VANCOUVER – The closest thing Marilyn Renter has ever had to a trial for her step-daughter’s death is the public inquiry into the failures that allowed a serial killer to target sex workers from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Robert Pickton was charged with murdering Cindy Feliks, who vanished in 1997 and whose DNA was found five years later on the former pig farmer’s sprawling property in nearby Port Coquitlam, B.C.
But once Pickton was convicted of killing six sex workers and sentenced to life in prison, prosecutors had little appetite for putting him back on trial for 20 additional murder charges involving Feliks and other women whose remains or DNA were found on the farm.
“For a lot of us, there have only been six girls that have actually had justice done to them,” Renter said in an interview.
“We haven’t had justice for our girls, and if it has to come in this forum, then so be it,” she added, referring to the public inquiry.
On Monday, Renter will find out whether her long wait for justice has been answered as Commissioner Wally Oppal releases a 1,448-page report outlining why Pickton wasn’t caught sooner and what should be done to prevent similar failures in the future.
For eight months, the inquiry heard from 80 witnesses, including current and former police officers, Crown prosecutors, sex workers, academics and the families of missing women.
Renter told the inquiry that Feliks, a 42-year-old mother who was born in Detroit before moving to the Vancouver area as a child, vanished in November 1997.
She was addicted to drugs — “I think all of them,” Renter recalled in the witness box — and supporting her habit with prostitution.
In what became a familiar story, Renter testified that Feliks’s younger sister tried, unsuccessfully, to report the disappearance to police in 1997 and again the following year. A formal missing person file wasn’t opened until 2001.
Renter blames the delay on police attitudes toward women, sex workers and drug addicts. She hopes Oppal’s report can find a way to change that.
“They’ve got to get rid of a lot of attitude,” said Renter, who was living in Calgary when her step-daughter disappeared but moved to Rosedale, B.C., two years ago.
The inquiry was called to examine why Vancouver police and the RCMP failed to catch Pickton before he was arrested in February 2002, despite evidence that surfaced years earlier linking him to the disappearance of Vancouver sex workers.
Oppal was also asked to look into Crown counsel’s decision not to prosecute Pickton for attempted murder following a vicious attack on a sex worker in 1997. After that charge was stayed, 19 more women connected to Pickton’s farm disappeared.
The inquiry heard that senior officers in Vancouver actively resisted considering the possibility that a serial killer was operating in their city, while RCMP investigators in Port Coquitlam were slow to seriously investigate Pickton.
Oppal said the problems that plagued those investigations must be fixed, because just as Pickton wasn’t Canada’s first serial killer, he won’t be the last.
“Pickton isn’t the sole problem — there will be other serial killers,” Oppal said in an interview in advance of the report’s release.
“Horrible tragedies have taken place here, and we need to learn from those tragedies. We have to come together as a community so that women are better protected.”
Bringing the community together, particularly the non-profit groups that work with sex workers in the Downtown Eastside, has perhaps been Oppal’s largest challenge.
The provincial government’s decision to deny legal funding for advocacy groups that had been granted standing at the inquiry prompted nearly all of them to boycott the process.
Several of those groups held a news conference last month denouncing Oppal’s report and the entire inquiry, which they say was too narrowly focused on police and failed to give adequate voice to the vulnerable women it was set up to protect.
Oppal again pleaded for his critics to read his report with an open mind.
“I’m urging those people who have had differences with the inquiry to come forward and co-operate,” he said.
“The violence against women and the tragedies that we have experienced in our communities are far more important than the individual differences about the process of the inquiry.”
Unlike the advocacy groups, the families of missing and murdered women received government funding to hire lawyers at the inquiry, but they, too, have decried the process as deeply flawed.
One of their lawyers, Neil Chantler, said the inquiry didn’t hear enough evidence about systemic problems within the police forces, including allegations of sexism and racism, to determine what really allowed Pickton to remain at large.
“The primary theme we’re going to be looking for is some recognition that institutional prejudices were pervasive at the time,” said Chantler, who along with lawyer Cameron Ward represented more than two dozen families.
“This commission shied away from those issues during the hearing process and chose to focus on other issues such as technical policing failures rather than the more social, systemic issues that might have been at play.”
Vancouver police and the RCMP have each offered apologies, but with disclaimers attached.
Both forces admitted they didn’t do enough to catch Pickton, while insisting their officers did the best they could with the information they had.They also spent considerable time blaming each other, with the RCMP accusing Vancouver police of failing to notice a serial killer was at work and the Vancouver police blaming the RCMP in Port Coquitlam for botching the investigation.
Pickton was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm. He once told an undercover police officer that he killed 49 women.