Between 1978 and 2001, at least 65 women disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Robert Pickton, who operated a pig farm in nearby Port Coquitlam, was charged with murdering 26 of the women. He was convicted on six charges and sentenced to life in prison. In a jail cell conversation with an undercover police officer, Pickton claimed to have murdered 49 women. The murders led to the largest serial killer investigation in Canadian history, and Pickton’s farm became the largest crime scene in Canadian history. The case became a flash point in the wider issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. In 2012, a provincial government inquiry into the case concluded that “blatant failures” by police — including inept criminal investigative work, compounded by police and societal prejudice against sex trade workers and Indigenous women — led to a “tragedy of epic proportions.”
Warning: This article contains sensitive material that may not be suitable for all audiences.
Pickton Pig Farm
Robert William “Willie” Pickton (born 1949) was raised on a family-operated pig farm in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. Pickton and his siblings sold most of the property for urban development, reducing the farm to 6.5 hectares. Pickton maintained a small-scale livestock operation at the farm. He also received a share of the proceeds from the real estate transactions and was a partner with his brother, David, in a salvage company. Pickton was a socially awkward man who was known to have exhibited strange behaviours. He lived alone in a trailer home on the farm.
In 1996, the Pickton brothers started the Piggy’s Palace Good Times Society. It was a federally registered charity with an alleged mandate to raise funds for service organizations through events such as dances and shows. Neighbours complained of rowdiness, drug use, drunkenness and noise. The parties were 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.
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood is known for its high rates of poverty, homelessness, open drug use and prostitution. In the late 1990s, 80 per cent of the girls and women working in the sex trade came from outside Vancouver. Some had not had contact with their families for years.
A survey of 183 sex trade workers conducted by the Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education (PACE) Society between 1999 and 2001 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 also indicated that the women had a profound distrust of police and other authorities.
Pickton became familiar with the Downtown Eastside 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, offer women money and drugs, and often take them back to his farm.
The Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver.
In 1978, a joint RCMP-Vancouver Police Department Missing Women Task Force began compiling a list of missing women. The earliest case on the list connected to Pickton was that of Diana Melnick, last seen on 22 December 1995. (Pickton was not convicted of Melnick’s murder.) The most recent case on the list connected to Pickton, and one of the six murders for which he was convicted, was that of Mona Wilson, last seen in November 2001.
Of the 26 disappearances officially attributed to Pickton, one occurred in 1995; one in 1996; six in 1997; four in 1998; five in 1999; two in 2000; and seven in 2001. Other disappearances before and during this period were not officially connected to Pickton, due to a lack of evidence.
Because of the marginalized lifestyles and transient habits of the victims and other people in the Downtown Eastside, disappearances often went unnoticed. 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; it was disbanded in 1989 due to limited progress.
An alley next to the Empress Hotel on East Hastings Street in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Over the years, as the rate of disappearances escalated, rumours of a serial killer began to circulate in the 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. But 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 that would be a strain on police resources. To police, it seemed reasonable to presume that some of the women had moved away and others had died from drug overdoses.
There were complaints of police apathy, particularly from the Vancouver Sun newspaper. It accused the police of giving low priority to crimes committed against sex trade workers. The Vancouver Police Department was also hampered by its reluctance to adopt newly emerging methods of investigation, such as psychological criminal profiling and geoprofiling.
Many of the missing women were also Indigenous. As the Pickton case unfolded — with its many Indigenous victims — it focused public attention on the wider issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. This in turn led to a national government inquiry into the issue, beginning in 2016.
On 22 March 1997, a woman Pickton had taken to his farm fought back when he tried 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 not considered a competent witness due to drug addiction. 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. She did not 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 from the Downtown Eastside. 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 was 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 to be that of Mona Wilson. On 22 February 2002, Pickton was re-arrested and charged with two counts of murder. A total of 26 murder charges were eventually 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 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. (See also Maclean’s Article: Relatives Await Word on Vancouver’s Missing Women.)
Trial and Imprisonment
Pickton’s preliminary hearing (to decide if there was enough evidence for trial) lasted from January to July 2003. Due to the unprecedented volume 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 2007, Pickton was found guilty by a jury on six counts of second-degree murder; he was sentenced to life imprisonment in a federal penitentiary, with no possibility of parole for 25 years. Those convictions were upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2010. (See also Maclean’s Article: Strong Evidence against Robert Pickton in Trial.)
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 “Jane Doe.” The Jane Doe charge was eventually dismissed 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. They said 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; others 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. It was offered for sale on Amazon.com, but was withdrawn due to public outrage.
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 prejudice against sex trade workers and Indigenous women — had led to a “tragedy of epic proportions.” (See Maclean’s Article: RCMP, A Royal Canadian Disgrace?)
The inquiry issued 63 recommendations, including the creation of a Greater Vancouver regional police force to allow for more effective, less fragmented police cooperation. It also called for adequate funding for emergency shelters for women in the sex trade, and for compensation for children of the missing women.
Following the report, the Vancouver Police Department implemented several policy and procedural changes to its missing persons investigations: the missing-persons unit was made a regular part of the police department; investigations are required to begin without delay; family members are advised regularly and consulted before the release of information; and the case file is kept open until the missing person is located.