More than two decades after women started disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the police handling of the hunt for serial killer Robert (Willie) Pickton will be the subject of a public inquiry.
B.C. Attorney-General Mike de Jong announced the inquiry on Thursday, after the first meeting of the cabinet since an explosive report from the Vancouver Police Department was released.
The VPD's report outlined a series of missteps that resulted in Mr. Pickton remaining free to lure women - many of them were addicted to drugs and worked as prostitutes - to his farm in suburban Port Coquitlam long after police had information that could have resulted in his arrest.
The internal report by the VPD concluded that the lives of several women might have been saved if the RCMP and VPD had handled the case differently.
"There are still lingering questions about the nature of the investigation, whether more could have been done sooner," Mr. de Jong told reporters. "This is a situation in which upward of 50 human beings went missing. … Are we in a position to learn from the investigation that took place and any mistakes that may have been made?"
Both police departments welcomed the inquiry.
"The families and loved ones of Pickton's victims deserve to know why it took so long to arrest him," read a statement from the VPD. "In addition, this is an opportunity to examine any systemic barriers to the most effective policing in the Lower Mainland and to look for solutions so that some good might come out of such sadness."
The RCMP, which has held back on responding to the VPD report, said it is time for an independent review.
"This comprehensive, independent and impartial review of the entire investigation is the only way to determine the facts of what could have been done better," the RCMP said in a statement. "It is our hope that this process, while very difficult, will result in a sense of final closure for the families of the victims."
At a press conference, the RCMP said it will not be releasing its own report until the inquiry is under way. "Now that a public inquiry has been called, the only appropriate venue for the RCMP to release information into the public domain will be during that inquiry," Inspector Tim Shields said.
"We recognize that there has been already some finger-pointing, but we want to take the high road in this case and ensure that any information that is released in the public domain is released to the inquiry."
The terms of reference and the name of the commissioner have not yet been released, but Mr. de Jong suggested the focus will be on the police investigation and structure. "I'd like to talk to the individual who ultimately agrees to take this on around timelines, we'd like to begin, obviously, as soon as possible." The commissioner will have the power to compel testimony under oath.
Ernie Crey, whose sister Dawn went missing in 2000, reacted with relief to Mr. de Jong's announcement. "Oh, this is good news. My entire family will be happy with that." Although her DNA was found on the Pickton property, no charges have been laid in her death.
He hopes the inquiry will be broad enough to capture not just the police investigation but how the social safety net failed women like his sister, who sought but could not get the treatment she needed to help with her addictions.
"I'd really like to know a lot about the life my sister was living before she vanished from the street," he said.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs agreed the inquiry should not be limited to police practices. "We believe that the terms of reference should be broad and include an examination of the social-economic factors that lead to the marginalization of the much-loved mothers and cherished daughters who fell victim to Pickton."
The first tip linking Mr. Pickton to the missing women came in 1998, and while some VPD officers pushed for a more aggressive investigation of Mr. Pickton, there was resistance to suggestions that a serial killer was on the loose.
The VPD report also laid some of the blame at the feet of the RCMP. It concluded that the investigation stalled for a time because the alleged crime scene was in Port Coquitlam where policing is the responsibility of the RCMP, leading to "jurisdictional obstacles" and competing priorities.
With a report from Marten Youssef in Vancouver