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Pickton victims treated as 'throwaways': inquiry commissioner

VANCOUVER - The families of Robert Pickton's victims have received public confirmation of something they already knew to be true: if their daughters, sisters and mothers weren't poor, drug-addicted sex workers from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, many
Women hug as Commissioner Wally Oppal delivers the final report of the Missing Women Inquiry in Vancouver, Monday, Dec.17, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

VANCOUVER - The families of Robert Pickton's victims have received public confirmation of something they already knew to be true: if their daughters, sisters and mothers weren't poor, drug-addicted sex workers from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, many of them aboriginal and all living on the margins of society, some of them might still be alive.

If they were a different group of women, living in other, richer parts of town, the police would have done more to find the killer. The public would have been outraged.

Commissioner Wally Oppal comes to that devastating conclusion in his final report from a public inquiry into the case, concluding systemic bias towards Downtown Eastside sex workers was a key factor that allowed Pickton to spend years hunting his victims.

"These women were vulnerable; they were treated as throwaways," Oppal said Monday as he released his findings.

"Would the reaction of the police and the public have been any different if the missing women had come from Vancouver's west side? The answer is obvious."

Instead, the police simply did not do enough, he said. The public was largely indifferent.

Oppal noted that even referring to Pickton's victims as missing women is a misnomer.

"The women didn't go missing," Oppal told a news conference that was interrupted by applause, jeers, drumming and aboriginal singing.

"They aren't just absent. They didn't just go away. They were taken."

Oppal released a 1,448-page report that chronicles years of critical mistakes and poor leadership within the Vancouver police and the RCMP that allowed Pickton to lure dozens of women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

The report calls for sweeping change to ensure history does not repeat itself.

But Oppal declined to single out specific officers who acted improperly, instead suggesting the bias was somehow unconscious and didn't lead to an overt decision to ignore Vancouver's missing women.

His 63 recommendations include a regional police force for the greater Vancouver area, where poor communication between the Vancouver police and the RCMP exacerbated the problems around the Pickton case. The report calls for new policies for police officers and Crown prosecutors interacting with sex workers and better services for vulnerable women in the Downtown Eastside.

The B.C. government immediately appointed a former lieutenant governor, who is also a prominent aboriginal leader and former judge, to guide the province's response to the report and announced funding for services for sex workers.

But Justice Minister Shirley Bond said it will take time to deal with the bulk of the recommendations, including the possibility of regional policing.

Some of the families of Pickton's victims said they were pleased with what they saw and, with some hesitation, said they were optimistic the report might prompt real change despite the inquiry's shortcomings.

Ernie Crey, whose sister Dawn Crey's DNA was found on Pickton's farm, promised to keep pressing the government as loudly as he can to implement the report's recommendations.

"I was deeply impressed with the report: it was very comprehensive, it canvassed all the issues that troubled me this past decade about the disappearances of these women," Crey said in an interview at the inquiry.

"There continues to be women in those circumstances suffering the same mental illness as my sister. We've gone way past the stage of talking about this. We need to take action."

On the other hand, Oppal's fiercest critics, including women's and aboriginal advocacy groups that were denied funding to participate, maintained the inquiry has always been a failure and its report inadequate. They called for a national inquiry into the phenomenon of murdered and missing women.

Oppal spent eight months hearing evidence about the failed investigations by the Vancouver police and the Port Coquitlam RCMP into reports of missing sex workers and evidence that Pickton was a suspect.

There were reports of missing women in Vancouver dating back to the 1980s, and those disappearances increased dramatically in the mid-1990s.

When relatives and friends attempted to report those women missing, officers and staff with the Vancouver police department told them the women were transient drug addicts who weren't in any trouble or were simply on vacation.

The first major investigative blunders began in 1997, when Pickton attacked a sex worker at his farm, leaving her with injuries so severe that she died twice on the operating table. Pickton was charged with attempted murder, but prosecutors eventually stayed the case, after which 19 more women later connected to Pickton's farm disappeared.

Among the many mistakes by police, Oppal's report counted the failure to test evidence seized from Pickton — later revealed to contain the DNA of two missing sex workers — or follow up with additional interviews with the victim.

Oppal also said the fact that Pickton had been accused of trying to kill a sex worker in 1997 should have served as a massive red flag for investigators later, especially when several informants implicated Pickton in the disappearances of other women from the Downtown Eastside.

That began a litany of failures that quickly multiplied.

Oppal's report noted that senior officials within the Vancouver police were reluctant to accept the possibility a serial killer was at work in the city, dismissing evidence from their own officers, including geographic profiler Kim Rossmo, who floated the theory in 1998. The department handed the investigation to a single officer who joined the force's missing persons unit with no homicide experience and no support from her bosses.

In Port Coquitlam, RCMP officers allowed their investigation to lay dormant for months at a time. When Mounties attempted to talk to Pickton in late 1999, they granted his brother's request to wait until the rainy season when he wouldn't be so busy on the farm. Eventually, Pickton was interviewed, but it was poorly handled by officers without any interrogation training.

The Mounties and Vancouver police started an RCMP-led missing women task force in 2001, but its investigators operated under the mistaken belief that women were no longer disappearing.

Vancouver police and the RCMP have issued public apologies for not doing enough to stop Pickton, but both tempered those apologies by insisting officers did the best they could with the information they had at the time. Both spent considerable time at the inquiry blaming each other.

Oppal's report chides the RCMP for not delivering an apology to families in the inquiry room, which he said was "most disappointing. Instead, the RCMP's apology came at a news conference in January featuring the force's assistant commissioner for B.C., and only after a senior Mountie declined to apologize while in the witness box.

On Monday, the Vancouver police said it had already taken measures to ensure the same mistakes are not repeated, including overhauling its missing persons unit, while the RCMP largely declined comment, saying the force still needs to digest the report and its conclusions.

Bond promised not to allow the report's calls for change to remain unfulfilled.

"It is my ardent hope that British Columbia never has another chapter like this in its history," Bond, her voice breaking as she fought back tears, told the same roomful of reporters that gathered to hear Oppal.

Bond said the government would implement Oppal's call for immediate funding for a 24-hour centre in the Downtown Eastside for sex workers by announcing $750,000 to help the WISH drop-in centre expand its service. She also said planning will begin to address Oppal's call for a transportation service along the so-called Highway of Tears, a notorious stretch of highway in the province's north where a long list of women and girls have vanished or been found murdered.

As for the rest of the report, Bond appointed Stephen Point, whose term as lieutenant governor ended just last month, to shepherd the government's response. Point will chair a new advisory committee on the safety of vulnerable women.

Oppal's recommendations also include a regional police force for greater Vancouver — an area with several municipal forces and RCMP detachments that operate independently from one another. B.C. recently signed a 20-year deal with the Mounties, as did the municipalities that use the RCMP as their local police force.

Bond avoided questions about whether she supports a regional force in the Vancouver area, instead saying the idea merits further discussion.

The recommendations included changes to missing person policies used by police, new training for officers and creating "equality audits" to measure police forces' policies for protecting sex workers and vulnerable women.

He also called for changes to policies used by Crown counsel in cases that include vulnerable women, particularly those involving vulnerable women as witnesses.

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