The Geography of Pig Farmer Robert Pickton, the Man Suspected of Having Killed Over 60 Vancouver, BC, Sex Workers
Women started disappearing from Vancouver, BC's Downtown Eastside, or the DES as it's commonly known, in the early '80s, about the same time that women started disappearing along the broad and busy "strip" that separates the hotels from the international airport in SeaTac. The missing women from both cities were from the same class: poor, often homeless, often addicted to drugs, often selling sex to generate an income. The only difference between the two--save the fact that more black women went missing in the Seattle area while more Native American women went missing in the Vancouver area--is that the remains of many of the missing Seattle women resurfaced in the garbaged wild areas around the airport, beside the freeways, and, most infamously, along the banks of the Green River. In Vancouver, if the vanished women did not return to the DES alive, or show up in another city, they did not return at all.
Vancouver's police department was slow to take an interest in the vanishing women. Perhaps because the police in Canada were as indifferent to the plight of these women as our local police departments were to our missing women. However, law enforcement officers in SeaTac and Seattle had to take the crimes seriously because bodies were turning up, corpses had to be examined and explained to a frightened community. Vancouver's police had next to nothing: no bodies, no physical evidence, no autopsies to perform. The lack of bodies, coupled with the police department's prejudices and contempt for the pimps, drug dealers, addicts, and sex workers who make up over a third of the DES' 15,000 residents, opened a space in which the killer operated with all almost no interference from the law. The Green River Killer, by way of contrast, didn't have it so easy; he had to be cunning, always one step ahead of the law, as he mocked the investigators and the public by leaving more and more corpses to be discovered.
Shortly after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police served a warrant to a small-scale farmer named Robert Pickton on February 5, 2002, Vancouver's missing women began to reappear. But the vanished returned not as whole bodies but as body parts. In the freezers Pickton used to store unsold meat, the feet, heads, and hands of two missing women were reported to be found. Also found on the junk-strewn farm were ID cards, clothes, and teeth.
"A special team investigating the cases," reported the New York Times on Saturday, November 23, 2002, "arrived and found body parts in a freezer, as well as purses and other personal effects later linked to the missing.... Not one body has been found intact, and a wood chipper and Mr. Pickton's pigs are believed to have devoured much of the evidence."
The Scene of the Crimes
"There are no whole bodies at the pig farm," says Elaine Allan, a former coordinator for a DES drop-in center for sex workers. While employed there in the late '90s, she worked with almost 20 of the women who are believed to have been murdered by Robert Pickton, dismembered, and fed to his pigs. In her late 30s with medium-length hair, an intelligent air, and attentive eyes, Allan's voice expresses an almost aching sensitivity for the victims.
"I can't tell you exactly what they have found on the farm because of the ban on that information. You know about the ban?" I say that I do, but the local papers have reported about the feet, teeth, and bones. Everyone knows about the body parts, the pigs, the wood chipper, the freezers. Indeed, the animal rights organization PETA had planned to place a large ad in the Province describing the murders in horrifying detail. ("They were drugged and dragged across the room," the PETA ad began. "Their struggles and cries went unanswered.... They were slaughtered and their heads were sawed off.... Their body parts were refrigerated.... And their bones discarded. It's Still Going On. Please remember that this scenario is a reality for more than 640 million sensitive individuals who lose their lives every year in this country for nothing more than the taste of their 'meat.'")
What detail could Allan possibly tell me that wasn't already known? Was there more than dismembered women in the meat freezer, in the teeth of the wood chipper, or the guts of the pigs? Were there worse details, more horrifying details?
"Yes," she says. "It's worse than you can imagine."
We are in a rented car heading toward Pickton's farm, which is in Port Coquitlam, 40 minutes southeast of downtown Vancouver. The sky is clear, the sun shines, the traffic is light, and my guide to the gates of hell is all nerves and sorrow. A few days before, Allan attended Robert Pickton's preliminary hearing in Port Coquitlam's courthouse. The prosecutors had charged Pickton with 15 counts of first-degree murder--they could have filed an additional seven charges. The courtroom was packed with friends and relatives of the victims and reporters from around the world. Robert Pickton was also in the courthouse, in a bulletproof glass box.
"He seemed such a stark figure, really ominous," Allan says. "When I looked at him he made me feel very, very sad because that's who it is, that's him. The man responsible for all the missing women."
Before reaching the farm, we make a stop at Port Coquitlam's courthouse just to stare at it, so I can see with my own eyes a building that had been visited by the evil one not a week before.
We drive off, heading south on Lougheed Highway toward one of this growing suburb's last main streets, Dominion Avenue, before the city of Port Coquitlam ends at the Pitt River, and the swamps and woods of Pitt Meadows begin.
Pressed again for details, Allan issues me another warning.
"If you report on any evidence that was revealed in the court you are breaking the law, and could be arrested," Allan says. "You must respect our laws; you are in Canada now, and this is how we do things."
Indeed, this is how they do things. Judges in Canada can order reporters not to report facts they know or uncover, in order to insure a fair trial. The more notorious the crime, the hungrier the public is for details, and the likelier a judge is to order reporters not to report--this is in stark contrast to the United States, where a reporter who knows the most damning details may report them, is expected to report them, and wins awards for reporting them.
In Allan's defense of the Canadian judiciary system there is a hint of hurt pride, a national sense of shame. After all, Canada is supposed to have a superior social safety net. If you lose your job in the United States--your apartment, your family, your savings--the government will not step in and stop your fall from decency to bankruptcy to the streets. But here in Canada, this relative social utopia, this country with free medical care, and in Vancouver, with its generous welfare programs, the social safety net somehow failed all of these women--they fell from the streets to the mud of a death farm on the edge of the city.
"The police knew about Pickton's farm in 1998," Allan says as we continue to head toward the farm. "Pickton was even charged with attempted murder in 1997. There was even a detective, Kim Rossmo, who was fired because he suggested there was a serial killer working the DES area. The police just didn't think it was worth the trouble, until America's Most Wanted broadcasted that there was a serial killer in Vancouver."
According to Allan, not many people in the DES were surprised when the police went to the farm and made the big discovery.
"The women I worked with knew the guy, knew about the farm," she says. "When his car came around, they knew he was a bad date." (A client who enjoys hurting or killing sex workers is considered "a bad date.")
Entering what is called the Dominion Triangle Area ("Port Coquitlam's Newest Commercial Area," according to the city's website), we find on one side of the street a brand-new mall that includes Save-On-Foods, Costco, the Home Depot, and Starbucks, and on the other side there are brand-new and still-under-construction townhouses. Toward the east are small farms with cornfields, horses, and other animals. The spaces between these commercial and residential sites (the new townhouses, the old small-scale farms, the gleaming mall) are muddy, with patches of wild grass and heaps of concrete rubble. Across the street from the Dominion Triangle Area's massive Costco sits Robert Pickton's pig farm.
The pig farm has an address--953 Dominion Avenue--and it is, according to the Vancouver Sun's Kim Bolan, Canada's "Ground Zero."
"The excavation and search for human remains at the [farm] resembles the massive undertaking at Ground Zero after the World Trade Center disaster," Bolan writes.
The site is nothing like what an urban person imagines a farm should look like. There are no picket fences, chicken coops, water wells, or weather cocks. Indeed, when I see the farm it has much in common with the WTC excavation--there are earthmovers, dump trucks, payloaders, and conveyor belts. The sinister pig barn was removed months ago, as well as the farmhouse and its lone brick chimney; the animals, the mountains of hay, the junk of old farm machinery are all gone. Were it not for the yellow police tape that runs along the fence ("Stop. Crime Scene. All Vehicles/Persons Subject to Search."), the death farm might look like a construction site for a new mega-store coming to the Dominion Triangle Area.
The men and women working on this former farm, who are by the conveyor belt, or leaving the site and walking over to the mall to buy lunch at Save-On-Foods or needed tools from the Home Depot, are forensic scientists, odontologists, foot morphologists, chemical biologists, and archaeologists. The one field of forensic science that is playing absolutely no role in this investigation is forensic entomology, the study of insects that devour a corpse. When a fresh corpse is exposed to the elements, insects like blowflies lay eggs in wounds and other orifices within minutes. By examining the life cycles of these insects forensic entomologists can determine the exact time of death.
Gail Anderson, a professor at nearby Simon Fraser University's School of Criminology, is one of the top scientists in the field. Ironically enough, Anderson uses dead pigs for her research because their torsos are similar in size to human torsos, and also pig skin is similar to human skin. Sometimes Anderson dresses up her dead pigs in human clothing, so she can study the different ways insects attack a clothed corpse. But this particular crime scene does not need assistance from Gail Anderson--there were no corpses, clothed or unclothed, in which flies and other insects could lay their eggs. The scientists at work on the death farm are looking for the smallest of traces; shifting through the dirt for bone fragments, for anything that is large and fresh enough to yield its DNA.
100 years of Pig Farming
In 1905, 52 years after the first Europeans settled in the area that is now called Port Coquitlam, William Pickton, the great-grandfather of the accused serial killer, bought land near a mental hospital. William Pickton raised hogs. His children grew up and raised hogs, and his children's children grew up and raised hogs, all on the very same farm. Then in the late '50s the Picktons were forced to sell their farm and move. They had to make way for Lougheed Highway.
In 1963, Leonard Pickton and his wife, Helen Louise, bought 40 acres of swamp for $18,000, towed their blue-and-white farmhouse to the site, and began raising children and pigs. They had two sons, Robert and David, and a daughter, Linda, who was not brought up on the farm but in the city, where she attended boarding school. Linda eventually married a businessman, and currently lives in the relatively posh neighborhood of South Granville, near downtown Vancouver.
Linda's brothers, Robert and David, remained on the farm, with its shit, it smells, its blood and butchery. The boys' father died in 1978 and their mother followed him to the grave in 1979. The brothers, then in their late 20s, inherited the farm with their sister.
In 1994, the Picktons struck it rich. Their farmland, purchased for $18,000 in 1963, was worth $300,000 in 1993. By 1994 it was valued at $7.2 million. In the fall of 1994, they sold a part of their farm for $1.7 million to Eternal Holdings, a townhouse development company. That same year the city of Port Coquitlam also bought a chunk of their land, for $1.2 million, and turned it into a park. In 1995, Port Coquitlam's school district bought a piece of the pig farm for $2.3 million, and built Blakeburn Elementary School on the site.
It was around this time, when the Picktons became millionaires, that the women began to go missing in alarming numbers from the DES. In 1995, Catherine Gonzales went missing; a few months later, Catherine Knight went missing, then Dorothy Spence, then Diana Melnick, then Tanya Holyk, then Olivia Williams, then Frances Young, then Stephanie Lane, Helen Hallmark, Janet Henry--the count didn't cease until 2001.
According to Lincoln Clarkes--a photographer who took pictures of five of the women whose remains would ultimately be found on the farm (they can be seen in his book, Heroines)--another factor contributed to the sudden rise of missing women: After making his small fortune, David Pickton left the family farm and moved a mile or less down the road to a new property on 2552 Burns Road, where he opened a party hall called Piggy's Palace in 1996.
Robert Pickton now had the resources and the freedom to do as he pleased.
Seven or so years ago, a longshoreman, who asked not to be named and currently lives in an apartment building in Sunrise Hastings, Vancouver, BC, went with an "old friend/coworker from the railway" to a "Halloween bash [at Piggy's Palace]." He described the night to The Stranger in these hellish terms: "I arrived at the party at about 9:00 p.m. It was dark and raining and muddy, and there were lots of motorcycles, old cars, and a big pig roasting on a spit. There were kids in costumes, some dressed as witches. The little kids were running around, and playing in the dark. There wasn't much light. There were lots of women, who looked like hookers.... The party spilled all over the grounds and there were people in the house and in the trailer doing the wild thing. I recall walking by a shack with a 40-watt light bulb hanging over the door and machinery was running inside. Here, I got a death chill. The hairs raised on the back of my neck and my feet froze to the ground. I didn't want to be there anymore, so I left and walked home."
The longshoreman's account is by no means exceptional; many who visited Piggy's Palace had similar impressions: It was wild, people were doing drugs and eating roasted pig. "I was about to eat the pig, but when I saw [Robert Pickton tearing apart] the pig with his hands, I decided not to.... His hands were dirty," said the longshoreman.
"I only went once and I'd never go again," said an unnamed woman in a wonderful short article that was published in the Now (a Port Coquitlam newspaper) a few days after Pickton was served a warrant by the police. "It's a very raunchy crowd, lots of cocaine, lots of really, really bad, badass people.... I did not want to be a part of it."
Piggy's Palace, however, had a double life. Records posted on crimelibrary.com show that Piggy's Palace was a "nonprofit society" dedicated to raising money for "sports organizations and other worthy groups." The long tin shed on 2552 Burns Road was visited by almost everyone in Port Coquitlam. And not just badass people: two mayors, several city council members, local business and civic leaders, ice hockey moms, high school and elementary school students--they all came for "functions, dances, concerts and other recreations" at Piggy's Palace. Port Coquitlam Coun- cillor Darrell Penner, according to the Now, visited Piggy's Palace "a few times," believed that thousands of people had been to the place, and, though he had enjoyed some roasted pork, was certain it did not come from 953 Dominion Avenue, that is, from pigs that had been eating the women murdered on the Pickton farm.
But where else could it have come from?
It's common knowledge that Robert Pickton was, by the mid-'90s, no longer a serious commercial pig farmer. He was a wealthy man. Raising hogs now was more of a hobby. He bought the pigs, fattened them, and sold the meat to friends, or roasted them for the bikers, prostitutes, mayors, and Little Leaguers who partied at Piggy's Palace. The entire city of Port Coquitlam (pop. 53,000), it seemed, was feeding on pigs that had been fed by the suspected serial killer Robert Pickton.
Thousands of Consumer Products
It wasn't just the guests of Piggy's Palace who consumed Pickton's pigs. The unusable remains of the pigs Robert slaughtered and served to his friends and neighbors--pig entrails, brains, bones, nerve tissue, and gore--were taken by truck to a rendering plant near the DES called West Coast Reduction Ltd. Many are certain that the partial remains of the murdered sex workers were also trucked to West Coast Reduction Ltd.
Located on 105 North Com- mercial Drive, West Coast Reduction's facility is impressive. It's a complex of huge cylindrical cookers, storage tanks, office buildings, industrial stacks, and railroad tracks. Underground pipelines connect it with one of the biggest ports on the Pacific Rim; huge orange cranes loom just behind it, and the surrounding air is relatively clean, although once in a while the smell of something awful wafts from an unidentifiable source. The plant turns animal bones, guts, fish, blood, pig entrails, used restaurant grease, and, now many believe, the remains of sex workers into a number of consumer products, like lipstick base, soaps, shampoos, and perfumes. These commodities that improve human appearance are shipped all over the world.
Six blocks up from the rendering plant, the most fashionable part of Vancouver begins. Commercial Drive is lined with restaurants that serve Cuban finger foods, theaters that screen Bollywood films, and stores that sell Italian shoes. Here hipsters visit a wild variety of trendy cafes, tapas bars, spas, heath-food groceries, and cosmetic shops. All of these urban pleasures are walking distance from the rendering plant, the place where Robert Pickton brought the intestines of his slaughtered hogs for more than 20 years, according West Coast Reduction's records. After emptying his truck, he is believed to have picked up sex workers, sometimes within a block of the plant.
"Vancouver residents have recently learned... that fragments of some of these dead women's bodies may have entered the food chain through the rendering plant," writes cultural historian Denise Blake Oleksijczuk in an essay titled "Haunted Spaces." (As well as beauty products, rendering plants also make food for farm animals that humans consume.) Oleksijczuk cites a statement made by the regional director of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Sheila Fagnan, to the Vancouver Sun: "[We] made inquiries after learning that Robert Pickton had met the women he is accused of killing on his trips to the rendering plant.... Any testing that would have been done [at the plant] would be around surveillance for chemical residues. I can't imagine any testing that would distinguish, um, you know--[one] animal matter... from another."
The Heart of the DES
The DES area, where Pickton picked up many of the women he allegedly murdered, is only 10 blocks west of the rendering plant. Pickton liked to hang out in the seediest hotels on East Hastings Street, the most notorious of which are the Roosevelt Hotel, on Main Street and East Hastings, and the Astoria Hotel, on Hawks Street and East Hastings. During another visit to Vancouver, I went to the Roosevelt Hotel, which is in the heart of the DES, near the Carnegie Community Centre.
The building is not wide--barely 20 feet of street front--thus making it hard to find. When I located it, I talked to an East Indian concierge through an exceptionally sturdy double-hung gate that blocks the entrance. He asked if I wanted to visit someone and I said yes, Robert Pickton's girlfriend, who for 18 months lived on the death farm. She is reported to be a junkie, half sensible, and is now infamous for having arranged fatal farm visits for several women who were staying at the Roosevelt Hotel. One of those women was Andrea Joesbury, who lived in room 201, disappeared in June 2001, and whose remains were found on the farm the following year. I wanted to see if Pickton's suspect girlfriend was still staying in the Roosevelt Hotel. But I was told that no one by that name was registered in the hotel.
The Astoria Hotel is six blocks east of the Roosevelt Hotel. On the ground floor of the Astoria sits a sunless bar. The booze, as one might expect, was cheap; but the floor beneath the bar, as one might not have expected, vibrated, at times rather violently, as if a train were passing underneath. The cause of these unsettling tremors was a boxing ring in the hotel's basement. Under a fluorescent light, local toughs beat each other soundly enough to shake the bar stools above. The bartender, a biggish, handsome East Indian man in his mid-30s, who wore a flashy silver chain around his neck, served me a reasonably strong drink. I asked him about Pickton.
"That faker--he used to sit right over there," the bartender said, pointing to an empty table. "He sat there all the time, by himself."
What kind of person was Pickton?
"He was a wannabe, you know, he wanted to be a biker, a Hells Angel, a mean leather guy. But everyone knew he was a weasel, a wannabe." The bartender claims he wasn't surprised when he heard Pickton was a serial killer. "I mean you can't imagine hanging out with a guy like that without something bad happening."
Starting from Astoria Hotel, there is an uninterrupted course that leads to the mouth of Dominion Avenue. After a drink or two, Pickton simply had to head east with a prostitute by his side, swerving to the left as East Hastings turns into Inlet Drive, and then swerving left again, as Inlet Drive becomes Barnet Highway and passes above Simon Fraser University, where Professor Anderson experiments with the corpses of clothed pigs. A sharp left turns Barnet Highway into St. John Street; after a mile, Barnet Highway resumes, momentarily, before dissolving into Lougheed Highway, the very highway whose construction in the '50s and '60s forced Ma and Pa Pickton to move and settle on Dominion Avenue in 1963. Thirty-three years later, a partially clothed DES sex-trade worker and drug addict, Wendy Lynn Eistetter, stumbled out onto Dominion Avenue at 1:45 a.m., covered in blood, fleeing Robert Pickton, who according to the police report had stabbed her "repeatedly with... a brown-handled knife." Though the police charged Pickton with attempted murder on March 23, 1997, it was later dropped because the prosecutors believed they would not get a conviction (who would the jury believe, a millionaire pig farmer or an impecunious junkie?). After the law set Robert Pickton free, up to 30 more women went missing in the DES area.
When I drive out to the farm with Elaine Allan we also stop at the gate to Piggy's Palace. The owner of the house, David Pickton, is not at home; and the tin shed that stretches above a clump of bushes, rubble, and tall grass is unoccupied. That anyone would attend a party at this "palace" defies belief. There is nothing festive about this property; it looks like an industrial wasteland surrounded by farms that produce the strangest of fruits, the most alien of vegetables. There is a rumor that the man charged with the Green River murders, Gary Ridgway, once visited Piggy's Palace, and that would make perfect sense; he would have been happy here amongst the garbage, pickup trucks, rubble, wild grass, trees, and mud--it would have reminded him of the scenes of his many alleged crimes.
Before leaving the Dominion Triangle Area, Allan and I visit a makeshift memorial across the street from the pig farm and next to the Costco. In front of a white tent there is an odd garden of old and new flowers, snapshots and news photos, short poems, and what appear to be personal items, like teddy bears, left by friends and relatives of the murdered women. The police and scientists still occupy the farm, still search for the remains, still exit its gate to visit the Starbucks at the mall. Eventually the investigation will end, the police tape will come down, and the scientists will depart. What will happen to Canada's most notorious pig farm then?
"They must build a park," Allan says without hesitation, "a place where the souls of these women can roam in peace."
I agree with Allan's vision, of course, but I doubt there will ever be a park on this site. Construction presses in along the border of the pig farm. The developers are still building and selling townhouses. One real-estate agent told me that the value of the homes near the farm have not decreased but increased. A house along Dominion Avenue goes for around $300,000 Canadian dollars--roughly $230,000 American. The developers want Pickton's land, and a memorial to sex-trade workers and drug addicts who were murdered in the heart of this thriving suburban area just won't do.
Allan seems angered by my pessimism, but a short drive around the neighborhood--with its fathers cutting lawns, mothers planting flowers, children riding mountain bikes, all within meters of the death farm--makes it clear that the indifference the police demonstrated toward the vanishing women is identical to the indifference this suburban community is demonstrating toward the body parts recovered in its midst.
"They must build a park in their memory," Allan says, looking out the window of the car. "How can people live on the grave of these women? Their ghosts will haunt them."
Extra reporting on this piece by Bess Lovejoy and Lesley Selcer, with additional research by Jane Berentson.