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Lori Shenher believes a national inquiry into missing women might be valuable, but worries the result would be vague.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

He haunts this city and the country: a lank-haired man who hunted women on Vancouver's meanest streets, finding those who were weak and vulnerable and taking them to his Port Coquitlam farm where he would kill them.

Convicted serial murderer Robert William Pickton has also haunted Lori Shenher, the former Vancouver Police Department detective constable who in 1998 was assigned to investigate the growing number of missing persons' cases involving drug-addicted women working on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. A few days into the job, she learned someone had recently called a tip line suggesting Mr. Pickton be considered a suspect in the disappearances.

But it wasn't until Feb. 5, 2002, that an RCMP search warrant for a weapons offence unrelated to the missing women's investigation turned up evidence – an inhaler belonging to one of the missing women – on Mr. Pickton's farm and triggered the search that would result in murder charges and his trial.

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Between those dates, Ms. Shenher struggled with a lack of resources to investigate the missing women and had nightmares about women's hands slipping from her grip. Later, it would emerge that more than a dozen women had gone missing over the same time period.

She left the missing persons team in 2000, before Mr. Pickton was caught. These days, she thinks about him less.

"I have interviewed more than a few murderers in jail and I have dealt with some pretty nasty characters in my career and they don't keep me up at night – I don't think about him much," Ms. Shenher said in a recent interview, near the neighbourhood in which Mr. Pickton used to find his victims.

"I think a lot about the women. I think about the families and the way it's all gone."

That story, of Mr. Pickton, the missing women and the police who tracked a killer, is about to get a new airing in a book, That Lonely Section of Hell, by Ms. Shenher, who started her job in the missing persons unit with a keener's enthusiasm and two pairs of brogues – one black, one purple – with angels on their soles.

The book, which has elements of a police procedural, an autobiography and a tribute to the missing women, almost went unpublished. Ms. Shenher started it in 2002, partly because she was worried about being made a scapegoat. Those worries were largely dispelled by several reviews that found jurisdictional turf wars, a lack of resources and flawed investigation procedures – rather than mistakes on Ms. Shenher's part – resulted in Mr. Pickton being at large long after he had been identified as a potential suspect.

Mr. Pickton was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder in 2007. Twenty other charges of first-degree murder were stayed in 2010. The DNA of 33 women, 12 of whom were aboriginal, was found on his farm.

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Ms. Shenher, who is on medical leave from her job with the VPD, says she also wrote the book to shed light on post-traumatic stress disorder, with which she has been diagnosed. Her experience left her believing police forces need to do more to educate and prepare recruits for what they might encounter on the job.

These days, people often ask Ms. Shenher whether she supports a national public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. Last year, the RCMP released a report that found 1,181 indigenous women were killed or went missing between 1980 and 2012. To date, the federal Conservative government has rebuffed calls for a public inquiry, even as high-profile cases such as the murder of Tina Fontaine – a 15-year-old whose body was pulled from Winnipeg's Red River in August, 2014 – underscore the tragedies.

"My first answer is – not if it's in any way like the one I participated in," Ms. Shenher says, referring to B.C.'s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, which wrapped up in 2012 with a series of recommendations.

While well-intentioned, that review didn't get the time and funds it needed, she maintains.

With sufficient funds and a sharp focus, a national inquiry into missing women might be valuable, she adds. But with so many facets to be explored – poverty, racism, institutional cultures – she worries only vague recommendations would result.

"It's hard to come out with a recommendation that tells a police officer, 'Take something seriously.' Or, 'Treat this person like you would if it was your own daughter,'" she says. "People like me for the first year of the file could say, 'Oh yeah, we're treating this just like they were from Kerrisdale' – until the point where I went, 'No, we're not.'"

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"So I have a very qualified yes; it has to be right."

Read an exclusive excerpt from That Lonely Section of Hell this Saturday in British Columbia editions of The Globe and Mail and online.

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