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Sandra Gagnon, right, sister of Janet Henry, is given a hug Monday by Marnie Frey's foster sister, Joyce Lachance, left, at the missing women inquiry in Vancouver. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Sandra Gagnon, right, sister of Janet Henry, is given a hug Monday by Marnie Frey's foster sister, Joyce Lachance, left, at the missing women inquiry in Vancouver. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

Families testify of resistance from apathetic police Add to ...

VANCOUVER — The stories told by the families of Robert Pickton's victims at an ongoing public inquiry form a tragic repetition.

They notice the women missing, often within days of when they're last seen, and reach out to the Vancouver police for help.

They face resistance from a civilian clerk and from police officers, who point to the women's lives as drug-addicted sex workers to conclude they are simply out partying. Or they've moved to work the streets in faraway towns. Or perhaps they're off travelling and just haven't told anyone.

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Files are eventually opened, but investigators are slow to work on them and fail to find any of the women.

Each story ends when the women's remains or DNA are found on Pickton's farm after his arrest in 2002.

“I feel that had it been done properly, perhaps this man would have been found sooner and perhaps a few more lives would have been saved,” Lila Purcell, the aunt of Tanya Holyk, testified Monday, the latest relative to appear before the inquiry to recount the now-familiar lament.

“I hope that, although we weren't able to save her from the life that she fell into, perhaps the consideration for these women would be deeper and such a waste of time wouldn't be spent looking the other way while more women go missing, just because they aren't really considered a part of society.”

Holyk was last seen in October 1996, and Purcell noticed her gone immediately.

At the time, Holyk was constantly in touch and actively involved in the life of her young son, said Purcell. When she hadn't been seen for a few days, Purcell said the family started asking the woman's friends and began searching the Downtown Eastside, but they couldn't find her.

A few days later, Holyk's mother, Dorothy Purcell, contacted the Vancouver police, where she spoke with a clerk at the missing person's unit named Sandy Cameron.

The inquiry has already heard complaints that Cameron, who is expected to testify next week, was dismissive and belligerent to the families of missing women.

Purcell said Holyk's mother had a similar experience. She read a letter that Dorothy Purcell, who has since died, wrote the Vancouver police department in January 1997 to complain about Cameron.

“She (Cameron) told me Tanya was a coke head that had abandoned her child, she went on and on about it and said she was going to call social services to apprehend the baby, which made me feel even worse,” the letter said.

“She called me one day and told me that I must not care that much about Tanya, because I haven't been calling regularly. I was busy out trying to find her.”

In late November 1996, Dorothy Purcell received an early morning hang-up phone call, and gave the number to Cameron. Cameron called the number and reached a woman who said she saw someone named Tanya at a party the night before, prompting Cameron to close the file, according to Purcell's testimony and Cameron's own notes.

A new file was opened in late January 1997 after Dorothy Purcell reached an officer with the Vancouver police department's Native Liaison Society, but even then, the inquiry heard very little was done with the case until the spring of 1998.

That's when the case made its way back to the missing person's unit, where an officer named Al Howlett started checking welfare records, looked for ex-boyfriends and finally interviewed Holyk's mother, the inquiry heard.

Purcell said she was never interviewed, despite being intimately involved in Holyk's upbringing, and neither were Holyk's other aunts and uncles.

“I feel that there could have been more done,” said Purcell.

“It's frustrating because I always wondered why nobody else in my family was ever interviewed, because I was very close to my sister at the time and Tanya was brought up like a daughter alongside my daughter. Nobody ever interviewed me.”

Holyk's DNA was later found on Pickton's farm. He was charged with her murder but never put on trial.

Daphne Pierre's sister Jacqueline Murdock disappeared in 1997. Murdock's DNA was found on Pickton's farm, but he was never charged in her death.

Pierre told the inquiry Monday that she first reported her sister missing in August 1997 to the RCMP in her hometown of Prince George, with the expectation that the Mounties would send the information to the Vancouver police.

But records presented to the inquiry show the Vancouver police weren't aware of the file until a year later when Pierre had moved to the Vancouver area. The Vancouver police department's native liaison unit learned of the case and called the Prince George RCMP to request the file.

“I don't think they did a very good job. It took them one full year to send the file down, they didn't even ask for a picture of her,” said Pierre.

“I'm hoping that they'll do a better job, that they'll make the police do a better job to find our missing loved ones.”

Murdock's DNA was connected to Pickton's farm, but investigators didn't find any remains or belongings. The Mounties have told Murdock's family that Pickton killed Murdock, but Pierre said she's skeptical.

“I think they (police) should provide me with a better explanation. I think they should still try to find her,” said Pierre

“Somebody out there knows where her remains are.”

Pickton was arrested in 2002, after RCMP officers executing an unrelated search warrant happened upon the remains and belongings of missing sex workers.

He was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder.

The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on Pickton's farm. He told a undercover officer that he killed 49.

THE CANADIAN PRESS

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