Pickton inquiry: ‘Erin Brockovich of Downtown Eastside’ refuses to stay silent on missing women

Published in the Vancouver Observer | April 20, 2012 | Circulation: 150,000 unique monthly readers

Bonnie Fournier is making a last-ditch appeal to testify at the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. Photo by David P. Ball

When Bonnie Fournier saw a black shape being dragged out the passenger side of a large vehicle on Cordova Street late one night in 2000, she thought someone was dumping a garbage bag on the unlit sex worker stroll she patrolled in her mobile nursing van.

Then, she recalled to the Vancouver Observer, the shape wriggled and she saw a flash of skin.

“It’s a person!” she screamed, and the driver of the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society (DEYAS) health outreach van floored the gas and leaned on the horn. “We only had a matter of seconds to get the girl – she was dropped to the ground and they took off.

“She had hair and tissue torn from her head, contusions on her knees, and road burn. I didn’t know how far she was dragged, but she was screaming and hysterical. I knew her from the Downtown Eastside.”

Fournier, a now-retired nurse who worked in the Downtown Eastside since 1968, says that what she saw – and what happened next – needs to be heard by the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, which is probing into why police did not catch serial Robert “Willy” Pickton sooner. But so far, requests to let her testify have fallen on deaf ears, and only nine hearing days remain.

“Who was it?” Fournier asked the sex worker, when she had calmed down and her wounds dressed.

“’They wanted a date and I didn’t want to go – so they grabbed me by my hair,’” the young woman replied.

Fournier was almost certain the vehicle was one she’d seen Robert Pickton with regularly in the Downtown Eastside (DTES), years before his multiple murder conviction. Word-of-mouth among sex workers — and on “bad date sheets” DEYAS published — was that the “stinky” Port Coquitlam pig farmer was killing women, but police ignored the rumours and reports. If the truck Fournier saw was his, it meant Pickton had an accomplice. She asked the woman if it was him.

“’I can’t say, because I’d be dead,’” she told Fournier. “’They’ll kill me.’”

No chance to speak at missing women’s inquiry

On April 2, 2011, Fournier said she attended a meeting with commission lawyers in preparation for the long-anticipated – and hard-fought – inquiry. The lawyers were interested in her because she had been DEYAS’ only full-time nurse from 1999 to 2003, and before that the only full-time nurse at the Vancouver Provincial Courthouse’s holding cells from 1978 to 2003. She practiced narcotic addiction and criminal nursing in the DTES since graduating in 1968. DEYAS’ van was shut down after its funding was cut by the regional health authority in 2009.

On Dec. 23, 2011, her name was among 20 key witnesses submitted by Cameron Ward, a lawyer representing more than 20 families of women whose remains were found on Pickton’s farm.

“No other nurse, arguably, has worked the streets of the DTES as much or for as long as Ms. Fournier,” the submission stated.

But no call has come. With only nine hearing days remaining – after the province refused requests to extend the inquiry’s June deadline – this is Fournier’s last chance to share her experience.

“I don’t know what their resistance is to me,” she told the Vancouver Observer. “The police don’t want me to testify.

“I’m like the Erin Brockovitch of the Downtown Eastside,” she said, referring to a famous California whistleblower who fought the powerful energy industry in 1993.

Robert Pickton, the “smelly pig farmer” in the DTES

Fournier remembers many of her encounters with women like Sereena Abotsway, Marnie Frey and “Sharon” in detail – down to the clothes they were wearing – and recalls the night Pickton was jailed after allegedly stabbing a woman known as “Anderson” nearly to death in 1997. Court jail staff phoned her to ask about any health hazards because he smelled so terrible, she said. After the Crown mysteriously dropped all charges against him, and then destroyed its files, she began seeing the pig farmer around Hastings Street at least twice a week.

“That’s when I started seeing Pickton again,” she said. “I got to know him through his vehicle being around, and through the girls talking.

“When I did flu shots at the Waldorf Hotel, he happened to be there. I saw him and his vehicle hanging outside. When you see him, you don’t forget – the same as Dave (Pickton). They were well-known.”

Word-on-the-street was that the “smelly pig farmer” was killing women on his farm, often lured there by several other women he was paying with drugs.

“All we have are descriptions: a creepy guy trying to get girls to go to a party, maybe in 1998 to 1999 and continuing on,” she said. “It was word-of-mouth among the women, that other women were acting as lures for the Pickton parties.

“They called him a ‘smelly guy, a creepy guy with long, greasy hair. He smelled rotten. When I came downtown, I’d drive down Hastings, past the Waldorf (Hotel). If he was standing outside, I’d think, ‘Oh shit, here he is.’”

With her first-hand experience of the police, numerous missing women, and seeing Pickton himself, she asks, why have requests for her testimony been ignored for a year?

“I’ve been put off – apparently, 33 years working in the Downtown Eastside isn’t ‘expert’?,” she said, her voice fierce. “I’ve worked with youth; I was director of a street program since the 1970s.

“There isn’t one area – from psychiatric to dual diagnosis to prostitution to hard-core criminals – that I haven’t dealt with in my career since 1966. They can’t dispute what I have to say. I’m still working at being heard.”

But the senior lawyer for the Commission told the Vancouver Observer that the inquiry could not comment on the remaining witnesses to be called, although Commissioner Wally Oppal set a deadline today for final requests.

“The Commissioner will be dealing with future witnesses next week,” Art Verlieb said. “It is not the policy of Commission Counsel to discuss why a witness was or was not called to testify.”

Narrow escape from Pickton’s farm

In another chilling incident – forever burned into her memory – a young woman Fournier calls “Sharon” told her that in 1999 or 2000: “’Bonnie, I escaped from the farm.’”

“Sharon” said she was in Surrey, shoplifting at a mall — she supported her drug addiction by stealing, not prostitution, Fournier said — when two women who knew her from the Downtown Eastside approached and invited her to a party, “with free booze and drugs.” The women went to a “well-known Hells Angels spot” located on the King George Highway, just before it enters Surrey: a rental house they called the “House of Pain.”

“They went there, and then were moved by station wagon or van – ‘We’re going to a party with good music,’” Fournier was told. “They were taken to the (Pickton) farm from this house in Surrey.

“After they got to the farm, Sharon said everyone was into the drugs – lots of drugs. When they pulled in there, she got a gut feeling that this was scary. . . she got a gut feeling and bolted from the car and ran to Lougheed Highway. She was picked up by a bus on Lougheed and given a ride in to Vancouver by a sympathetic driver.”

When Fournier pushed “Sharon” to tell police about her experience linking the Hells Angels to the Pickton property, she refused.

“’I’d be dead,’” the woman replied. “’Do you know how many others out there have escaped? I’m not the only one.’”

Her experiences – and knowing many of the Downtown Eastside’s missing and murdered women personally – are too troubling for her to give up on testifying, she told the Vancouver Observer over lunch. She’d practically abandoned hope when Commissioner Wally Oppal shifted the inquiry into a series of expert panels instead of single-witness cross-examination on Feb. 21.

“I am hopeful that individuals who have important information to contribute will be more willing to come forward and participate in this less adversarial hearing process,” Oppal announced.

“He said he wants to make it better,” Fournier recalled. “It was very articulate.

“I thought, ‘Okay, he said what I want to hear, I’m going to talk to him.’ So the next morning I asked for an appointment. Before they brought the inquiry to order, (inquiry registrar Leonard Giles) came up and said, ‘The Commissioner will see you at 4 p.m.’ — that’s verbatim.”

But according to Fournier, just two hours before the meeting, Commission staff pulled Fournier out of the public gallery and told her she would not be meeting with Oppal, instead asking her to sign a document agreeing to participate in a policy discussion forum instead of testifying, she claimed. Fournier said she refused that, as well as attempts to have her record an affidavit – she wants to be cross-examined on the stand, and ensure her words are both public and in appropriate context. Commission counsel would not comment on the alleged meeting.

Missing women “like daughters to me” 

Fournier paused emotionally as she described her decades of work as a nurse in a neighbourhood described as Canada’s poorest off-reserve postal code. She considered many of the murdered women as her own daughters, she said – and said that her own experience being abducted by her father at age two, and her mother’s four-year search for her, inspired her to never give up searching.

“Imagine going to work every day, seeing the faces on the (missing woman) bulletin, and longing for them, wondering where they are,” she said of her and other Downtown Eastside workers. “They didn’t pay attention to any of us who reported these women missing.

“They worked so hard and hurt so much. To come to work and be told. . .” – tears filling her eyes, Fournier’s voice strained to a halt. We sit in silence for a moment.

“After Marnie Frey disappeared, that hit me very hard,” she continued. “They were like my girls – like daughters to me. Quite a few of them I knew from various stages of life, since they were juveniles.

“I thought I could do something, could make things better for the missing women, and women who worked the stroll.”

Identifying Sereena after Pickton murders

Fournier believes she is the last person to have seen Sereena Abotsway – a woman who called her “Mom” – alive in 2001. The two even discussed her asthma inhalers, which were later found on Pickton’s farm the night when police first raided – on a coincidental gun warrant filed by a rookie cop – in 2002.

“It was a hot night,” she recalled, when Abotsway approached the DEYAS van near Cambie and Hastings Street. “’Hi Mom, can we talk?’ she said.

“Sereena got on board, we had a hug. She looked fantastic, and I said, ‘You look great.’ She announced she was going to a party; she was waiting for her ride to pick her up at the Cenotaph. Obviously she was going somewhere – it wasn’t her normal clothing. When she got in the van, she was yacking and joking. She was so excited to be singled out and made to feel special. She said, ‘See you tomorrow night.’ But I didn’t see her the next night. Nobody saw her anywhere.”

Months went by, and Fournier and WISH drop-in centre coordinator Elaine Allen searched frantically for the young woman – going to her residence in (the Vancouver Native Housing Society), contacting her foster family in Pitt Meadows, speaking to police. In spring 2002, Fournier was called to the Vancouver Police Department and asked to identify missing women and assist the investigation, which now spanned several police departments after years of delays.

Looking at pictures the officers put in front of her, she pointed to Abotsway’s instantly.

“’This is Sereena Abotsway. I was the last one to see her. Nobody listened to us.’”

For many families of the missing and murdered women, Fournier – like Elaine Allen, who testified last fall about her work at a sex worker drop-in centre – is a key witness with too much experience to ignore. But Fournier said her thoughts are also about the future.

“Am I going to be here in 25 years to say I don’t want Pickton released (on parole)?” she asked. “No, I’ll be six feet under. Who’ll be here?

“The man was only charged with second-degree murder. Putting someone through a meat grinder? Give me a break! Mr. Oppal: Think about your reputation. You’re making a decision by omission. Your decision will not include evidence that’s pertinent.”

For now, Fournier — who wrote a 2010 book on her DTES work, Mugged, Drugged and Shrugged — is waiting to hear whether Oppal hears her plea in his final witness announcement on Monday.

“I’m still working at being heard,” she said, gripping her floral-pattern cane with determination as she sorts through stacks of inquiry documents, only blocks from the hearings.

“I’ve been brushed off for long enough.”

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