It began with dark rumours of women vanishing from Vancouver's streets, of someone preying on drug addicts and prostitutes. But no one knew how many had died or if some had just run away, until police found several mutilated bodies on a pig farm in 2002. In Alberta, RCMP officers looked on and wondered: Could it happen here?
Out of that concern, the Mounties created a project to analyze every single case in the region that dealt with society's most vulnerable and high-risk members: sex trade workers, drug pushers, even hitchhikers.
They called it Project Kare.
Investigators have now covered cases dating as far back as 1932, sifting through data for any possible connections, carefully noting the smallest details, searching for any sign that a serial offender -- or even group of killers -- might be active.
So far, one suspect has been arrested in the deaths of two women. Thomas Svekla, who has been kept in custody for more than a year, is expected to stand trial this February.
RCMP Cpl. Wayne Oakes spoke to CTV.ca about the ongoing project, and how law enforcement officials hope the prairies will be spared the same tragedy that continues to haunt Vancouver.
Were the missing street workers in B.C. and the Robert Pickton investigation factors in starting Project Kare?
In 2002, when the Pickton investigation really started to draw prominence, the senior management of RCMP in Alberta asked the question: What's the state of affairs in our backyard?
That gave rise to the initial project, entitled the High Risk Missing Persons project. It was a review of all missing persons and homicide cases where there was an element of risk. And by risk, I mean missing persons or homicide victims whose lifestyle, behaviour, profession or circumstances put them at a higher risk of being a victim of violent crime.
Can you give specific examples of High Risk Missing Persons?
Well, somebody who's heavily involved in narcotics and the drug trade, somebody involved in the sex trade. Even somebody that would engage in a regular habit of hitch-hiking -- that activity would put them at a higher likelihood of being a victim of violent crime.
An exception to that rule would be gang activities. Because we know that if somebody has either an arms-length or direct affiliation with a known and identifiable illegal gang, that's going to put them at the same risk. The reason that those types of missing persons or homicide cases do not fall to Project Kare is that there are other investigative units already established to look into them.
When Project Kare began, was it assumed there was a serial killer, or more than one, targeting high risk missing persons?
The High Risk Missing Persons project didn't just look at Alberta. They also looked at Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, and it included both RCMP and municipal police services, because we wanted to get as good a picture as we could of the entire environment. And that analysis yielded 125 possible cases. Of those 125, 83 were in Alberta. Because of that number, a second determination was then made to move into the investigative phase. We're currently still in part of two phases -- the High Risk Missing Persons Project is still an active viable component -- but we're continuing to do the analysis. And we're now into what Project Kare is primarily involved in: a combination of the analysis and the investigation.
And this is the first time all of this information has been analyzed with an emphasis on high risk missing persons?
Yes. And they are using what's believed to be the most current and valuable technical piece of technology to assist in the investigative process -- a computer system called Evidence and Reporting. It was developed by the RCMP to catalogue and keep track of information as a result of the Swiss Air Crash off of Peggy's Cove.
That process has also been recognized and used by agencies such as the FBI. We also, at that point in time, looked at the project in British Columbia, known as Project Even-Handed. And we continue to have a very strong liaison with the people in B.C., and in fact recruited some of the people directly involved in that investigation to come and work here for Project Kare.
How many cases is Project Kare currently investigating in its database?
What's currently in the database are 44 homicides. A high majority are female: of the 44 cases, 43 are female, one male. And of the missing persons cases, there are 30 -- 28 are female, two male.
What determines whether a case is treated as a homicide investigation, as opposed to a missing persons case?
You have to have some indication that a person has met with foul play, that their life has been ended. Having said that, in the majority of the missing persons cases where it's a high risk investigation, investigators will treat it the same way they would a homicide investigation. You have to, in order to exercise appropriate diligence. It's very difficult -- in fact, it's almost impossible -- to go back after the fact and say, 'Oh gee, we're now thinking this could be a homicide and we have to backtrack and recover our steps.' You can't do that.
With the case of Leanne Lori Benwell, a woman found dead on June 21, it's not an official Project Kare investigation. But Project Kare is still helping in the investigation. ..
Correct. And that's because of their expertise that they have. And should there be any links or commonalities to other existing cases, it would afford investigators the earliest opportunity to pick up on those links.
Q: When you say links, does that mean there is one individual or a group of individuals who may be responsible for these deaths?
That may be a factor, but it's not the only, exclusive factor. That's the beauty of the evidence and reporting: all of the relevant pieces of information are entered into this database. So for example, a blue car with one headlight -- if that shows up in a number of cases, investigators would be able to pick up on it. For another example, maybe a newspaper deliveryman was seen in the area hours before each of the bodies was found. So the newspaper deliveryman may be a person of interest. And depending on the level of interest, he might be a suspect, might be a witness, or might just happen to be a guy who happened to be in that area at that particular time.
Thomas Svekla, a suspect in the murders of two missing women, is expected to go on trial in February. If you start capturing these suspects who you believe may be responsible for some of these deaths, is there a point when Project Kare will finish its investigations? Or is it now a permanent part of the RCMP?
When you look at the number of unsolved cases that we have, the oldest one dates back to 1932. Back in the fall of 2003 when Project Kare was officially launched, within very short order, the media here were quickly pounding the drama of one serial killer. I said, "Well, that's a very interesting theory. Because our serial killer has to be very old." In June of 2004, it was the first time when we officially came out that we have reason to believe that a serial killer may be responsible for more than one death in the Edmonton area. It was a year later, in June 2005, when that assertion was updated, if you will, to say that we do believe a serial offender is responsible for more than one death. We have never made the assertion that one person is responsible. In fact, back from the very beginning we have said that we believe more than one person is responsible. And history has shown that there have been cases in the past, where you have more than one person involved in serial-type deaths. So that's a possibility. Because as soon as we start to focus on one eventuality, you open up the possibility of missing critical evidence. Investigators have to keep an open mind.
And it's a fluid number of missing persons cases? The number is always changing?
Sometimes cases are reviewed, and the criteria is found to be not following within the mandate with the project. Or, as was the case not that long ago with British Columbia, where one of the women who was thought to have been a victim had disappeared, and possibly killed, she showed up alive and well, living in Ontario....
I pulled over someone for a speeding violation in 1979 on the Trans-Canada Highway just north of Gleichen, Alberta. That individual had been on CPIC (Canadian Police Information Centre). We do place missing persons on CPIC, in the event law enforcement may come upon them. The normal course of action is to run an individual's name on CPIC, and lo-and-behold he shows up as a missing person. When I started to discuss this with the gentlemen, he got a little bit excited and told me, "I know exactly where the eff I am, and all those people back in Ontario, you can tell them where to go. It's none of their business where I am or what I'm doing."
Today's privacy legislation fully supports that. The only thing we can do when we encounter a missing person is let that originating police agency know that we've had contact. We can't tell them where or under what circumstances. If people are interested in contacting the person, it's up to them.