Warning: This story contains details that may be distressing to some readers.
Women had been missing for decades from Vancouver’s poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside before police found a way to a trash-strewn property that doubled as a pig farm in a Vancouver suburb.
It quickly became the largest crime scene in Canada.
Those of us in the courtroom at Robert William “Willy” Pickton’s preliminary hearing knew we were about to witness a man create hell on his Port hog farm. Coquitlam after hearing about the evidence found at the scene.
Police had discovered countless bloodstains, missing clothing and identification for the women, halved skulls, minced human meat, bones and a gun with a dildo attached to the muzzle.
Robert William “Willy” Pickton has been charged with the murder of 26 women. He was found guilty of six counts and sentenced to life in prison.
During a conversation in a prison cell, he told an undercover police officer that he had killed 49 people. He planned to kill one more, then take a break before continuing.
Pickton said he got caught because he got sloppy when he was last arrested in February 2002.
As we will see, this was not his first encounter with the police on a violent charge.
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It was in 1995 that Dianna Melnick disappeared — 11 years after a BC Supreme Court Chief Justice ruling expelled sex workers from Vancouver’s West End. This was after the police started cracking down on strip clubs.
This court ruling began the slow push of street sex workers into the city until the business concentrated in the Downtown Eastside, where drug and alcohol abuse had been rampant for decades.
As many have observed, governments and courts have played an important role in creating the perfect hunting ground for a human predator.
Between that date and Pickton’s capture, nearly 60 women’s names joined Melnick on the missing list.
Before we go any further, let’s take a look at Pickton’s background.
The Pickton Family
The Pickton family was somewhat infamous in Port Coquitlam. Their once large lot on Dominion Avenue had been slowly sold off and built up with subdivisions.
In 1995 it was a dumping ground for machinery, old cars and trucks. Mounds of earth bore witness to the family’s earth moving business.
With the roof of the pigsty down, Pickton stuffed the auctioned pigs into a horse trailer kept on site before slaughtering them.
An unpainted Dutch barn became the property’s identifying feature as media cameras focused on the farm after Pickton’s arrest.
The land the police descended on belonged to Pickton, along with his brother David and sister Linda Wright. She changed her name and left British Columbia after her brother was arrested.
Pickton’s upbringing cannot be described as normal.
He was born in 1949 with the umbilical cord around his neck, leading to speculation that he had brain damage.
Mother Louise had rotten teeth, very fine hair that she kept covered with a scarf, and chin hair that looked like a goatee. She usually walked around in rubber boots and a dress over blue jeans. Father Leonard was similar.
Pickton was placed in special education classes, but he preferred the freedom of the farm – whose nearest neighbor was the infamous Essondale Mental Hospital.
An acquaintance described the place as a scene from the movie Deliverance. Cue the banjos.
Around the age of 12, Pickton saved up $35 to buy a calf at auction. He cherished the animal, wanting to keep it for the rest of his life. One day he came home and couldn’t find the calf. After looking around, probably at his father’s suggestion, he looked into the barn. There hung the slaughtered calf.
Another family story involves his brother hitting a 14-year-old with a truck and their mother rolling the still-living youth into a swamp, where he drowned.
history of violence
Pickton was known to working girls as a bad date in the mid-’90s.
Sarah de Vries, who disappeared in 1998, had written about missing women in her diary just three years earlier: “Am I next? Is he watching me now? Stalks me like predator and prey.
His DNA was later found at Pickton’s farm.
In 1997, Pickton was picking up sex workers in the Downtown Eastside and taking them to the farm.
That same year, he was charged with attempted murder of a woman. She injured him before escaping the property and the two ended up in the same hospital.
Clothes seized from her that day would later yield DNA profiles of other missing women.
Those charges were stayed, but an RCMP officer noted in a police database that Pickton was a threat to women on the street.
But at that time, women were regularly disappearing from the Downtown Eastside. Many had been reported by the police, but with little follow-up.
Coming from the Downtown Eastside as a beat cop, Kim Rossmo became the first active Canadian police officer to earn a doctorate. in criminology. His geographic profiling concepts were attracting worldwide attention.
This earned him a promotion, but the officers treated him like an outsider. At Vancouver Police Department (VPD) headquarters, the Old Boys Network shunned him.
Rossmo suggested evidence of a serial killer at work. The ministry denied this was happening.
Around the same time, in July 1998, VPD Detective Const. Lorimer Shenher became the lead investigator in the Missing Women Investigations.
Shenher made no secret of his frustration at not having resources or support from senior management.
Horrors on the farm
Things stayed pretty much that way until the VPD and RCMP joined Operation Evenhanded in 2000.
De Vries’ sister Maggie went to the Vancouver Police Board asking for help, but Mayor Phillip Owen told her, “We don’t operate a tracking service here.”
At the same time, the council approved a $100,000 reward for garage burglaries in a wealthy neighborhood. The families of the missing women were furious, asking why the property was more important than their children.
That’s when people started to take matters into their own hands.
Lynn Frey and her sister Joyce Lachance began their investigation after Lynn’s stepdaughter Marnie disappeared in 1997. The two women eventually found their way to the Pickton Farm in 1998 and told police to investigate on Willy. Other family members also made it to the farm that year without police assistance.
Yet the disappearances continued.
Pickton was on the cops’ radar. When the opportunity arose through an informant’s revelation that firearms were improperly stored at the farm, a team entered from the rear of the property and served a warrant to enter the trailer of Pickton.
Inside they found women’s clothing, IDs of some of the missing women, and other items.
Senior officers from the Missing Women’s Task Force, who were listening to radios at the farm gate, ordered the search party out.
A new warrant was requested and police entered the property for what would become the start of the serial killer investigation. It was February 2002.
Witnesses testify to Pickton’s violence
As the property search began, Pickton’s court appearances in Port Coquitlam also began. Day after day more charges would be laid until he reached 26 counts of murder.
Eleven months later, those in Pickton’s preliminary hearing hearing began to hear the horrors of what had happened on his farm. However, it was covered by a publication ban so strict that even American television station signals were blocked for Canadians when an article about Pickton aired.
In an article for the Associated Press, I mentioned that a videotape had been released. The judge warned me that I would be expelled if I repeated such behavior. I made no mention of Pickton confessing to the murders on tape.
At this preliminary hearing, day after day, we heard testimony of unimaginable horror – as Pickton sat calmly.
We’ve heard of police finding halved skulls in buckets in freezers with their hands and feet hidden inside.
We’ve heard of bags of human ground meat.
We have heard of a mattress soaked in a woman’s blood.
We heard testimony from Andy Bellwood, who said Pickton asked him if he wanted to go get a sex worker. And we heard Bellwood’s testimony that Pickton said he would garrote women while having sex with them.
Then, Bellwood says, the dead women were taken to the barn. Pickton was bleeding them and gutting them, feeding the scraps to the pigs. Other remains went into barrels that were taken to a rendering plant in Vancouver.
We heard from Lynn Ellingsen. She was with Pickton when he went looking for a woman one night.
Back at Pickton’s trailer, he left with the other woman. Ellingsen heard a noise and saw the light on in the slaughterhouse.
Going to inspect, she came across a body hanging from a hook, a mass of hair on the table. Behind her, the door closed and there was Pickton covered in blood.
The image of Ellingsen’s testimony etched in my mind is that of the dead woman’s painted fingernails.
Pickton warned her to shut up or she would also be hung on the hook, Ellingsen told the court.
The trial was not without its quirks.
Pat Cassanova helped Pickton slaughter pigs on the farm.
As Cassanova bore witness to the butchering process, Pickton’s face registered a wild sneer, his skin red and tight on his skull, his teeth bared. This sight horrified me. He looked like a rabid rat.
Cassanova’s testimony was delivered in an almost mechanical tone as he had to keep a tracheostomy hole in his throat covered with his thumb to speak.
And there was the day Pickton’s lead attorney fell asleep for a few minutes — a media fuss called the $75 nap.
Pickton was convicted of six counts of second degree murder in December 2007. The decision was upheld all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
While 20 other charges were stayed and there is potential evidence for even more charges, Pickton was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years.
He is now incarcerated in the Port-Cartier maximum security prison in Quebec.
The Pickton File – Stevie Cameron
On the farm – Stevie Cameron
Missing Sarah – Maggie de Vries
Bad Date: The Lost Girls Vancouver’s Low Track – Trevor Greene
Lonely Section of Hell: The botched investigation of a serial killer who nearly got away – Lorimer Shenher