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Week 17: Pig farmer had referred to suicide as 'the only way out' of predicament

Court heard Pickton had given a close female friend nearly $80,000 and her children called him 'daddy'

Globe and Mail Update

NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. — Robert Pickton told a close friend who he once wanted to marry that police would likely find as many as six bodies on his pig farm, the first-degree murder trial heard during its 17th week.

Gina Houston, a drug user and cancer patient who looked 20 years older than her age of 39, recounted the conversation in some of the most emotional moments yet in the sensational trial that began four months ago.

Looking haggard and extremely thin, Ms. Houston was brought to the witness box in a wheelchair. She was not strong enough to hold a binder of exhibit photos. She spoke quietly, occasionally pausing as if mustering enough strength to finish her sentences, while she was pressed to tell the court what she remembered about her encounters with Mr. Pickton.

Ms. Houston broke down on the stand as she talked about her close relationship with Mr. Pickton. Her two daughters called him "Daddy," she said. Shortly afterwards, the court session for the day was adjourned. Mr. Justice James Williams told the jury that Ms. Houston had found testifying at the trial to be "a very difficult day, given her health."

Mr. Pickton is on trial charged with the murder of six women. Ms. Houston, the 84th witness to testify at the trial, told jurors she was a very close friend of Mr. Pickton beginning in 1996, although they were never physically intimate. He wanted to marry her, she said.

He was a positive influence in her life who took a parental role with her three children, she said.

Over the years, Mr. Pickton gave her as much as $80,000. She said she spent about half of the money on drugs — cocaine and marijuana. She said she could not offer any explanation why he gave her so much money. She did not do anything specific to receive the funds.

Ms. Houston recalled a conversation she had with Mr. Pickton two days before he was arrested in 2002. She did not remember Mr. Pickton's exact words. In the conversation, she asked him about voices that she had overheard while she was talking to him on the telephone in November, 2001.

Mr. Pickton told her that a woman named Mona was hurt while they were on the phone. She did not know Mona's last name. (Mona Wilson is the name of one of the six women that Mr. Pickton is accused of murdering.) Ms. Houston recalled that Mr. Pickton said he tried after hanging up to do everything he could for Mona, but she did not make it.

Ms. Houston asked if he told the police. Mr. Pickton replied he hadn't. She asked why he did not tell the police. He was hesitant, Ms. Houston said.

"I asked if she was still somewhere in the piggery, and he said yes. I asked what was next to her. He told me one, two, three, four, five or six bodies," Ms. Houston said.

She asked where the bodies were. He said they were in the "cock pen," a room in the slaughterhouse on the farm where cock fights were held.

Mr. Pickton suggested "the only way out" for him and Ms. Houston was suicide, she told the court. She thought "he was joking," she said. "And then I noticed he had tears running out of his eyes." He made the remark because "he did not want to go to jail," she said.

Mr. Pickton included her in his situation because he felt that everything that happened to him was her fault, she said. Mr. Pickton never explained why he believed this, she told the court.

Three family members of victims were in the public gallery to hear Ms. Houston's testimony. However, they retreated to a private viewing room to follow the proceedings as Ms. Houston began recounting her conversation with Mr. Pickton.

Mr. Pickton was busy writing notes to his lawyer as Ms. Houston testified about the conversation. But as she talked about her affection for him, Mr. Pickton stopped writing and looked up. Ms. Houston kept her eyes on the lawyer asking questions and did not look at him.

At times, it was difficult to tell whether Ms. Houston was a witness for the prosecution or the defence.

She testified that Mr. Pickton told her shortly before his arrest that he did not kill any of the missing women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

He said a woman named Dinah Taylor was responsible "for three or four," Ms. Houston said.

But a day earlier, Ms. Houston gave testimony that sounded less favourable to Mr. Pickton. Ms. Houston said Mr. Pickton was suicidal during the conversation shortly before his arrest. He said police would find as many as six bodies on his pig farm, Ms. Houston told the court.

Ms. Houston, 39, was talking about the same conversation on both occasions. However, Crown prosecutor Mike Petrie and defence lawyer Marilyn Sandford asked her about different portions of her conversation with Mr. Pickton.

Ms. Houston, a cancer patient who has frequently used cocaine, was a close friend of Mr. Pickton. Her first day in the witness box was highly emotional.

She appeared much more relaxed yesterday, although she was once again brought into court in a wheelchair. She left no doubt about her feelings for Mr. Pickton. He was always polite, well-mannered, gentle, kind, considerate and soft spoken, she told the court.

Police began an intensive search of Mr. Pickton's farm on Feb. 6, 2002. He was arrested and charged with two murders on Feb. 22, 2002. Ms. Houston said yesterday she spoke to Mr. Pickton on Feb. 20, 2002, two days before his arrest, while they were in a vehicle outside her home.

Ms. Houston said she introduced the subject of Vancouver's missing women into their conversation. As they sat in the vehicle, Ms. Houston questioned Mr. Pickton about a phone conversation they had had in early December of 2001.

She told the court she had heard a woman scream in the background when she was talking to Mr. Pickton at that time. She overheard Mr. Pickton saying several times, "Stop it. Not here." And then the phone line went dead.

She had seen media reports stating that a woman named Mona Wilson went missing in late November of 2001. During the February conversation, she asked Mr. Pickton what was going on during their earlier phone call.

Mr. Pickton told her that a woman named Mona was hurt but he did not kill her, she said. "You asked [Mr. Pickton], did you kill any of the women, and he answered no," asked Ms. Sandford, the defence lawyer.

"That's correct," Ms. Houston replied.

Later, Mr. Pickton told her that he believed Ms. Taylor was responsible for three or four and would "do the right thing."

Mr. Pickton's defence team has repeatedly drawn attention to Ms. Taylor during the trial. The police arrested Ms. Taylor before they arrested Mr. Pickton but released her without pressing any charges. She has not testified at the trial.

Ms. Houston told the court that she saw Ms. Taylor in August of 2001 with Sereena Abotsway, one of the woman that Mr. Pickton is accused of murdering. Ms. Abotsway was reported missing in August of 2001.

Ms. Taylor lived at Mr. Pickton's home on the farm for three months while recovering from a car accident. Ms. Houston told the court she saw Ms. Taylor with Ms. Abotsway in Mr. Pickton's bedroom.

Ms. Houston recalled that Ms. Taylor and Ms. Abotsway were having a disagreement at that time, although she did not remember what they were saying.

Meanwhile, although most witnesses at the trial have avoided looking at Mr. Pickton, a 36-year-old woman who testified during the 17th week glared at the pig farmer with disdain as she testified, her mouth wide open.

Giselle Ireson seemed like she could not take her eyes off him, however, she later told the court she was scared. That's why she told police she did not have anything to say when they first contacted her, she said.

"I was scared. I still am scared," Ms. Ireson said as Mr. Pickton sat unusually erect in the prisoner's box. He did not look at her. He kept his eyes on a blank notepad on his lap.

"This is my personal opinion," she said in response to questioning by defence lawyer Adrian Brooks. "I do not think he is in this alone."

She was not asked to elaborate on her remark.

Ms. Ireson, who worked as a prostitute in the skid-row neighbourhood in the late 1990s, said he gave her money and offered to take her to his farm in Coquitlam, B.C., in late 1998. She did not go with him.

She saw Mr. Pickton on a winter evening, wearing a Mac jacket and gum boots, sitting in a blue Chevrolet. He introduced himself as "Willie," she recalled. Mr. Pickton's middle name is William.

She said she tried to arrange "a date" - in the car or at her room at the Cobalt Hotel. He wanted to take her to his farm, she said.

She told him she could not go to the farm that night and they made arrangements to meet the following week. Before she left, he told her he dated other girls from the neighbourhood. She could ask around and they knew who he was, she recalled him saying. He also said he liked to party and have a good time, she recounted.

Before leaving, he bought cigarettes and "munchies of some sort," and gave her some money, Ms. Ireson also said. She did not show up the following week. But two weeks later, she saw him again in the neighbourhood. She was looking for money for drugs.

Mr. Pickton gave her some money, which she used immediately to buy drugs. She got ripped off and went back looking for him. He gave her more money. That was the last time she had contact with him, she told court.

Later, 27-year-old Monique Wood, who was addicted to narcotics but not a prostitute, testified she went to Mr. Pickton's farm months before he was arrested in 2002 with the intention of doing her laundry. At the time she was living in a car behind a hotel in the Downtown Eastside.

When she arrived at his trailer, she did heroin in the bathroom and then fell asleep on his bed, watching a movie on TV. She woke up the next morning and went back downtown, leaving behind her unwashed laundry.

Over the course of the evening, he had given her $100. But she did not have sex with him, she said, adding that she never returned to pick up her laundry. Police found her clothing in Mr. Pickton's trailer after they took over his farm in 2002 and searched for evidence of murder.

Ms. Wood could not remember exactly when she went to the farm. She thought it was within a year before Mr. Pickton was arrested in February of 2002 and possibly within three months of his arrest.

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