Published in the Vancouver Observer | January 10, 2012 | Circulation 100,000 unique monthly visitors
Much is riding on the The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. Reputations. Money. Possibly even careers.
So says Stevie Cameron, Canada’s foremost reporter on the Robert Pickton serial killer investigation and trial, as the inquiry resumes into why authorities did not catch the serial killer earlier – and why he was only convicted of six second-degree murders after admitting to 49.
And to watch it unfold, Cameron told the Vancouver Observer, is heart-breaking.
“It’s a very painful thing to watch,” the author of On the Farm and The Pickton File said. “So much is at stake — so much financially, when you think about it. Are they going to have to pay out more to the families? Are there going to be lawsuits?
“The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) are culpable, we all know that,” Cameron said, summarizing the inquiry’s findings so far. “The police who should have investigated this and done something about this at the beginning refused to touch it.”
But Cameron insists that the VPD eventually took the investigation seriously.
“There was no one who wanted those women to die. The Vancouver Police Department were reprehensible, but eventually after the Vancouver Sunbegan publishing stories, they took it seriously.
“I spent nine years on this story…. People don’t know some of the really important details of this. They need to know that police tried to get a search warrant on that property for two locations.”
One of the factors in police dropping an attempted murder case against Pickton in 1997 concerned a sex worker who had incredibly managed to fight Pickton off, after being stabbed and mutilated by him at his Port Coquitlam pig farm. She fought back, stabbed Pickton, and escaped, bleeding profusely to be rescued by an elderly couple whom she flagged down on the road. But when the court day came, she was too terrified off Pickton hunting her down and murdering her to testify against him in court. She didn’t show up. On top of that, she had been ignored in a previous attempt to report a dangerous offender, Cameron recalled. Without the key witness coming forward out of fear, prosecutors had little to go on.
“People forget that Robert Pickton was a wealthy man — he could afford lawyers,” Cameron said. “(The woman who got away) was afraid of Pickton.
“She twice grabbed a police car, explaining that she thought she saw (Pickton). She was afraid – he spent $80,000 on lawyers to defend himself in that case. He had a private detective following her. She refused to testify, to go to court, and I don’t blame her. Who’d blame her? She was up against a guy with all the money in the world. That’s why that case fell apart, they had to drop the charges.”
Although Cameron alleges the VPD’s Missing Persons Unit – which has come under heavy criticism even from the police department – was “hopeless, even criminal” in its activities around the Pickton investigation, she cautioned people to remember that the hunt for Pickton also involved some heroes.
She cites forensic dental expert David Sweet, of UBC, who was recognized for his work on the case with an Order of Canada. Or aprosecutor who broke down and cried in front of the court when victims were removed from those being tried.
“It’s the saddest, grimmest story I’ve ever worked on and probably anyone’s seen in Canada in a long, long time,” Cameron said.
“It’s a heart-breaking story, but it’s an important story. It’s a sad story. It’s a terrible story. So much in this is heroic and noble and inspiring. It’s not just a horror story.”
Cameron described often being the only reporter attending court in Port Coquitlam, day-in and day-out. She followed the case for years.
“This thing dragged out for years,” she said. “I followed every bit of it.
“I hope people understand that there were wonderful people who brought this guy to justice and gave everything they had to it. This (inquiry) isn’t the place for it – this is a place to get to the bottom of why it went off the rails.”
One of the most touching moments, she recalls, was seeing a prosecutor cry in court after an unidentified female victim — “Jane Doe” — was removedfrom the murders for which Pickton was being tried.
“They were devastated with the loss of Jane Doe,” Cameron recalled. “The prosecutor wept in front of the courthouse, because she said that woman represented those women Pickton murdered who were unidentified still.”
Cameron admires Missing Woman Inquiry Commissioner Wally Oppal for the job he has done during the hearings.
“Given what he’s got to work with – it’s very limited. He’s not re-trying Pickton. He’s letting families air their grievances. They needed the chance to do that, and no wonder they’re angry. The families needed that. They all felt pushed aside and ignored.”
Cameron she is judge this year for the Charles Taylor literature prize, currently at its short-list stage.
It is an award that Cameron’s most recent Pickton book, On the Farm, received last year.
Watch for coverage of the Missing Women inquiry in The Vancouver Observer.