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Serial Killer Robert Pickton

Pickton case torments former detective Lori Shenher

They finally had him.

Robert Pickton

In February 2002, a search warrant carried out on Robert Pickton's Port Coquitlam pig farm would lead to evidence that the pig farmer had been luring women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to his property, where he killed them and disposed of their remains.

But as Pickton was arrested and charged for murder, Lori Shenher, the former Vancouver Police Department detective assigned to the missing persons' file, felt nothing but "grief."

That's because she had known about Pickton for years — but couldn't get her superiors to listen.

Shenher has written about the investigation in a recent book called That Lonely Section of Hell: The Botched Investigation of a Serial Killer who almost got away.

"I had people coming up to me in the couple of days, weeks after his arrest, saying 'Oh, wasn't that your guy? That's your guy!' and every time I heard that I just about threw up," Shenher told The Current [CBC] host Anna Maria Tremonti.

From day one

Shenher said that it was on her second day on the job in July 1998 when she received a CrimeStoppers tip that gave the name "Willie Pickton" — the name Pickton went by.

"It said you should look at the guy, and he's probably responsible for the missing women from Vancouver, and that he had a grinder of some type and there was bloody clothing in bags seen around his property," she said.

Shenher said she was excited by this news — and met with the tipster in person.

Because Port Coquitlam is in RCMP jurisdiction, she searched in RCMP databases and came up with a file for Pickton that showed charges for attempted murder and forcible confinement.

Shenher worked with the investigator on the file, but couldn't get the RCMP to act on the information they had.

"It was difficult, we had third-hand information from a woman who my source knew, and she was a very difficult person for us to get close to, and I had some ideas around undercover operations and those sorts of things to use as tools to get some information from her," Shenher said.

She said those ideas were "never acted upon", and she still doesn't know why.

The RCMP declined an interview on CBC's The Current.

Indifference and apathy

In her book Shenher describes the Vancouver Police Department as appearing indifferent to the plight of these missing women — many of whom had been prostitutes — and writes that the RCMP also mishandled many steps in the investigation.

"There was a mindset that these were disposable women, that these victims chose this life... so we're not going to put ourselves out in quite the same way that we might if it's somebody's daughter from UBC."

The VPD declined an interview request for The Current, but a spokesperson said: "The VPD did "an extensive self-autopsy after the Pickton investigation. There were mistakes made and we could have caught Pickton earlier. We made a number of changes as a result of looking at how we could do things better and prevent such tragedies from happening again."

Shenher's trauma

Shenher said she was not given the appropriate resources or staff for her investigation — and despite her efforts, could not bring attention to the information she had.

She said all of these factors began to affect her mental health — "it was a slow kind of unraveling," she said — and led her to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Her reaction to Pickton's arrest in 2002 was feeling physically sick.

"My mind went immediately to how many women died in that period of time, basically from 1999 when we got a second tip from Pickton," she said.

"That period of time, when we had what we needed, we could've got him and we didn't."

Despite a number of reports that have been done looking at the issue of missing and murdered women across Canada, Shenher is adamant that there could be another Pickton — and another flawed investigation — unless changes are made.

"These are not easy investigations...and I don't think these are easy people. Whether it's the Downtown Eastside or anywhere in the country where you're working with people who are drug-addicted, who are suffering from horrible neglect, who have mental health issues. These are not easy people. They're not easy witnesses. They're not easy clients."

"Just because they're not easy doesn't mean they don't deserve...a full investigation and the full weight of our ability to do the best we can by them."

Missing women working group only a 'paper squad,' officer tells Pickton inquiry

VANCOUVER - A Vancouver police officer, Lori Shenher, who raised red flags about women disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside says her concerns were dismissed by the "old guard" within the department.

She told the inquiry into the investigation of serial killer Robert Pickton that a group formed to look into the missing women was merely window dressing.

"There were a lot of things that were going on at that time under chief Bruce Chambers that were on paper and I felt this was very much a paper squad. It was a bit of a shell game. I don't think it was really going to turn into actual investigators actually doing this work." she testified.

“brushed off... too many movies
-- superiors”

Shenher, who was working the missing persons unit at the time, testified she communicated to her superiors that these women weren't seeing their families, and weren't picking up their [welfare] cheques.

"So that was hard because somehow the message just wasn't getting [through to the] old guard. It was definitely a problem," Shenher said.

"It seemed as though the more experienced people there were around the table, the less appreciation there was that we were dealing with a serial killer."

The theory was brushed off as if those raising the possibility had read too many detective novels or seen too many movies, she said.

Shenher said then-Det. Insp. Kim Rossmo was a good example of how senior officers dismissed an opinion if that person bypassed the chain of command.

Rossmo told the inquiry last week that his serial killer theory was dismissed by an "arrogant" and "egotistical" Vancouver Police Insp. Fred Biddlecombe.

Shenher said she involved Rossmo in some of the theories of the missing women case knowing that she would get a hard time from some of the other investigators.

"But I felt like those were the kinds of stones we need to not leave unturned, we need to try and use the resources that we have.

"I took that risk knowingly and thought that if anything good were to come from his information, then it was worth the risk."

One of Shenher's first jobs was working in the Downtown Eastside, trying to make contact with the prostitutes in the area while also conducting undercover operations to arrest men trying to buy sex.

Sereena Abbotsway Angela Rebecca Jardine

Shenher got to know many of the women, and made a special connection with Sereena Abbotsway and Angela Jardine, two of the women who would later appear on the missing women's list.

It was their disappearance that really cemented her suspicions, she said.

"These were people who were very much of a fabric of the Downtown Eastside. They drew all their support and sustenance from the community and I couldn't conceive of either one of them voluntarily leaving that community."

A tip in July 1998 led Shenher right to Robert Pickton's door.

She began investigating the Port Coquitlam, B.C. pig farmer and found that a charge of attempted murder had been stayed against him.

A sex-trade worker told police she was picked up in the Downtown Eastside and offered $100 for sex back at Pickton's farm.

“...had she died, we probably would have had a slam dunk murder conviction...
-- Shenher”

The woman — whose name is protected by a publication ban — said Pickton clapped a handcuff on her wrist while they were in his trailer and she began fighting for her life. She slashed Pickton and then he stabbed her before she ran to the road for help. A couple passing in a vehicle helped her.

"Honestly, my thought was this is the kind of guy we were looking for," Shenher said. "The idea that he had a large property and that he had what seemed quite clear to me was the ability to dispose of bodies."

Shenher said she was very mindful that they weren't finding any bodies up to that point, so they were looking for someone who could get rid of the evidence. Her tipster told her Pickton had a "grinder" to get rid of the bodies.

"I thought 'bingo,' this is the kind of guy we're looking for."

Shenher later interviewed the woman who was attacked by Pickton and was even more convinced he should be moved to the top of the suspect list.

The woman told Shenher she was told the charges were stayed because the woman was a drug addict but Shenher never came to know the true reasons for why the charges were stayed against Pickton.

"I'm sure this commission will find that out."

She recalled discussing the case with the investigating RCMP officer and learned that the woman had almost died on the operating room table a few times during surgery.

"As morbid a thought as it is, had she died, we probably would have had a slam-dunk murder conviction without her testimony."