Pickton Inquiry Could Focus On Lives Of Sex Workers

By: James Keller, The Canadian Press

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Bonnie M. Wells

The public inquiry examining why so many women fell victim to serial killer Robert Pickton could also focus on why his victims were forced into sex work in the first place, the commission's top lawyer says.

Former attorney general Wally Oppal, also a former judge, will oversee the public inquiry and is expected to report back to the province by the end of next year.

There have been concerns the inquiry's terms of reference, which appear to focus primarily on the role of police and prosecutors in the Pickton case, would be unable to examine at the underlying social issues that led the serial killer's victims into lives of drug addiction and poverty.

But the inquiry's leader counsel, Art Vertlieb, says the hearings will be about more than the justice system's failure to catch Pickton.

"We're specifically focused on multiple homicides and the people in the Downtown Eastside seem to have been victimized, so you can't divorce one from the other," Vertlieb said in an interview Sunday.

Vertlieb said Oppal and his staff plan to consult with families of Pickton's victims, aboriginal groups and community organizations as they craft the focus of the hearings.

If those groups want the inquiry to examine the lives of vulnerable women in the Downtown Eastside, said Vertlieb, then Oppal is prepared to do that.

"He (Oppal) just wants to make sure that the people who have interest in this are listened to so we end up covering issues that need to be covered, and it's really important that all the different interested groups feel they've been listened to," said Vertlieb.

"It's clear that the government of British Columbia is really interested in having a really helpful inquiry to help the government to figure out what they need to do to prevent any kind of repetition anywhere in this province."

Pickton was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, although the remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm in Port Coquitlam and he bragged to police about killing 49.

The Vancouver police and the RCMP have long been criticized for failing to properly investigate the disappearance of dozens of drug-addicted sex workers from the city's Downtown Eastside throughout the 1990s, even after investigators began to suspect Pickton's involvement.

That criticism has been fuelled by the revelation Pickton was charged with attempted murder in 1997 for an attack on a prostitute on his farm, but prosecutors stayed the charges and Pickton kept killing.

Some critics have complained both about the appointment of a former Liberal cabinet minister and what they perceive as the inquiry's narrow terms of reference.

Ernie Crey, whose sister Dawn's DNA was found on Pickton's farm, said he welcomed Vertlieb's comments that the inquiry's focus will be broad.

"To me, this is very encouraging," Crey said in an interview.

"I got very concerned about the narrow terms of reference and the fact that they seemed to be marginalizing issues that were about the social and economic circumstances that the women lived in."

Crey said he doesn't have a problem with Oppal's appointment, but he has been worried the growing resentment over Oppal's ties to the province's current Liberal government would overshadow the hearings.

He said the appointment of Vertlieb, a respected lawyer who also led questioning at last year's inquiry into Robert Dziekanski's death, has helped allay his concerns.

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