The Mounties failed to share important information about Robert Pickton with their counterparts in Vancouver, were quick to dismiss credible informants and botched an interview with the serial killer, a senior officer with the Vancouver police told a public inquiry Wednesday.
Deputy Chief Doug LePard spent his third day of testimony highlighting a number of apparent failings with the RCMP’s work in nearby Port Coquitlam, where Mr. Pickton was butchering sex workers at his sprawling farm even after he was identified as the No. 1 suspect in the disappearance of prostitutes.
Vancouver police and the RCMP headed up separate but related investigations: Vancouver into the disappearances of sex workers, and RCMP into information implicating Mr. Pickton, who had already been accused of trying to kill a sex worker in 1997.
The disconnect between those two investigations became apparent in late 1999, when Vancouver police realized RCMP investigators were no longer treating Mr. Pickton as a high priority – despite the belief in Vancouver that he was the prime suspect in the disappearance of Downtown Eastside prostitutes.
By then, investigators had at least four separate informants alleging Mr. Pickton was luring sex workers to his farm, butchering them and disposing of their bodies.
Those informants were all relaying stories told to them by Lynn Ellingsen, an associate of Mr. Pickton’s. According to the informants, Ms. Ellingsen claimed to have helped Mr. Pickton pick up sex workers and described an incident in which she saw him skinning a prostitute in a barn.
But when RCMP officers interviewed her, she denied ever telling the story, and the informants’ stories were discounted.
Deputy Chief LePard said that was a mistake, especially since the informants claimed Mr. Pickton was paying Ms. Ellingsen not to talk to the police. He added that investigators should have considered her as an accomplice with an incentive to lie.
“Are you telling the commissioner you would not have stopped with the denial of Ellingsen?” asked commission lawyer Art Vertlieb.
“Of course,” he replied.
In the fall of 1999, the RCMP were finally preparing to interview Mr. Pickton.
RCMP Constable Ruth Yurkiw made contact with Mr. Pickton, and at some point spoke with his brother, Dave.
Dave Pickton told her that his brother was busy on the farm and asked that she wait until the rainy season was over, and Constable Yurkiw agreed. She didn’t conduct the interrogation until January, 2000.
“Would you have accepted that?” Vertlieb asked, referring to the request to put off the interview.
“No,” replied Deputy Chief LePard.
When Constable Yurkiw and Constable John Cater finally sat down with Mr. Pickton, it didn’t go well, the Deputy Chief said.
The officers didn’t appear to have a plan, didn’t follow basic interrogation techniques and didn’t read Mr. Pickton a “charter warning” that his statements could be used against him. When Mr. Pickton consented to a search of his farm, they didn’t take him up on the offer.
“There didn’t appear to be an interview strategy at all, there were no signs that they had an interview script,” Deputy Chief LePard said. “There were a number of things that showed it wasn’t a well-planned interview.”
The Mounties didn’t tell the Vancouver police they were preparing to interview Mr. Pickton and didn’t ask for advice, nor did they share the results of the interview.
“It was an investigation that was obviously of great interest to the VPD, and it’s somewhat inexplicable that wasnt shared with the VPD,” the Deputy Chief said.
Separate surveillance units with the RCMP and the Vancouver police followed Mr. Pickton several times in 1998 and 1999, although never for more than a few days at a time.
In August, 1999, RCMP officers followed him to a recycling and animal rendering and plant in Vancouver, not far from the Downtown Eastside, carrying drums in his truck, according to records read at the hearings by Mr. Vertlieb.
There was no indication in the surveillance notes that any of the officers got out of their vehicle to see what he had dropped off, Mr. Vertlieb added. Two days earlier, an informant had told Vancouver police that Mr. Pickton disposed of his victims by putting body parts in 45-gallon drums and dropping them off at an unspecified animal rendering plant, he said.
The inquiry has also heard of problems in Vancouver, from the reluctance of senior officers to accept the theory that sex workers were being killed to a lack of resources for the missing women investigation.
On Wednesday, the inquiry heard of two officers in the missing women review team – Constables . Doug Fell and Mark Wolther – who Deputy Chief LePard criticized for pursuing another suspect with such vigour that they ignored work related to Mr. Pickton.
At one point, the constables showed an array of photographs, including Mr. Pickton’s, to sex workers in the Downtown Eastside. Three sex workers said they recognized Mr. Pickton, but the pair of officers didn’t share that information with the rest of the review team, which was searching for evidence to connect Mr. Pickton to the neighbourhood.
In 2001, the RCMP and Vancouver police formed a joint operation known as Project Evenhanded to investigate cases of missing sex workers. It was looking at hundreds of possible suspects, while the Port Coquitlam RCMP’s investigation specifically targeting Mr. Pickton continued.
In the end, neither investigation cracked the case.
Mr. Pickton was essentially caught by accident, when a junior RCMP officer with less than two years on the force, Constable Nathan Wells, followed up on a tip about illegal firearms and obtained a search warrant.
Constable Wells brought officers from the missing women investigation along, where they immediately stumbled upon the remains and belongings of missing women, setting off a massive search of the farm.
“That’s what broke the case,” said Deputy Chief LePard. “He [Wells]was not part of the Evenhanded investigation and he was not part of the investigation by Coquitlam serious crime into Pickton.”
Investigators found the remains or DNA of 33 women on the farm.
Mr. Pickton was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, though he claimed he killed 49.
The Canadian Press