The Predator And His Prey

This time, Stevie Cameron delivers credibly on the Pickton file

BY NEAL HALL, VANCOUVER SUN

Presented Here By

Bonnie M. Wells

If you bought The Pickton File, Stevie Cameron's last book on the Robert (Willie) Pickton case, and were disappointed that it failed to tell the whole story (because of publication bans in place at the time), On the Farm: Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver's Missing Women is the book you were hoping for.

With the remaining bans lifted last month, Toronto journalist Cameron delivers a hard-hitting look at the botched police investigations of Pickton, who has become Canada's most notorious serial killer. Though convicted of six murders, he confessed to an undercover officer that he killed 49 women who had disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside over more than two decades.

Cameron does an excellent job of detailing Pickton's early years on the family farm in Coquitlam and, later, on the Port Coquitlam property that became known as "the pig farm" because Pickton often butchered pigs there.

The place was littered with junked cars and mounds of dirt from the topsoil business he operated with his younger brother, Dave (who continues to run a salvage and demolition company, P&B Used Building Materials).

Pickton's parents, Louise and Leonard, who died in the late 1970s, made their living butchering pigs. "Louise Pickton was a tough, hard woman," Cameron writes, claiming that the mother was responsible for the death of a neighbourhood boy, Tim Barrett, who was walking near the Pickton home in 1967 when he was struck by a one-ton truck driven by then 17-year-old Dave Pickton.

Despite trying to cover up his involvement by painting over the damage to the truck, Dave Pickton was convicted in juvenile court for failing to remain at the scene of the accident and was prohibited from driving until he turned 21.

The book says Pickton's mother found the boy lying unconscious by the side of the road and hauled him into a nearby ditch, where he drowned.

The story is recalled by one of Willie's closest childhood friends, Lisa Yelds, who says Willie told it to her years later. The death may have been a seminal lesson for Willie -- that you can't be prosecuted without evidence of wrongdoing.

Those who knew the family recall how the Pickton home was downright messy, with farm animals wandering in and out, and how the Pickton boys smelled of pig manure, which caused their schoolmates to taunt them with names such as Piggy. Their mother made them take a bath only once a week, the book says.

Another pivotal experience in Willie's life is recounted. It's about his pet calf, which he was shocked to find in the barn, butchered by his parents. He was devastated and never forgot the sense of betrayal he felt.

Cameron also interviewed people who attended the Pickton brothers' rowdy parties at Piggy's Palace, the now-defunct illegal nightclub on a nearby piece of property that was shut down by city officials in the 1990s. Most recalled Hells Angels, who had a clubhouse nearby, frequenting the parties and being on good terms with the Pickton brothers.

THE PERFECT VICTIMS

Prostitutes were also invited to events on the Pickton farm, including illegal cockfights. And one woman recalls in the book that she was tied up at the farm and gang-raped by a group of men but was afraid to report the incident to police -- a foreshadowing of what was to come. The women killed at the Pickton farm were the perfect victims: mainly drug-addicted sex trade workers who were wary of talking to police.

Cameron does a fine job of weaving together the hard-luck stories of how these women, including some from well-to-do families, ended up on drugs and on the streets. She says one of the victims died a millionaire from an inheritance and may not have known about it.

The stories of the victims' families learning that their daughters and sisters had gone missing are equally heartbreaking. One family sat waiting to open Christmas presents, but their daughter never showed up.

NO BODIES HAD BEEN FOUND

On the Farm details some police failings to treat the reports of missing women seriously. These were made worse by police understaffing and an attitude of denial in the upper ranks of Vancouver police during the 1990s. The line taken was that no serial killer was preying on women in Vancouver's poorest neighbourhood.

Former Vancouver police inspector Kim Rossmo is quoted at length about his struggle, before his dismissal, to have the police department issue a public warning that a serial killer was likely trolling the Downtown Eastside.

Over all, Cameron does a nice job of providing insight into why it took police so long to catch Willie Pickton despite his being the prime suspect after a series of tips from Bill Hiscox and others.

She writes that police did put Pickton under surveillance for two weeks, but he was likely aware he was being followed. Police were unable then to get a search warrant for the farm approved by a Crown counsel, Peder Gulbransen (now a judge), because there wasn't enough solid evidence that Pickton had committed any murders, since no bodies had been discovered.

The author creates a pseudonym for a female Crown witness who was unable to testify at Pickton's trial. (The judge decided the jury should not hear the evidence.) She narrowly escaped death in 1997 when she slashed Willie with a knife as he was trying to put handcuffs on her. Willie grabbed the knife from her and stabbed her repeatedly, but when he passed out she ran out on the street naked, handcuffs dangling from one wrist, and flagged down a passing car.

Cameron was able to track down several other women who say they, too, escaped from Pickton's clutches and are lucky to be alive.

PSYCHOPATHIC MONSTER

To her credit, while she was editor of Elm Street magazine, Cameron assigned a Vancouver investigative journalist, Daniel Wood, to write the first in-depth look at the mounting number of missing women. The article was published in 1998.

Even then, Wood kept hearing women working the streets saying that Willie Pickton was responsible for the missing women, a tip he passed along to Vancouver police 12 years ago.

Unfortunately, Cameron refers to him as David Wood. Since she spent eight years working on this book, it's a mistake that should have been caught.

There are other minor errors. For example, Cameron gives the address of the Vancouver police station as 212 Main St. (rather than 312 Main), refers to Riverview Hospital as Riverwood at one point and calls Heatley Street by the name Heaton.

Still, On the Farm provides the first comprehensive overview of how Willie Pickton became the psychopathic monster he is, and how he wasn't caught for so long because of his wily street smarts and access to a rendering plant -- where, he confided to the undercover officer, he disposed of human remains.

He was caught only because he got sloppy at the end. He failed to dispose of body parts eventually found in a freezer on the farm during a massive forensic search triggered by a junior Coquitlam RCMP officer executing a search warrant for illegal guns, based on information provided by a former Pickton employee.

But there is still a final chapter to be written in this case that must come from Pickton himself. He has never provided an explanation of how he could be so kind to certain women, helping them out with rent money and groceries, while heartlessly killing so many others among society's most vulnerable.

Even after the Supreme Court of Canada recently dismissed his appeal, Pickton told a TV reporter he had been framed.

He can drop that pretence now. He has no hope of ever getting out of prison.

Perhaps some day he'll speak frankly with a prison psychiatrist and give some insight into what motivated his killing rampage that went on far too long and shattered so many lives.

Neal Hall is an author and Vancouver Sun reporter who covered Pickton's trial with reporter Lori Culbert.

nhall@vancouversun.com

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