Jail tape opens B.C. hearing

PORT COQUITLAM, B.C. — In a courtroom crowded with journalists and some of the 15 victims' family members, Robert William Pickton's voice, played on a videotape, came as a surprise.

After years of wondering who had killed their loved ones and wondering what he was like, they heard the suspect for the first time. His voice on the tape was surprisingly soft as he told the Provincial Court yesterday that he was just a simple pig farmer, not a killer.

Pickton, 53, has been charged with killing 15 of 63 women, mostly prostitutes and addicts, reported missing from Vancouver's East Side during the past 20 years.

Ernie Crey, whose sister, Dawn Crey, is among the missing, expressed surprise at the voice.

Crey said his sister, who disappeared in 2000, has not been confirmed dead and has not been linked to Pickton, but he has kept up with Pickton's court appearances because of his feeling that Pickton could eventually be charged in her death.

"We've been told that there are massive amounts of DNA (at the farm), and that suggests to me that my sister's disappearance could be linked," Crey said.

The preliminary hearing, which is being held to determine whether there's enough evidence against the suspect to hold a jury trial, opened with prosecutors for the province of British Columbia presenting a nearly inaudible videotape, made last Feb. 22 and 23, of Pickton in a jail cell talking with an undercover cop.

In their conversation, Pickton expressed disbelief that he was in jail in connection with the women's slayings.

He talked about his early childhood memories, including one of his mother forcing him to smoke a cigar after she caught him smoking a cigarette at age 5, and another of when he was 2 years old and pretending to live in the family's chicken coop.

Provincial Court Judge David Stone will determine whether the casual conversation between Pickton and the planted Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer is admissible as evidence.

Pickton was initially arrested in February and since then has been charged with 15 murders on the basis of DNA identified in body substances and parts found on the pig farm that Pickton owns with his brother.

Pickton's place had initially been searched with a warrant for firearms violations, but when police found ID cards, purses and clothes from a number of the missing women the case was taken over by a missing-women task force formed jointly by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Vancouver Police Department.

It quickly became Canada's largest and most extensive murder investigation, so far generating more than 35,000 pages of evidence and 11,500 exhibits. The preliminary hearing alone could last as long as three months.

The investigative team included forensic dentists and pathologists as well as more than 100 police officers who sifted through tons of dirt. Among the pieces of evidence: torn clothing, fingernails and other human fragments.

Pickton has been charged with killing Heather Chinnock, Tanya Holyk, Sherry Irving, Inga Hall, Georgina Papin, Patricia Johnson, Helen Hallmark, Jennifer Furminger, Mona Wilson, Diane Rock, Sereena Abotsway, Andrea Joesbury, Heather Bottomley, Brenda Wolfe and Jacqueline McDonell.

Defense attorney Peter Ritchie tried last month to close the hearing, saying evidence prosecutors planned to reveal was so "explosive" and "graphic" that it could jeopardize his client's right to a fair trial if made public.

He said he was particularly concerned about American and other foreign news outlets not restricted by publication bans imposed by Canadian courts.

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com.