RCMP officers made critical errors in their investigation of serial killer Robert Pickton that likely delayed his arrest until 2002 and let him continue murdering sex trade workers, the Missing Women Inquiry heard Wednesday.
Vancouver Police Department Deputy Chief Doug LePard, testifying last week on the findings of his review of the Pickton case for the VPD, said Mounties wanted to interview Pickton in the fall of 1999 about the vanishing women but inexplicably agreed to delay the interrogation when the pig farmer’s brother Dave urged police to wait “until the rainy season.”
When the interrogation happened in January 2000, LePard said it seemed ill-planned.
The RCMP didn’t tell the VPD they planned to question Pickton or share the results, he said, something he didn’t understand since Pickton was on a police short list of three men considered violent to prostitutes who might be the serial killer stalking them.
“It was an investigation that was obviously of great interest to the VPD,” LePard said.
Pickton also offered at the same time to let Mounties search his farm but they declined.
Police had by then already heard from multiple informants that Pickton could be killing prostitutes at his Port Coquitlam pig farm and that he had easy ways to dispose of bodies.
Some tipsters told them Pickton associate Lynn Ellingsen witnessed him butchering a woman in his barn one night in 1999.
When RCMP officers interviewed Ellingsen she denied seeing anything.
But LePard told the inquiry he believed the Mounties were too quick to believe her rather than the informants, arguing she had logical motives to lie – notably the steady flow of money she was getting from Pickton.
He also said Ellingsen, who sometimes brought prostitutes to the farm, should have been counted as a possible accomplice with yet more reason to lie.
Pickton was convicted partly on the strength of Ellingsen’s eventual testimony against him.
Much of the RCMP’s involvement in the case came after Pickton tried to murder a prostitute who escaped from the farm in early 1997 – charges that were dropped in 1998.
Another error LePard listed was the RCMP’s failure to quickly test the boots and clothing seized from him after the bloody 1997 attack for matches to missing women.
Those items stayed in an evidence locker until 2004, when tests on them finally found DNA of murder victims Cara Ellis and Andrea Borhaven.
The RCMP and VPD in 2001 formed a joint task force to investigate the missing women cases.
Pickton kept killing until his arrest in early 2002, when a rookie RCMP officer got a warrant to search for illegal guns on the farm and found ID of missing women.
The VPD’s earlier role in the missing women investigation came under fire at the start of LePard’s testimony.
LePard told the inquiry the VPD left the pursuit of Pickton to the RCMP because the farm was in the Mounties’ jurisdiction and there was no evidence that Pickton killed anyone in Vancouver or even planned to kill women while picking them up in Vancouver.
“There’s not a shred of evidence that a crime was committed in Vancouver,” he said, noting many women went to the Pickton farm over the years and left unharmed.
“It’s a mystery why Pickton decided to kill some and not others,” LePard said.
He also testified about the VPD’s decision in September of 1998 to abort the planned release of a public warning that a serial killer may have been active in the Downtown Eastside.
LePard was asked if a turf war within the force blocked the release of that information and undermined the work of VPD geographic profiler Kim Rossmo.
He responded that VPD Insp. Fred Biddlecombe rejected Rossmo’s serial killer theory because he honestly did not believe it, not out of “evil or malevolence.”
But LePard agreed Rossmo’s “unique talents” clearly weren’t fully used at the time when they were most needed.
LePard also argued it’s wrong to assume a press release about a possible serial killer would have changed the entrenched risky behaviour of area sex trade workers, adding the disappearances had already convinced most of them they were in great danger.
No RCMP witnesses have testified yet and LePard has not yet faced cross-examination.
The inquiry headed by Commissioner Wally Oppal is on a one-week break but resumes hearings Nov. 21.
The DNA of 33 women was found on the Pickton farm although he was only tried and convicted for killing six.
He had claimed to an undercover officer in jail that he killed 49.