Pickton Preliminary Hearing
DAWN SANGRET, 19 years a resident of Port Coquitlam, B.C., arrives at the city's provincial court last week seeking answers. "I have my suspicions about a lot of things," she says. It's the second day of the slow, faltering start to the preliminary hearing of pig farmer Robert (Willy) Pickton, accused of murdering 15 women. Sangret lives in the south end of PoCo, as this suburban community a 45-minute drive east of Vancouver is known. She says pointedly that the Pickton family farm on Dominion Avenue - the site of a continuing investigation into Canada's largest serial murder case - is on the other side of the diagonal slash of CP Rail yard that divides the city. "I never felt good going over to that north side, and I never knew why," she says. "Maybe this is why."
Sangret is originally from Regina, where she was a friend of Elaine Dumba, one of 62 women on the official list of those missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Most of the murdered and the missing, like Dumba, fed drug addictions by working in the sex trade. It's a transient, risk-filled existence. Dumba vanished about 1989, though she wasn't reported missing until 1998. She's never been found, and she isn't among the women Pickton is accused of killing. Sangret acknowledges she'd be surprised if the hearing yields answers about Dumba's disappearance so many years ago. "The biggest thing that I'm here for is to find out what the heck is really going on," she says. "I just believe that there's more people involved."
Rumours abound, but the public's need for answers won't be satisfied any time soon. The hearing, before Provincial Court Judge David Stone, could go on for months. It has drawn the curious, friends and families of the missing, and throngs of reporters to the 100-seat courtroom. A court order prohibits reporting details of the proceedings, to prevent news of the evidence from reaching potential jurors if the case goes to trial.
Enforcing the publication ban in an Internet age and in the face of intense international interest is a daunting challenge. The hearing is derailed on the second day after both Crown prosecutor Michael Petrie and lead defence lawyer Peter Ritchie complain that Crown evidence was reported by the Seattle Times, by the Associated Press - which distributes news around the world - and on the Web sites of Seattle television stations. They also condemn some Canadian news outlets, primarily for violating the spirit of the ban by providing what Petrie calls "a road map" to stories on the Internet.
Still, Stone categorically rejects a defence suggestion that the hearing be closed to all members of the public. But late on the third day of the hearing he posts a notice on the courtroom door reiterating the publication ban. Reporters will be barred, Stone states, for further publication, broadcast, or Internet display of the evidence, or even how the evidence was obtained or is presented in court. They could also face up to two years in jail for violating a court order. By then, most U.S. reporters have retreated home. "It's not worth going to jail for," declared one from Seattle's KIRO-TV.
As the Crown builds its case, reporters take copious notes for future reference, and strain to decipher the limited repertoire of facial expressions of the 53-year-old Pickton. He sits inside a bulletproof glass enclosure, like some dangerously exotic species of fish in a public aquarium. He is clean-shaven, and freshly scrubbed. His lank, stringy hair reaches below his collar. He seems far more engaged than in past court proceedings, where he often seemed oblivious and adrift. He writes notes on a yellow legal pad or follows pages of transcript. Occasionally, a grin cuts across his sharp features.
There are occasional grimaces of distress from family members of the missing women, but most are braced for worse to come. Ernie Crey, whose sister Dawn is among the missing but not among the alleged murder victims, has attended many of the proceedings. He feels an obligation, he says, not only because of his sister, but because the families have fought hard to get this far. Three years ago, the police knew little about the fate of the scores of women who had worked Vancouver's streets. "We wondered all along whether they would bring anyone to justice," he says. "It's been an arduous journey to this point."
Toronto journalist Stevie Cameron is tracking the trial for a forthcoming book - one of several being written about the murders. One reason Cameron, whose previous books have been about politics and white-collar crime, was attracted to the project is the unlikely cast who overcame years of official indifference to force the issue onto the public and judicial agendas. "In this story there are lots of heroes, lots of amazing people," she says. Among them she cites Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell, a former crusading chief coroner of B.C., workers and cops in the Downtown Eastside, like outspoken advocate Rev. Ruth Wright of the First United Church, family members of the missing, and many of the street women themselves. "Everywhere I turn," Cameron says, "there are people who tried to make a difference."
For the family members there is some comfort in knowing the search for answers has formally opened on a second front - in a Port Coquitlam courtroom. The focal point, until now, has been far from the downtown courthouse, across the tracks on Dominion Avenue. There, at the Pickton farm, the slow grind of justice is not a quaint legal quotation but a literal truth. Teams of investigators, heavy equipment operators, forensic scientists and archaeology students dig and shift and sort huge mounds of fill. Dark rivers of earth flow off conveyors to be sifted for evidence and human remains - a sad, relentless search that started last February and may continue for most of 2003.
On the day before the hearing began, a prayer service was held in the longhouse of the nearby Katzie First Nation for investigators and loved ones of the missing, many of whom were of Aboriginal ancestry. "Our spiritual folks had teachings for them and prayers for them, words of encouragement for them," says Crey, who is from the Sto:lo First Nation. He says he was especially touched that 40 of the archaeology students searching the farm attended the service. "I think six were young gentlemen and the balance were young women in their 20s," Crey says with a gentle smile. "Something about that struck me as being right."
Maclean's January 27, 2003