VANCOUVER – Families who lost daughters, mothers and sisters to serial killer Robert Pickton have long known police failed them as the former pig farmer hunted for victims in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and lured them back to his property.
But a lengthy public inquiry report to be released today will attempt to answer the more difficult question of why two police forces were unable — or unwilling — to connect the dots that led from missing sex workers in Vancouver to a farm in nearby Port Coquitlam, B.C.
Inquiry Commissioner Wally Oppal is scheduled to release his final report on how Vancouver police and the RCMP responded to reports of missing women and why it took them so long to finally stop Pickton, who was arrested in February 2002 — several years after investigators first received tips implicating him.
Oppal’s 1,448-page report is expected to outline what happened, who’s to blame and, more importantly, what must be done to prevent the same thing from happening again.
Ernie Crey, whose sister Dawn Crey’s DNA was found on Pickton’s farm, said he’s optimistic Oppal’s report will offer meaningful recommendations to make the system better for women like his sister, who suffered from mental illness and turned to prostitution to fuel her drug addiction.
“What I’m expecting to see is a lengthy, unblinking, hard-hitting report with some very strong recommendations on how policing might be improved in this province, such that if a Pickton-like character ever emerges in the future — God forbid — that he’s in the clutches of the police far earlier,” Crey said in an interview.
The inquiry heard from 80 witnesses between October 2011 and June of this year, including relatives of Pickton’s victims, current and former police officers and Crown prosecutors, each offering their own stories and their own recommendations to fix the system.
Oppal also heard from fierce critics, both from outside and inside the hearing room, who denounced the process as flawed and unable to uncover the systemic problems that led Pickton’s victims into the sex trade in the first place and prevented police from doing more to protect them.
Critics included advocacy groups that boycotted the hearings after the provincial government denied them legal funding, as well as lawyers for families of missing and murdered women who had standing at the inquiry.
Crey offered his own, measured criticisms as the inquiry unfolded, and he’s still concerned Oppal’s report won’t focus enough on the underlying problems affecting vulnerable sex workers, many of them, like his sister, aboriginal. He notes the inquiry’s terms of reference were heavily focused on examining the actions of police.
Still, Crey prefers to see Oppal’s report as a step toward change, not the final answer.
“I would be pleasantly surprised if he went further than his terms of reference and made observations and comments about the social circumstances of the women, their lives in the Downtown Eastside, and how things might be improved there, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen,” he said.
“But I’m not saying that once this report is in, that’s where it all ends. That’s not where I’m going to end my campaign to make things different for people like my sister. They’re not going to hear less from me, they are going to hear more. It’s only the beginning for me.”
The report will be released at a news conference in Vancouver, a short walk from the blighted streets of the Downtown Eastside where Pickton found his victims more than a decade ago.
The women’s families will be given four hours to read the report before it is released to the public at 1 p.m. PT, and Oppal discusses its contents. His presentation will be streamed live on the Internet.
He will be followed by Justice Minister Shirley Bond, who will outline the province’s initial response to Oppal’s recommendations.
Oppal has said little publicly about what might be in his final report, but his recommendations will likely focus on how police should investigate major cases that spread across jurisdictions, particularly those involving serial killers and sex workers.
He told a policy forum connected to the inquiry earlier this year that he’ll likely recommend improvements to services in the Downtown Eastside, including a drop-in centre for survival sex workers, which he described as a “no-brainer.”
Vancouver police and the RCMP offered apologies at the inquiry, but they also blamed each other. Vancouver police said the RCMP dropped the ball as Mounties in Port Coquitlam investigated Pickton. The RCMP said the Vancouver police failed to notice a serial killer was operating in their city.
Police received the first tips about Pickton’s involvement 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.
He was subsequently convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, though the remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm. He once told an undercover police officer that he killed 49 women.