Chastened by questions over their handling of the case of convicted serial killer Robert Pickton, the RCMP say they learned lessons about co-operating with other forces that they applied to track down a newly disclosed suspect in sex assaults against residents of the Downtown Eastside, where Mr. Pickton found victims.
Police are linking Shalendra Sharma, a 43-year-old labourer from Surrey, to the abduction of women from the Downtown Eastside and subsequent sexual assaults in Burnaby over nearly two decades. That includes attacks in 1994, 1997, and a pair of assaults in December, 2011, that prompted an RCMP-led investigation, along with the Vancouver Police Department, that resulted in Mr. Sharma’s arrest on Feb. 17.
Mr. Sharma is facing 12 charges of sexual assault, confinement, kidnapping, assault and uttering threats. He has a court appearance on March 2.
The case comes in the context of the ongoing missing women’s inquiry in Vancouver, and questions about police conduct. The RCMP and Vancouver Police Department both have expressed regret about missteps in their bid to solve the murder of women who went missing from the Downtown Eastside in the 1980s and 1990s and were ultimately linked to Mr. Pickton.
RCMP Chief Superintendent Dave Critchley, the officer in charge of the Burnaby detachment, held a news conference Monday to talk about the Sharma case, but was pressed on lessons from the Pickton case. “What we have learned from the past is that it’s crucial and it’s critical that we share information,” he said. “That’s what occurred on this file.”
He said police have not found any links between Mr. Sharma and Mr. Pickton, nor connections to any of the missing women in the Pickton case.
On Dec. 4, 2011, the RCMP in Burnaby learned about a possible sexual assault and robbery against a sex-trade worker who had been taken from the Downtown Eastside to Burnaby. The Mounties contacted Vancouver police.
That resulted in a Burnaby-led investigation that has come to involve 50 officers. Police linked a second assault on Dec. 18 to the first, and, eventually, to a pair of similar reported but unsolved assaults in 1994 and 1997.
The chief superintendent said the case became a top priority for his detachment. “That sense was shared by our colleagues at the Vancouver Police Department,” he said. “We met at a very senior level, and between our two agencies, we agreed this was a No. 1 priority and all resources required for this file would be put in place.”
The RCMP said Monday that investigators believe Mr. Sharma may be linked to other similar offences, and are looking for more information from the public.
The victims in December provided information that helped police track down Mr. Sharma as a suspect, Chief Supt. Critchley said. However, he declined to be specific about the evidence. “We believe very strongly there may be other victims and we don’t want to taint that investigation,” he said.
Mr. Sharma’s lawyer said his client would be trying to clear his name in the courts. “You can expect a plea of not guilty – that’s for sure,” said Brian Anderson, who declined further comment on the details of the case. He said he was awaiting Crown disclosure to figure out how to proceed.
Constable Lindsey Houghton of the Vancouver Police Department noted that officers in the city distributed about 50 911-only cellphones to women in the Downtown Eastside so they could report relevant observations to police, as well as notepads to jot down information. However, he said it was not clear that the tactic yielded information that helped crack the case.
Asked about pressure on the VPD as a result of the Pickton case, Constable Houghton said the department is aware it is always judged on the quality of its investigations.
Chief Supt. Critchley said no photo of Mr. Sharma would be released now because it might taint information from witnesses, although he said the decision will be reassessed as the investigation continues.
The RCMP released a list and photos of four vehicles linked to Mr. Sharma – a red 2007 Ford Escape, a blue 2003 Ford Explorer, a red 1997 Ford Explorer and red 1991 Pontiac Sunbird – in hopes that victims who have yet to speak to police, as well as witnesses, might come forward.