How serial killer Robert Pickton slipped away

New revelations show why he was able to prey with such impunity


Long before Robert Pickton became an infamous household name, but years after he began prowling Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a local advocacy group conducted a survey of the city’s prostitutes. It helps explain how a simple-minded pig farmer—the very definition of the banality of evil—got away with what police now believe is the largest serial killing spree in Canadian history.

The organization, the Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education (PACE) Society, interviewed 183 sex trade workers between 1999 and 2001. It found, not surprisingly, that 58 per cent worked to support a drug habit, and that violent “bad dates” were a frequent occurrence. More than half said they had been robbed while working the streets; 39 per cent said they had been kidnapped or confined; one-third said they had survived attempts to murder them. Remarkably, 40 per cent of those who claimed to have been targets for murder said they didn’t report the incident to police. The survey found a “gulf between acts of violence suffered and acts of violence reported”—indicative of a profound distrust of authorities.

It was the perfect combination of vulnerabilities for an urban predator. Pickton cruised  into the city, offered money and drugs to women working the Eastside “low track,” then drove them to the grotty, cluttered farm in suburban Port Coquitlam he shared with his brother Dave. If he was dead certain their disappearance would go unnoticed by authorities, it was with good reason. Trial information released last week shows Pickton skated on an attempted murder charge in 1997—freeing him to kill a further 21 of the more than 30 women investigators now believe were murdered and butchered at the farm.

With the Supreme Court of Canada upholding his six murder convictions and the Crown deciding not to proceed with 20 other murder charges, the courts were able to release testimony that wasn’t admitted at trial. Taken together, it helps show how Pickton was able to hunt humans with such impunity that he bragged to an undercover-police cell plant after his arrest in 2002 that he’d killed 49 women and was aiming for an even 50.

The most damning evidence jurors never heard was of a woman’s narrow escape from Pickton’s farm in 1997. She testified at the preliminary hearing he paid her $100 to accompany him to the farm for sex. She said she fought for her life after Pickton stabbed her and tried to handcuff her. Both suffered serious wounds and massive blood loss in the resulting knife fight. She escaped naked, with a handcuff dangling from a wrist.

The two were treated in adjoining operating rooms at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster.

Doctors found the key to remove the handcuffs in a pocket of Pickton’s clothing. A subsequent charge of attempted murder against him was stayed in early 1998—apparently because heavy drug use by the woman, whose name remains protected, made her an unreliable witness.

Tragically, that decision not to proceed came at enormous cost. Police now believe Pickton had killed at least five women at the farm by the time of the stabbing. All six women he was subsequently convicted of killing died after the 1997 stabbing, as well as 15 others he was charged with killing. Yet, Pickton remained above suspicion largely because of a refusal by the senior ranks of the Vancouver Police and the RCMP to believe that women were systematically being murdered. (Women like Sarah deVries, who worked the streets to feed her addiction, often railed at the indifference that met the disappearance of those around her. In one poetic diary entry she wrote: “Just another Hastings Street whore / sentenced to death / No judge, no jury, no trial, no mercy / The judge’s gavel already fallen / Sentence already passed.”)

Sadly, Pickton’s bloody clothing from the 1997 stabbing held the key, literally and figuratively, to solving both past and future murders. Police had seized the items but they weren’t tested for DNA until 2004, seven years after the stabbing and two years after Pickton’s arrest. (The results revealed the DNA of two women who vanished in early 1997, evidence kept from the jury because they were among the 20 women named in what was to be a separate trial. Nor did the jury hear that the DNA of 10 women was found in freezers in Pickton’s workshop.)

Despite the rising count of missing women, police refused to say that a serial killer was at work, or even to speculate that the women were dead. Their sluggish response has fuelled calls for an inquiry into the investigation now that the trial is over. An internal police review of the matter was forwarded to the provincial government last week.

There is much to answer for. As early as 2005 a police missing-women’s poster held the faces of 65 women (though some were found alive and others weren’t linked to Pickton). Had police seriously entertained the possibility of a serial killer, Pickton would certainly have been a prime suspect. Not only would a test of his clothing have yielded DNA of two of the women, but former Vancouver police officer Kim Rossmo later revealed police were tipped in 1998 that Pickton had a stash of women’s purses and ID.
They lacked either the will or the manpower to check it out. The missing women’s investigation started that year with just one Vancouver detective, though it grew into a joint city-RCMP task force. That summer, Rossmo, then head of the department’s geographic profiling unit, raised the possibility of a serial killer—an idea rejected by his superiors. Police were denying the possibility of a serial killer as late as June 2001, in part, Rossmo later charged, because the women’s low social status made them a lesser priority. It wasn’t that simple, former Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell, the chief provincial coroner at the time, would later write. “We never had any bodies. We never had a crime scene.”

Pickton was finally arrested in February 2002 after a rookie RCMP officer, acting on a weapons complaint, discovered articles at the farm belonging to a missing woman. The task force was called in and began a massive search of the property. It was an overdue bit of luck that came too late for Sarah deVries. She vanished in 1998, age 28, her DNA subsequently discovered on the farm. She’s one of 20 women that a convicted serial killer will never have to answer for. No judge. No jury. No trial.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.