Face to Face
Serial killer Robert “Willie” Pickton could have been caught many times, but wasn’t due to a lack of resources and the attitudes of police forces towards women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
That is the message I took away from reading Lori Shenher’s new book, That Lonely Section of Hell: the Botched Investigation of a Serial Killer Who Almost Got Away.
The book starts with Shenher’s own steps to become a police officer with the Vancouver Police Department. She says it was a journey filled with hope and challenges, but one founded on a wish to push herself and help others. Eventually, after becoming a detective, she was put in charge of the investigation into women going missing from the troubled and poverty-stricken neighbourhood of the Downtown Eastside.
The area was familiar to Shenher as the first place she patrolled as a uniformed officer. She knew people there, including women that were later murdered by Pickton. That’s why, she says, the investigation took such a terrible toll on her soul.
The first time police learned Pickton was capable of violence was in March 1997. He had picked up a sex worker, taken her to his Port Coquitlam pig farm, and the business transaction was completed. But when the woman tried to leave Pickton pulled a knife.
She fought back and stabbed him but they both lost a lot of blood and fell unconsciousness for a while. When the woman came to, she fled, running off the farm and to a nearby home. Although the local RCMP charged Pickton, the Crown decided the woman’s credibility was compromised due to her addiction issues and was not worth building a case on.
In 1999, two VPD officers working on the missing women file – without the knowledge of Shenher and her team – went to the Downtown Eastside and showed sex workers a photo of Pickton. A number of women identified him as someone they had seen in the area. These officers, for some reason that can only be speculated at, did not share this new information with Shenher and her team. If they had, she told me, that would have been a tipping point in the investigation.
Throughout the book, Shenher describes the lack of resources given to the missing women investigation. She calls this a form of “classism” – not racism. She says people in the Downtown Eastside weren’t valued by some members of the VPD or RCMP. And the womens’ disappearances were explained as wandering off, cleaning up and getting off the street, or hiding for their own purposes.
Terms like “high-risk lifestyle” were used to justify the lack of resources – or caring- needed to find them, Shenher said. During our interview, she admitted her inexperience as a detective, combined with assigning her two police officers with poor reputations, could be seen as another example of not making the effort.
Pickton was caught eventually, but not as part of the official investigation into missing women. Instead, an RCMP officer was sent to his farm to look into possible illegal firearms. That officer spotted an inhaler belonging to a missing woman and the farm was searched.
One of the most touching moments in the book comes when Shenher recalls how some of the victims’ families reacted to her testimony at the Oppal Inquiry. Emotionally broken by the Pickton experience, Shenher broke down on the stand and revealed the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder she suffered after being unable to help the women she was assigned to find. The families offered their support for the pain.
Sometimes a simple hug can mean so much.
As the co-host of APTN National News, I have introduced or worked on many stories about murdered and missing Indigenous women. It is a subject that hurts my heart, as I cannot help think of my aunties, cousins, sisters and nieces being subjected to such violence and apathy.
Every single missing or murdered woman has family, friends and co-workers who care about them, who loved them. If families form the basis of our society, why are concerns of families given such low priority by organizations tasked with serving and protecting our cities, towns and country?
With that in mind, I leave you with this quote from my interview with Lori Shenher.
“There needs to be an overarching appetite and thought around… just not screwing things up. I know that sounds, that sounds simple, but, you know, it doesn’t seem to take much to, you know, not lose someone’s human remains, or to tell a family that these remains are here, or to, you know, make a phone call… not lose a file. These are basic tasks that we have to do better.”