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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Our Feudal Immigration Policy

Why should an accident of birth determine who benefits from citizenship?

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

They’re Still Missing

An insider’s account of the bungled hunt for Robert Pickton

Robert Matas

That Lonely Section of Hell: The Botched Investigation of a Serial Killer Who Almost Got Away

Lori Shenher

Greystone Books

348 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9781771640930

Lori Shenher, the first Vancouver cop to focus on Robert Pickton as a serial killer, thought about writing a book when she feared she would become a scapegoat for the failure of police to stop the barbaric murders. However, the families of Pickton’s victims criticized her for signing a book contract. Some felt Shenher had betrayed their trust. Some questioned whether it was ethical to use information collected as a police officer for a book that could (theoretically) earn a profit. Confronted by their concerns and subsequent publication bans imposed by the court, she broke the contract with the publisher.

Now, 15 years after she transferred out of the missing persons unit in the Vancouver Police Department, she has come out with That Lonely Section of Hell: The Botched Investigation of a Serial Killer Who Almost Got Away. She assures readers that she has relied only on information in the public domain. As a result, the story she recounts is familiar to anyone who followed the sensational arrest and trial of Robert Pickton, and subsequent tepid Missing Women Commission of Inquiry into the police investigation. The accounts of missed opportunities and prickly personalities in the police department have mostly been told before.

Nevertheless, Shenher has written an important work that goes beyond the shortcomings of the investigation and inquiry, especially since a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women is now on the national agenda.

Many Canadians are looking to an inquiry to gain a better understanding of the causes, possibly reinvigorate efforts to solve the crimes and to stop the carnage. That Lonely Section of Hell sets the stage, offering a glimpse into the operations of one police department and a reminder of the numerous missteps of the first attempt to hold an inquiry into missing women.

The book also brings attention to the issue of prostitution and revives unease over current prostitution laws in Canada that continue to endanger the lives of sex-trade workers. Shenher, who worked as a consultant on more than two dozen episodes of the TV series Da Vinci’s Inquest, is a colourful storyteller. She recounts snippets of conversations with her colleagues with dramatic flair as she confronts her own demons when the investigation into missing women founders. She does not spare herself, exposing her innermost feelings as she wrestles, at times unsuccessfully, with overwhelming guilt and debilitating anxiety.

That Lonely Section of Hell is very much Shenher’s own story, including her difficult struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. She offers a peek into the lives of some of the murdered women but leaves much unsaid. Similarly, she writes about the investigation as she experienced it but does not step back to give a comprehensive account of what went on. However, she also offers valuable commentary on policing, the British Columbia inquiry into the police investigation and the challenges of coping with PTSD.

Shenher was involved in investigating the missing women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for just over two years, from July 1998 to late 2000. Pickton was arrested in February 2002, went to trial in January 2006 and was convicted of six second-degree murders in December 2007. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years. The inquiry, established in 2010, issued its report in 2012.

Despite the well-publicized trial and lengthy inquiry, we do not know how many women Pickton killed. He boasted of killing 49 women. Traces of DNA and bodily remains of 33 women were found on his Port Coquitlam pig farm. What we do know is that many of those women were aboriginal, connected to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, addicted to narcotics and working as prostitutes. The Pickton murders are just a part—albeit a horrific part—of the brutal violence against some of the most vulnerable women in our country. Nationally, the numbers are even more disturbing.

The RCMP says 1,017 aboriginal women in Canada were killed between 1980 and 2012, and 120 of those crimes remain unsolved; 164 aboriginal women are now missing, and about 105 of them disappeared under suspicious circumstances.

Even more chilling, the Mounties also report 225 aboriginal prostitutes were killed from 1991 to 2012. How many Picktons are still out there?

Shenher emerges in her book as the damaged but heroic cop in the search for a killer of Vancouver’s missing women. She joined the Vancouver Police Department in 1991, the same year that women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside organized the first annual Valentine’s Day Memorial March to push for a police investigation into the disappearance of women from the neighbourhood.

She writes that she was assigned to the prostitution unit in 1992 and posed as a sex worker for six months, two nights a week. She stood on a street corner and “turned tricks to arrest johns as an undercover operator.” Street sex workers since the mid 1980s have been saying that the law pushes them into the dark recesses of the cities, where police rarely patrol. They become easy prey for men such as Pickton who can pick them up unobserved.

Numerous academic studies, parliamentarians and the Supreme Court of Canada over the past three decades have concluded that the law creates conditions that endanger women. Blinded by ideology, the former Harper government refused to make changes in the law to protect the women. Shenher’s perspective on these issues would have contributed to the public debate. Unfortunately, she does not share her thoughts about the law and its impact on the safety of the women she came to know. Regardless, the tragic deaths of the missing women clearly illustrate the effect of the law.

Five years after working undercover as a street prostitute, Shenher in 1998 was assigned to track down missing persons. She was told that 17 sex trade workers had been reported missing. She writes she was naive about why she was assigned to the job. She later realized that the assignment was mostly to pacify activists in the Downtown Eastside community, and not necessarily to pursue the cases. Senior officers in 1998 did not suspect foul play. They believed the missing women had just left the neighbourhood of their own accord without telling anyone.

As Shenher recounts the frustrations of her work day, she sounds just like those amiable cops who solve crimes on prime-time TV every night. She brings the reader along as she submerges herself in an investigation overwhelmed by dead-ends and frustrating ambiguities. Without a crime scene, she had no logical starting point for a search, no place to look for someone who might have seen something. In several instances, she did not even know when the women disappeared.

Shenher offers an account of her investigative techniques and the hurdles she confronted. She discovered serious deficiencies in policing, such as the failure of several police departments across the country to track missing women. Within a few months, she added ten more names to the list of missing women. Coincidently, an anonymous tip on her first day in the missing persons unit suggested Pickton should be considered a suspect in the disappearance of Sarah deVries and other missing women. The tipster went on to tell authorities that Pickton bragged about disposing of bodies, and that several women’s purses and bloody clothing had been seen in the house trailer on his Port Coquitlam pig farm.

Shenher tracked down the tipster and tried to verify the sensational information.

Her search of police records turned up a 1997 stay of proceedings for attempted murder and forcible confinement. She spoke to the Coquitlam RCMP officer in charge of the file and heard the whole story. Within months of beginning her investigation, she was convinced that Pickton should be a prime suspect. The first indication that something was amiss inside the police department came six weeks after she started. She found out that some officers were advocating for a missing women’s working group within the police department, but her managers were not coordinating efforts to find the missing women.

Senior managers continued to oppose a more energetic investigation and the Pickton tip was passed on to Coquitlam RCMP, as the Pickton farm was within its jurisdiction. After three fruitless days of surveillance, Coquitlam RCMP shelved the case. That was the first of many deaths of the Pickton investigation, Shenher writes.

She continued working in the missing persons unit. No matter what she did, she could not convince her managers that the missing women files required more police attention.

Largely in response to public pressure, efforts were expanded in the spring of 1999 to investigate Pickton and dig deeper into each women’s file. But the increase in support was minimal. New computers were provided but no one was available to enter historical data into the system and vital information was lost. Requests for nine more staff members were turned down; only two more officers were assigned and Shenher felt that the officers, with less experience than her, were incompetent, insubordinate and relied on questionable police tactics.

Around that time, she also made “the first of many classic management errors in dealing with a case of this magnitude, errors that would quickly lead to my own burnout.” She did not trust anyone else to talk with the families and so became the only contact person for all of them. She developed strong emotional bonds with some families. In other instances, she discovered she was talking with men who had abused sisters or daughters and wanted to be family representatives in order to control access to information about the women’s past. In a couple of cases, she discovered that a victim’s mother had sold her daughter to men for sex and the mother was now professing her love.

The RCMP received a graphic tip, once again identifying Pickton as a sadistic killer, in the summer of 1999. The Mounties passed the informant onto Vancouver police and this time it was the Vancouver police who did not dedicate sufficient resources to follow it up properly. Shenher says her supervisors still did not believe the missing women cases were a murder investigation. Shenher did not know what else she could do. She struggled personally and professionally through early 2000, contending with sweaty nightmares, panic attacks, headaches and obsessive behaviour. She broke down in public when she tried to speak at a memorial in March 2000.

The RCMP later that year took over the missing women investigation, conducting a review without any urgency, assuming they were looking at historical files. Meanwhile, women continued to disappear from the Downtown Eastside. Shenher transferred into the financial crime unit in late 2000. The following year, she confided in a Vancouver Sun reporter about her work. She did not feel she was jeopardizing the investigation because, as far as she knew, there was no investigation.

Pickton’s arrest in 2002 accelerated her psychological and physical collapse, and the onset of the symptoms of PTSD. She had no doubt that Pickton could have been arrested sooner and the lives of some women could have been saved. She was overwhelmed with guilt, believing that many women had been killed because she had failed to turn the case into a top priority for police. The appointment of a provincial commission of inquiry into the police investigation reopened all her old wounds. She was in favour of an inquiry but was critical of who was chosen as its commissioner and how the hearings were handled.

She rightly points out that Wally Oppal, a former judge and cabinet minister, was not an appropriate person to head the inquiry. As attorney general years earlier, he had ruled out the necessity for a provincial inquiry. With his appointment, the government set up the commission to fail. She is particularly critical of Oppal’s unwillingness to hold crown lawyers accountable for dropping criminal charges against Pickton in 1997. She feels that the role of crown attorneys deserved much greater attention, and they got a free pass.

Oppal was likeable enough, gracious to witnesses and supportive of victims’ families, she writes. But he was repeatedly sidetracked by what she feels were peripheral issues. The hearings lacked focus. (An experienced jurist, Oppal has acknowledged that the proceedings wandered. In a media interview, he dubbed it “a therapeutic inquiry” that gave women who were ignored an opportunity to be heard.)

Shenher testified for a week about her role in the investigation, recounting her futile efforts to work on the files and her helplessness in imploring the RCMP to pursue it.

And then the inquiry became personal. She spent another two days responding to questions about an early draft for this book. Shenher felt her manuscript was just another red herring at the inquiry. The final report of the inquiry, called “Forsaken,” identified more than 20 instances of police failures, explored some systemic causes including discrimination and public indifference, and offered significant recommendations for change. The report also offered compassionate accounts of the lives of the women.

But much of the advice from the $10 million inquiry has been ignored. The inquiry did not even lead to a unified police force across Metro Vancouver. The region remains a patchwork of municipal police forces and RCMP detachments. What can we expect from a national commission of inquiry? Shenher’s story suggests some pitfalls to avoid. To ensure that the inquiry is more than therapeutic, the inquiry should bring in Shenher to play an active role in its efforts to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.

Robert Matas is a journalist, formerly of The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. He has written extensively about the missing women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the Robert Pickton trial and British Columbia’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry.