NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. They went to the isolated farm of Robert Pickton looking for unlicensed firearms.
But shortly after the search of a house trailer began, a police officer stumbled on a respirator belonging to Sereena Abotsway, one of the women who had been reported missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside six months earlier.
The search for firearms was suddenly suspended. RCMP officers from the Missing Women Task Force took over.
Testifying at Mr. Pickton's first-degree-murder trial during its third week, Corporal Howard Lew said he was part of a team of officers that went to the Pickton property in the semi-rural municipality of Port Coquitlam, B.C. to search for illegal firearms and ammunition on Feb. 5, 2002.
Mr. Pickton was arrested and taken to the Coquitlam RCMP detachment while police searched for a MAC 10, .44-calibre handgun and a .38-calibre handgun.
Cpl. Lew said he found a .22-calibre bullet on the corner of a desk in a trailer. Then he discovered a sports bag. Speaking softly in the courtroom, Cpl. Lew went over the items he discovered in the bag.
"Some novels, small running shoes and a respirator with the name of Sereena Abotsway on it," he said. The name did not mean anything to him, but it was a name RCMP Sergeant John Cater recognized right away.
Sgt. Cater told court during his testimony that third week, he was standing in a cluttered mechanic shop on Mr. Pickton's farm when he heard the name Sereena Abotsway crackle over a police radio. He was a constable at the time and a member of a police task force probing the disappearance of scores of missing Vancouver women.
Ms. Abotsway was among scores of women who had inexplicably vanished and whose disappearance Sgt. Cater was helping to investigate. He asked the officer to repeat the name and date on the inhaler. The date was July 19, 2001. Court heard Sgt. Cater knew Ms. Abotsway hadn't been seen or heard from since Aug. 1, 2001. The officer also heard the name of another woman known to the task force.
He called his boss, Corporal Bill Mulcahy and the firearm search was aborted. Within hours, the Missing Women Task Force had seized control of the investigation.
Ms. Abotsway is among six women Mr. Pickton is accused of killing on his Port Coquitlam farm, about 30 kilometres east of Vancouver. He also faces murder charges in the slayings of Mona Wilson, Andrea Joesbury, Marnie Frey, Georgina Papin and Brenda Wolfe.
Sgt. Cater told court the first weapon police found was a revolver with a dildo attached to the barrel. Later, police searching the bedroom found fur-lined handcuffs, jewellery and more sex toys.
Court heard that police also found jewellery and handcuffs with fake tiger fur in a headboard in the bedroom. A nightstand contained two more sex toys, handcuffs with red fur and a flare gun with two barrel adaptors and a shotgun shell.
Police had gone to Mr. Pickton's farm following a tip about unlicensed guns from a source identified in court as Scott Chubb. The information was used to obtain a search warrant. Mr. Pickton would eventually be charged with the murder of Ms. Abotsway and one other woman several weeks after police first searched his property.
It was while in jail after his arrest Feb. 22, 2002, that Mr. Pickton would meet a cellmate that court learned during his trial was an RCMP plant. The tape of his conversations with the undercover officer was played during the trial.
In the tape, court saw Mr. Pickton a few hours after being arrested, looking relaxed and chatting easily about his situation, with an air of resignation in his voice.
"Those are working hands," the dishevelled, unshaven pig farmer tells his cellmate, "and they're hard-working."
Mr. Pickton, with messy hair and wearing a dirty jogging suit, leans forward and says he was once taken for fingerprints and told to open up his hand. He couldn't flatten out the palm. "[It's] so hard," Mr. Pickton said. "And now I'm up for murder. I'll lose everything. . .everything I worked for."
Court watched as Mr. Pickton talked for hours with his cellmate. Police were coming after him in the missing women's case because they had no one else on whom to pin the slayings, Mr. Pickton tells him. They were after him because he was a "pig man" and someone told them that pigs eat people, he says.
He appears to assume he will remain in custody. He says he has two murder charges against him and 48 more to come. "They are not going to let me walk," he tells his cellmate. "They're going to nail me to the cross," he says repeatedly.
Mr. Pickton says his brother warned him to stay away from work to avoid arrest. "But I'm not one to run," he says. "I'm just a plain pig farmer."
When his cellmate starts talking about charges against him, Mr. Pickton begins to boast. "You're nothing like mine." He holds up five fingers on his right hand, then forms a zero with the forefinger and thumb.
"What's that? Five?" his cellmate asks. Mr. Pickton smirks, giggles, points to the video camera in the ceiling that is recording everything he says and does in the cell. He puts a finger to his lips, urging his cellmate to keep quiet.
But Mr. Pickton continues to mime, bringing his forefinger and thumb together again. "Zero? Fifty? Ha, ha," his cellmate laughs skeptically.
The cellmate, who says he is in jail on an attempted murder charge, goes back to talking about his own life in crime. He tells Mr. Pickton the best way to dispose of something is to take it to the ocean.
"I did better than that," Mr. Pickton says, as he stands up, crosses the cell and goes to sit right next to his cellmate on the man's bunk. "A rendering plant," he whispers with a smile.
"Only, ah, I was kinda sloppy at the end . . . they got me, oh fuck, getting too sloppy." Mr. Pickton says he was going to do one more, to make it an even 50. "That's why I was sloppy . . . I wanted one more [to] make the big five O," he said.
He later adds that he intended to stop after 50, let everything quiet down and then "do another 25 new ones."
The undercover officer, who could not be identified under court order, told the trial that Mr. Pickton's demeanour changed after he returned from an 11-hour police interrogation. The officer said Mr. Pickton came back to the cell appearing more confident and upbeat.
Mr. Pickton can be heard on the videotape telling his cellmate that he was sitting with his feet up on a table, telling police "right, left and centre, that's the way it is and that's it."
Court hears Mr. Pickton dismiss an often-repeated rumour about the missing women case, that remains were fed to pigs. Mr. Pickton tells his cellmate that the police are going to dig in manure to see if the pigs "shit out human remains." His cellmate says pigs don't eat human remains. "I know," replied Mr. Pickton. "but you can't tell them that."