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Robert ‘Willy’ Pickton : Canada’s most prolific serial killer

Robert Pickton
Image Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo | Above: A court artist's sketch shows Robert Pickton (left) during court proceedings at British Columbia Supreme Court in Canada on the 30th January 2007.

Robert Pickton, known as The Butcher, received life imprisonment in 2007 on a charge of second-degree murder on six counts, with the possibility of parole after 25 years. But Canada’s most notorious serial killer is unlikely ever to see freedom. His case reflects one of the most startling examples of police apathy regarding their lack of investigation into the disappearance of countless women in British Columbia at a time when friends and family were convinced their loved ones had met terrible fates.

Friendless and lonely childhood

Brought up on his parents’ pig farm in Port Coquitlam, 15 miles east of Vancouver, Robert Pickton’s mother was a demanding tyrant. It was said she cared more for the farm’s pigs than her three children. Pickton’s younger brother, David, stayed with him at the farm while their sister was sent away as the parents didn’t think a pig farm environment was suitable for a girl. They used their sons as cheap labour as the brothers looked after the wild stock and learned the trade of butchering pigs.

Both Pickton and David became famous in the neighbourhood as the boys who stank of manure, wore unwashed clothes and were called names. They were ostracised by the other kids, who made them sit on their own on the school bus.

A talent for butchering

At 11 years of age, hating school and often playing truant, Pickton bought a pig calf with his pocket money. It was his pet and became his only friend. One day upon returning home, Pickton discovered it had gone missing, and his mother told him it had been slaughtered.

In 1963, aged 14, he dropped out of school and found work as a butcher’s apprentice. It was during this time that he discovered a talent for dissecting animals with some skill. For the next four years, he was relatively happy and seemed to have found his niche doing something he was good at.

Paying for sex

As Pickton approached his 21st birthday, he decided to work full-time at his parents’ pig farm. His taste for butchering pigs saw him buy them at auction and take them back to the farm to slaughter. He would take remains to the West Coast Reduction site, the animal waste disposal facility near Downtown Vancouver, which would later play a macabre role in his murderous spree of killing.

Pickton sought the company of women for sex in a neighbourhood called Low Track in Downtown East Side. The area was known for prostitution and drugs, as well as rough sleeping. One investigator of the Pickton murders said at the time, ‘It is the worst in the developed world. Nothing else is like it in terms of the biggest concentration of human misery’.

Pickton often cased the streets looking for women offering to spend cash to buy whatever they desperately wanted. The Astoria Hotel on East Hastings St was a frequent haunt for Pickton, where he found men talked to him as equals and women offered sex undeterred by his lack of hygiene. Once the women were in his truck or back at his trailer at the pig farm, he would turn violent.

Police errors

Although Pickton first began his killing spree in 1991, there was an early incident which resulted in his arrest. On 23rd March 1997, Pickton picked up Wendy Lynn Eistetter in Downtown Vancouver. Back at his trailer, he tied her up in a scene of extreme bondage. She managed to escape, grabbed a knife from the kitchen and stabbed Pickton. He stabbed her back, and they both inflicted cuts on each other.

The badly wounded girl was picked up by an elderly couple passing by in a vehicle. They took her to hospital as Pickton took himself to Eagle Ridge Hospital seeking treatment for his stab wounds. Pickton was arrested for attempted murder and released on bail. But the case against him was dropped in 1998 when Wendy failed to testify, as prosecutors believed she was too unstable for her testimony.

Pickton’s clothes and rubber boots, which would reveal DNA evidence of his victims in a 2004 lab test, were left in a police storage locker for seven years. Having got away with such a brutal attack, Pickton felt a sense of invincibility, believing he could get away with anything – even murder.

Four years of women disappearing

In August 1997, Pickton returned to prowling for vulnerable victims in Low Track and approached Marnie Frey, a 24-year-old heroin addict. He offered to buy her drugs in exchange for sex and took her back to his trailer at the pig farm. She was never seen again. This was the start of a four-year period of Pickton abusing, killing and dismembering his victims’ bodies.

Even though family members and associates were reporting disappearances, the Vancouver police showed little interest in investigating. Thirty women vanished from the city’s seedy Downtown East neighbourhood between 1995 and 1998. The police took the view that as the women in question were prostitutes or drug addicts, they had simply gone off with clients or left town. They discounted the possibility of foul play. But the street workers of Vancouver’s Skid Row knew that they were being targeted.

The manager of a shelter that provided services for street workers and rough sleepers was troubled by the number of women disappearing. She filed reports of women she knew had vanished without a trace. The police didn’t follow them up. ‘It was horrifying watching women going missing. We were so aware of it. I think we all felt so powerless to do anything about it’.

Caught in the act

Despite being a killer, Pickton had friendships with some women, usually maintained by him supplying them with money or drugs. One of the reasons Pickton was able to pick up victims was because he had a reputation for being a ‘nice guy’ who splashed his money.

As rumours of a serial killer being at large in the Downtown community made finding victims more difficult, Pickton’s female friends acted as purveyors on the lookout to find vulnerable street workers or drug addicts for him. One friend was an addict, Lynn Ellingsen, who even stayed at his farm for three months, spending time with him drinking and taking drugs.

After getting high in his trailer one night, Lynn woke to see a light in the slaughterhouse. Out of curiosity, she went out to take a look at what was going on. The horrific sight of Pickton’s latest victim’s painted toenails dangling in front of her made Lynn scream with terror and run away. Pickton didn’t pursue her, possibly because he had got to know her as a friend. She never went to the police.

Illegal firearms

Despite brutally murdering so many women at the farm, it was only when the police were notified that Pickton was in possession of illegal firearms that they obtained a warrant to search the property. After Pickton and David were arrested, the police issued a second warrant as part of British Columbia’s Missing Women Investigation. When the personal items of victims were discovered, the truth of the horrific events that had taken place there began to be unravelled. Eventually, the police discovered DNA remains of 33 women at the farm.

Macabre discoveries

Over the years, Pickton murdered and disposed of his victims using the city’s waste disposal site. But according to investigators, he had become ‘sloppy’ towards the latter part of his murder campaign. Instead of taking body parts to the site, he had left limbs and heads from his victims in buckets on the farm.

The forensic investigation cost $70 million as it required heavy equipment such as a 50ft conveyer belt and soil sifter to find traces of his victims. There is speculation that Pickton may have ground human remains into the pork that he sold to the public, as well as feeding some bodies to the farm’s pigs.

Arrest and trial

After his arrest on 22nd February 2002, Pickton was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, increasing to a total of 27 by the end of May that year. The grisly business of excavations at the farm continued to the end of 2003 as the world’s press reported shocking details of brutal acts of violence, rape, murder and dismemberment of victims. The trial commenced on 30th January 2006, when Pickton pleaded ‘not guilty’ to 27 charges of first-degree murder.

Grisly details of murders

During the trial, the media ban was lifted so the Canadian public could read and hear about the most disturbing details of Pickton’s murders. They heard evidence of how he disposed of bodies, along with bizarre revelations that Pickton used a dildo as a silencer on a loaded 22-calibre revolver. Former workers at the pig farm gave evidence that Pickton often discussed violent ways of killing heroin-addicted sex workers as if they were wildlife being slaughtered.

Unexpected verdict

After lengthy deliberations by the jury, often confused and disturbed by the evidence, they returned a verdict on 9th December 2007 that Pickton was not guilty of six counts of first-degree murder but guilty of six counts of second-degree murder. After reading 18 victim statements, Judge Justice James Williams sentenced Pickton to life imprisonment, the maximum of 25 years, with no possibility of parole. But many families of the victims were disappointed that Pickton would never be convicted of at least 20 other murders.

During a boastful confession to an undercover policeman, while held in a cell, Pickton admitted he had murdered 49 women, disappointed that he hadn’t rounded the figure to 50. The Vancouver Police Department made an apology to the victims’ families for having failed to investigate the disappearance of women from the city, which may have led to more deaths.