By IAN AUSTEN
Published: December 17, 2012
OTTAWA — Robert W. Pickton, a pig farmer, managed to murder 49 women before his arrest in 2002 largely because of “systemic bias by the police” against the victims, the commissioner who investigated the actions of the police said Monday.
Up until Mr. Pickton’s arrest, at least 67 women had disappeared in British Columbia, mainly from Vancouver’s downtown East Side. The victims were mainly members of Canadian aboriginal groups, and most were prostitutes and drug addicts. All were killed or are presumed dead. After a 10-month trial in 2007, Mr. Pickton was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. During his interrogation, he confessed to killing 49 women.
The inquiry’s 1,448-page report shows that although some people were alarmed at the rising number of missing women in the area during the 1990s, the police were indifferent largely because of the women’s social status and race. It was an indifference, said the man who led the inquiry, Wally T. Oppal, that extended to much of the city’s population.
“There was an institutional, systemic bias against the women,” Mr. Oppal said at a news conference Monday. “They were poor, they were aboriginal, they were drug addicted and they were not taken seriously.”
He added, “What if you were made to feel invisible, unworthy?”
Despite Mr. Oppal’s condemnation of the police as well as his passionate plea for eliminating the poverty in the aboriginal communities where many of the victims were born, it was not clear whether his findings would satisfy the families of the victims or native groups. Several aboriginal leaders were critical of the two-year inquiry’s focus on the actions of the police rather than on broad issues of poverty.
Mr. Oppal’s news conference was repeatedly interrupted by hecklers identified by Canadian news outlets as relatives of the victims. At one point, Mr. Oppal was silenced as a native drummer played and family members sang, some raising clenched fists.
In addition to indifference, the Vancouver Police Department and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which patrols the suburb of Port Coquitlam, where Mr. Pickton killed his victims on his farm, were faulted for poor communication, lack of cooperation and a failure to accept that a sharp rise in disappearances in 1997 could have been the work of a serial killer.
Mr. Oppal particularly faulted the police and prosecutors for their actions after Mr. Pickton was arrested and charged with stabbing a prostitute in 1997 during the height of the disappearances.
The prostitute, whose name is protected under a court order, reluctantly agreed to let Mr. Pickton drive her out to his ramshackle farm for a sex act. Once there, she saw evidence that other women had been at the farm. Mr. Pickton handcuffed the woman and then repeatedly stabbed her before she escaped.
The police and prosecutors eventually suspended charges against Mr. Pickton, apparently because of doubts over the prostitute’s reliability as a witness. Moreover, the inquiry also found that they ignored her suggestions that Mr. Pickton had taken other prostitutes to the farm. Mr. Oppal said that if the police had followed up, it was “conceivable” that Mr. Pickton could have been stopped at that point.
Instead, the two police forces, the report found, felt little urgency to act on the disappearances of prostitutes or to even warn people in the downtown East Side of the rapid rise in disappearances.
“The Vancouver Police Department deeply regrets anything we did that may have delayed the eventual solving of these murders,” the force said in a statement. “It may also come as small consolation to those who still grieve that we are committed to learning from our mistakes.”
In the end, Mr. Pickton was caught by a police officer who had been on the job for just 18 months and was serving a search warrant for weapons. The officer initiated a wider search of the farm after finding items of women’s clothing and accessories.
“Pickton was not even attempting to hide the fruits of his violent acts,” Mr. Oppal said. “It was there for everyone to see.”