Missing Women Inquiry closes, families feel cheated

Robert Pickton. (File photo)

Robert Pickton. (File photo)

ERICA BULMAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:09 AM ET

VANCOUVER -- Their faces were perhaps a little stonier, their spines a bit stiffer, their spirits maybe even more unflinching.

But their hearts were broken all over again, even a decade later, as the families of Robert Pickton’s victims left the Missing Women Inquiry courtroom for the last time Wednesday after hearing 93 days of testimony and evidence — some they’d heard for the very first time, but all equally horrific.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” said Lilliane Beaudoin, the sister of Diane Rock, whose blood was found on Pickton’s pig farm.

“It was like reliving everything over again but also learning a lot of scary things I never knew. I did come here to get answers. Sometimes I got more than I wanted.

“But what we didn’t get was the truth we came for.”

The commission — appointed by the province in 2010 to look into why it took so long for police and RCMP to catch the prolific serial killer — heard 83 witnesses, entered 280 exhibits and generated thousands of pages of documents. Commissioner Wally Oppal now has until Oct. 31 to write his final report and recommendations.

“It will be very difficult,” Oppal said before leaving the courthouse. “You’ve heard the evidence where the families have said one thing as to how they were treated, and then we have other people who said ‘look, we did a great job in policing.’

“It’s been a difficult exercise and that’s not altogether surprising because we were involved in investigating the policing of the worst mass murderer in Canadian history. That almost by definition means the emotions ran high, people were upset, people were angry but we have to live with that when we’re investigating something of this magnitude.”

Throughout the hearing — marked by high-voltage tension and combativeness between families’ lawyer Cameron Ward, and Oppal and Crown Counsel — the families recounted the resistance they encountered when they tried to submit missing persons reports, the racism and bias they battled and the lack of action and information the ensued.

Police and RCMP pointed fingers at each other — bringing to light the turf war between the two jurisdictions — but argued they did what they could with the resources and circumstances of the time.

Many police witnesses testified they couldn’t remember details from so long ago. Former head of Vancouver’s major crime unit Fred Biddlecombe — often accused of dismissing the theory of a serial killer early in the investigation — testified he couldn’t remember what happened while he was in charge, saying he now suffers from “major depressive disorder and major anxiety disorder,” which have erased many of his memories from that time.

Several other police witnesses said they had Pickton in their sites as far back as 1998, but brass long refused to believe a serial killer was at work in the DTES. It wasn’t until 2002 that Pickton was arrested when police raided his pig farm on a firearms warrant. He likely killed dozens of women in that four-year span. A search of the property uncovered the remains of 33 women.

From the start, the inquiry was plagued with strife and controversy.

“It’s been one disaster after another,” Beaudoin said, her voice shaking. “I’ve never spent so many frustrating days in my life as here, going home and crying and thinking what’s going on?”

Even before it began, the commission was criticized by women’s and advocacy groups. Dozens of organizations pulled out shortly before the inquiry, angry the province paid for lawyers of testifying police and family members of Pickton’s victims, but not aboriginals, sex workers or women's groups.

In February, Oppal realized the inquiry snail’s pace — caused by lengthy cross-examinations by dozens of lawyers and repeated delays — and switched to a panel format with multiple witnesses testifying together.

A month later, the lawyer representing aboriginal interests withdrew, citing delays in calling aboriginal witnesses, inadequate hearing time for First Nations panels and a disproportionate focus on police evidence. Her withdrawal led to a two-week delay to allow replacement counsel to get acquainted with the case.

Shortly after, the commission took another hit with allegations its male staff had created a highly sexualized workplace environment, harassing and intimidating women.

It wasn’t long before Oppal came under fire again, this time for making an ill-advised cameo appearance in an Uwe Boll slasher film, in which he’s killed by a serial killer.

“I did that on a Sunday morning on my own time,” Oppal said. “If I had to do it all over again, maybe I would give it more thought.”

Families and lawyers repeatedly — and fruitlessly — asked Justice Minister Shirley Bond for more time to hear additional key witnesses that were never called to the stand, like the predator’s brother, David, or Pickton’s cocaine-addicted associate Lynn Ellingsen, who testified at his trial seeing him butcher a woman hanging from a chain in his barn one night.

“It’s not a trial where someone maybe found guilty, someone may go to jail,” Oppal argued. “The commissioner has to be in a position to decide what evidence is necessary.”

Instead Bond granted Oppal a four-month extension to write his report. Oppal was blasted for requesting more time for his report, but not for additional testimony.

Oppal stated he was “committed to justice” and “improving this system.” But Lori-Ann Ellis, whose sister-in-law Cara was murdered by Pickton, was skeptical.

“To be honest, I think this whole inquiry meant to appease the families: OK, we’ll give you the damn inquiry now shut up and go away,” Ellis said. “But foolishly, I still have hope.

“If the report is written as shoddily as the inquiry was handled, God bless all those women out there.

“But if the report is written in such a way that it really does bring forward some positive recommendations then all the tears that were shed in there are worth it.”


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