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Week 6: Jury learns Pickton's brother Dave also investigated over missing women

Trial also hears how remains of two women were found in a freezer while defence hammers away at DNA contamination of evidence

Globe and Mail Update

NEW WESTMINISTER, B.C. — Court had heard the name Dave Pickton over the first five weeks of the trial of Robert Pickton, but it was in the sixth week the jury was told Dave is under investigation for his possible involvement in the disappearance of women from Vancouver's skid row.

Detective Constable Michael McDonald told court that Dave Pickton was being investigated with respect to women whose disappearances are not linked to the current trial.

Vancouver police have identified more than 60 women who disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in recent years. Robert Pickton, 57, is on trial for the murder of six of the women. He has been charged with the murder of an additional 20 women and has pleaded not guilty to all 26 charges. A date for a second trial has not yet been set.

Mr. Pickton is charged with the deaths of Sereena Abotsway, Andrea Joesbury, Mona Wilson, Brenda Wolfe, Georgina Papin and Marnie Frey. The prosecution alleges the deaths occurred between August, 1997 and February, 2002.

Mr. Pickton's younger brother, Dave, has not been charged in the missing-women case, but his name has come up frequently during the trial. The jury has heard that police believed Robert was controlled by Dave.

RCMP Sergeant Tim Sleigh testified that he had the impression that Robert was "mentally diminished" and Dave was both condescending to Robert and protective of him. Robert seemed to be submissive and deferred to his brother when asked a question, the jury heard.

The jury also heard Robert Pickton say during a videotaped interview with police that his brother was not involved. His comment came in response to a police officer asking whether Dave "took part in this stuff."

Sgt. Sleigh recounted for court a description of Robert Pickton that he said he provided in February of 2002 to a senior officer from the investigation, suggesting he was shy and mentally diminished.

Police officers have told the court that Robert Pickton was slow but capable of carrying out the crimes for which he is accused and misleading police for years. Defence lawyers for Robert Pickton have suggested he is of limited intelligence.

Sgt. Sleigh was also on hand during searches on the Pickton farm and part of his testimony included descriptions of evidence he uncovered and autopsies he attended.

In his testimony Sgt. Sleigh painted a picture for the jury of a human skull from an unsolved homicide case that appeared to have been cut in a similar fashion to three bisected skulls found on Robert Pickton's pig farm.

Half of a skull was discovered on Feb. 23, 1995, in a marshy area outside the city of Mission, B.C., Sgt. Sleigh said.

It was the right side of the face, cut right of centre, from top to bottom. The lower jaw bone was not found. The skull was "defleshed," he said, adding that a white pasty substance covered the face.

Police have been unable to determine the identity of the human remains or to solve the crime, Sgt. Sleigh said. However, he said he thought about the skull when he was at autopsies in 2002 for some women found on the Pickton farm.

With his hands cutting the air, Staff-Sgt. Sleigh explained how the unidentified skull, dubbed Jane Doe, appeared to have been cut in a similar way as the skulls of Ms. Wilson, Ms. Abotsway and Ms. Joesbury.

The three women were reported to have gone missing in 2001, six years after the Jane Doe skull was discovered.

The skulls of Ms. Abotsway and Ms. Joesbury were cut in half, in the back and in the front. But the cut-lines did not meet, Sgt. Sleigh said, extending his fingers to illustrate. It appeared to Sgt. Sleigh as if the cuts were made from two different directions and the pieces of the skull were separated when the cut-lines did not meet. The skull bones had an irregular ridge at the point they were probably separated, he said.

During the autopsy for Ms. Joesbury and Ms. Abotsway, Sgt. Sleigh recalled that the Jane-Doe skull had an irregular edge that was similar to the ridge of the bisected skulls of Ms. Abotsway and Ms. Joesbury.

Sgt. Sleigh told the court he requested that the Jane Doe skull be reviewed and compared to the discoveries on the Pickton farm. The results of the review were not presented in court.

During the sixth week of the trial as the jury heard from police on evidence, defence lawyers repeatedly drew attention to issues related to DNA.

RCMP officers involved in searching the Pickton farm were asked to tell the jury at length about the procedures designed to ensure evidence was not contaminated. They have also been pressed on the precautions they took to ensure their DNA was not left on articles they seized.

The jury heard that the DNA profile of an unidentified man has been associated with the partial remains of Ms. Abotsway and Ms. Joesbury, discovered in a freezer on the Pickton farm.

Staff-Sergeant Michael Coyle was responsible for the human remains after they were discovered. Defence lawyer Patrick McGowan asked whether he did anything that could account for the unidentified male DNA on the teeth of the women and on the side of buckets found in the freezer with the remains.

Staff-Sgt. Coyle said he followed the appropriate procedures to avoid contamination. He provided a swab for DNA analysis to ensure that the unidentified male was not him.

"And it was not," he said.

Sergeant Fred Nicks and Sgt. Sleigh were the first RCMP officers to see the remains of the two women. They discovered the hands, feet and bisected skulls of Ms. Abotsway and Ms. Joesbury in buckets in a freezer at the back of a garage-workshop less than 100 metres from Robert Pickton's house trailer.

Lawyer Marilyn Sandford asked Sgt. Nicks whether he or Sgt. Sleigh did anything that could explain the unknown male DNA profile found on the remains. He said they did not.

Sgt. Nicks told court that there were numerous articles weighing around 50 pounds on the lid of a freezer and Sgt. Sleigh asked him to help lift the lid and peer inside.

Responding to questioning from defence counsel, Sgt. Nicks recalled his first glimpse of the human remains.

Sgt. Nicks told the court he was involved in searching a septic tank on the grounds next to a motorhome outside the garage workshop. He was wearing a protective white suit, gloves and booties. "I tried to the best of my ability to prevent cross-contamination," he said.

As far as he could remember, Sgt. Sleigh was not in a protective suit, Sgt. Nicks told court.

Although Sgt. Sleigh had told the court earlier that a strong smell was coming from the freezer, Sgt. Nicks said he did not recall any unusual odour.

Ms. Sandford asked whether articles cluttered the floor around the freezer.

Sgt. Nicks said he did not remember what was on the floor. The contents of the freezer had more of an impact on him than what was on the floor, he said.

With his hands re-enacting his actions, he told the jury about holding a flashlight in his right hand and lifting the lid with his left hand. He saw plastic packaging and a lot of frost.

Sgt. Sleigh lifted the lid from the other side, tilted a bucket to see inside and then asked Sgt. Nicks to look at the bucket.

They switched positions. Sgt. Nicks reached in with his left hand and peered into the bucket. "I put the bucket down and closed the lid," he told the court.

Sgt. Sleigh asked him what he saw.

"It looks like a human head," Sgt. Nicks told him.

In a rare moment that pierced the formalities of the courtroom, Ms. Sandford expressed sympathy for those who had discovered the remains.

"This troubling discovery must be the most horrific of your career," Ms. Sandford said to Sgt. Nicks, who had 29 years experience with the Mounties.

"I would not say that," he replied.

"You are an unfortunate man," Ms. Sandford said quietly.

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