In the wake of Pickton’s death, advocates fight to save remaining 14,000 exhibits of evidence

By Alexandra Mehl

On May 31, the notorious serial killer who preyed on the vulnerable women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), Robert Pickton, took his last breath.

Convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, he received the maximum sentence under Canadian law.

Pickton murdered Sereena Abotsway, Mona Wilson, Andrea Joesbury, Marnie Frey, Georgina Papin, and Brenda Wolfe. But the names of his victims were many more than these six. Pickton was charged with 26 counts of murder, while 20 were stayed.

But he boasted to an undercover cop that he murdered many more women than that, confessing to taking the lives of 49 females.

The DNA of 33 women were found on his farm.

According to a Canadian Encyclopedia article, at least 65 women disappeared from the DTES from 1978 to 2001. Sue Brown, director of advocacy and staff lawyer at Justice for Girls, said that there are potentially 70 women who went missing from the DTES.

In December of 2023, it became public knowledge that the RCMP applied to the court to dispose of 14,000 exhibits of evidence pertaining to the Pickton murders.

According to Brown, the exhibits are from his farm in Port Coquitlam where most of the murders are believed to have taken place.

A letter titled, “A call to preserve evidence in the Pickton case” was signed by 35 organizations and 10 individuals.

“The exhibits were obtained during the investigations into 50+ women who were murdered and disappeared from the Downtown Eastside,” reads the Justice for Girls letter. “The majority of these missing women are Indigenous and their cases remain unsolved to this date.”

“Disposal of the exhibits will quash any remaining hope they have and solidify their perception that their daughters, mothers, sisters and aunties are less important than the space required to keep that evidence,” reads the letter.

In 2023, Justice for Girls learned that the RCMP had begun filing applications to dispose of evidence in 2020 and 2021, said Brown.

“There were upwards of an estimated 200,000 exhibits that they had in relation to the missing women’s investigations and the Robert Pickton investigation,” she told Ha-Shilth-Sa.

“Five of those applications, to our knowledge, have already been dealt with by the court,” said Brown. “And they were done so without many of the family members being aware.”

To Brown’s knowledge, they are fighting for the remaining 14 to 15,000 exhibits.

“The majority of these cases, apart from the six that Robert Pickton was convicted of, remain unsolved cases,” said Brown. “It's our belief that those exhibits do retain evidentiary value and they ought to be preserved and the police ought to continue thoroughly investigating those unsolved cases.”

In January, the court was notified of Justice for Girls interest in “applying for standing to intervene on the RCMP’s application,” said Brown.

A court date regarding the RCMP application is scheduled on June 26.

Evidence ties into National Inquiry

Lorelei Williams of Skatin and Sts’ailes First Nations does advocacy work for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Williams, who started a dance group called Butterflies in Spirit, has a missing aunt, Belinda Williams. Her cousin, Tanya Holyk, was among the 20 murders that were stayed in the Pickton case.

“We are a dance group of mostly family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls,” said Williams. “We also support families any way that we can.”

The group travels the world performing, shared Williams. Recently, travelling to Mexico. In Mexico they attended workshops where they learned techniques on how to tell the difference between human bones and animal bones.

“We dance but we also do other things that will help us support the families here in Canada,” she said.

After Williams lost her mother she started to experience anxiety attacks.

“The only time that I didn't have [anxiety attacks] was when we were dancing,” said Williams. “That was my first exposure to how healing dance really is.”

Not only that, when the group started working with choreographer Maddie McCallum, they were assigned to learn their traditional dances.

“That itself is healing as well getting reconnected to our cultures,” she said.

The dance group has 15 members, some of whom have connections to Nuu-chah-nulth.

According to a 2023 Ha-Shilth-Sa article, Kellie Little of Nuchahtlaht was last seen in April 1997. With a friend that knew Pickton, the article noted that it is believed that Little came into contact with him around the time of her disappearance. Little, who was transgender, grew up in foster care and struggled with addiction.

In 1992, Elsie Sebastian of Pacheedaht went missing, the article noted. Though not officially linked to Pickton, she was a residential school survivor who also struggled with addiction. It took years for the police to file a missing person report.

“It’s scary for not only for Indigenous women, but it should be scary to everybody,” said Hesquiaht Chief Councillor Mariah Charleson of the RCMP’s application to dispose of the 14,000 exhibits.

“These aren’t closed cases and so there is a thought in many people’s minds that that evidence needs to be preserved,” said Charleson. “Getting rid of the evidence is ultimately giving away an opportunity to bring light and bring closure to many of the families and survivors who have been impacted by Pickton.”

In 2019, the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls was published, alongside 231 Calls for Justice.

“They refer to them as being imperative,” said Charleson of the 231 Calls for Justice. “Imperative in the fact that if Canada does not respond to these 231 Call to Justice, that they are continuing to commit genocide against Indigenous women and girls, and Two Spirit, plus.”

“This is an opportunity for Canada to step up and say, we understand the importance of this evidence, we understand that many of these cases remain to be open, we understand [the] importance of continuing to keep this evidence to ensure that we continue to look for the answers that many of the family so desperately deserve,” said Charleson. “It’s an opportunity to do the right thing.”

On June 3, the fifth anniversary of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak said in a statement released by the Assembly of First Nations that “implementation of the Calls for Justice is far from complete.”

Only two Calls for Justice have been fully implemented, the statement continued, “with the majority showing minimal or no progress.”

Unclaimed items must be disposed: RCMP

The RCMP released a statement responding to a press conference held by Justice for Girls on December 11, 2023.

“While the RCMP is making applications to the court for the ‘disposal’ of property held by the police, it is important to understand that all evidence is being preserved,” the statement reads. “To put it simply, the RCMP is not authorized to retain property indefinitely and is making application to the court for disposition of that property.”

“Ultimately, this process is required by law and is for the intended purpose of returning property to the rightful owners, where applicable, or for the disposal of items not claimed,” the statement continued.

But Brown believes that with advancements in forensic and DNA technology it’s “imperative” to retain those exhibits.

“With Robert Pickton now dead, that is one potential avenue of information about what really happened to so many of those unsolved disappearances and homicides, that the DNA evidence and the physical evidence may be all we have left,” said Brown.

“He is the most notorious, alleged serial killer, but it's also well documented and well known that there's believed to be other perpetrators who were involved in the deaths and disappearances of the women who ended up on the farm or elsewhere,” said Brown.

“The evidence needs to be preserved [until] all of the questions have been answered,” said Charleson. “So many people have been impacted and continue to be impacted.”

Alexandra Mehl, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Ha-Shilth-Sa