Mounties based in Coquitlam had strong grounds to pursue Robert Pickton as the serial killer hunting Vancouver sex trade workers in the late 1990s but did not investigate him aggressively enough.
That’s one of the key findings in a report to the Missing Women Inquiry that cites a failure of leadership within the RCMP as well as the Vancouver Police in pursuing Pickton, whose activities straddled their jurisdictions.
The report by Deputy Chief Jennifer Evans of Ontario’s Peel Regional Police was commissioned by the inquiry to provide an independent review of the policing decisions in the Pickton case.
“Someone in authority, either in the RCMP or the VPD, needed to champion a co-ordinated effort to these investigations,” Evans concluded.
Instead, she found, Coquitlam RCMP – bogged down with active cases – neglected Pickton as the probable serial killer, while VPD investigators felt more pressure to act but were reluctant to tread on the Mounties’ turf.
“For Coquitlam RCMP it was easy to put Pickton aside due to the other incoming violent crimes which they felt had to be investigated as a priority,” she found. “They did not feel the pressure from the missing women investigations.”
Evans suggests the “competing priorities” that hindered the Pickton case might have been swept aside had a single force policed the region.
“I believe that a quicker and more coordinated police response would have resulted if one police agency held the same jurisdictional control over both Pickton’s residence and the DTES where the women went missing from.”
Evans asked VPD officers why they didn’t just go out to the pig farm in Port Coquitlam and investigate Pickton themselves.
“It just isn’t done,” one told her, another warned it would lead to “policing anarchy” and a third said Coquitlam Mounties assured them the case was being actively pursued.
As the case grew more complex, she added, communications between the two police forces broke down.
Evans found RCMP Chief Supt. Dale Bass had been briefed on the missing women investigation, had been told three serial killers could be active in B.C. and should have pushed sooner for a more coordinated approach with the VPD.
The fact no bodies were turning up “created an excuse for ignoring the problem which permeated both the VPD and the RCMP.”
By mid-1999, four informants had told police they suspected Pickton, with the ability to dispose of bodies, was the serial killer and three of them said Pickton associate Lynn Ellingsen had claimed to see him butchering a woman in his barn.
Evans found police were too quick to believe Ellingsen’s denials – particularly when she refused a lie detector test.
She also criticized the RCMP for agreeing to wait until the “rainy season” to interview Pickton, causing a four-month delay from September 1999 to January of 2000.
The two forces failed to communicate well after the critical interviews with informants in mid-1999, Evans found, which hurt the investigation and “resulted in Pickton remaining free to prey upon the women of the DTES.”
When Pickton was interviewed, the VPD wasn’t notified or told of the results.
By January 2001, when the RCMP-led Project Evenhanded investigation was launched, police believed there was a serial killer, but Evans noted they thought he was dormant.
Even a summer student doing data entry work who had access to some of the material urged more action.
“A serial killer – one cunning enough to kill and fully dispose of 40 or 50 women without getting caught – is on the loose,” he warned superiors in a 2001 essay.
Pickton wasn’t finally arrested until February of 2002, five years after his 1997 attack on a prostitute who escaped his farm sparked an attempted murder charge that was later dropped.
The RCMP seized Pickton’s clothes that night in 1997 but didn’t test them for seven years, belatedly discovering the DNA of two missing women.
Evans notes that while mistakes were made, good work was done, including that by a committed investigator in Coquitlam who was promoted and transferred away in mid-1999.
“In hindsight it appears easy to see a clear path to Pickton,” she wrote, describing the errors as the result of a lack of leadership and commitment – not malice.