VANCOUVER – The families of the women Robert Pickton plucked from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside will finally see the results from a public inquiry on Dec. 17 — more than a decade after the serial killer’s arrest — but the release of the final report will likely do little to satisfy critics who have dismissed the process as flawed.
Commissioner Wally Oppal’s final report will be made public on the afternoon of Dec. 17, while the families of missing and murdered women who had standing at the hearings will have a copy four hours before that, according to a letter that was distributed to those families on Thursday.
Oppal will make a presentation that day that will be streamed live over the Internet.
Oppal heard from 80 witnesses between October 2011 and June of this year, including relatives of Pickton’s victims, current and former police officers, Crown prosecutors, sex trade workers, advocates, and academics, among others. He handed in his 1,448-page report last month after several deadline extensions.
The report is expected to detail why the Vancouver police and the RCMP failed to catch Pickton, despite receiving evidence years before his February 2002 arrest linking him to the disappearance of sex workers, and make recommendations to prevent history from repeating itself.
But his findings will likely be scrutinized through the lens of the harsh criticism the inquiry has faced since its inception.
A long list of critics, including the victims’ families and advocacy groups, have argued the inquiry’s terms of reference were too narrow because they were primarily focused on the role of police and prosecutors rather than examining why the women ended up in the Downtown Eastside — impoverished and many addicted to drugs — in the first place.
They said Oppal, a former provincial attorney general, was too connected with the current Liberal government to be impartial, and they complained the inquiry ended too quickly without hearing important pieces of evidence. Those concerns prompted a number of advocacy groups that had received participant status to boycott the inquiry.
Last month, even before Oppal handed in his report, several groups that boycotted the hearings held a news conference denouncing the document, sight unseen.
Lawyers for the victims’ families have bluntly wrote off the inquiry as an abject failure, though they continued to participate in the hearings.
Even before the details of the report were released, Ernie Crey, whose sister Dawn’s DNA was found on Pickton’s farm, sent a letter to Premier Christy Clark over his concerns that families wouldn’t be included in the public event on Dec. 17.
Neither the letter sent to families nor a news release issued Thursday offered any details about the actual event or whether families will be invited to attend. Attorney General Shirley Bond did not make herself available for an interview Thursday, and a ministry spokesman was unable to clear up those details.
The province covered expenses for family members who attended the hearings in Vancouver.
Oppal has repeatedly pleaded with his critics to work with him and asked them to reserve their judgment until they actually see the report.
His recommendations will likely focus on how police should investigate major cases that spread across jurisdictions, particularly those involving serial killers and sex workers. Oppal has already suggested he’ll recommend improvements to services for prostitutes in the Downtown Eastside, including a drop-in centre for survival sex workers.
The inquiry heard allegations that police officers and civilian workers with the Vancouver police and the RCMP in Port Coquitlam, where Pickton lived, ignored reports of missing sex workers and failed to put together evidence implicating Pickton. There were allegations that some of those failures were the result of racism and sexism.
The Vancouver police and the RCMP have each offered qualified apologies, admitting they didn’t do enough to catch Pickton but insisting their officers did the best they could with the information they had.
Instead, the two police forces focused on shifting blame to one another. The Vancouver police said the RCMP botched its investigation into Pickton, while the RCMP said Vancouver police failed to notice a serial killer was operating in their own city.
Police received the first tips implicating Pickton in the murder of Downtown Eastside sex workers in 1998, but he wasn’t arrested until February 2002, when RCMP officers armed with a search warrant related to illegal firearms raided his farm in Port Coquitlam.
Pickton was subsequently convicted of six counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, where he remains today.
The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm. He once told an undercover police officer that he killed 49.