Saturday, December 09, 2006

Beware of Pig Farmers?

story.pickton.gi.jpgUndated file photo taken from television shows Robert Pickton, who is accused of killing 26 women in British Columbia.

Pig farmer faces trial in murders of 26 women

POSTED: 3:28 p.m. EST, December 8, 2006

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) -- The women began disappearing from Vancouver's seediest streets in the 1980s, hookers and dope addicts abandoned on the margins of society. Desperate friends and families were outraged when the police appeared to do little to find them.

Now, the man accused of murdering at least 26 of those missing women is finally going to trial. Jury selection was to begin Saturday for the case against Robert "Willie" Pickton, a pig farmer who, if convicted of all the murders, would become the worst serial killer in Canadian history.

Some 600 potential jurors were being called in Saturday. Justice James Williams has ruled that the trial will be divided into two parts, with the first six counts being tried first.

The gruesome allegations against Pickton fall under a publication ban which prevents the media from revealing details of the alleged crimes until opening arguments on January 8.

Journalists covering the preliminary hearings have been so haunted by the courtroom revelations that some have sought psychological help to deal with their anxiety and nightmares.

Pickton, 56, was arrested in February 2002 by police investigating the disappearances of sex-trade workers from Vancouver's grubby Downtown Eastside district. Health officials later issued a tainted-meat advisory to neighbors who may have bought pork from his farm, concerned the meat may have contained human remains.

Pickton and his brother, Dave, used to throw parties at the hog farm in a barn they had dubbed the "Piggy Palace," telling neighbors they were raising money for charity. Investigators, however, have said the parties were drunken raves with prostitutes and plenty of drugs and booze.

After Pickton was arrested and the first traces of DNA of some of the missing women were allegedly found on the farm, the buildings were razed and the province spent an estimated $61 million to excavate and sift through acres of soil looking for bones and other evidence.

Friends and family of the missing women say those who survived tell horror stories about what took place at the 17-acre pig farm outside Vancouver in Port Coquitlam.

"We deal with stories out here that would blow your mind; this story is just the apex," said the Rev. Ruth Wright of the First United Church in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, the most impoverished neighborhood in all of Canada, where the average life span does not even reach 40.

She knew seven of the victims in her decade of work in the neighborhood, where heroin addicts and sex workers line up in front of her mission for a hot meal, a foot bath or free toiletries, to sleep on the church pews, or seek legal advice and help finding a job.

Wright remembers with sadness Sereena Abotsway, a sweet-faced prostitute who was 29 when she disappeared in August 2001, shortly after marching at the front of a parade demanding the city help find the missing women. The first count of murder against Pickton is in Abotsway's name, and investigators have said that her DNA was found on the farm.

"She was very childlike, very gentle," Wright says of Abotsway. "The last conversation I had with her, she was holding a teddy bear. She loved stuffed animals."

Wright, relatives of the missing women and others who work or live on the streets of the Downtown Eastside say the city and police ignored their plight until the media began investigations of their own and relatives began holding demonstrations demanding answers.

Constable Catherine Galliford of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Joint Task Force told a news conference in March 2002, just after Pickton was arrested and public criticism had peaked, that police resources were limited and the magnitude of the case overwhelming.

"The very sad truth is that horrible things are happening everyday to women who work the streets," she said. "This investigation into missing women is forcing light onto a part of our society that traditionally resides in the very dark shadows."

The task force says it has located at least 102 women believed to be missing. Another 67 women remain on the list, as well as three unidentified DNA profiles from the Pickton farm.

If Pickton is found guilty, he would be the worst serial killer in Canadian history, claiming more victims that Clifford Olson, who pleaded guilty to killing 11 children in British Columbia in 1982.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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