2007-01-23 17:58:23 UTC
Jury braces itself for a horror tale of missing women and a pig farm
Catherine Philp in Vancouver
For 20 years, women went missing from seedy streets. Now a court will
hear evidence that they may have ended up in pies
Marnie Frey called her parents for the last time on her 24th birthday.
Lynn, her stepmother, answered the phone to hear Marnie giggling,
wheedling for some birthday cash. Mrs Frey was reluctant, knowing that
it would be spent to feed her heroin habit.
She told her daughter that a parcel was on its way, with clothes, food
and toiletries, things low down on her daughters shopping list for
life on the mean streets of the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver. The
thank-you call never came.
Rick and Lynn Frey would not learn what had become of their daughter
until after a frantic search that lasted five years. Her remains were
unearthed on a pig farm in Port Coquitlam, on the outskirts of
Vancouver. The farm belonged to Robert Pickton, known as Uncle
Willie, a pig farmer well-known for the parties that he threw for
prostitutes and bikers at his quasi- legal drinking club, the Piggy
Investigators dug up the remains of one woman after another, from body
parts to minute traces of DNA, until the count came to 30. Four could
not be identified. The other 26 were among the names of 67 women who
had disappeared from the Downtown Eastside streets. On Monday Mr
Pickton goes on trial for six murders, the only cases in which body
Few of the details of the evidence have been made public in Canada,
where strict publication bans have muffled preliminary hearings. But
what has come to light is grim enough: butchered body parts discovered
in a freezer; a woodchipper, confiscated by police, where the womens
bodies were believed to have been disposed of; and the public health
warning that the pigs believed to have been fed on human remains were
then slaughtered and put into the human food chain along with,
perhaps, human meat itself.
At jury selection, the judge warned potential jurors that what they
would hear would be like a horror movie. But this time, he told
them, they would not be able to switch it off.
But the friends and families of the murdered and missing women are
those who are likely to suffer the most trauma. Evidence is expected
to take as long as a year to hear. Yet most plan to be there, to find
out what happened to their daughters, sisters and friends, and how it
was allowed to happen. The women of the Downtown Eastside disappeared
gradually, over the course of 20 years, unseen and apparently uncared
for by those meant to protect them.
The Downtown Eastside is the poorest postcode in Canada, where life
expectancy is less than 40. Its seedy bars and dank doorways shelter
the huddled forms of vagrants and junkies, creating a filthy
foreground to the gleaming skyscrapers less than a mile up the road.
It has the highest rate of HIV infection in North America and is the
only place in the developed world where infected women outnumber men.
Social workers called the prostitutes here survival sex workers.
They are selling themselves merely to stay alive.
Rebecca Guno was the first to disappear, in 1983, but no one knew then
that she was only the first. Fourteen years later, when Ms Freys call
never came, Mrs Frey grew worried. When Ms Frey had still not surfaced
after four months and local police said that they could not help, Mrs
Frey and her sister, Joyce LaChance, travelled to the Downtown
Eastside to report Ms Frey missing there. The police there, they
didnt seem concerned. They said she was an adult and shed probably
taken off somewhere, Mrs Frey recalls. They made us think we were
the only ones looking for someone missing.
Infuriated by the police refusal to look for her daughter, Mrs Frey
and her sister began their own search. They began to meet other
people, like them, looking for their missing loved ones. One woman,
searching for her sister, had been refused a missing person report and
told to go put her picture up at the needle exchange. A man, Wayne
Leng, was searching for his friend Sarah de Vries, last seen on a
street corner on April 14, 1998, seven months after Marnies last
Ms de Vriess theory of what lay behind the disappearances was
contained in a journal she left at Mr Lengs. Am I next? Is he
watching me now? she wrote. Stalking me like a predator and its
prey? Waiting, waiting for some perfect spot, time or my stupid
mistake? The more Mrs Frey spoke to the street girls, the more she
became convinced that Ms de Vriess theory of a serial killer was
right. The girls told me, Theres this guy who picks up girls in
vans and takes them to a farm and they dont come back. Hes got a
woodchipper, she said. Then theyd run away scared and wouldnt say
Mrs LaChance suddenly thought of the farm near her home where the
Pickton brothers lived. She knew a friend of theirs and had babysat
for her children. The sisters relayed their suspicions to the police,
who were adamant that there was no serial killer.
Family members lobbied the press and The Vancouver Sun began its own
investigation. Mr Leng set up a hotline for tips about the killings
and received a call from one Bill Hiscox, a former employee on the
farm. He knew a woman who had been inside the trailer where Mr Pickton
lived, behind the main farmhouse where his brother, Dave, lived. She
doesnt want to get involved. Shes kind of scared about it, he said
in the call that Mr Leng taped. But she told me, Billy, you wouldnt
believe the IDs and s*** in that trailer. Theres womens clothes out
there, theres purses. You know, whats that guy doing? Its, like,
Mr Hiscox also noted a case known to the police, when Wendy Lynn
Eistetter, a prostitute, had fled the pig farm, handcuffed, bleeding
from the stomach, claiming that Robert Pickton had stabbed her. Mr
Pickton, who was also wounded in the incident, was charged with
attempted murder but Ms Eistetter balked at testifying and the charges
were dropped. Mr Leng handed the tape to police but heard no more
The name Pickton would not come up again until 2002, four years later,
when police visited the farm with an unrelated warrant to search for
an unlicensed gun. They stumbled upon an asthma inhaler prescribed in
the name of one of the missing women and the ID cards of several
others. They returned with another warrant and began searching the
property, beginning with the slaughterhouse.
In the freezers, they unearthed two five-gallon tubs. Inside were
severed hands and feet, and the heads of two women among the most
recently reported missing. Both were sawn in half like the carcasses
of the slaughtered pigs. One, Serena Abbotsway, had gone missing only
a few months after leading a protest march against police inaction
over the killings. Much of the evidence may have been devoured long
before police set foot on the farm. It is believed that there is a
possibility that human remains were fed to pigs but the risk of
disease to those who may have had contact with the meat was
negligible, a 2003 police health study said. The psychological
effects may be worse than the physical.
Five years and 26 murder charges later, the cases of 39 missing women
remain open. Investigators continue to sift through the samples taken
from the Pickton farm in search of any trace of those still missing.
An internal police inquiry has been ordered but the families are still
clamouring for a public one. If this was a rich community in the West
End, all hell would have broken loose, Rick Frey said. Down on the
seedy streets of the Downtown Eastside, a serial killer might no
longer be stalking the women but the violence continues unabated. In
2005 Donald Bakker was convicted of the torture and sexual assault of
nearly 60 prostitutes, whose ordeals he had taped. None reported the
abuse to the police. More than 20 men have been convicted of killing
one prostitute each in the Downtown Eastside since 1980.
Whats more scary, one person killing all these women, or all these
men killing just one each? Kate Gibson, the executive director of the
WISH drop-in centre asked.
At the junction of Main and Hastings, known in the Downtown Eastside
as Pain and Wastings, I stop to speak to a familiar-looking young
working girl. She is Natasha, the sister of Ms de Vries, whose
adoption by a middle-class family did not save her from ending up
here. Natasha had never met Ms de Vries but came here in search of her
after fleeing an abusive boyfriend in Ontario.
But her sister had disappeared only a month before. Now Natasha leads
the life that her sister left behind. We dont talk about that stuff
that happened, she slurs. You just gotta keep going.
1609 The King of Hungary ordered the arrest of the Slovenian
aristocrat Elizabeth Bathory for the vampiric torture and murder of
about 600 young girls
1790-1830 Thug Behram, reputed to be the world's most prolific killer,
is claimed to have murdered 931 victims while the leader of the Indian
Thuggee gang of assassins
1888 Dubbed the first modern serial killer, Jack the Ripper caused
terror in London with his spree of prostitute murders. The exact
number of victims is unknown
1957 Police searching the home of Ed Gein in Wisconsin uncovered a
wardrobe of clothes fashioned from human skin. He was convicted of
killing one person, but probably murdered more. Gein later became the
model for Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs
1974-98 Harold Shipman killed an estimated 236 people, while
practising as a GP, until he was exposed by a forged will
1995 Rosemary West was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder
of ten young girls, including her 16-year-old daughter in Gloucester.
Her husband, Fred, committed suicide before the trial