'Horror movie' trial begins of pig farmer accused of killing 26 prostitutes

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The Independent US

Shortly before she disappeared, Sarah de Vries wrote a journal entry that seems tragically prescient, given the evidence that has surfaced since her death.

"Am I next? Is he watching me now? Stalking me like a predator and its prey? Waiting, waiting for some perfect spot, time or my stupid mistake?"

Sarah de Vries was 29 when she disappeared on 14 April 1998 from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. She is one of 26 women that a pig farmer, Robert Pickton, is accused of murdering in Canada's most gruesome serial killer case. Today, the trial for six of those women begins.

Much of the evidence against him has been under strict publication ban and has been so macabre that some reporters have sought psychological counselling.

The judge felt moved to warn jurors that the marathon trial they are beginning will present them with testimony as "bad as a horror movie".

What has emerged during preliminary hearings has left many victims' friends and relatives furious and raised questions about police inaction given the tragic lives of these vulnerable women.

Sarah de Vries was one of dozens of prostitutes who went missing from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver over the course of two decades. One of the most deprived areas in Canada, where prostitution, heroin and other drug use are common. The life expectancy of the people that live within eye shot of the gleaming towers of affluent Vancouver is 40. The HIV infection rate of this post code is significantly higher than the national average. To date, 67 women have disappeared from these streets.

Many were like Ms de Vries, who supported her drug addiction by selling her body. Relatives of the victims accuse the police of failing to take action sooner, despite persistent rumours, that surfaced several years before Mr Pickton was arrested in 2002, that a serial killer was targeting prostitutes.

"The police didn't want to know," said Maggie de Vries who wrote a book, Missing Sarah, about the life of her sister. "If it had been 50 women like me who had gone missing, the police would have been out in droves."

The victims include people such as Sereena Abotsway, a prostitute. She was 29 when she disappeared in August 2002, shortly after leading a march protesting against police inaction on the case. The first count of murder against the pig farmer is in her name.

Remains of Ms De Vries were also found on Mr Pickton's farm, along with 29 other women. Of the remains, four sets could not be identified.

When Mr Pickton's farm was searched, he was not even a suspect. The police visited it on an unrelated warrant to search for an unlicensed shotgun. In their search, they stumbled upon an asthma inhaler and identification cards belonging to some of the missing women.

A special team investigating the cases arrived soon after, and found body parts on the property. Severed hands and feet, and the heads of two women were found in the freezer. Purses, and the personal effects of some of the missing women linked them to those who had gone missing from Downtown East Side.

Not a single body was found intact. A woodchipper was found on the farm, and Mr Pickton's pigs are believed to have devoured much of the evidence. The first that many knew of the suspicions now centring on the Pickton farm was when neighbours received a tainted-meat warning from health authorities.

"There is a possibility that human remains were fed to pigs, but the risk of disease to those who have had contact with the meat was negligible," a 2003 police health study said. "The psychological effects may be worse than the physical."

Although Mr Pickton was not originally a suspect in the case of the missing women, this was not his first brush with the law.

He was charged with attempted murder in 1997, after a prostitute, Wendy Lynn Eistetter, fled the pig farm, handcuffed and bleeding from the stomach. She claimed that Mr Pickton had stabbed her, but charges were subsequently dropped.

His name surfaced again a year later when a former employee, Bill Hiscox, called a hot line set up by Ms De Vries's boyfriend, Wayne Leng.

Mr Leng had been searching for Sarah since she went missing from a street corner in Vancouver, leaving her journal, with those prescient words of warning, with her lover. In the call, Mr Hiscox said that his foster sister, who worked as a cleaner at the farm, had seen bloodied women's clothing there. "She doesn't want to get involved." She's kind of scared about it," he said. "But she told me, 'Billy, you wouldn't believe the IDs and shit in that trailer. There's women's clothes out there, there's purses. You know. What's that guy doing? It's like really weird." However, when interviewed by the police, she denied those claims.

And there were other unusually happenings at the farm, which was surrounded by signs such as "This property is protected by: Pit Bull with Aids." Another said, "No visitors, Agents, Peddlers or Salespeople - Admittance by Appointment Only!!" Mr Pickton, known as "Willy" and his brother, Dave, used to throw parties at the hog farm, in a barn they dubbed "The Piggy Palace," telling neighbours they were raising money for charity. Investigators now say the parties were drug-fuelled raves, with many hired prostitutes.

The property, which is co-owned by Mr Pickton's brother and sister, has been mortgaged to pay some of the costs of the defence.

The full cost is expected to run into tens of millions of pounds, as investigators shift through thousands of pieces of evidence.

After talking with other people who knew Sarah, Maggie de Vries became convinced that her sister's disappearance was at the hands of a serial killer. Social workers told her that dozens of other prostitutes had gone missing, and the police were not taking the appropriate action.

"At the time, the police were offering C$100,000 [£45,000] rewards for information leading to garage robbers, so it seemed incongruous that they refused to acknowledge there might be violence involved with these missing women."