Robert William "Willie" Pickton is a former pig farmer from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. He is believed to be the most prolific serial killer ever convicted in Canadian history.
Robert Pickton was born in 1949, the middle child of Leonard and Louise Pickton. He was raised on a large farm in Port Coquitlam, now a suburb of Vancouver, where he worked long hours taking care of the animals.
He was known as a quiet, socially awkward boy. Even into adulthood he had few friends, although he was extremely close to his mother and younger brother David. He also formed strong attachments to several of the animals under his care ; this included a beloved calf he had raised in childhood who he was horrified to learn his parents had slaughtered, a horse named Goldie who he had mounted in his trailer upon its death, and a six hundred pound pet boar whom he allowed to freely roam the property along with his dogs.
He preformed poorly in school, and was often socially excluded due to his strange behaviors and notoriously poor hygiene. It was quietly believed by some family members that he suffered from brain damage, caused by being born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, but this was never tested. After spending several years in special education classes, he eventually dropped out of high school at the age of 15. He then began working as a meat cutter for almost seven years before returning to the farm following the deaths of his parents in the early 1970s.
Robert began raising pigs and expanding the barns on the property while working for B.C. Hydro, his brother David preforming most of the other day-to-day farming operations, until his piggery burned down in 1978. Following this incident, the brothers scaled back farming operations and worked a variety of odd jobs instead. By the 1990s, Vancouver was rapidly expanding and their land became worth millions of dollars, so they began to sell large portions of it for real estate development. They kept ten acres of the land for themselves.
In 1996, the brothers created a rhegistered non-profit organization called the Piggy Palace Good Times Society. Their goal was to "organize, co-ordinate, manage and operate special events, functions, dances, shows and exhibitions on behalf of service organizations, sports organizations and other worthy groups," which generally meant throwing large raves in a converted slaughterhouse on their property. These events, which could attract more two thousand people, featured a large number of gang members and prostitutes. Although the society was disbanded in 1998, following zoning violations and inability to provide financial statements, this is where Pickton likely selected several of his victims.
All of Pickton's known victims were young women involved in the sex trade in Vancouver's infamous Downtown East Side. Women from this area had gone missing in unusually high numbers beginning in 1995, and locals suspected a serial killer was operating in the region. Due to their high risk lifestyles and lack of concrete information regarding the circumstances for many of their disappearances, however, these cases largely went uninvestigated by police.
In 2002, when police executed a search warrent for unregistered firearms on Pickton's farm, they found a perscription inhaler belonging to a missing Vancouver woman (Sereena Abotsway), along with a silver ski bag containing syringes filled with a blue liquid believed to be anti-freeze.
When police returned to the scene, they discovered a freezer with buckets containing the head, hands, and feet of two women, later identified as Sereena Abotsway and Andrea Joesbury. In the slaughterhouse, they discovered a garbage can containing the head, hands, and feet of Mona Wilson. All three had been shot through the head by Pickton's gun. The slaughterhouse also contained two jaw bones - identified as Brenda Wolfe and Marnie Frey - and hand bones belonging to Georgina Papin. A rib bone was found later buried on his property, which matched the DNA of a partial skull found in a Mission swamp in 1995, but this has not been identified.
Although he has only been formally charged in these six murders, DNA evidence found in the freezers, as well as on personal items found on his property and bone/teeth fragments uncovered during excavation, tangibly connect him to the disappearances of twenty-seven others. While speaking to an undercover police officer in prison, Pickton admitted to killing 49 women in total. He is believed to have disposed of the bodies primarily by putting their remains through a wood-chipper and feeding it to his pigs, although he stated that he would also sometimes bring the remains to a rendering plant where they would be mixed in with the pork that he sold to the public.
Pork he sold was confirmed to be contaminated with human flesh, and this same meat was found packaged in his freezer, leading to accusations that Pickton was himself a cannibal. It has not been corroborated by evidence or witness testimony, however, that he consumed any of this meat.
Trial and Conviction
The preliminary inquiry began in 2003, after the lengthy search and excavation of his property was completed. The findings from this inquiry were under a publication until 2010. This inquiry revealed that:
- Robert Pickton had been charged in 1997, following the attempted murder of a prostitute named Wendy Lynn Eistetter at his farm. She stated that he had handcuffed her and stabbed her with a knife before she had disarmed him, injured him, and escaped. She and Pickton were both treated for knife wounds in the same hospital, where staff used a key found in his pocket to unlock her handcuffs. These charges were later dropped, allegedly due to the woman's drug addition and instability.
- The clothes and rubber boots that Pickton had been wearing were seized following the incident in 1997, and held in storage by RCMP for seven years. Testing was not preformed until 2004, and this revealed the presence of the DNA from two missing girls.
- In 1998, police received a tip from a police hotline saying that Pickton should be investigated in the disappearances, but this was never followed up on. In 1999, they received another tip that Pickton had a freezer filled with human flesh. They questioned Pickton, and obtained his permission to conduct a search of his property, but never performed one.
Pickton's trial began on January 30, 2006 in New Westminster, BC, where Pickton pleaded not guilty to 27 charges of first degree murder. It took most of a year for the courts to decide which evidence would be admissible. The judge eventually decided that the unidentified bones would be inadmissable, due to lack of evidence. He then severed the charges, on August 9, splitting them into the six charges where bones or body parts were discovered and the twenty others. This was done both to expedite the trial, lessen the burden on the jury, and provide fewer opportunities for a mistrial.
The trial regarding the first six charges began on January 22, 2007. On December 9, 2007, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on the charges of first degree murder, but guilty on six counts of second degree murder. Pickton was sentanced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years, which was the maximum punishment for a second degree murder conviction.
The additional twenty charges were formally stayed, in 2010, as the evidence was more likely to be overturned and it would not have led to any increase in punishment.
All told, the investigation and prosecution cost Canadian taxpayers $102 million.