Police so strongly suspected Robert Pickton might be killing prostitutes in the late 1990s they tried using infrared photography on the hunch he had an underground dungeon beneath the Port Coquitlam farm.
That was part of the testimony before the Missing Women Inquiry of Vancouver Police Detective Const. Lori Shenher, who on Monday recounted the evidence pointing to Pickton years before his eventual arrest in early 2002.
She said the attempt to use aerial thermal imaging to detect subterranean heat sources was carried out by Coquitlam RCMP at her request.
“I felt maybe Pickton had a bunker or an underground chamber where some of these activities might be taking place,” said Shenher, an officer in the VPD’s Missing Persons Unit who shared geographic profiler Kim Rossmo’s suspicion a serial killer was at work.
By 1999, she said, she considered Pickton a “strong person of interest.”
Shenher had been tipped in the summer of 1998 by Surrey resident Bill Hiscox that Pickton might be the serial killer preying on women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Hiscox told her Pickton, who he sometimes worked for, was “creepy” and had offered to let him use his meat grinder if he ever needed to dispose of a body.
He said another woman he knew who frequented the farm had seen bags of bloody clothing there as well as identification belonging to many women.
Shenher told the inquiry she ran police records on Pickton and learned of the early 1997 incident where a prostitute escaped from the farm after a dispute over payment for sex turned into a nearly lethal knife fight.
“My first thought was this was not the first time this person has done this,” Shenher told the inquiry. “This is the kind of guy we’re looking for.”
She reinterviewed the woman, found her information “extremely compelling” and concluded at that time she might be the only intended victim to ever escape from Pickton.
Pickton had slapped a handcuff on her and a desperate fight ensued. The woman, losing consciousness from loss of blood, escaped nude into the street and flagged down a passing car while trying to hold in her vital organs.
Crown had dropped charges of attempted murder and forcible confinement against Pickton after deciding the drug-addicted victim wouldn’t be a credible witness.
Shenher told the inquiry the woman, whose identity remains protected, was resuscitated after she “died on the operating table a couple of times.”
Pickton was admitted to the same hospital with his own serious stab wounds and in his pocket was the key to the handcuffs that were still dangling from the woman’s wrist.
Had she died, Shenher said, she believed the evidence was strong enough for a “slam dunk” murder conviction of Pickton in 1998.
Prosecutors are expected to testify later at the inquiry into the decision to abandon the charges.
The fact Pickton had a large property and informants claimed he had an ability to dispose of bodies was not lost on Shenher.
“I was very mindful that we were not finding bodies,” she said, adding when she heard Pickton had a meat grinder she thought: “Bingo, this is the kind of guy we’re looking for.”
Despite the multiple tips about Pickton, Shenher concluded police did not have enough hard evidence for a search warrant because what they were hearing was arguably out of date and much of it was third-hand.
Police also had trouble recruiting eyewitnesses they’d heard about, including a woman they’d been told saw Pickton gutting the body of one victim in his barn.
“We hadn’t uncovered anything yet we could use as evidence to substantiate charges,” Shenher said.
It was her first homicide case and she was the lone investigator working on it.
Shenher said she felt she was often working on her own, without sufficient direction.
Her VPD superiors believed the missing women were still alive somewhere and would turn up, so Shenher said she was cautious in advancing contrary views so as not to be dismissed as a “zealot” as Rossmo was.
Shenher requested and received a transfer out of the Missing Persons Unit in 2000.
Pickton, believed responsible for dozens of killings, was convicted on six counts of second-degree murder and is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.
The inquiry continues.