From 1978 to 2001, at least 65 women disappeared from the Downtown Eastside district of Vancouver, British Columbia, prompting the largest serial killer investigation in Canadian history. Robert Pickton was charged with murdering 26 of the women, and was convicted on six charges. In a jail cell conversation with an undercover police officer, Pickton claimed to have murdered 49 women.
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Pickton Pig Farm
Robert William “Willie” Pickton, born in 1949, was raised on a family-operated pig farm at Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. Pickton and his siblings sold most of the property for urban development, reducing the farm to 6.5 hectares. Pickton received a share of the proceeds from the real estate transactions and was a partner with his brother, David, in a salvage company, but still maintained a small-scale livestock operation at the farm. Pickton was a socially awkward man who sometimes exhibited strange behaviours. He lived alone in a trailer home on the farm.
In 1996, the Pickton brothers established the Piggy’s Palace Good Times Society, a federally registered charity with an alleged mandate to raise funds for service organizations through special events such as dances and shows. Neighbours complained of rowdiness, drug use, drunkenness and noise from parties attended by as many as 1,700 people, including bikers and sex trade workers from the Downtown Eastside. In 2000, the City of Port Coquitlam shut Piggy’s Palace down.
Killer’s Hunting Ground
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside was a seedy, crime-ridden warren of cheap hotels, flop houses, warehouses and drug dens. It was the haunt of street gangs, biker gang members, drug dealers and pimps and prostitutes. A large percentage of the girls and women engaged in the sex trade had addiction problems. Others were mentally ill. Eighty per cent of them came from outside Vancouver, and some had not had contact with their families for years. Many were Indigenous women.
A survey of 183 sex trade workers conducted between 1999 and 2001 by the Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education (PACE) Society revealed that acts of violence against these women were frequent. They were subjected to robberies, beatings, kidnappings and forced confinement. The survey showed “a gulf between acts of violence suffered and acts of violence reported.” The findings indicated a profound distrust of police and other authorities. The concentration of extremely vulnerable women, many of whom lived alone, often known to acquaintances only by street names, made Downtown Eastside the perfect hunting ground for an urban predator.
Pickton became familiar with the area through visits to a rendering plant located there, where he disposed of waste animal parts. He would cruise the ten-block strip called the Low Track, offering women money and drugs. Those he enticed into his vehicle were taken to the pig farm.
A list of names of missing women, compiled by the joint RCMP-Vancouver Police Department Missing Women Task Force, begins in 1978 with the disappearance that year of Lillian Jean O’Dare (whose case was not officially connected to Pickton). The earliest of the cases on the list connected to Pickton is that of Diana Melnick, last seen on 22 December 1995 (although Pickton would not be convicted of Melnick's murder). The most recent case on the list, and one of the six murders for which Pickton was convicted, is that of Mona Wilson, last seen in November, 2001.
The 26 disappearances officially attributed to Pickton occurred by year as follows: 1995 – 1, 1996 – 1, 1997 – 6, 1998 – 4, 1999 – 5, 2000 – 2, 2001 – 7. Other disappearances before and during this period were not officially connected to Pickton, due to a lack of evidence.
Because of the marginal lifestyles and transient habits of the victims and other people in Downtown Eastside, disappearances often went unnoticed. If a woman’s sudden absence did draw attention, months could pass before she was reported to the police as missing. The disappearance of Sherry Rail, who vanished in 1984, was not reported for three years. In 1987, the RCMP set up a special team to investigate the unsolved murders and disappearances of sex trade workers, but it was disbanded in 1989 because of limited progress.
As the rate of disappearances escalated, rumours of a serial killer circulated in Downtown Eastside. Sex trade workers began walking the Low Track in groups, and writing down the licence plate numbers of cars that picked women up. The disappearances continued.
In 1991, the families of missing women, along with advocates for sex trade workers, established an annual Valentine’s Day remembrance walk as a memorial to murdered and missing victims. They demanded a thorough investigation, but the police response was sluggish. The Vancouver police refused to say that a serial killer was at work, or even consider that the missing women were dead. There were no bodies to warrant an investigation – which would be a strain on police resources. To police, it seemed reasonable to presume that some of the women had just moved away, and others had died from drug overdoses.
There were complaints of police apathy, particularly from the Vancouver Sun newspaper, which accused the police of giving low priority to crimes committed against prostitutes. The Vancouver Police Department was also hampered by its own reluctance to adopt newly emerging methods of investigation such as psychological criminal profiling and geoprofiling.
Many of the missing women were also Indigenous. And as the Pickton case unfolded – with its many Indigenous victims – it focussed public attention on the wider issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. This in turn led a national government inquiry into the issue, beginning in 2016.
On 22 March 1997, a woman Pickton had taken to the farm fought back when he attempted to handcuff her. She seized a kitchen knife, and in the ensuing struggle, both received serious stab wounds. The woman ran to the road and waved down a car whose occupants called an ambulance. She was taken to Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster. While the woman was undergoing emergency surgery, Pickton was receiving treatment for his injuries in the same hospital. An orderly found a key in his pocket that fit the handcuffs on the woman’s wrist. Pickton was arrested and charged with attempted murder, assault with a weapon, and forcible confinement. The charges were stayed and eventually dropped because the woman – whose name was placed under the protection of a publication ban by the courts – was a drug addict and not considered a competent witness. Pickton claimed she was a hitchhiker who had attacked him.
In the spring of 1999, an informant told the Vancouver police that a single mother and drug addict named Lynn Ellingsen had seen a woman’s body hanging in Pickton’s slaughterhouse. When questioned by police, Ellingsen initially denied the story. Only much later did she admit that on 20 March she had in fact seen the body, but didn’t report it because she feared Pickton and depended on him for money for drugs.
Early in 1999, Bill Hiscox, who worked for the Picktons, informed the RCMP that Lisa Yelds, a close friend of Pickton, had told Hiscox she had seen women’s clothing, purses and identification papers at the pig farm. Hiscox believed they were the property of the missing women. Police questioned Yelds, but she was uncooperative. It was the second time Hiscox had contacted police about his suspicions, but they could not obtain a search warrant based on hearsay evidence (verbal information reported by someone who was not directly a witness to it). They required an eyewitness report of criminal activity, or the existence of physical evidence. In 2001, the Vancouver police and the RCMP formed Project Evenhanded, a joint task force to investigate the missing women.
In early February 2002, Scott Chubb, formerly employed by the Pickton family as a truck driver, informed the RCMP in Port Coquitlam that he had personally seen illegal guns in Pickton’s trailer home. That information met the official requirement for a search warrant. On 5 February, officers of the task force raided the pig farm. In addition to several illegal and unregistered guns, they found items connecting missing women to the property.
Pickton was arrested on weapons charges, and then released on bail. He was kept under surveillance and not permitted to return to the pig farm while police conducted a thorough search under a second warrant. Among the evidence they discovered were handcuffs, women’s clothing and shoes, jewelry, and an asthma inhaler prescribed to Sereena Abotsway, one of the missing women. DNA testing of blood found in a motorhome on the property proved it to be that of Mona Wilson. On 22 February, Pickton was re-arrested and charged with two counts of murder. A total of 26 murder charges would eventually be laid against him.
While Pickton was being held in jail in Surrey, British Columbia, he shared a cell with an undercover RCMP officer he believed to be another detainee. In the course of their conversation, Pickton said he had murdered 49 women, and had wanted to make it 50.
Meanwhile, the pig farm became the largest crime scene in Canadian history. Investigators took 200,000 DNA samples and seized 600,000 exhibits. Archaeologists and forensic experts needed heavy equipment to sift through 383,000 cubic yards of soil in search of human remains. The cost of the investigation was estimated at nearly $70 million.
Trial and Imprisonment
Pickton’s preliminary hearing – a court process to decide if there is enough evidence for trial – lasted from January to July 2003. Due to the unprecedented size and complexity of legal issues that had to be litigated, his trial on the first six charges did not begin until 22 January 2007, in New Westminster. On 9 December, Pickton was found guilty by a jury on six counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in a federal penitentiary, with no possibility of parole for 25 years. Those convictions would be upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2010.
Although Pickton claimed to have murdered 49 women, he was only charged with the murders of 26 who could be identified with evidence found on the pig farm, plus one unidentified woman whose remains were also found, who was given the name of "Jane Doe." The Jane Doe charge was eventually quashed by the court because of a lack of information about her identity and the time of her death.
After Pickton was convicted of six charges in the initial trial, British Columbia Crown prosecutors kept open the possibility of trying Pickton on the other 20 charges at a later date. However, on 4 August 2010, prosecutors announced they would not proceed on the 20 charges – saying a second trial, even if further convictions were achieved, would not add anything to Pickton's punishment, which was already the maximum possible under the law. The decision angered some of the families of the 20 victims and pleased others, who said they were relieved at being spared the experience of another long and difficult trial.
In 2016, an autobiographical book titled Pickton: In His Own Words, allegedly written by Pickton and smuggled out of prison, was published by Outskirts Press of Denver, Colorado, and offered for sale on Amazon.com. Due to public outrage, the book was withdrawn.
In 2010, a provincial government inquiry was established to examine the Pickton case and how it was handled by authorities. In December 2012, the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry issued its final report, titled Forsaken. The inquiry said "blatant failures" by police – including inept criminal investigative work, compounded by police and societal bias against prostitutes and Indigenous women – had led to a "tragedy of epic proportions."
The inquiry issued 63 recommendations, including the creation of a Greater Vancouver regional police force to allow for more effective, less fragmented police co-operation. It also called for adequate funding for emergency shelters for women in the sex trade, and for compensation for children of the missing women.