Avenue location in 1963. Sister Linda left for boarding school, never living on the new farm.
After their parents died in the 1970s, the sons continued to live on the sprawling lot, jointly inherited by the three siblings. Younger brother Dave, the bearded, burly physical opposite of Robert, moved in and out and developed other business interests, including salvage firm P & B Used Building Materials. Married and later separated, Dave was well-known for riding his trademark large motorcycle in the area. Robert — known as Willy to friends and associates — remained on the farm, never marrying and spending much of his time puttering around in muddy gumboots tinkering with old cars, many of which were abandoned vehicles he purchased from the Vancouver police impound lot. He sold car parts and used vehicles from the farm for extra cash.
He also bought pigs at local livestock auctions, fattening them up and selling them on to neighbors. The farm contained a slaughterhouse in an old two-storey barn and Robert was adept at killing the hogs, skillfully skinning and cutting them up for meat. Freezers on the farm housed pork cuts and Robert regularly drove the carcass waste to West Coast Reduction’s animal rendering plant, passing through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside on his way.
Rick Cope, employed as a laborer by Dave in late 1996, visited the Pickton farm several times, once entering the slaughterhouse. “It had bay doors in the middle but you couldn’t see anything from the road with the trailer parked in front. It was gross and scummy. The slaughtering was done in the middle, where there was a big hanging meat hook. There was a steel table to the side for going through the carcasses. It was very dark, but out the back you could see a storage area for pigs and some other rooms. I didn’t want to stick around there,” said Cope, who was also invited into Robert’s live-in trailer to sign some paperwork.
“It was very dirty and gloomy in there. There was garbage everywhere. It wasn’t the sort of place you took your shoes off,” he said, recalling Pickton as an oddball with few social skills. “You could look at him and he’d look right through you, like a guy who’d done too much acid. You could never hold a conversation with him. He was always very quiet and in his own little world,” said Cope, who added that Pickton looked like he wore the same clothes for 10 days at a time.“He’s very dirty. I wouldn’t want too touch him with a 10-foot pole.”
Taking advantage of the 1990s surge in demand for Port Coquitlam housing, the Picktons began rezoning and selling parts of their sprawling farm to developers. Dave assisted with some of the site preparation by trucking in landfill. Their decaying lot was rapidly transformed into dozens of brightly-colored, wood-sided homes, which emerged alongside an elementary school and civic park. The final 10-acre parcel — now closely bordered on two sides by the freshly-turfed back gardens of new family residences — still has a large development permit notification posted on it.
But the two brothers were not just benign local landowners. Each was known to the police. Dave — who investigators say is not a suspect in the case — was convicted of sexual assault against a female construction worker in July 1992. He was fined $1,000 and ordered to avoid contact with his victim. Robert was charged in March 1997 with attacking prostitute Wendy Eistetter on the farm. The four charges — including one of confinement and another of attempted murder — were stayed in January 1998, with later media reports suggesting that police didn’t regard Eistetter as a reliable witness. Since the case never went to trial, details of the incident are not public, but both Pickton and the Downtown Eastside woman were treated for stab wounds.
Like others in the rough Vancouver neighborhood, Eistetter was familiar with the violence and brutality of the city’s sex trade, to which many women are bound by a crippling substance dependency. Wedged between the teeming Chinatown streets, gentrified Gastown district and Vancouver’s central business area, the Downtown Eastside had begun its swift and graceless decline in the 1940s, when City politics began concentrating the destitute into a ghetto, making it virtually impossible to live there and not be sucked into its problems. Now infamously regarded as the “poorest postal code in North America,” the area’s skeleton of crumbling buildings contains dozens of crisis centers and homeless shelters.
Rooming houses and cheap hotels reside above pawn shops and squalid taverns, where the cheapest beer is always the most popular. At night, the streets fill with staggering drunks and lesion-faced men and women whose problems have aged them prematurely. Grass and ecstasy are offered openly on the streets — hawkers whisper the words as they pass — but harder drugs are readily available. Shadows move in back alleyways as desperate fixes are administered. Bone-rack, track-marked women with freshly-applied make-up loiter in short skirts on even the coldest nights.
For years, rumors had circulated about a serial killer preying on the desperation of the area’s prostitutes, according to John Turvey, executive director of the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Centre. Established since 1984, the facility provides a variety of essential services — including offering Canada’s first needle exchange. It also distributes a “Bad Date Sheet,” supplying local sex trade workers with a list of violent customers to avoid. But the list, updated every 10 days, is just an indication of the size of the problem. “It only represents three-five per cent of the violence that’s out there. The violence on the streets here has always been staggering,” said Turvey.
Asked if Pickton ever turned up on the “Bad Date Sheet,” Turvey responded, “The classic predator wouldn’t show up. The classic predator is a friend of the women. Truly calculating predators would meet the profile of a seducer, a pimp. In hindsight we’ve heard that this person treated women well. Many of the women who visited his farm from the Downtown Eastside survived,” he said.
But some women didn’t only visit the Pickton brothers’ farm. PoCo resident Gregg Watt recalls noticing the occasional suspected prostitute at Piggy’s Palace — an illicit party venue owned by Dave on nearby Burns Road. Lined by old farm homes — crooked, handpainted signs advertising blueberries and honey are nailed to several trees — the wide, rural tract is poorly lit with infrequent streetlights and muddy parallel irrigation ditches flanked by tall, unkempt hedgerows. A converted one-storey, cream-colored barn that Dave regarded as his pet project — “Piggy” is his nickanme — Piggy’s Palace had a bar, stage, dance floor, commercial kitchen and seating for up to 150 people. Frequent private parties were held at the popular venue, marking graduations, holidays and showcasing local bands playing covers of favorite rock songs by the likes of Kiss and AC/DC.
Mostly attracting a younger crowd, Piggy’s Palace was established enough to see visits from the occasional Port Coquitlam city-council member. In later years, though, the parties became wilder and sex trade workers and Hell’s Angels bikers became more frequent visitors. Attending on a couple of occasions in the late 1990s, Watt recalls Robert skulking at the back of the room, while Dave was more gregarious. “There was a $10 cover charge, which included ham cuts from a pig roasting near the entrance. There was no liquor license, so you had to buy tickets for drinks and exchange them at the bar,” said Watt. “There were always groupies and hoochie mommas there. Some were better looking than others.”
Remembered by her family as a dreamer and the baby of five siblings, Mona Wilson is one of the missing women suspected of visiting Piggy’s Palace, which was officially closed by City officials due to a zoning dispute in 1998. Described by friends as sweet and bubbly, the 26-year-old with shoulder-length brown hair struggled with a serious drug dependency problem. Unable to enter a treatment center due to a lack of spaces, she was firmly entrenched in the sex trade to support her addiction. Wilson was working the streets of the Downtown Eastside when she disappeared. Her family alerted police when she failed to return home for Christmas, a tradition she had never usually missed. Ada Wilson kept the wrapped present of a ruby heart pendant and matching earrings she bought for her sister that year.
In a community of drifters, where identities are routinely forgotten or purposely avoided, the Downtown Eastside has always been a no-mans-land of missing souls. But by the end of 1998, some were seriously questioning the number of women who had apparently vanished from the area since the 1970s. In the final months of the year, Julie Young, Angela Jardine and Andrea Borhaven became the latest drug-addicted sex trade workers reported missing by their friends and families. Disturbed by fears of what may have happened on the city’s wasted streets, one local First Nations group published a list of names and photos of what it called “Vancouver’s Missing Women.” In impassioned and sometimes angry press interviews, they demanded an immediate police investigation.
While authorities declared the list flawed — some of the women had died from diseases, drug overdoses or natural causes — the suggestion that sex workers were disappearing like ghosts became a leading conversation topic among locals more used to discussing the latest minor scandal in municipal politics or the fate of the Vancouver Canucks NHL team. With local newspapers like the tabloid Province openly asking what had happened to the lost women, the Vancouver Police Department was pressured into action, the first time they had investigated the missing cases as a single inquiry. They quickly drew up their own list of 16 women, each reported missing since 1995, an index that rapidly grew as the investigation unfolded.
Robert Pickton was low on the list of 600 suspects alleged to have assaulted prostitutes in the area over the previous 10 years. But as the prime suspects — including one who had attempted to force a rubber ball down a streetwalker’s throat and another convicted of pimping a 14-year-old girl — were laboriously discounted, investigators began to home in on the grimy Port Coquitlam pig farmer. By early 2001, they were ready to move.
Warranted to search for illegal firearms at Pickton’s ramshackle, 10-acre property on February 5, 2002, police quickly found personal items linked to some of the missing women. Remaining tight-lipped about exactly what they had found — an approach investigators have maintained throughout the ongoing case — local media reported that purses and identification had been recovered. Police secured an immediate second warrant and launched an in-depth sweep of the property, this time headed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)-Vancouver Police Department Joint Missing Women Task Force
As dozens of police officers swooped in to patrol the farm — which was rapidly enclosed in tall mesh barriers and circled with yellow crime scene tape — makeshift shelters, white tents and a clutch of shiny SUVs emerged among the property’s sagging barns, rusting vehicles, skeletal trees and oily, rutted puddles. Within days, a bulldozer was brought in to level land for a police mobile detachment office, and pig squeals could be heard as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) administered injections to farm hogs and trucked them away.
Offering police the use of his heavy digging equipment, Pickton issued a statement through lawyer Peter Ritchie professing himself “flabbergasted” by what was happening. Anticipating one of the year’s biggest stories, North American media descended en masse. Jostling TV crews lined the road in front of the property, helicopters buzzed overhead and a group of media outlets pooled their resources to hire a cherry picker, taking turns to peer over the site for a glimpse of the unfolding investigation.
The first steps in the search were crucial, according to Simon Fraser University (SFU) professor of forensic anthropology, Dr. Mark Skinner. “After photographing and mapping everything they can see, using a combination of video cameras, still cameras and, possibly, aerial photography, investigators look for freshly disturbed earth or evidence of previous movement of earth. Ground-penetrating radar is used to locate bodies, and metal probes may be run into the ground to reveal differences in textures beneath the surface,” said Skinner, who was not involved in the case but who has worked on mass grave investigations around the world for more than 25 years. “Although this case involves multiple victims, the remains are spread around the site and are not complete. The soil is being removed to conveyor belts where it is sifted, going through fine examination several times. They are looking for teeth, bone shards and blood spots.”
At a noisy and chaotic media briefing on the edge of the property one week later, Vancouver police spokesperson Detective Scott Driemel stated that Pickton’s grimy trailer was now the focus of intense forensic scrutiny. “Investigators now have in their possession specific items of interest taken from the trailer and certain DNA samples,” he said. Quickly matching this DNA evidence with samples taken from some of the families of the missing women, Pickton was arrested and taken into custody on February 22, charged in connection with the deaths of Mona Wilson and Sereena Abotsway. In April, as more DNA matches were made, murder charges for Diane Rock, Jacqueline McDonell and Heather Bottomley were added. With police still refusing to give details on the nature of the discovered remains, local media alleged that hands, feet and bags of bloody clothing had been found. While police officially denied the reports, they brought in blood splatter experts and additional bone fragment scientists to assist with their investigation.
In early June, RCMP Constable Catherine Galliford issued a statement that would shape the remainder of the investigation. “A detailed forensic-anthropological search of a farm property will begin this week. The search involves 26 scientific experts with formal training in human osteology, a sub-speciality of archeology. The 26 experts are part of a pool of about 50 upper-level students and graduates of the specialized field who have been selected to work at the site,” said Galliford.
Issued with white body suits, photo identification and obligated to absolute secrecy, the experts arrived from universities across Canada, including SFU and the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT). To assist in their work, investigators took additional delivery of an excavator, a loader, a soil screener, two 50-foot conveyor belts and two tandem dump trucks. Testing labs across the country began preparing for thousands of swab samples, as DNA matches became the main focus of the investigation.
“The DNA is trapped within the bone or tooth. The first step is to clean the sample, then pulverize it into a fine powder, which is then dispersed into various chemicals and buffers to extract the DNA from the stuff you don’t want,” said Dr. Dean Hildebrand, coordinator of the forensic science technology program at BCIT, who is not directly involved in the case. With enough human DNA in the sample, the DNA fingerprinting process can begin, using a technique called STR (Short Tandem Repeats), a nuclear DNA test that’s standard across North America. “This process gives you the sample but it’s meaningless unless you have something to compare it to. So they do the same test on the relatives and make a comparison,” said Hildebrand. Ideally using samples from parents, the process is analogous to a paternity test.
As a giant steel canopy was erected to protect sections of the dig site, investigators began piling forty-feet-high mounds of searched earth around the perimeter of the property. Where police trucks had once looked incongruous, now the old Pickton buildings began to look out of place, stripped to their bare walls and roofs by relentless forensic experts. By October, as the investigation continued to escalate and a smaller, five-month forensic search of Piggy’s Palace ended, 10 additional murder charges had been laid based on DNA matches from the farm. The names Andrea Joesbury, Brenda Wolfe, Jennifer Furminger, Helen Hallmark, Patricia Johnson, Georgina Papin, Heather Chinnock, Tanya Holyk, Sherry Irving and Inga Hall took Pickton past early 1980s child murderer Clifford Olsen, as allegedly the most notorious serial killer in Canadian legal history.
In custody since his February 2002 arrest, the Crown now began preparing a massive prosecution case against Pickton. A preliminary hearing to examine the more than 35,000 pages of collected evidence was scheduled for November, then rescheduled for January 2003 as Pickton’s lawyer argued over funding issues, legal technicalities and media intrusion in the case. With their prime suspect denying the 15 charges of first-degree murder against him, investigators continued their inch-by-inch search of the farm, now regarded by the public — fed by unsubstantiated tabloid stories — as a horrific hell on earth where women had been mercilessly slaughtered and disposed of among the detritus of hog waste and pig remains.
In the Port Coquitlam courtroom, a red-faced young woman who is the same age as many of the missing, arrives late, clutching an unopened box of Kleenex. As court etiquette dictates, she nods to the judge, who does not look up from his transcript folder. Swiftly taking a seat near the back, designated for members of the public with a small orange ribbon, she pulls a notepad from her large brown leather bag and begins taking notes, using the over-sized satchel as a makeshift lap desk. She stares directly at Pickton. He is sill sitting, hunched sideways over his notes, not raising his eyes. The only sounds in the room are the rapid scritching of dozens of pens on paper and Pickton’s nasal drone from the TV, the clear and precise enunciation of his interviewer suggesting a man who has handled many previous homicide suspects.
Four rows from the front of the room, dressed in a business-like black jacket and skirt is family member Sandra Gagnon, who walks purposely up the courthouse steps every day. Her sister Janet Henry, a known drug user and sex trade worker from the Downtown Eastside, is on the list of missing women. Gagnon has not heard from her since June 1997. “My sister was the mother of an 18-month-old daughter. She was very loving and she was my best friend. I wish I had a picture of her,” says the softly spoken Gagnon, during the hearing’s lunchtime recess. Stating how hard it is to listen to Pickton’s voice, and noting that she’s been warned against talking to the media, Gagnon says she feels compelled to attend at least part of these proceedings. “I want to find out what happened to my sister and I want justice. I know he [Pickton] is involved in what happened to her,” she says.
But if Gagnon is certain of Pickton’s involvement, not every PoCo local is convinced. “There’s a lot of feeling that if this guy did it, there’s no way he did it alone. I can’t say for sure that he’s slow or developmentally disabled, but people who know him think he couldn’t have done all this without help. There’s definitely others involved,” says Richard Dal Monte, editor of Tri-City News, one of the area’s two local newspapers. Some even question whether Pickton was involved at all.“I’ve known him for years. My whole family knows him and we all fully trusted him. He’s a great guy as far as I’m concerned,” says Rich Smallwood of Ron Ross Auctioneers, who has sold dozens of junked cars to Pickton.
At the end of the afternoon session, Pickton rises stiffly from his chair. Quickly turning his back on the media and family seats, he stands head bowed, waiting for the heavy door of his plexiglass enclosure to swing open. With transcript folder and legal pad tucked firmly under his arm, he does not look up as he steps through the opened doorway, his flack-jacketed guard close behind him. At the same time across town, forensic experts at Pickton’s muddy, windswept farm continue to work into the early evening, sifting the soil containing the building blocks of the case against him.
Down a steep, rough-gravelled service road in a nearby area of no-man’s-land between the parking lot of the new Home Depot and a patch of brambled scrubland, is a small, white, plasticized tent of the type used by investigators across the street. Containing a tangle of chairs, some fold-up tables and several stackable plastic storage containers, the square tent seems abandoned. A sign on the outside warns, in bold red lettering, “Family and friends welcome. No media.” With the heavily graying sky turning to a soft, freezing rain, the small plants and flowers in a tiny makeshift garden on one side of the tent begin to tremble. On several weathered wooden shelves leaning against the opposite side, rest some fallen incense sticks, several waterlogged candles and dozens of photographs of women, alone or with friends and families, covered in plastic against the rain. A laminated list — extended many times over — ensures that here, in the shadow of their last hours, the names are still remembered.