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THE PICKTON FILE

By Stevie Cameron

Knopf Canada, 260 pages, $24.95

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By the late 1970s and early 1980s, anyone who was paying attention to the phenomenon of "missing women" knew that something terrible was happening in Vancouver's East End. In that pockmarked landscape - cheap hotels, crummy bars and restaurants - that spreads east from Main and Hastings, with its mixed population of pensioners, prostitutes and drug addicts, we find a mountain of misery and the poorest postal code in all of Canada.

The missing women were impoverished, desperate and vulnerable street-sex workers, most of whom were hopelessly addicted to drugs and alcohol. A significant minority of them were women of aboriginal descent. All of them somehow, mysteriously, disappeared from the street. Their vanishing was a matter of profound concern to their friends and their families. But to no one else.

Their sudden disappearances also presented a major puzzle. Where had the women gone? Had they merely packed their things and moved away without telling their friends or family, or had something unspeakable happened to them? Despite the mounting number of missing women after 1978, the citizens of Vancouver seemed unconcerned. Neither the mayor nor the police seemed to care at all about what would ultimately become, Stevie Cameron writes in The Pickton File, "the largest crime scene in Canadian history." Yet had police immediately begun intensive surveillance of the few blocks on which the women lived and worked, they might have saved dozens of lives. They might also have saved the hundred million-plus dollars that the investigation and trial will cost.

It is not very surprising that no one cared. After all, these women were murdered and then victimized yet again by the bland, racist, sexist and "classist" prejudices buried in Canadian society: an institutionalized contempt for the poor, for sex workers, for drug addicts and alcoholics, for aboriginal people, even for women. Thus, to be a drug-addicted and destitute aboriginal woman sex worker is to be at the very bottom of society's dispossessed, dehumanized and disenfranchised. Even when friends of the disappeared went to the police to complain, they would be "ignored, turned away, or lied to. 'Oh, she's probably in Las Vegas with a guy,' " police would say dismissively.

For 20 years, as more and more women disappeared, as women's groups and activists for sex workers intensified their protests, Cameron notes that no official did anything. Nothing. Then in 1998, Kim Rossmo, a detective-inspector in the Vancouver police department (with a PhD in criminology and expertise in geographic profiling of violent offenders), suggested in public that "a serial killer was almost certainly responsible for the disappearances." For his courage in speaking out, Rossmo was promptly fired from his rank and reduced to street constable.

In July, 1999, a brief item on the U.S. television show America's Most Wanted brought the case to public attention once more. Two years later, The Vancouver Sun ran an 11-part series on the missing women. Cameron writes: "Their accounts of police negligence were shocking. Among many other things, they found ... that the investigations were flawed ... and that there were far more women missing (at least 45) than the police had admitted."

The Sun series "shamed the police into adding more resources to the investigation," and a Missing Women Task Force (a joint operation between RCMP and the Vancouver police department) was formed in April, 2001. Astonishingly, the Vancouver police chief of the day thought his force had done a fine job on the now-23-year-old case and commented, "I believe we're looking very good in this."

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Pig farmer Robert William Pickton, a habitué of East End prostitutes, a friend of the local Hells Angels chapter and a host of many parties for all of them, was arrested in February, 2002, and charged with two counts of first-degree murder. He quickly became the prime suspect in the missing-women case, and his farm became the focus of two years of intensive search by almost 200 forensic anthropologists and other specialists, all trawling for body parts and DNA of the missing women. The first of his trials would not begin until January, 2007.

In the wake of Pickton's initial arrest and presumed speedy trial, Stevie Cameron - one of Canada's most distinguished journalists - was commissioned by her publishers to write a book. She arrived in Vancouver in the summer of 2002, blissfully unaware that it would be 4½ long years before the trial even got under way.

When she first arrived, she drove to the hunting grounds on East Hastings, marvelling in a Dickensian way at "the open-air drug market, thick with muttering dealers and customers; the prostitutes waiting on corners, as drivers inched along in their cars, looking them over; emaciated women lurching along the sidewalks, stooping and hunting in vain for the tiniest crumbs of crack cocaine - a process I later learned was called 'tweaking.' Bodies were slumped in doorways or against garbage cans in alleys ..."

Through all these years, Cameron was in and out of Vancouver, often living in appalling conditions (about which she relentlessly complains), while gathering material and photographs for the book. Labouring at first under the weight of a publication ban, and then endlessly frustrated by the sheer length of the investigation, she decided to write what are essentially two volumes.

Volume One, The Pickton File, disappointingly tells us nothing at all about the trial, but does provide us with some rich material from the five-year pretrial period. Interviews with friends and family of many of the murdered women reveal a great deal about the indifference with which the senile bureaucracies routinely treat the bereaved and anguished. These stories are interlaced with interviews with the kith and kin of the alleged killer and give us some creepy insights into his body and mind (e.g., as a child on the family's farm, if he wished to hide from someone, Pickton would sometimes crawl inside the freshly butchered carcass of a pig).

We are also given potted tours of British Columbia's underclass's social history, and through the Byzantine judicial machinery that is dealing with the case. A second and forthcoming book by Cameron, The Pig Farm, will document the actual trial of Robert William Pickton and the numb brutality of the murders. It is eagerly anticipated.

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Elliott Leyton is professor emeritus of anthropology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and the author of many books and essays on homicide, including Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer.

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