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Retired Staff Sergeant Don Adam, who helmed the Project Evenhanded task force starting in January, 2001, told the missing women's inquiry on Wednesday that his joint RCMP-Vancouver Police unit did capitalize on the first opportunity that came up.Chuck Stoody/The Canadian Press

Serial killer Robert Pickton was caught at the earliest chance a police task force had to nab him, said a lead investigator on the missing women case, who suggested hindsight is prompting critics to overlook the facts at the time.

Retired Staff Sergeant Don Adam, who helmed the Project Evenhanded task force starting in January 2001, told the missing women's inquiry on Wednesday that his joint RCMP-Vancouver Police unit did "capitalize" on the first opportunity that came up.

In February, 2002, his officers accompanied a Mountie who was executing an unrelated search warrant on Mr. Pickton's Port Coquitlam, B.C. farm.

"Now, somehow, that's become a bad thing in everyone's minds," he testified.

"There was no earlier breaks, I don't believe, that we missed."

The inquiry is examining why the serial killer was not caught sooner.

Mr. Pickton was among a lengthy list of suspects drawn up by the task force, which was formed to find patterns between hundreds of potential cases of missing sex workers from the city's Downtown Eastside and examine who might be responsible.

At the time, two other investigations had already narrowed in on the likelihood Mr. Pickton was killing women. The Vancouver Police Department led one, while another was run by the Coquitlam RCMP detachment that policed the suburban area where the man lived.

But none of those probes coalesced.

Staff Sgt. Adam said he knew Mr. Pickton was a prime suspect for Vancouver Police, but his superiors had specifically directed him to conduct a "holistic review" that couldn't pick favourites for fear of overlooking other vital evidence.

Eventually, his officers realized they had an active killer on their hands.

But he cautioned the inquiry against taking a "Mr. Pickton-centric" view in looking at how the events leading to the man's arrest had unfolded.

"I followed [my]mandate, along with Mr. Pickton – putting him in jail for life. I followed that mandate right through to the end on everyone. Which is exactly the mandate that the police forces and the government financed, and wanted me to do.

"We don't get to change history here, I hope."

The task force did know that police had checked out Mr. Pickton in both 1997 and 1999 after a sex worker was nearly stabbed to death and then when a tipster said Mr. Pickton had been seen butchering a woman's body. It also knew that DNA evidence had eliminated him in a series of serial murders in the Fraser Valley.

Mr. Pickton had not, however, been recently spotted in the city's Downtown Eastside, he said.

Asked by an inquiry lawyer whether he had been informed of the full extent of the missing women file, Adam's testimony opposed the tone of previous witnesses who felt information was not shared adequately.

"It wasn't lack of communication," he said, noting that different police forces was not the problem and that members of his team were in touch with the others.

"I didn't have a proper appreciation ... as to how many ways that missing person unit was being pushed and pulled."

And he said he underestimated the manpower it would take for such a massive investigation. The task force was both streamlining thousands of missing women cases, to determine which applied, and examining the possibility of hundreds of suspects.

"Unfortunately that's all part of experience and living through it."

In hindsight, the 40-year veteran said he would have managed his task force better, watching over all the different people involved more closely.

"Evenhanded's lessons have not been lost. They're being used," he said.

Mr. Pickton was arrested after members of Project Evenhanded found the remains and belongings of missing sex workers during a search for illegal firearms on his farm.

A giant forensic excavation was initiated that turned up the DNA of 33 women.

Mr. Pickton was eventually charged with killing 26, and convicted of second-degree murder in the deaths of six.