Robert Picton Murder Trial Begins
Barring the unexpected, it will be a year from now, maybe more, before 12 jurors downriver in a New Westminster, B.C., courtroom decide if 57-year-old Robert "Willy" Pickton has any hope of regaining his freedom. One thing is certain: he'll never go home.
Here at the farm in the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam, the tired frame house he, his older sister Linda and younger brother Dave inherited from their late parents has been reduced to rubble and raw land. Gone are the barn and outbuildings where he raised and slaughtered his pigs and other animals. Gone is his grungy single-wide trailer, set deep on the six-hectare property. The farm machinery, the infamous wood chipper, the junker vehicles he tinkered with - gone, but for a few rusting exceptions.
Gone, too, is all that came in the five years since police descended on the farm on Feb. 5, 2002, arresting him weeks later for the murders of the first two of the 26 women he is charged with killing. The police perimeter has vanished, as has the eerie battalion of white-suited forensic investigators. The roar of earthmovers and of giant conveyors sifting rivers of dirt for body parts has been replaced this afternoon by the howling wind of a building winter storm. Gone, too, is the cluster of votive candles, wilting bouquets and sorrow-soaked messages that formed a farm-gate shrine to lost daughters, sisters and friends. Tufts of grass, as sparse as Willy Pickton's hair, sprout from fields newly seeded by his brother Dave. He'll raise cows here one day, Dave says. But for now, the farm lies fallow. The worth of its final harvest - thousands of samples of DNA, of alleged human remains - will ultimately be established by judge and jury.
Pickton's B.C. Supreme Court trial finally begins on Jan. 22, in a retrofitted high-security courtroom before Justice James Williams. The first horrific details will be revealed in the glare of international media attention as lead prosecutor Mike Petrie and his team outline their case. Pickton is charged with the first-degree murders of 26 women over a span of more than six years. Most were drug-addicted prostitutes working Vancouver's bleakest, deadliest stroll, the so-called Low Track of the Downtown Eastside. A disproportionate number were of Aboriginal descent. Many had vanished from the streets for weeks, months or even years before family and friends reported them missing, or before the formerly overwhelmed and inadequate missing persons unit of the Vancouver police tried to trace their whereabouts. The women are part of a constantly fluctuating list assembled by investigators of about 69 women missing from the Lower Mainland who fit a similar vulnerable profile.
Evidence at the trial will be "graphic and distressing," Williams warned during jury selection in December. "I think this trial may expose jurors to evidence that will be as bad as a horror movie, and you won't have the option of shutting off the TV," he said before dismissing one of several people who told him they couldn't handle the trauma of sitting on the jury.
Williams, with the approval of both the Crown and Pickton's lead lawyer Peter Ritchie, has divided the charges into at least two separate trials. Even at that, the first murder trial for six of the women - Marnie Frey, Georgina Papin, Brenda Wolfe, Andrea Joesbury, Mona Wilson and Sereena Abotsway - is expected to last at least a year. Pickton has pleaded not guilty. He called himself the "fall guy" in a semi-literate letter he purportedly wrote from jail. "I my-self is not from this world, but I am born into this world through my earthly mother and if I had to change any-thing I would not, for I have done no wrong." In the early months after his arrest, he seemed gaunt and disconnected during his brief courtroom appearances. Lately, he seemed more engaged, occasionally taking notes on a yellow legal pad. His face, though, viewed through the bullet-resistant plastic surrounding his seat in the court, remained a largely expressionless mask, even as some potential jurors stole glimpses at the accused.
The six women named in the first trial vanished between 1997 and 2001. Even the 20 other alleged Pickton victims, starting with Diana Melnick, 20 when she vanished in December 1995, do not make up a definitive list of the dead. DNA from at least six other women has been found at the farm, but police say there is insufficient evidence to lay charges. Four of those women remain unidentified. The identities of two others who disappeared from the Downtown Eastside, Yvonne Boen and Dawn Crey, were confirmed. Boen, 34 was reported missing in March 2001. Crey, 43, vanished in December 2000.
For Ernie Crey, Dawn's brother and a prominent leader of the Sto:lo Nation of the Fraser Valley, the trial will be an anguishing experience with no hope of resolution for his family. Crey says he accepts assurances that the investigation continues by the expanded Missing Women's Task Force, formed belatedly in 2001 by the RCMP and Vancouver police as the body count mounted. He has endured hours of nightmarish testimony during the preliminary hearings; dreams of his sister, and her probable fate, haunt his nights. "If not him," he asks of Pickton, "then, who?"
Much has changed in the five years since Pickton's arrest. Much more, unfortunately, has not. Neighbourhood help agencies for addicts and sex-trade workers are braced for the increased scrutiny the trial will bring. The Prostitution Alternatives Counselling & Education Society (PACE), a non-profit advocacy agency, is even helping assemble media briefing packages. PACE spokeswoman Susan Davis, a sex-trade worker now for 21 years, has already conducted neighbourhood tours for media, trying to follow the same bleak path as Pickton's alleged victims.
Davis is a remarkable exception: she got out alive. She reversed the usual career slide by moving uptown after hitting bottom as a young woman working the Downtown Eastside. She survived the drugs and bad dates that claimed too many of her friends. She now works the trade for a select clientele from her West End apartment. She says the missing women's case did inspire awareness that Canada's prostitution laws "are contributing to the deaths." She remembers the indifference and even cruelty she faced from police when she was victimized while working the streets more than a decade ago. These days, by contrast, she is contracted by the Vancouver police "to try to sensitize new recruits to the dynamics of the neighbourhood."
She won't sit through the trial - the loss of those women is too painful. "I can't hear the details of how they died." She considers the case an important milestone, but the sad fact is, vulnerable women are still dying of drugs, disease and predation. Why are they targeted, she is often asked. "Men do it," she says, "because they can."
Crey has made many trips to the farm, which sits, improbably, in the embrace of suburbia - just behind the Home Depot, an easy walk from Starbucks; surrounded by middle-class homes, a park and an elementary school, all built on land the Picktons developed and sold (their remaining land was just assessed at $6.3 million). In 2004, just months after learning his sister's DNA was found at the farm, Crey was standing at the end of the property with a reporter from the Washington Post. A man got out of a pickup and introduced himself. It was Dave Pickton. During a wide-ranging conversation he issued what Crey calls "a general apology" for the loss and pain suffered by the families. Pickton also said - as the newspaper later reported and as Crey recalls - that he doubted his brother's guilt. "My brother, I don't think he could pull it off," Pickton told the Post, "because he wasn't smart enough." Crey has often thought of that conversation. The courts will decide guilt or innocence, he says, but he knows this, too: "You don't have to be particularly bright to be cruel."
For all his resilience and optimism, Crey grew up in a home marred by alcohol abuse. Later, he and his siblings were scattered to a series of foster homes. Theirs was no storybook childhood, at least not one with a happy ending. He lost his sister Dawn. Another sister, Faith, died on an Edmonton street of a drug overdose. Earlier this year, his half-sister Sherri, who also worked the streets of the Downtown Eastside, died of complications of AIDS. He has two nieces, 14 and 15, who have spent most of their lives in foster care. The eldest only recently returned to school. The youngest dropped out. He fears they're keeping bad company, that "they're going down the same path." He would like to think this trial will offer answers and lessons learned, and this thing called closure, but he is not a naive man.
Instead, he talks about the farm, which now looks as benign as a healing scar. It holds a significant, if ugly, place in the province's history, he says. He'd like to see a cairn erected one day. It would serve as a remembrance to the women prosecutors say were killed there. And as a warning, too, that the grim harvest continues.
See also HOMICIDE.
Maclean's January 29, 2007