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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 January 2007, 22:03 GMT
Canada pig farmer trial to begin
By Ian Gunn
BBC News, Vancouver

Sketch of Robert Pickton in court 11/12/2006
Prosecutors allege Mr Pickton is Canada's worst serial killer
The trial of a Canadian pig farmer accused of killing 26 women begins on Monday in Vancouver.

It is the largest serial murder case in Canadian history, and the trial will reveal details of the murders which have until now been kept secret by the Canadian courts.

The alleged victims come from a list of more than 60 women who are believed to have vanished from the streets of Vancouver since about 1980.

Most disappeared in the late 1990s.

Pig farm raided

In February of 2002, police raided a scruffy pig farm run by Robert William Pickton and charged him with murdering two women from the list.

As investigators combed the Pickton property over the following months, the number of murder charges against Mr Pickton began to rise steadily, at one time reaching 27.

One charge has since been dropped for lack of evidence.

At the time of his arrest, Mr Pickton had largely abandoned farming, raising only a few of pigs for sale to friends and neighbours.

The farm in Port Coquitlam, about 50km (31 miles) outside Vancouver, became less and less active as Vancouver's suburbs sprawled and the Pickton family sold portions for the housing estates and shopping centres that now surround the remaining farm site.

Community suspicions

Despite the number of charges that have been laid, the police have sometimes been criticised for a lack of action in this case.

Police searching for bodies in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia
Investigators spent months combing the farm near Vancouver
Most of the victims were sex workers and drug addicts from the streets of Vancouver's poorest neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside.

While the number of missing women climbed in the late 1990s, some family members and community leaders accused police of failing to take seriously local suspicions that a serial killer was killing prostitutes.

However, the police insist they did investigate the concerns, but because many of the women had no permanent homes and little contact with their families, the disappearances were sometimes slow to be reported and were hard to confirm.

And as no bodies had been found, the police say they had no proof that any murders had occurred at all.

But once the investigators raided the Pickton farm, the uncertainty seemed to vanish.

Dozens of forensic investigators spent months on and near the Pickton property.

They used large conveyor belts to sift through tons of soil while laboratories conducted thousands of DNA tests.

Publication restrictions

But little more than that is currently known publicly about the accusations against Mr Pickton.

Publication restrictions have made it illegal for journalists to report any evidence until it is presented during the trial.

Artists sketch showing Robert Pickton (far right) in court
Judges banned pre-trial reports of evidence against Mr Pickton (right)
The judge, Justice James Williams, ruled that Mr Pickton's chances of having a fair trial could be threatened if the jury had been exposed to evidence in the media in advance.

The sheer volume of evidence has also threatened to overwhelm the case, with some of the DNA evidence expected to run into hundreds of thousands of samples.

Presenting all of that evidence in court could have taken years, so the judge has decided to split the trial into two.

Evidence on only six of the charges will he heard now, with the remaining 20 to be tried in a separate case later.

Even so, this first trial is expected to last a year or more.

Some of the victims' family members say they hope to attend as much of the trial as possible.

Others have accepted an invitation from the court to attend a single week of the trial in a special area set aside for the families.

Some family members have also been told they could be called as witnesses.

And so, as the trial begins, both the families and the public will finally learn what investigators found on Robert Pickton's pig farm, and why they believe he is Canada's most prolific serial killer.

Some of Robert Pickton's alleged victims

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