since his arrest nearly a year ago, throughout a long series of judicial wrangles, the man accused of being Canada's worst serial killer had been seen, but not heard.
Yesterday, that changed. For the first time, relatives of the scores of missing women at the heart of the case heard the voice of Robert William Pickton in court.
They said it was a chilling experience.
"It gave me the creeps," Sandra Gagnon said outside the courthouse. Ms. Gagnon is the sister of Janet Henry, one of the women who disappeared from Vancouver's tough Downtown Eastside. "His voice is eerie. It made me very uncomfortable."
Ernie Crey, whose sister Dawn is also among the missing women, said he, too, had a strong reaction to hearing Mr. Pickton's voice.
"Up until now, Willie Pickton has just been a drawing in the newspaper. I'd never actually heard his voice before. . . . Now, he's become a real individual to me."
Mr. Pickton is facing 15 charges of first-degree murder. His alleged victims are all women with a history of drug addiction and prostitution who disappeared over the years from the seamy Downtown Eastside.
Police have said traces of their remains were discovered on a local pig farm where Mr. Pickton lived. Nearly 50 other Downtown Eastside women are still on a list of missing persons.
Mr. Pickton was arrested last Feb. 22 and charged with two counts of murder. As further DNA evidence was uncovered, more charges were laid until they reached their current total of 15.
Yesterday was the beginning of what is expected to be a lengthy preliminary hearing into the charges. Reporters, relatives and members of the public lined up early to claim available seating.
For the first time, Mr. Pickton, his long greying hair curling down to his shoulders, also seemed to take an active interest in his case. He looked around, talked several times to the sheriff guarding him inside a glass-enclosed prisoner's box, listened attentively, smiled a few times and took notes on a yellow legal pad.
The 53-year-old farmer seemed to be wearing a new sweater for the occasion. With little to write or report because of a publication ban, several Canadian reporters took part in a lively discussion of the colour of the sweater.
The publication ban, however, does not apply to U.S.-based media. Several Seattle TV stations and The Seattle Times sent reporters to cover the hearing.
The televised trial reports, however, were blacked out for B.C. audiences, who can receive the Seattle stations on cable.
As the items began, Shaw Cable stopped transmission and told viewers in a full-screen notice that it was required by Canadian law "to black out any news story that may contain possible evidence in the Robert Pickton murder trial."
The preliminary hearing continues today.