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Last Updated: Sunday, 9 December 2007, 22:54 GMT
Vancouver's vanished women
By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News

The story of serial killer Robert Pickton will haunt Canada for decades to come.

Undated video grab of Robert Pickton
Robert Pickton denied all charges against him

Found guilty by a Vancouver court of murdering six women, he is charged with the killing of a further 20.

The women are among dozens who disappeared in the 1980s and 1990s from Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, a district famed as "Canada's poorest postcode".

For years, police refused to open murder cases, labelling the women simply as missing.

No charges were pressed against the 57-year-old pig farmer until February 2002, when police stumbled across some of the women's possessions while searching his property for firearms.

'Horror movie'

Pickton, who ran a pig farm on the edge of the small Vancouver suburb Port Coquitlam, told police he was an ordinary farmer, "just a pig man".

But when they began examining outhouses and sifting deep through the soil on the 10-acre farm, they found blood-stained clothes and pieces of human bone and teeth, amassing enough evidence to charge him with 26 murders.

Forensic officers at the site of Pickton's farm (file image from 2002)
More than 100 forensic specialists were involved in searching the farm

The judge who presided over the trial - the most expensive in Canadian history - compared the case to a horror movie.

Some of the bodies had been fed to the pigs.

"These women have been victimised multiple times," former Vancouver police official Kim Rossmo - the first to suspect a serial killer was at work - told the BBC News website.

"By Pickton, by the system and the police because of the lack of response and, in some ways, they are being victimised in some interaction between the families and the media," he added.

'Invisible women'

Many were drug addicts, working in the sex trade to fund their habits - part of a transient and disenfranchised community.

Images of one of the women who disappeared at a Vancouver memorial
There were 27 on the missing list, going back to 1995. That was a cluster. That was way too many missing people
Kim Rossmo
Professor of Criminology

According to Mr Rossmo, now a criminology professor at Texas university, the low social status of these women, many of whom were of aboriginal origin, contributed to the police's lack of concern.

"If these women had been from the affluent Westside of Vancouver, you can count on the fact that it would have been a very different response," he said.

Stevie Cameron, an investigative journalist and author of a book on the Pickton trial, agrees, describing the women, even before they vanished from the streets, as "invisible".

"They were missing and the families would get very upset. They couldn't get any help from the Vancouver police. They would file missing person's reports and nothing would happen," she said.

"The police did minimal investigation into these women. There were no bodies but it was also partly an attitude of good riddance to these prostitutes and drug addicts."

Smoke without fire

Mr Rossmo criticises the police for their inertia and lack of vision.

"If you have dead bodies on the street you know you have a homicide, but that wasn't happening.

He had quite a reputation. He was a known habitue of the Downtown Eastside. Women were afraid of him
Stevie Cameron
Investigative journalist

"At one point homicide detectives even said, 'There is nothing to do.' It's like the fire department saying: 'Well, we see smoke but we haven't seen any fire yet.'"

But he insisted that the concentration of disappearances, even for an area like Vancouver's Eastside, was far too high.

"There were 27 on the missing list, going back to 1995. That was a cluster. That was way too many missing people."

Key suspect

On average fewer than two people disappeared per year, until a spike in 1995.

Pickton was already regarded as a dodgy character, someone whose parties would attract addicts looking for a fix.

1983: First woman disappears from Downtown Eastside
1995: Spike in number of women vanishing
1999: Vancouver police offer $100,000 reward for information
Feb 2002: Police search Pickton's farm, find remains, first murder charge
May 2005: Pickton now faces 27 murder charges
Aug 2006: Judge splits charges into two cases
Jan 2007: trial begins
Dec 2007: Pickton found guilty of six counts of second-degree murder

"He had quite a reputation. He was a known habitue of the Downtown Eastside. Women were afraid of him," Ms Cameron said.

"He was in a 'bad date book' at one of the prostitute's drop-in centres where they kept track of bad dates and warned each other about them."

Pickton was a serious suspect by 1997, she said. In that year alone, 13 women disappeared.

"Pickton was known to be a good suspect... but no-one was going to put the resources into surveillance and that is what it takes," Mr Rossmo said.

'Creepy-looking guy'

By May 2005, three years after his arrest, the number of murder charges against Pickton had reached 27.

In the courtroom during the trial he was mostly impassive.

"He is a repellent-looking human being," Ms Cameron said.

"He doesn't show any emotion, he occasionally smiles. Normally, unless he nods or smiles at a defence witness he knows, his face doesn't change. He listens intensely. His hair is very greasy. He is a creepy-looking guy. He talks using little aphorisms, little clichés."

The investigation and trial - and the horror which greeted it - has brought a number of changes in Canada.

A woman pays her respects at a Vancouver memorial
Many of Pickton's victims lived on the margins of society

The painstaking investigation of Pickton's farm, during which every inch of soil was methodically picked over, broke new ground in forensics.

"They brought in 102 forensic anthropologists. They dug down through the surface of the farmland until they reached undisturbed soil and in some areas that was 20 or 30 feet (up to 8m).

"They even invented a robotic system to process the DNA," Ms Cameron said.

The Vancouver Police Force now has a well-staffed and resourced Missing Persons Unit which takes complaints seriously, and the deprivation of Canada's aboriginal women has come under the global media spotlight.

But for drug-addicted prostitutes still eking out a living in the hotels on the city's Downtown Eastside, little has improved, Ms Cameron said.

"Nothing has changed in that area. They have no protection, they still live in filthy hotels with rapacious landlords.

"The only thing that is changing is not civic anger, or compassion, or concern. It's development, because the Olympics are coming.

"Developers see that as prime real estate to be turned into breathtakingly expensive condominiums."

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