The patchwork of RCMP detachments and municipal police that patrol the Lower Mainland was a key reason Robert Pickton was able to keep killing for so long, according to former Vancouver Police detective Kim Rossmo.
Testifying before the Missing Women Inquiry, Rossmo issued a stark warning that the region will eventually grapple with another serial killer and the “Balkanized” police agencies in the region should be reformed in preparation.
“The best solution is the formation of a Vancouver metropolitan police force,” he told commissioner Wally Oppal Tuesday.
“There will be a next time,” Rossmo said, adding Pickton, who took sex trade workers from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to his Port Coquitlam pig farm, didn’t care where he found his victims.
“They don’t know these political boundaries. They’re irrelevant to their hunting practices.”
Oppal noted regional policing had been examined by the province before but local mayors were the “greatest impediment.”
Failing regionalization, Rossmo said there need to be formal procedures for investigations that cross police jurisdictions, to prevent any one force from “washing their hands of the problem.”
In the case of Pickton, he said, the VPD were wrong to hand off their investigation of “a very good suspect” to the Coquitlam RCMP.
Rossmo also suggested the creation of a provincial missing persons database to track disappearances and trends.
He also said the risks are so great to society that more money should be spent investigating disappearances even if many are false alarms.
The inquiry aims to determine why police failed to catch Pickton much sooner.
Oppal told the inquiry Tuesday his final report, due in June, will look at systemic failures of police forces in the Pickton case, including inter-jurisdictional difficulties between different forces.
Rossmo, a celebrated criminal profiler, also recounted how his VPD superiors refused to accept his theory that a serial killer was stalking women in the Downtown Eastside and nixed his planned release of a public warning in September 1998 – three and a half years before Pickton would eventually be arrested.
Rossmo said he’s seen many similar cases of police in other jurisdictions being “in denial” about evidence of a local serial killer.
“No police agency wants a serial murder case,” Rossmo said.
A serial killer case creates public fear, media attention and political pressure, he said, adding it requires police to respond with a suitable level of resources.
Rossmo reported his conclusions to VPD superiors after analyzing the number of missing persons reports from the Downtown Eastside and finding a “dramatic” jump had started in 1995.
VPD Insp. Fred Biddlecombe blocked Rossmo’s proposed public warning.
Rossmo, now a professor at a Texas university, said he believes Biddlecombe honestly – if wrongly – believed no serial killer was at work and that Rossmo was simply wasting the department’s time.
He said he was embarrassed VPD brass put forward “Hollywood-style” conspiracy theories that the women were being killed by their pimps or in drug murders – or that they just hadn’t turned up yet.
Nothing except a serial killer made sense, Rossmo said, or explained why bodies weren’t turning up, why only women were vanishing or why their welfare payments weren’t being collected elsewhere in B.C.
Meanwhile, he said, the “tunnel vision and group think” of investigators that allowed them to exclude the serial killer theory created “the perfect operating environment for a predator.”
Rossmo described Pickton as a “stealth predator” who killed for years without police even realizing murders were happening.
But he maintained police had “a lot of breaks” they could have better exploited to crack the case sooner and called it a “dramatic example of a criminal investigative failure.”
By the summer of 1999, VPD officers had told Rossmo they suspected Pickton could be the killer and that he might have a wood chipper or meat grinder to dispose of bodies. Rossmo recalled discussing the potential to gather DNA evidence from the machine.
The previous witness to testify was Deputy Chief Jennifer Evans, of Ontario’s Peel Regional Police, who independently reviewed police handling of the Pickton file and criticized both the RCMP and VPD for a series of errors.
Although Mounties should have tried to search the Pickton farm when the serial killer invited them to in 1999, Evans said it’s a big stretch to assume police would have found the evidence they needed to stop his killing spree.
She agreed under cross-examination that it was a mistake when a Coquitlam RCMP officer opted not to take up Pickton’s offer to search the property, which could have yielded crucial evidence tying him to the missing women.
“We’ll never know because she never tried to get the consent,” Evans told the inquiry. “She never pursued that.”
But Evans noted investigators would have had to get not just Pickton’s written consent to search the farm, but also any co-owners of the property, such as his brother Dave.
She also noted that once the consensual search started, Pickton or another owner could terminate it at any point.
Since police would have to be transparent about their aims and set a time for the search, Evans added, they would not have the element of surprise they often do with an unexpected warrant search, and evidence could be moved or cleaned.
Police had received multiple tips in 1998 and 1999 that Pickton might be responsible for the vanishing sex trade workers.
And in 1997 a woman escaped from the property after a bloody knife fight with Pickton. Charges of attempted murder against Pickton were later dropped.
It took until early 2002, when a rookie officer decided to search the farm for illegal guns, that police found evidence of missing women and arrested Pickton.
Evans also interviewed Pickton in prison last summer as part of her investigation on behalf of the commission. Pickton maintained his innocence, saying he did nothing wrong.
Pickton is serving a life sentence after being convicted in 2007 on six counts of second-degree murder. Charges in 20 other cases never went to trial and he was linked to the DNA of still more victims for whom no charges were ever laid.
Pickton had claimed to undercover police he killed 49 women.