VANCOUVER – A massive leadership failure within the Vancouver Police Department stalled the investigation into reports of missing sex workers in the late 1990s, the public inquiry into the Robert Pickton case heard Monday.
That failed leadership extended all the way up to the chief, who was apparently unaware of the most basic details of the case and did nothing to ensure it was taken seriously, according to a review prepared by an outside police agency.
“While some recognized the increased number of missing women as significant, certain officers failed to take ownership and ensure the proper resources were dedicated to the problem,” says the report by Deputy Chief Jennifer Evans of Ontario’s Peel Regional Police.
Evans’ report offers scathing criticism of both the Vancouver police and the RCMP, which together failed to stop Pickton as he hunted sex workers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was able to continue killing for years after he was first identified as a suspect.
Portions of the report were read at the hearings Monday, as Vancouver’s current deputy chief, Doug LePard, entered his second week of testimony. LePard said he agrees with nearly all of Evans’ conclusions.
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By early 1999, the investigation consisted of just a single dedicated officer, despite growing concern within the community and among Vancouver police officers that the disappearances weren’t being taken seriously.
That officer, Det. Const. Lori Shenher, gave a public presentation in the Downtown Eastside in February 1999, providing an update on the investigation. She told the audience it was her opinion “the majority of these women have met with violence” – an assessment she had already shared with her superiors months earlier.
All of that appeared to come as news to the chief at the time, Bruce Chambers.
“The fact that he (Chambers) was shocked at the news in February ’99 following Det. Const. Shenher’s community meeting demonstrates that senior management was not aware of such an obvious concern to the community,” said Evans’ report.
“I believe he took no action to address the concern. I believe he did not recognize or take ownership of the missing women issue during his tenure.”
The missing women investigation didn’t receive any additional resources until April 1999, when Const. Dave Dickson, a well-known beat cop in the Downtown Eastside, was assigned to the case. In May, a review team was created consisting of six officers and a civilian clerical worker.
The problems weren’t confined to Chambers, according to Evans’ report, but reflected an apathy that defined how Vancouver police management viewed the missing women investigation. That, in turn, prevented the investigation from receiving adequate resources, Evans wrote in her report.
For example, in September 1998, a working group was preparing to launch an investigation into whether a serial killer might be at work in the Downtown Eastside and was weeks away from issuing a news release to inform the public.
But the head of the force’s major crimes unit, Insp. Fred Biddlecombe, didn’t believe the missing sex workers had met foul play. He successfully argued to have the working group disbanded.
Biddlecombe didn’t receive any pushback from others on the force’s management team, wrote Evans.
“It’s unfortunate that members of senior management could not discuss their concerns regarding the missing women issue in a more constructive manner, instead of deferring ownership and effectively washing their hands of it,” said the report.
That lack of urgency didn’t change when Chambers was replaced and a new chief, Terry Blythe, took over, according to Evans’ report.
Blythe was already aware of the missing women’s case, having encountered it when he was deputy chief of the section within the force that handles major investigations.
“I believe it was his responsibility to pursue that information and remain informed,” said Evans’ report.
“He had every opportunity to review what was going on and take action. I saw no evidence of that. I believe he failed to take ownership over the issue and ensure that this growing concern was addressed in the best possible way.”
The inquiry has already heard allegations that both the Vancouver police and the RCMP were slow to investigate reports of missing sex workers and neither dedicated enough attention or resources to solve the case.
The Vancouver police has already offered a public apology for failing to catch Pickton, and an internal report released last year admitted a number of failings.
The RCMP has not offered such an apology or admitted there was anything wrong with its investigation.
An internal report prepared in 2002, released at the inquiry last month, offers a relatively positive review of the RCMP’s investigation and concludes “nothing would have changed dramatically if those involved had to do it over again.”
Pickton was arrested in 2002, when a junior officer who wasn’t working on the missing women investigation obtained a search warrant related to illegal firearms.
The arrest set off a massive search of Pickton’s farm, where investigators found the remains or DNA of 33 women.
Pickton was eventually convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, though he has claimed that he killed a total of 49.