A sex assault in Surrey led the RCMP to Robert Pickton’s farm in 1990, a dozen years and dozens of dead victims before the serial killer would eventually be stopped, the Missing Women Inquiry heard Monday.
Retired Mountie Mike Connor, then a Coquitlam RCMP officer, testified he learned in 1997 – while investigating Pickton for attempted murder – of the Surrey RCMP’s interest in the Port Coquitlam pig farmer seven years earlier.
Connor’s case involved a sex trade worker who escaped badly bleeding from the Pickton farm in early 1997.
He told the inquiry he ran a check of a police database and found Surrey RCMP had flagged Pickton as a person of interest in a 1990 rape and had sent Coquitlam officers to the farm that year to see if a certain vehicle was parked there.
But when Connor called Surrey detachment to get the old case file to see if it contained more notes and intelligence on Pickton, he was told it no longer existed.
In hindsight, Connor said, he should have spoken to the Surrey investigator about the case, but did not.
Pickton was charged with attempted murder and Connor said the victim, referred to at the inquiry as Ms. Anderson, seemed credible and truthful.
But he was notified by Crown in January 2008 that the charges would be stayed.
Connor said a prosecutor told him Anderson was heavily addicted to heroin and had several times refused to meet them to discuss her evidence.
That was the first time Connor said he had heard of trouble with the case.
Often, he said, the Crown office would alert police in such instances so they could track down and assist a victim or witness whose testimony is critical.
“(There was) no discussion about that,” Connor said, adding the prosecutor had “made up her mind” the charges would be dropped.
He didn’t challenge the decision.
“I wish I would have said to [her], ‘Give us a few days and we’ll go find her.’ I wish I could have done that.”
Connor said in 1998 he heard a tip, relayed by Vancouver Police Det.-Const. Lori Shenher, that Pickton was scheming to bring the 1997 victim back to the farm so he could “finish her off.”
He met again with Anderson to warn her of the threat.
By then, he said, Anderson had cleaned up, left the sex trade and the Downtown Eastside, and seemed normal.
But Connor did not ask Crown to re-launch the attempted murder charge.
In mid-1998, Connor and Shenher met Surrey tipster Bill Hiscox, who told the officers he heard Pickton had a meat grinder he could use to dispose of bodies and heard of bags of bloody clothing and women’s personal effects on the farm that seemed to be trophies.
Connor said he found Hiscox credible but police had trouble corroborating his information or getting actual eyewitnesses to cooperate.
Hiscox eventually became hard to locate and less useful to police, he said.
Connor said Pickton was on his “radar” as the only viable suspect in the missing women case at the time, backing up Shenher’s assessment earlier at the inquiry.
He also flagged Pickton in the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database so he or Shenher would be notified any time he was stopped by police anywhere in Canada.
Connor also had aerial photos taken of the farm in hopes they would yield clues of where Pickton might be burying bodies – they didn’t.
Another key witness – Lynn Ellingsen – told friends she saw Pickton gutting a body in his barn but later denied the story when police questioned her.
Connor said he didn’t believe her denial, but other officers did.
He said police heard Ellingsen’s story through three different sources and she appeared to know a key detail few other people would – that human fat is yellow in colour.
The inquiry heard the Coquitlam RCMP investigation lost momentum after Connor was promoted to different duties in 1999.
“I couldn’t catch a break,” Connor said, summing up his involvement. “I failed to put the bad guy in jail.”
He said he thinks about the case “every day” and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I live with the fact that 13 women, roughly, disappeared from the Downtown Eastside since I became involved in the Pickton file.”
The inquiry aims to determine how authorities failed to stop Pickton much sooner than 2002, when a search for illegal guns turned up evidence of missing women from the Downtown Eastside.
Pickton is serving a life sentence for six counts of second-degree murder, but he had claimed to have killed 49 women and the DNA of 33 was found on the farm.