Canadian pig farmer Robert “Willy” Pickton admitted to killing 49 women when he finally got caught in 2002. But 49 wasn't enough for him. He desperately wanted to kill one more. His goal was "an even 50," as he can be heard bragging from his prison cell on a hidden surveillance tape, part of hours of investigative tapes released in Vancouver last week. "The big five-zero," he said.
The fact that he got as close to this goal as he did could be due to the bumbling of the Vancouver P.D. and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, an internal investigation concluded yesterday. Pickton is the perpetrator of one of the most gruesome killing sprees ever to grip North America. From the mid-1990s through the early 2000s, he cruised Vancouver’s seedy Downtown Eastside for prostitutes he could torture and kill. A bald, ragged-looking pig farmer, often sporting a dirty beard and the countenance of a scary clown, Pickton lured the unwitting women back to his remote farm with cash and drugs.
Sometimes he buried them on his farm; other times, he stored their body parts in his freezer or fed them to his hogs.
Once he got them there, his zeal for creatively ending their lives knew no bounds, and his methods were among the most twisted and appalling I've ever reported on. He tortured and stabbed some of his victims before cutting them up into pieces. He killed them with syringes filled with antifreeze. Sometimes he buried them on his farm; other times, he stored their body parts in his freezer or fed them to his hogs. He even hinted that he disposed of some of the bodies at a local rendering plant that processes roadkill.
He was motivated by anger, but driven to “outdo the Americans,” he said, and kill 50 women. “I had one more planned, but that was—that was the end of it,” he can be heard telling an undercover cop on the tapes. “That was the last. I was gonna shut it down. That’s why I was just sloppy.”
But last week, British Columbian officials closed the Pickton case, even though there are still 20 additional charges of murder pending against him. The local judiciary says there is no need to continue trying him when he's already serving a life sentence for the six counts of second-degree murder he was convicted of in 2007. (The 60-year-old killer will be eligible for parole in 2032.) But the families of the 20 women whose murder trials may never be heard call the government's decision to close the case a travesty of justice. They say Pickton's victims' “low social status made them a lesser priority.”
Deepening the nightmare for these families is the knowledge that Pickton’s rampage lasted for years after he could have been stopped. He was actually in police custody back in 1997, when one of the sex workers he lured to his human slaughterhouse escaped into the night after a brutal knife fight. She was found bleeding to death on a country road near Pickton’s farm. Court documents say she was nude with a handcuff still attached to her wrist. Both Pickton and the woman, whose name cannot be printed to protect her identity, underwent surgery at the Royal Columbian Hospital in Vancouver the night of the attack, and Pickton was arrested for attempted murder. But because the First Nations victim was a known prostitute and medical tests showed that she was under the influence of heavy drugs at the time of the attack, the charges were dropped and Pickton was released. Police records obtained by The Daily Beast state simply that “Jane Doe” was an “unreliable witness due to drug use.” Never mind the nudity, handcuffs, or knife wounds.
The year after that, a woman who Pickton hired to clean his house told police that she had seen bags of bloody clothing and a stack of women’s purses and ID cards on Pickton’s farm. She, too, was a First Nations Canadian ignored by the authorities because she had a drug problem.
Countless contemporaries of the victims also suggested that Pickton might be involved. He was a known entity in the red-light district where most of the women disappeared, and the investigative trail often led directly to his farm outside of town. Yet no search warrant was granted until 2002, when a new RCMP officer bucked the system and pushed the local authorities to search Pickton’s property.
But the local Canadian police's errors went beyond just overlooking obvious witnesses. They didn’t test crucial evidence. They had confiscated Pickton’s clothing at the time of the attempted-murder arrest in 1997, but DNA tests were not conducted until 2004 when he was standing trial for the murder of six other women. Seven years after he could have been stopped, those tests revealed the DNA of at least two other women who Pickton likely killed. DNA from other victims was also found inside his freezer and around his farm. Bones and fragments, including teeth and sawed-off jawbones, were discovered after much of his farm was dug up in 2002. Fur-lined handcuffs and Spanish Fly tablets were also turned up. Perhaps most macabre, police found evidence that one round had been fired from a loaded .22 revolver that still had a vibrator strapped to its barrel. The prosecutor argued that secretions found on the vibrator indicated that at least one of the victims had been shot in the vagina while being penetrated with the sex toy.
The original trial in 2007 had Pickton facing 26 counts of murder, but the judge hearing the case was worried that the jury couldn't handle so many gruesome details in one go, and decided to separate the trial into two parts. Pickton was convicted of murdering six women in that first trial, and the second trial for the remaining 20 women was set for August 4, 2010. Then a new judge decided to close the case. When that happened, the files became public and all the evidence, including 11 hours of investigative tapes and testimony that had previously been sequestered, was released to the public and the families for the first time.
In one of the tapes released last week, Pickton is shown in a room with the black-and-white mugshots of scores of his alleged victims. The tape shows him first turning his back to the posterboard, then turning to face it, studying the photos. When the interrogator enters the room, Pickton tells him that the montage is missing a redhead. Then he says that he could have been stopped long before if the police had only done a better job of nailing him. “Bad policing is what took you so long to catch me,” he can be heard telling the officer on one of the tapes.
And according to the families of the dead, a bad decision by the British Columbia judiciary to close the case may now allow Canada’s most notorious serial killer to get away with murder.
Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's.