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Search for truth goes on, regardless of killer Robert Pickton's fate, say victims' advocates

An aerial view of the Pickton farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C. taken by police during their investigation in 2002. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO An aerial view of the Pickton farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C. taken by police during their investigation in 2002. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
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Advocates for alleged victims of B.C. serial killer Robert Pickton say they remain focused on getting justice for the women, as Pickton lies in a Quebec hospital in a coma after being attacked in prison.

Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Vancouver-based Battered Women's Support Services, reflected on the weekend assault that left Pickton with what police called life-threatening injuries, saying "There's something to be said about jailhouse justice."

But regardless of his fate, she said the fight on behalf of the women Pickton was accused of killing continues.

She said that includes a legal application opposing an RCMP bid to destroy about 14,000 pieces of evidence collected in the Pickton investigation.

There are also multiple ongoing lawsuits by family members of victims against Pickton and his brother, David Pickton.

Jason Gratl, the lawyer representing family members of victims in nine lawsuits against the brothers, said the potential death of the killer would have no bearing on proceedings.

"Robert William Pickton's state of health or well-being — I don't anticipate it will have any significant effect on the progress of the civil trial," he said in an interview Thursday.

"Based on his self-published book, 'The Fall Guy,' I didn't anticipate that he would have any constructive contribution to make at the trial."

Pickton was convicted in 2007 on six counts of second-degree murder of six women, but is suspected of killing many more who went missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

He bragged to an undercover officer of killing 49 women and the remains or DNA of 33 women, many of them taken from the Downtown Eastside, were found on Pickton’s pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C.

Police in Quebec said Thursday that Pickton, who was attacked Sunday at the maximum-security Port-Cartier Institution, was in a medically induced coma but that doctors planned to try to wake him soon.

Gratl said a bigger issue than whether Pickton survives is the potential destruction of the evidence.

"I act as legal counsel for 16 children of nine women who were killed by Robert Pickton," he said. "It's in their interest to preserve the evidence seized by the RCMP on the Pickton farm to allow my clients to prove that Robert Pickton and David Pickton caused them to suffer loss."

In 2014, the botched investigation into Pickton resulted in a settlement of $50,000 for the victims' children who had sued all three levels of government and the RCMP.

MacDougall's group is a signatory to a letter to the B.C. government calling for the exhibits to be preserved.

"It has an element of profound and deep significance because it is a representation of all those women and those families that did not receive justice through the criminal system," she said of the evidence.

About four years ago, B.C. Mounties applied to dispose of the material found at a Ruskin, B.C., property linked to Pickton. It is now being held at RCMP warehouses.

Items range from pieces of clothing, shoes and hairpins — including one with hair still in it — to a sex toy and a rusty .303-calibre bolt-action rifle.

The RCMP has argued that the items were taking up substantial space and continued to run up costs. It said the evidence in question had been captured and retained and would not affect future prosecution.

In an email, RCMP Staff Sgt. Kris Clark confirmed that the application to destroy it remained before the courts and the process was ongoing.

The letter opposing the destruction of that evidence, sent to the provincial government on Dec. 11, spoke to the damage that would be done to the families seeking justice.

"Twenty of the charges against Pickton were stayed, and have not yet resulted in any convictions," it said. "For the families of those victims, justice has been elusive and they still hold hope that one day they will know what happened to their loved ones."

In another argument for the preservation, the letter said statements by the defence, Crown and jury also "strongly suggest a shared belief that he did not act alone and others may be implicated in the deaths of the six women Robert Pickton was convicted of killing."

Gratl echoed this.

"In addition to my client's more narrow interests, there are a number of community organizations that oppose the destruction of evidence on the basis that the investigation into who killed the women on the Pickton farm should not be concluded because Robert Pickton likely had accomplices," he said.

"The destruction of evidence seized by the RCMP would preclude a meaningful investigation (of) accomplices and would certainly preclude any prosecution."

The Vancouver Rape Relief & Women's Shelter was also among those calling for a halt to the RCMP's disposal plan.

Hilla Kerner, a spokeswoman for the shelter, said they felt compelled to sign the letter "in solidarity with families of the victims" to see the needle pushed toward justice. But, she said, the destruction of the evidence and Pickton's potential death could mean no justice at all for those whose deaths did not result in a conviction.

"There is never ultimate justice, but in so many cases, there is no justice at all," she said.

"Our debt to the women who lost their lives, our debt to their families, our debt to the women who are now entrenched in homelessness, in poverty, in drug addiction — the province did not pay this debt."

She said femicide is a "staggering problem" in B.C. and across Canada, and Pickton's case showcased this.

"The Pickton story — the tragic, horrific stories of its victims — is a story about terrible male violence, but also terrible, terrible state abandonment of the women who were killed, and I'm afraid we're not better off yet."

Lydia Hwitsum, director at BC First Nations Justice Council, said the handling of the Pickton case also puts a spotlight on issues facing the Indigenous community.

"Not much has changed to improve outcomes for Indigenous women’s safety" in the years since Pickton was convicted, she said in an interview.

Hwitsum also called for the preservation of evidence.

"The pathway to justice has not been reached for so many that have been harmed at the hands of Pickton," she said. "The evidence that's there speaks to what our people have gone through and it is critical to hold onto that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2024. 

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