Disclaimer : Before I delve into my narrative about serial killer Robert Pickton, I would like to apologize to all the innocent pigs that were hurt and used in the commission of his crimes and whose reputation and memory I am about to tarnish. I am sure that they never intended to roll in the mud with him or hoink 3 times for a street worker.
This sordid story started in the 1980’s in Vancouver, BC, a gorgeous city on the Canadian pacific coast, where I have the privilege to now reside. The Downtown Eastside neighborhood of Vancouver has always been plagued by poverty, transiency, drugs, prostitution and general disarray. It is a known fact that after the closing of several mental institutions, the former patients moved into this area where they could find cheap rooms, drugs and a sense of belonging.
In Downtown Eastside, the main street is called East Hastings. You only have to pronounce this name to get a reaction of horror from most of the city residents. For many, it’s a lurid area that they avoid and choose to ignore. For others like me, it’s a place where you volunteer to try to alleviate misery and maybe our own feelings of guilt, if only for a short while, with mostly band aid solutions like blankets or food. There is a police presence and a few clinics devoted to the locals, and I must concede that they do an amazing job, considering what they are faced with.
The Hastings prostitutes are in a category of their own. They are not escort material. In fact, they are the cheapest on the market and will probably do anything and everything to pay for their next fix. Every single one of them is a drug addict and to say that they do not discriminate, is the understatement of the year. Any schmuck driving, walking or staggering by, will get their favors for a price.
So it is no surprise that when some of them started to disappear, it was not considered a big deal. They were falling like flies and even if their lives were not regular or organized, some of their family members and friends were noticing their absence. But every time they would try to contact the police about their disappearance, they were given the same answer: we will look into it or do not call us, we will call you. There came a time when 69 of them were considered missing. You can only imagine that when it comes to prostitution with its built-in prejudices, having 69 women missing can become a farce. They were the ‘butt’ of many jokes. Who is going to look for drug addicted women who spend their time on East Hastings, offering their bodies for money? Obviously, no one.
In the meantime, in a suburb of Vancouver called Coquitlam, there lived a farmer called Robert Pickton who owned a pig farm his parents left him and his brother Dave. They ran the establishment and sold the animals that Robert butchered himself in their own abattoir. As a young boy, little Robbie Pickton did not show any interest in the butchering of pigs. He was more interested in going fishing but was encouraged by his mother to go watch the pigs being slaughtered.
We often hear that psychopath killers were cruel towards animals as children. In this case, it is tricky as he did not show any inclination for this activity but was literally forced into it. It makes you wonder what impact it can have on a young child’s psyche to be introduced to such powerful bloody imagery. It probably did not help any that Pickton failed grade 2, was in a special class and his mental development was assessed at a grade 5 level. His IQ of 86 and his pitiful verbal skills made him the ideal candidate to remain on the farm and do manual labor.
He apparently did very well later on as a butcher. First he would shoot the pig between the eyes and then proceed to cut it in half very skillfully with his instruments. So what did Pickton do for fun, you might ask? As an awkward and not easy on the eyes fellow, this little piggy found his niche in the Downtown East side where the ladies were easy and starving for a mediocre prince coming to save them from their misery in his dirty white van.
Pickton worked hard and when he was not partying with his brother and friends on their property, he would troll Hastings to lure hookers to his lair. He was very well known by some of the women on the street. He was generous with his money and drugs so they would ride in his van and end up at his farmhouse.
He would take them to his trailer for fun and games and some would make it back, some would not. Once, he attacked a victim who defended herself and ended up stabbing him. She managed to escape and told the police the whole sordid story.
They picked up Pickton who had knife injuries but he talked his way out of this pickle. Who would take the word of a prostitute over that of a respectable farmer? The Pickton brothers were not classy but they had loads of cash coming from the sale of land they inherited.
A storm of concern was brewing behind the scenes, as some friends of the missing women could smell foul play — in particular, Wayne Leng, who was a good friend and former client of Sarah De Vries, a beautiful girl who also ended up being gone with the wind and whose absence Leng was not going to ignore.
Leng started actively contacting the police and even started a website to expose the case of the missing women. A network was forming and East Hastings was buzzing about the killer who was taking away their workers.
Like in any tragedy, Sarah De Vries became somewhat of an emblem — the heroine of the story. She was a lovely girl who was adopted and raised in a wealthy neighborhood of the city by loving and kind parents. They later found out, that as the only child of color at school, she had suffered from discrimination and was a wounded soul. She wrote books of poetry and displayed great intelligence and sensitivity. She was one of the subjects of Lincoln Clarkes, a famous Vancouver photographer who created a bond with the poor girls and published a book of Heroines that he sold to raise awareness and as part of his artistic mission. He was accused of exploitation by some and of glamorizing addiction by others. You can click here to see his photos and read an essay published by Simon Fraser university about his work.
The years were flying by and the ladies of the night were afraid. You often hear that you know how important you are by how long they look for you if you are missing. Well in this case, the ladies had no importance whatsoever because the search efforts were nonexistent.
But the media and some concerned citizens were starting to make noise. The police could not ignore their voices anymore and had to put more effort into their investigation.
Even if it sounds like a cliché, the dam broke when the American show America’s Most Wanted decided to do a special broadcast on the missing ladies of Downtown Eastside. That’s all it took for the police department to serve a warrant on Robert Pickton’s farm. It turns out that he had been right under their nose the whole time. He had been named by many people as a person of interest and not searching his property was pure procrastination and negligence.
The minute the police searched the property, which by the way was a real pigsty, they came across women’s purses, clothing, an asthma pump and some accessories. A little digging uncovered some of the women, but in pieces.
They found body parts all over the farm and spent months digging and searching with the help of volunteer archeology students and law enforcement personnel. It was a humongous task to dig up the fragments of bone and to identify them by comparing them to the DNA of the victims. There were so many parts that the work involved turned out to be monumental. Sarah DeVries was positively identified as one of the victims.
Some limbs were also found in freezers, but they did not find one body that had not been desecrated. Pickton’s wood chipper and his pigs are believed to have swallowed most of the evidence. And as if it could not get any worse, they realized that Pickton often gave ground pork to his friends and neighbors. So, it was logical to jump to the conclusion that some of it was ‘ladies of the night meat’ that he was probably anxious to get rid of.
Even though there was a violent incident with Pickton in 1997, and the police knew about the activities at his farm in 1998, nothing was done until 2002. A detective was even fired for insisting that there was a serial killer in the Downtown East side. The street workers all knew Pickton was a ‘bad date’ and told everyone who would listen, but no one acted on it.
In December 2007, Pickton was finally convicted of murdering 6 women. He will not be prosecuted on the remaining 20 murder charges he was facing because he’s already serving 6 consecutive life sentences, and it would be a waste of time and money for the system to extend these procedures.
He was not charged for all the missing women he probably murdered due to lack of evidence or a proper DNA match.
Pickton pled not guilty to the murders and used most of his fortune to buy the best defense a man in his situation could find. The way he handled his defense led many to believe that he might not have been the soft-spoken dumb slob everyone had imagined.
Instead, we saw a glimpse of a Hells Angel wannabe who wanted to impress with his money and the orgies he threw regularly at his farm that a lot of bikers and even cops were known to attend. Unfortunately for his already battered ego, he never was part of the wild crowd and was perceived instead as the meek loser or the farm idiot. He sure showed them he could be tough though, by attacking women who were the weakest links on his food chain. We will never know if some of them knew and participated in Pickton’s sordid activities.
For many of the victims’ friends and families, the trial was not cathartic because he did not have to answer for all his crimes, hired good defense lawyers, and played cat-and- mouse with the system.
He never admitted his bad deeds or apologized for his actions. But at least, the serial killer’s reign of terror had ended on Hastings Street. The street workers could get some peace now, to whatever degree possible.
Hastings Street remains the same, except that during the 2010 Olympics, they found forcible ways to move this ragtag crew to temporary shelters or to other areas, so that the happy tourists could walk the streets without seeing this pitiful sight. The ones who knew took a minute to either engage in a prayer or even laugh at the joke in very bad taste going around: “Hoink 3 times if you want me’’. Building promoters are now taking over the area one building at a time, and eventually, rich condo owners will be the new residents of this haunted neighborhood.
In 2013, the children of 3 women who were murdered by Pickton filed lawsuits against the police and the serial killer. So the story is not quite over. It may never be.
Poem written by Sarah De Vries (1969 – 1999)
About the ‘broken angels of Downtown Eastside’:
Woman’s body found beaten beyond recognition
You sip your coffee
Taking a drag of your smoke
Turning the page
Taking a bite of your toast
Just another day
Just another death
Just one more thing you so easily forget
You and your soft, sheltered life
Just go on and on
For nobody special from your world is gone
Just another day
Just another death
Just another Hastings Street whore
Sentenced to death
The judge’s gavel already fallen
Sentence already passed
You just sip your coffee
Washing down your toast.
She was a broken down angel
A child lost with no place
A human being in disguise
She touched my life
She was somebody
She was no whore
She was somebody special
Who just lost her way
She was somebody fighting for life
Trying to survive
A lonely lost child who died
In the night, all alone, scared
Gasping for air.
Click here to read about Pickton’s writing a book through American channels