Three senior police officers felt it unnecessary to put out a public warning that women were vanishing from the Downtown Eastside in the late 1990s, though they’ve agreed in hindsight that there wouldn’t have been harm in suggesting a serial killer was at work.
Vancouver Police were first tipped in summer 1998 that Robert Pickton might be picking up sex workers from Vancouver and killing them at his pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C.
A civilian who was the only permanent, long-term staff member of the missing person’s unit had also raised red flags several times between the early and mid-1990s that prostitutes were disappearing from the city’s streets in high numbers and there weren’t enough resources to handle the files.
But no action was taken because police had “nothing specific” to warn the community about, the sergeant in charge of the unit at the time said Tuesday in testifying at the inquiry looking into why the killer wasn’t apprehended sooner.
“Any male that they get into a car with is a potential danger,” former Sgt. Geramy Field, whose surname is now Powell, said of the sex trade workers.
“Because we didn’t have anything specific like a description or anything else to go on, my general feeling at the time was that it wouldn’t have been too productive.”
Field’s senior officers, former Insp. Fred Biddlecombe and acting Insp. Dan Dureau, both agreed that despite a lack of official warnings, the community was fully aware women were going missing.
“I think the community was completely alive to the fact there were issues,” Dureau said. “I don’t know that any other warnings or more warnings would have been beneficial.”
The trio were testifying as part of a law enforcement panel put together to help the inquiry understand the decisions made by Vancouver Police in relation to Pickton’s crimes.
The panel was quizzed by an inquiry lawyer about a news release drafted by former Det. Insp. Kim Rossmo in fall 1998, but never released. Rossmo was a geographic profiler who wanted to inform the public that police were investigating reports of dozens of missing women who might be victims of an active serial killer.
Commission lawyer Art Vertlieb asked what harm could have come from its release.
“I don’t see anything wrong with that,” said Field.
Biddlecombe agreed that he wouldn’t object to it. But he noted some of the information in it didn’t appear to be accurate. For example, he said the murders of eight of ten sex trade workers in previous years had been solved, but the release left it hanging as to how many were unsolved.
“I didn’t know if that would leave things dangling that all these women were being murdered when we didn’t even know that at that time,” he said.
But Biddlecomb said he was just making a fresh assessment, explaining he actually has no recollection of many events from 1998.
His lawyer has submitted a doctor’s letter to the inquiry stating he was diagnosed a year later with job-related stress, causing his absence from the office for long periods in the late 1990s. He said a psychiatrist has more recently diagnosed him as having suffered major depressive and anxiety disorders and he said he is still taking medication.
The inquiry has previously heard that Biddlecombe nixed the release, complaining to a colleague that it was “inaccurate and quite inflammatory.”
The force’s media spokeswoman didn’t publicly acknowledge the possibility of a serial murderer until November 1999.
About 19 women vanished in connection with Pickton’s pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C. from the late 1990s until he was arrested in 2002.
The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on the premises. Pickton was ultimately convicted of six murders.
The Canadian Press