The long, sordid story of serial killer Robert “Willy” Pickton did not end after he was convicted of viciously murdering six vulnerable women from Vancouver’s downtown eastside, said to be the poorest postal code in Canada.
No, his convictions merely heralded the agonizing aftermath of determining how and why the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Vancouver Police Department bungled an investigation that could have and should have ended much sooner.
But even before those questions could be answered, the public shook their heads in disgust as they grappled with the outcome: How could a serial murderer only be convicted of second degree murder? What could have possibly led a jury to conclude that the murders were not planned and deliberate?
Of course, the Crown was correct that a first degree murder conviction would not increase his sentence, but it was the ultimate slap-in-the-face to a grief-stricken community, just recovering from the senseless cruelty.
With 49 victims according to Pickton; he travelled from his Port Coquitlam pig farm, intent on plucking the easy-pickings: down-on-their luck working girls whose daily grind of selling sex and buying drugs turned them into defeated and exhausted risk-takers.
Their suffering families, who were used to broken promises, took another blow when the British Columbia government decided not to proceed with the trials of twenty additional women whose DNA was discovered on the farm. Unfortunately, the victims’ families were still in the dark when the announcement was made, another blunder in a case that had become a public relations nightmare.
But there was more to come, much more. In August 2010 informant Bill Hiscox received a portion of the $100,000 reward money for information he provided to the Vancouver Police and RCMP in 1998, yet it took another four years and 14 more missing women, to arrest Pickton, while he continued his unspeakably barbaric activities, only a few miles from the Port Coquitlam RCMP headquarters.
With his arrest in 2002, a trial in 2006, and the last appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada completed in July 2010, it took another 15 months to get the Pickton Inquiry off the ground, but not before the government’s choice of Commissioner was mercilessly attacked.
Former judge and Attorney-General Wally Oppal, had become a sacrificial lamb in the 2009 provincial election, leaving his safe seat in Vancouver for a riskier one in Tsawwassan, an opening that saw ex-VPD and former West Vancouver Police Chief Kash Heed crash and burn after he was elected.
The Liberal government apparently did not foresee the fall-out from their pay-back to cabinet minister Mr. Oppal and despite the outcry, he carried on. But it hasn’t been easy.
The Inquiry has been plagued with controversy. From the outset the Inquiry’s terms of reference, focusing on the role of the police, rather than the social causes of the victims’ vulnerabilities, was criticized.
While a plethora of much-needed community groups were given status to participate in the Inquiry, they quickly realized they could not afford to fund or match the legal talent hired by the battery of senior police officers whose alleged inaction or worse, indifference, became the focus of the exercise.
To his credit, Mr. Oppal made personal overtures to the Liberal government to obtain funding for lawyers to represent the disenfranchised stakeholders. Their answer was “no”. His appointment of two of British Columbia’s leading litigators as pro bono counsel was a boost to the beleaguered Commissioner.
When lawyer Robyn Gervais, appointed to represent aboriginal interests, handed in her resignation in March 2012, the now-frail Inquiry sustained another gut-punch. This one was serious enough to shut down the proceedings until new counsel could be selected, a delay of three weeks.
Mr. Oppal’s request to Attorney-General Shirley Bond to consider extending the June 30, 2012 deadline for the Inquiry to complete its work, was also denied, Ms. Bond citing the $4 million price tag of the Inquiry to date.
The latest scandal to hit Mr. Oppal’s faltering ship is the allegation that the Inquiry environment is a sexist, “old boy’s club”, a club that Commission counsel Art Vertlieb denies, but identifies its only possible members as Mr. Oppal, executive director John Boddie, a former VPD police officer, who is now, rather mysteriously, on leave from the Inquiry, and himself.
Can the Pickton Inquiry claim any legitimacy in light of these devastating events? I believe it still can, but only if the Commissioner exposes the unsavory circumstances of a flawed investigation, seeped in internal politics, that screams to be seen in the light of day.