The seaminess surrounds the trial of pig farmer Robert William Pickton, charged with murdering 26 drug-addicted prostitutes. The trial, which an earlier judge warned would be "as bad as a horror movie," began Jan. 22 and is expected to last a year. A jury will hear evidence on the first six charges of murder. (The remaining 20 charges will be brought to court after the first six.) Prosecutor Derrill Prevett described in his opening statement how police searching Pickton's ramshackle suburban pig farm about 15 miles east of Vancouver in 2002 found two women's heads in a freezer, cleaved in two and packed with their hands and feet. Human bones were found buried deep under an old pig pen. In Pickton's mobile-home trailer, said Prevett, police discovered a gun and a sex toy with DNA from Pickton and Mona Wilson, one of the alleged victims.
"I couldn't imagine," said Wilson's former foster mother, Norma Garley, nearly wordless. "Something like that happening to somebody in my family." Garley and her family took Wilson in at age seven, after the girl was sexually abused by family members. When Wilson was 14 social workers moved her, but the Garleys kept in touch and Wilson telephoned them just before December 2001, when she vanished. Until the trial, the Garleys had no idea the girl they called "Running Bear," the name honoring Wilson's aboriginal heritage, had grown up to become a drug addict selling sex on Downtown Eastside streets. In her last call to the Garleys, Wilson told them she was engaged to be married and doing well, Garley sobbed in an interview with TIME. "Mona always wanted us to have a good opinion of her."
The fates of Wilson, Sereena Abotsway, Andrea Joesbury, Brenda Ann Wolfe, Marnie Frey and Georgina Faith Papin are emerging in British Columbia Supreme Court, in the gritty Vancouver suburb of New Westminster. There, Pickton sits calmly behind bullet-resistant glass, an unimposing slim man with a fringe of lank grey hair around a bald pate. Now 57, he has become well-known in legal circles since his arrest in February 2002. But only now has the end of a Canadian publication ban, intended to ensure an impartial jury hearing, revealed the gruesome details of his case. Pickton has become instantly famous. "You're like the pope," a police officer told Pickton in a recorded interrogation played before the jury. Some 350 journalists are accredited and the trial is making global as well as local headlines. Each day curious spectators, including a class of teenagers from a local Christian school and several elderly people, jostle with family and friends of the victims for limited public seating.
The attention is new, but that Downtown Eastside prostitutes die gruesome deaths is old news, and largely ignored. Scores of women from that area have vanished since 1978. Only in 2001 did Canada's national police force, then investigating a separate case of prostitute serial killings in the province, team up with Vancouver police. The joint task force now lists more than 60 missing women; police said the DNA, remains or belongings of about half of those have been linked to Pickton's pig farm.
The missing women case has been the catalyst for a sea change in public attitudes to illegal drugs in British Columbia. Vancouver now leads North America in treating addiction as a health and social problem as well as a crime. It hosts the continent's only supervised heroin injection site, as well as a clinic dispensing free heroin in a scientific trial. But not much has changed at street level in the Downtown Eastside. Some 15,000 injection-drug addicts, many of them mentally ill, are concentrated in Canada's most impoverished neighborhood. An estimated 1500 female addicts continue to sell so called "survival sex," at all times and in all weather. Reporters interviewing the women about the Pickton trial were shocked to find that many didn't know about it, or care.
"Women who still live and work down here knew women who have died and gone missing," said Kate Gibson, executive director of WISH, a drop-in center for sex-trade workers. "They are still out there working on the street, and they still face the same violence, stigmatization, and discrimination every day."
Pickton's lawyer Peter Ritchie says his client is innocent, and that he will refute the prosecution's evidence. Pickton's own voice is directly heard only in a videotaped police interrogation after his arrest and the first two charges were brought in February 2002. Played to the jury, the tape shows him mumbling and at times appearing barely cognizant of events. "I'm just a pig farmer," Pickton tells police. "I'm a working guy, that's all I am." When told he was charged with two murders and was being investigated in the disappearances of 50 more women, he laughed. "Hogwash," he said, slouched over a chair in the interview room beside some potted palms. "I'm nailed to the cross," he said repeatedly. And when police asked if he killed as many as 50 women, Pickton complained: "You make me out to be more of a mass murderer than I am."
As Pickton's tale unfolds in court in a local suburb, the streets outside throng with police and sheriffs, panhandlers and patients released from a local mental hospital, college students and office workers who line up at local coffee shops. A stone's throw from the court is a strip joint advertising, in neon, "Mugs and Jugs." Nearby, a shop displays garish Valentine's Day wares: a larger-than-life knight in shining armor standing tall beside a Queen of Hearts. It's a costume shop, of course. Vancouver, in these dark days, has a dearth of real-life romantic heroes.