Story updated May 29, 2012
Former Coquitlam RCMP investigators were grilled Tuesday before the Missing Women Inquiry about how their flawed investigation let serial killer Robert Pickton keep killing long after they had him in their sights.
Const. Ruth Chapman, now retired, confirmed she wasn’t well prepared for an interview with Pickton in January 2000 when Mounties were investigating tips that Pickton associate Lynn Ellingsen had once seen the Port Coquitlam pig farmer butchering a woman in his barn.
Chapman testified she did not expect Pickton would come, but he arrived with companion Gina Houston, who derailed attempts to glean useful evidence.
“I was surprised that Gina Houston and he showed up at the detachment – I never expected they would carry out the appointment,” said Chapman, who led the interview when a trained homicide investigator could not be brought in.
“I didn’t have a written plan by that point and it didn’t go well.”
It turned out to be the only formal interview with the serial killer the Mounties would get before his arrest in February of 2002 after a search of the farmhouse for illegal weapons turned up effects of missing women.
Chapman had also been part of an earlier 1999 interview with Ellingsen, who denied telling anyone else she’d witnessed the butchering in the barn.
She failed to review a previous interview transcript with Ellingsen in advance and then the interview was interrupted by the arrival of Frank Henley, another Coquitlam officer who also participated even though he admitted he did not get fully briefed on the case in advance.
Henley said he didn’t think other informants were believable when they claimed Ellingsen saw a body being gutted.
“We had information that I thought wasn’t reliable because it wasn’t substantiated.”
Henley said he believed Ellingsen was helping Pickton pick up women from the Downtown Eastside merely because he had a reputation as a bad trick, not because he was killing them.
Ellingsen would later be the star witness at Pickton’s trial, helping secure his conviction, but the officers’ failure to get her cooperation in 1999 largely sank the investigation for two and a half years.
The inquiry also heard the RCMP’s brief surveillance of Pickton that year ended because Coquitlam Mounties could not afford to continue it and did not seek more funding.
The RCMP never took Pickton up on his offer in the Chapman interview to search the farm nor did the force act to get a search warrant before 2002.
Cameron Ward, a lawyer representing families of missing women, suggested the officers had plenty of grounds to investigate Pickton in 1999, ranging from tips that he hosted cockfights to the illegal bar he and his brother ran that was frequented by Hells Angels.
Police also knew that in early 1997 Pickton nearly killed a woman who escaped from his farm, but a charge of attempted murder was later dropped by Crown.
“The Pickton brothers were involved in a cesspool of illegal activity,” Ward charged, adding the fact Pickton had a stuffed horse’s head mounted in his trailer was “weird or bizarre” behaviour by any human standard.
“I’m not aware of any other measures we could have taken,” responded former Insp. Earl Moulton, who was in charge of major crime at the Coquitlam detachment.
He said his officers did not realize at the time they were dealing with the serial killer responsible for the women disappearing in Vancouver, even though Vancouver Police considered Pickton their top suspect.
Moulton said his unit didn’t share their updates about the Pickton investigation with the VPD because they were never asked.
Pickton was convicted on six counts of second-degree murder although he boasted to an undercover officer he killed 49 women.
Commissioner Wally Oppal has until June 30 to hand down his findings on why it took police so long to crack the case.