That Lonely Section of Hell
Lori Shenher's forthcoming book about the botched investigation that
almost allowed serial killer Robert Pickton to get away
In 1998, former Vancouver Police Department detective Lori Shenher was assigned to investigate the growing number of women who were going missing from the Downtown Eastside. There were no bodies, no witnesses and at the time, no crime scene. There was also a prevailing attitude among police that sex-trade workers were transient and would turn up eventually, maybe in another city or maybe in the morgue. But as she dug into the files of the missing women, Ms. Shenher learned they had suddenly dropped out of sight – vanishing from regular hangouts, failing to pick up welfare cheques and not showing up in a medical system with which they had had regular, repeated contact. They were simply gone. In her first week on the job, she learned of a tip suggesting that Robert William Pickton be considered a suspect in the disappearances. But it wasn’t until February, 2002, that RCMP – acting on a warrant unrelated to the missing-women investigation – searched the Pickton property in Port Coquitlam, B.C., triggering a search and investigation that would become the biggest serial-murder case in Canadian history.
In her book, That Lonely Section of Hell: The Botched Investigation of a Serial Killer Who Almost Got Away, Ms. Shenher chronicles the missed opportunities, lack of resources and jurisdictional challenges that plagued her investigation and resulted in more women going missing even as Mr. Pickton was on her – and others’ – radar.
How It All Began
“No one can tell you what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side. Or you don’t.”
Stephen King, The Stand
Ibought two pairs of John Fluevog Angel Michael brogues – one black, one burgundy – with soles bearing little rubber angels, guaranteed Satan-resistant for my first real detective assignment. As a recovering Catholic, I figured any extra Devil-proofing couldn’t hurt, and my purchases felt right as I embarked on my career as a gumshoe fighting evil and injustice.
In the spring of 1998, VPD civilian Missing Persons clerk Sandra Cameron had reported that drug-addicted women working in the Downtown Eastside sex trade were going missing at a higher rate than normal. July 27, 1998, was my first day in Missing Persons, and I would mostly be working on the files of the missing women. I sat down at my desk in the tiny office and inadvertently kicked a plastic box at my feet. I reached down and pulled the black rectangular tray out into the light, reading the raised letters “Rat Poison – Danger Toxic” above a skull-and-crossbones insignia. Nice. Binders of files with the pages falling out lined the messy bookshelves. I opened a file drawer hoping to find paper and instead caused a small avalanche of dental molds of varying ages, some labeled, others not.
I was thrilled to learn my supervisor would be homicide sergeant Geramy Field. I had worked alongside Geramy on several files when she was a supervisor in the Sexual Offence Squad and I was in the Strike Force, and I respected her a great deal. She was the VPD’s – and Canada’s – first female police dog handler and a trailblazer for women in policing. Geramy brought a calm, assured presence to whatever team she worked on, and she was a natural leader. Geramy supervised our four-member Missing Persons office, in addition to one of the VPD’s two overworked homicide squads during the height of a gang war.
My partner was Detective Al Howlett, a highly principled man and oddly brilliant investigator burned out from too many years investigating bad cops in the Internal Investigation Section (IIS). As I got to know him, I learned that Al was frustrated because he knew that even if he proved a case against a corrupt or negligent member of the force, often little or no action was taken and that person would be back working in the community before the ink had dried on Al’s report. Al’s desk was an oasis of order in a desert of disorganization. Each night before leaving, he made certain the entire surface of his desk was free of everything but his telephone. A couple of hours into our first day together, Al casually looked up from his file and spoke for the first time since we had introduced ourselves.
“This is what they call a sick building, you know. They won’t tell you that, but a lot of the guys who’ve worked in the DO (Detective Office) for years get cancer when they retire.” He gazed down at his file.
“Is there anything you can do about it?” I asked. “Like, to protect yourself?”
“Nope.” I sat waiting for more, but when I saw no further information was forthcoming, I went back to organizing my desk.
Al was an excellent detective, and he taught me how to put a file together in an orderly, organized way. I also learned that he would not willingly act as my mentor; the missing women files would become predominantly my thing, but he would help me when I needed it. What he didn’t know was that I would learn a great deal from him, and he was an excellent mentor. His note-taking and record-keeping were flawless, and although I never reached his high standard, I did improve my record-keeping from passable to more than acceptable. He had been the investigator on several of the first missing women files and felt there would be no happy ending to their stories. He found working on these files frustrating dead-end work, and he was at a loss – as was I – about how to take the investigations further. He was extremely capable, but policing had sucked him dry long ago.
In those days, I felt a certain pity for Al, thinking how sad it was that a man so close to retirement could have so little good feeling about his work or the organization he worked for, clinging only to his unwavering routines and idiosyncrasies. In less than three years, I would become Al. Now I recognize all the signs of burnout that Al suffered, brought on by doing a horrible job for an organization ill equipped to support him, because I have suffered from them, too. I understand the look of panic I would see on his face when our day’s plan would suddenly change and we would be forced to do something or go somewhere out of the ordinary. I understand why he wouldn’t bring his gun, that mine would be enough. I know now how much strength it took for Al to make it to retirement, and it saddens me to think of what this job has cost him and others like him. I only hope he has found peace in his retirement.
In April 1998, a woman named Sarah de Vries had disappeared, and a friend of hers, Wayne Leng, had set up a 1-800 tip line. Wayne was a single middle-aged man who worked in the automotive industry and had an interest in computers. On July 27, 1998 – my first day working in the VPD Missing Persons Unit – a man named Bill Hiscox phoned Wayne’s tip line suggesting that Robert William Pickton be considered a suspect in the disappearance of Sarah and the other missing women. It would be several days before this information would reach me, and I would work feverishly to interview Hiscox myself and search for any links between the victims and the Pickton farm.
As I worked to follow up on the Hiscox tip in early August 1998, I also began setting up our investigative office and scouring the missing women’s files for clues surrounding their disappearances. These first few weeks were a strange mix of investigation and administration that would come to characterize my job for the next two years.
In addition, I was surprised to learn I would be responsible for covering the Coroner’s Liaison Unit (CLU) officer’s job every Friday. We shared our office with the CLU officer, who worked to identify deceased people and to coordinate with the morgue and next of kin, and it was viewed as important enough to warrant five-day-per-week coverage. But the officer only worked four days a week, so 20 per cent of my time searching for the missing women would now be spent at the morgue, determining the identities and collecting the personal effects of Vancouver’s deceased. Taking valuable time away from my investigation to give another detective a four-day workweek seemed shortsighted to me.
When I began, there were seventeen women on my list. My approach was clinical, and I had not yet turned my mind to the bigger philosophical and political pictures, but those would begin to intrude on my thoughts, both awake and in sleep. In those first months, I strove for efficiency, well aware that one detective working on seventeen files needed to stick to the germane. My initial goal was to assess just how large the number of missing was and how much of an anomaly this number was in comparison with a normal year for Vancouver missing persons from a similar demographic.
One of my first tasks was to re-interview the people who had reported the women missing. I wanted to closely study each case so that I could identify any links or common threads. The obvious similarities were there – the women were adults, addicted to drugs, working in the sex trade, living on the Downtown Eastside – but I needed to look beyond those similarities for information about where they hung out, who they bought their dope from, who they had ripped off over the years, who they were.
As I worked on the files, I remained alive to anything I could use to bolster the credibility of the information about the Pickton farm and strove to identify and locate Bill Hiscox for an interview. Whenever I had a spare moment, I read the files over and over. I sought out the women’s families, social workers, landlords, mental health workers, street nurses, friends, drug dealers, boyfriends, and ex-boyfriends to try to get a sense of their daily lives and activities. There had to be something beyond their lifestyle and neighborhood that linked them: a place, a person, an activity aside from drug use. But what was the link?
My initial work involved database searches. The VPD record management system itemized interactions with police to assist with the creation of timelines, but the majority of this intelligence was still on paper index cards, and the work was slow. The Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) computer system outlined criminal charges, convictions, and jail sentences served.
Once I possessed a basic grasp of the victim files, I had Wayne Leng come in for an interview, in mid-August of 1998. All of our telephone dealings to that point had been uneventful. Wayne was small and compact and wore glasses. He spoke softly, with a slightly high-pitched voice, and he seemed gentle and kind. I found him to be helpful, conscientious, and knowledgeable about the Downtown Eastside – all traits that alternately comforted and worried me. I continued to ask myself if he could be a serial killer. The only way to rule him in or out was to go at him hard, and I did. I questioned him about why he would put everything in his life on the back burner for this woman who had such problems, who so clearly couldn’t give Wayne the kind of love that he had to give. He simply said he was patient and knew she had the potential to live a good life and be a solid citizen. Try as I might, I couldn’t anger him – specifically, I couldn’t bring him to express anger at Sarah.
I asked Wayne if he would be willing to take a polygraph, and he agreed, saying he would do whatever I asked if it would help. He would call me several times a week with information, and I enlisted him to help me get the only possible witness to Sarah’s disappearance – Samantha Moore* – to come in for an interview. This would be the first time I would seriously question Wayne’s judgment.
Samantha was supposedly working near Sarah on April 14, 1998, the night Sarah disappeared. One of the first things I did when I began reviewing Sarah’s file was to go out on the stroll and try to locate Samantha, because she could be a key witness. She wasn’t hard to find, and I pulled over next to her. From talking with her, it was immediately clear to me that Samantha was fairly astute and her faculties were not completely destroyed by drugs or mental illness, as is so common on the Downtown Eastside. She was high and working, and I hoped to build some rapport with her by making an appointment to talk at another time so that she could make the money she needed that day and not have her clientele scared off by my unmarked police car. This would turn out to be a mistake.
I knew the chances of her showing up were slim, but I felt the risk was worth it because the quality of a street interview in the Vancouver drizzle is so low when a woman is in a hurry to get back to work. Time spent talking to the cops was time wasted, so I felt an interview was best planned for when she wasn’t working. If I was going to take her statement, I wanted to do it properly, and that meant audio and videotaping it. She agreed to see me at my office a few days later. She never showed up. I called her cell number and was unable to reach her for several days, until, finally, she answered. We again made a date to talk, and again, she failed to show up. A few weeks later, I drove past her again on the street and stopped to talk. At this point, she told me she really hadn’t seen anything the night Sarah went missing and an interview wouldn’t be very useful. I implored her to come in and allow me to do a cognitive interview with her that can very often help to jog a witness’s memory, and she said she would try. She never came in.
Throughout this time, I had been in contact with Wayne because he and Samantha kept in touch and I hoped he could encourage her to talk to me. He told me he was doing all he could to persuade her to be interviewed, but somehow she was not getting in the door. Some months later, I went onto Wayne’s website www.missingpeople.net, as was my custom every few months to see whether there was anything of interest. I was horrified to discover the “statement” of Samantha Moore, a National Enquirer-style account of the night Sarah went missing, complete with all sorts of detail that had been absent from our conversations. Furthermore, there was a preamble attached in which Samantha was quoted as saying the VPD had not tried to contact her and was not interested in hearing what she had to say. It seemed her entire take on this course of events was markedly different from my experience with her.
It was clear to me that Samantha’s story had become more and more elaborate and incredible with each retelling, and it would be impossible to tell truth from fantasy. I called Wayne, furious he would publish this online “statement” rather than continue to encourage Samantha to come to me with what she thought she knew. He stood by his actions, fueled by his new role as webmaster, determined to make public everything he learned about the investigation, even if it compromised the integrity of that investigation. Samantha was ruined as a witness, and I was left asking myself what more I could have done to get her statement while the events were still fresh in her mind.
In the summer and fall of 1998, as I worked in that tiny Missing Persons office, reports of new missing sex workers piled up at an alarming rate, each one a seemingly more hopeless and impossible case than the last. Kerri Koski, missing in January 1998; Inga Hall, missing in February; Sarah de Vries, April; Sheila Egan, July; Angela Jardine, November; Michelle Gurney, December; Marcella Creison, December; Cindy Beck, missing in August 1997 but not reported until April 1998; Helen Hallmark, missing in June 1997 but not reported until September 1998; Jacquie Murdock, missing in September 1997 but not reported until October 1998. All gone. Vanished. Ten women. An entire basketball team.
When I began, I was unaware there was interest in forming a missing women’s working group. In September 1998, soon after I began in Missing Persons, Inspector Gary Greer, who was in charge of the Downtown Eastside, and Detective Inspector Kim Rossmo, the lone member of the Geographic Profiling Unit, invited me to a meeting. The Geographic Profiling Unit had been underused since Rossmo created it nearly five years earlier, after completing his PhD in criminology. Rossmo’s promotion from constable straight to detective inspector – an unprecedented jump to a special VPD rank created just for Rossmo – and his installation as the head of this one-man unit ruffled many feathers. Since his promotion, he had been ostracized by the detectives and many in management. My manager, Major Crime inspector Fred Biddlecombe; SOS Sergeant Axel Hovbrender; Downtown Eastside neighborhood safety officer Constable Dave Dickson; and I attended the meeting.
There was a surreal quality to the invitation for me. For some six weeks, I’d been toiling away in my office, completely unaware that anyone else in the VPD was interested in or working on the missing women cases. I had sent out bulletins to patrol members, other sections of the VPD, and police agencies across the country asking for information and received no indication that others sensed a problem. My first reaction was enthusiasm: here were others I could work with, people I could share my theories and ideas with. I envisioned a cohesive team setting where we would band together toward a common goal: finding the women.
From the meeting’s opening, tension hung in the air. Rossmo and Greer took the lead, while Biddlecombe sat back with his arms folded, a scowl on his face. Fred Biddlecombe was a dour, intense man who rarely smiled. He wasn’t given to casual conversation, and it seemed the pressures of his position were great.
“We see this as an opportunity to–” Greer began, before Biddlecombe cut him off.
“I know exactly what opportunity you two,” he gestured toward Greer and Rossmo, “see in all this. But I won’t have my people paraded around in your dog and pony show. Lori’s barely been here a month, and she needs the chance to see where her investigation leads before we start sounding alarm bells that will have every quack in the city calling her.”
Dave Dickson passed around a handout: two sheets of paper filled with more than fifty names of mostly Indigenous women from the Vancouver area who had gone missing or been murdered. Biddlecombe looked at it quickly and turned on Dickson.
“Where did you get this?” he demanded. I sat there wondering the same thing. I’d been working for six weeks to compile a comprehensive list of the missing women. Most of these names were new to me, and I worried I’d missed even more. “That’s not current. A good number of those women have been found,” Biddlecombe finished, visibly upset.
“Yes, sir, you’re right. Unsolved accounted for all those first ones I brought to them. This is a new list from the Vancouver area,” Dickson replied.
Biddlecombe pushed the handout back toward Dickson as he spoke. “And when Unsolved did start working on locating them, important information was leaked to the press, which is why I’m not thrilled to devote any of my people to this working group.” He looked pointedly at Dickson, but it was as though he hadn’t heard him. “I don’t want to open Major Crime files to people I can’t trust not to run to the press. I don’t want this investigation moving outside of Major Crime.”
I sat there, openmouthed, watching the back and forth like a spectator at a tennis match.
When he spoke of “opportunity,” I suspected Biddlecombe was alluding to Greer’s less-than-secret desire to be the next chief and Rossmo’s need to justify the existence of his fledgling Geographic Profiling Unit. Now nearing the end of his five-year contract, Rossmo seemed to be looking for a life raft. I failed to understand why singling out Dave Dickson or airing dirty laundry was fair or served any purpose.
Rossmo and Greer had composed a press release for this meeting, warning of the possibility that a serial killer was at work on the Downtown Eastside, and they wanted it issued immediately. The rest of us in this newly created working group were opposed – not because we didn’t agree there was probably a serial killer. We felt it was premature, given that I hadn’t yet fully investigated many of the missing women files to rule out any other possible fates. In hindsight, there would have been little harm in issuing the release, but most of us felt it would cause more trouble than it would prevent.
Specifically, we thought the language of the release was inflammatory and likely to meet indifference from the sex workers while inciting panic among many outside the community. Typically, these women knew better than anyone the dangers associated with working the streets, and news of the operation of a serial killer would not come as a surprise to them. Warning the women would not stop them from working and putting themselves at risk; it would merely satisfy Downtown Eastside community leaders that we were doing something. Greer and Rossmo agreed to hold off on the release.
After Biddlecombe left the room, I approached Rossmo.
“Can you help me with something?” I asked.
“I need to analyze the number of missing women I have so far, to show it’s statistically unusual and a real problem, not just a strange blip or something. Can you do that?” His eyes lit up.
“I can do an epidemiological analysis of the numbers to look for patterns or anomalies over the years,” he answered.
“Perfect. Come and see me and I’ll give you what you need.” I lowered my voice. “And keep it between us. Biddlecombe will have an aneurism if he knows I’m showing you the files.”
After this meeting, two of the participants, Sergeant Axel Hovbrender of the Sexual Offence Squad and Constable Dave Dickson, joined me back at my office. I’d known Dave from my time on patrol, and he would prove to be an invaluable ally and friend over the years. He deserves an entire book on his own; his work with the youth and sex workers in the Downtown Eastside is legendary and his compassion boundless. We talked for a few minutes about the meeting before Dave begged off to get back on the road, responding to his constantly vibrating pager for which so many desperate, disadvantaged kids had the number. As always, he left me with strict orders to call him if I needed anything. Everybody calls Dave when they need anything.
Axel sat quietly for several long moments. I didn’t know him well, but my experience of him had always been as someone who didn’t speak often, but when he did, people listened.
“Lor, I don’t have a lot of advice for you. You seem to know where you’re going with this.” He paused. “But I will tell you this: document everything, every single thing, and ask for help, ask for what you need to do the job. Document it every time you ask for help and document it when they turn you down.” He looked meaningfully into my eyes, and I swallowed hard, feeling a weight descend upon me. I knew he was sending me an important message in the only way he could, without scaring me right off the entire police department. He knew how this was very likely to go, and he was trying to protect me.
More than any other moment in this investigation, I am grateful for those words, because they woke me up and forced me to see what I was getting into. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but I took Axel’s advice and documented everything I did as well as I could. I asked for help, and I wrote it down when help was denied. I even kept a list of what I’d written down so that when many of my most important documents seemed to disappear before the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, I could at least say I had had them at some point. As someone told me during my legal prep for the inquiry: He with the most notes wins. No one wins in this story. But I was able to stand up for my work, or at least that which wasn’t misplaced years later by Project Evenhanded, the RCMP’s exploration of missing and murdered women in British Columbia.
A Letter to Sarah de Vries
I feel as though you and I have somehow been partners on this strange journey. We both came to this investigation in 1998, you a couple of short months before me—the mentor, a big sister of sorts, much in the same way you were one to so many of the girls on the street.
I had known you on the street but not nearly as well as I would come to know you after you left. You were a writer, a gifted, educated, articulate young woman defeated by a world that seemed unable to allow you to just be—to be a woman of color in a white family, to be different and beautiful and yet not be seen as some sort of commodity or jewel to be had, possessed. You struggled valiantly, but in the end, your pain brought you to the Downtown Eastside, and it was that pain that made you such a compassionate friend to so many.
The men who used you, the men who purported to love you—it was nearly impossible to tell the difference between them. Could you? Did you ever know which to trust? I had always got the sense you saw above and beyond the bullshit. You knew who was giving you a line and who really wanted to see you do well—you worked the middle ground and got what you needed without giving up too much of yourself. Was that how it was for you?
You and your family—Maggie; your mom, Pat; your aunt Jean; Jeanie; Ben—are all so inextricably tied into these years for me. I feel in many ways you are—or should be—the poster child for this tragedy. You are every daughter, every person’s schoolmate, every young girl’s best friend from Brownies—perhaps you represent just how vulnerable we all are, our children all are. And it scares us, doesn’t it? We don’t want to say, Look what happened to Sarah. She came from a good neighborhood, went to a good school, had two parents at home, every advantage—look what happened to her.
More than with any other family, I have wanted to open up to yours. Perhaps it’s because yours is a family of writers, or because I’ve found them to be so even, so thoughtful and balanced, even in their assessment of this case, this heartbreak, this world. They are phenomenal women, your mom, Jean, Maggie, Jeanie. I often bump up against that keen awareness that I must walk that line between speaking from the heart and speaking as a part of this goddamn investigation that makes us all walk and talk like automatons.
When I called your mom to tell her about Pickton’s arrest, she was out and your aunt Jean answered. You’d get a kick out of this, I know. Her first question to me was What are you reading these days? And we entered into a lengthy discussion of the latest mystery writers—not really my thing, but she assumed as a cop it would be, and I was just thrilled to talk to someone about something other than this horrible man and the horrible things he’d done. Maggie was equally warm, wanting to know how I was after I had just given her this oddly bittersweet news. In her quiet voice she whispered the words to me I will never forget: This is that man you had told me about, isn’t it?
When I think of you, I think of that fit, well-groomed young woman rollerblading around the Downtown Eastside, grooving to her Walkman—you always reminded me of those images we often see from war-torn countries of children playing a game of soccer or basketball in the midst of mass destruction and total disarray. It was as though you were able to transport yourself away from that filth, back to Kits Beach or UBC. Back to somewhere supposedly safe.
You touched a great many people. I think those people have a difficult time accepting you didn’t survive your journey. I think everyone expected you would be someone who would hit bottom, then bounce back to do amazing things and teach others what you had learned about yourself and this often harsh world. In the back of my mind, I guess I felt about you the way some parents feel about a favorite child—that you more than anyone would be okay, that you would turn up, that in some way, I wouldn’t have to worry for you the way I did the others because you would make it.
I still half-expect to see you come rollerblading around the corner, world tuned out, earphones on.