The Legacy of the Robert Pickton Trial

by Frank Larue

In November of 2007, Robert (Willie) Pickton, was convicted (five years after his arrest) of six counts of second degree murder which means ten to twenty five years for each crime. The trial dealt with only six of Pickton’s many victims: Brenda Wolfe, Mona Wilson, Georgina Papin, Marnie Frey, Andrea Jonesbury and Serena Abotsway. A second trial, for which a court date has yet to be set, will try Pickton for the murders of another twenty women whose remains were found on the Pickton farm after what has now become infamously the longest forensic investigation in criminal history.

The evidence discovered during the seemingly endless search was overwhelming, to say the least: frozen corpses and body parts found in a freezer, a human head in a five gallon pail, tales of other bodies hanging from hooks, the clothing of some of the victims found in Pickton’s trailer, along with a dildo attached to the barrel of a twenty-two caliber pistol, and a pair of handcuffs ready by the side of the bed. This emotionally startling physical evidence was supported by the scientific proof of DNA remains also found scattered all about the Pickton farm in Coquitlam.

Robert Pickton is not the first sexual predator to prey upon street prostitutes, but since in this case most of the victims were Native, perhaps it is finally time for police forces and the judicial system to admit what has long been obvious to the Native rights organizations. Native women working the streets are being marginalized by serial killers and sexual predators. It is precisely because Native women are marginalized and therefore forced by circumstances beyond their control to try to survive in one of the most dangerous urban ghettos in North America that they become such easy prey for serial killers. The fact that Pickton was able for so many years to lure his victims to his farm and during that time escape the ‘vigilance’ of the law enforcement is reason enough to raise public suspicion that the police are not overly concerned with the collective fate of Native women working the dark side of the street on the wrong side of town.

It is extremely good news that Robert Pickton will spend the rest of his life behind bars, but will the criminological questions raised by his trial change the attitudes of judges and police to the treatment Native people. Pickton’s life sentence was taken as a victory for the families of the victims and for organizations such as Sisters in Spirit who have for years waged a thankless war on behalf of missing native women across Canada. Unfortunately, it is hard to enjoy the taste of such a victory when at the moment Pickton’s sentence was uttered by the judge in New Westminster, still not one single arrest has been made on behalf of the twenty eight female victims who have disappeared on the Highway of Tears between Prince George and Prince Rupert. A closer look at the way the Vancouver Police mishandled the investigation before Pickton’s arrest and one can understand the frustration the families of the victims must have felt.

Such frustration was intensified by the realization that the VPD were reluctant to deal with the plight of missing native women from the very beginning. In 1999 when the number of missing women was already at thirty and still climbing, the investigation still was not a priority, there was another problem apparently more urgent and important to the Mayor and the Police. Someone was vandalizing expensive houses in West Vancouver and the home owners wanted action. Mayor Phillip Owen responded to the problem immediately by posting a $100,000.00 reward for the capture of the ‘garage burglar’.

The organizations which had lobbied for so long for funding to assist in the missing women’s investigation were justifiably outraged. Marches and demonstrations with women’s and native rights groups were quickly organized in response to the ignorant insensitivity of the Mayor’s skewed priorities. These actions forced the mayor to offer a similar reward for information on the missing women and the police issued a poster of the women to be distributed wherever it might do some good. And yet, even after the release of the poster, a spokesman for the VPD said in a press conference.

“We are still not convinced we are dealing with a homicide.”

Nevertheless, later, new information on four of the women on the poster was released: two had died and two had moved away. Twenty seven were still missing, but the police had made their point and they weren’t budging from their position. What is confusing is among their ranks was an officer who could have made a major contribution to the investigation.

Sergeant Kim Rosmo was a criminal specialist, he was the only expert on serial killers employed by the Vancouver Police Department. He had invented geographical profiling on serial killers and bank robbers and was respected by most of the major law enforcement agencies in the world, including Interpol. Kim Rosmo was the logical choice to investigate the escalating number of native women disappearing from the east end; in a preliminary assessment of investigation Rosmo suspected a serial killer could be responsible for the missing women, however, his bosses didn’t agree. Instead of taking his advice, with the most brutal serial killer in Canadian criminal history right in their back yard, the Vancouver Police fired Kim Rosmo and snuffed the serial killer theory before the press found out.

The blind reasoning that forced Rosmo from the police force cannot be dismissed as an isolate bureaucratic blunder. To truly understand the mind-set of the Vancouver police one has to examine the officer they trusted to take leadership of the missing women’s task force. The VPD put John Dragani in charge and without any explanation he was removed from the post and later they found child pornography on his computer. An internal investigation has yet to disclose the reasons Dragani was taken off the case, but the discovery of child pornography on his computer speaks volumes about his character and demonstrates how insignificant the missing women must have been to him and in reality were to the Vancouver Police as a whole. The Department just kept stumbling along until the RCMP took over the investigation in 2001 with a special task force.

The VPD informed the RCMP that there was no serial killer involved in these numerous disappearances, but as Inspector Don Adam, who was in charge of the task force, would soon discover, the VPD was dead wrong. And more alarming were the 1,300 leads received and collected during the investigation which were in such a chaotic state of confusion and disarray, that Adam referred to them as a ‘waste of time’.

The Inspector organized a completely new system for handling these leads. Within a few months, Adam’s efforts resulted in eighteen more victims being added to the list of missing women. In February 2002 the Coquitlam RCMP descended on Pickton’s farm and made the arrest, it had taken the Task Force less than two years to find the serial killer.

The tragedy is not simply the way the Vancouver Police handled the case, the true tragedy was how the Vancouver police’s behaviour resonates the same attitude police in other provinces have nurtured and cultivated for years. Consider the OPP’s actions at Ipperwash which resulted in the death of Dudley George, the Saskatchewan police leaving Neil Stonechild stranded in a deserted industrial area on a freezing night. Stonechild did not survive, later an investigation proved it wasn’t the first time the police had left a native man in the cold after forcing him to remove his shoes just to make sure he wouldn’t survive. Frank Paul received the same treatment from the Vancouver Police last year, and of course the police have denied any responsibility even Larry Campbell who now sits in the senate was part of the cover-up.

The Pickton trial served one purpose, it simply proved that native women are not given the same consideration most humans are granted by the law. Until police take responsibility for their actions and First Nations people are treated with the same sense of humanity that is given to white people this incident will repeat itself in another city, another province.