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From working farm to rural nightmare

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. — Depending on who was testifying, the property at 953 Dominion Ave. in Port Coquitlam was a grotesque murder scene, a graveyard, an idyllic pastoral retreat to ride horses, a frantic business hub, a wasteland filled with derelict vehicles or a temporary home for crack addicts and prostitutes.

The site was quickly dubbed a pig farm after Robert Pickton's arrest in 2002. Calling the property a farm was a misnomer.

The history of the site over the past four decades was revealed in snippets throughout Mr. Pickton's 10-month, first-degree murder trial. The court heard that Mr. Pickton had a small butchering business. But at that time he was not raising pigs on the site. None of the land was used for crops. Much of it was utilized by Mr. Pickton's brother Dave for a topsoil business and as a dump site for waste from his demolition operation. Dozens of older vehicles, stripped for their parts, were strewn about the property.

The unprecedented police investigation dug up most of the soil and took apart several buildings – the trailer in which Mr. Pickton lived, the slaughterhouse, two huge garages and a farmhouse – in search of the tiniest speck of evidence. All that remains is an expanse of dirt and grazing land for cows.

Some witnesses talked with affection about the land. Others described gruesome discoveries after Mr. Pickton was arrested. Mr. Pickton spoke about the farm in an “audio letter” in 1991 to someone named Victoria and during the police interrogation after his arrest.

In a video of the interrogation played in court, Mr. Pickton sat calmly for hours as police peppered him with accusations. He appeared indifferent to evidence found on the farm that suggested murder; he had only passing interest in a huge poster of photos of 48 women he was accused of killing.

But when Sergeant Bill Fordy brought out an aerial photo of the farm, Mr. Pickton suddenly perked up and stared intently at the picture.

Just a junk collection

The farm has gone through incredible change since the Pickton family moved there in 1963, when Robert was 13 years old. By the early 1970s, the family's main income was from butchering hogs and cattle. But it was not enough. Dave Pickton bought a truck and started D & S Bulldozing in 1974. He opened the topsoil business around the same time. Robert Pickton stayed on the farm, cleaning barns and caring for animals, the jury was told.

Mr. Pickton told police he butchered 34 head in one day just before Christmas in 1977 – the most he'd ever done. He did not enjoy butchering, he said in 2002. “I'm in it for the money. I want to get out, everyone says do this one for me, I do favours.”

The character of the farm, which had as many as 700 hogs and 120 cattle at one point, shifted significantly in the late 1970s. Several events may have contributed to the changes. Mr. Pickton's father died in 1977, the piggery barns burned down in 1978, and in 1979 his mother died.

Robert Pickton rebuilt the barn buildings and stayed with the farm operations, while Dave Pickton remained with the trucking and topsoil businesses. But Dave was taking over more and more of the land.

Samantha Howes remembers the transition. She was a teenager in 1979 and her older sister had moved in with Dave. Samantha often slept over. The Picktons were growing grain then. But when Dave Pickton began dumping old cars on the property, she said, “it became just a mess. It was just a junk collection in the end.”

Then the hog market went sour in 1980, wiping out the Picktons' pig business.

“I had to pack it in. I quit,” Robert Pickton says in the audio letter. He sold off the breeding stock and feeders but still had a debt of $27,800. Mr. Pickton bought a dump truck and worked as a truck driver to pay off his debt. He continued to do some butchering, beginning a new business relationship with a Filipino man named Pat Casanova in 1984.

But butchering was in the evening, after he left his day job as a truck driver or labourer in his brother's expanding businesses. His brother, meanwhile, was using much of the farm for his topsoil business and as a parking lot for trucks and heavy equipment from his excavation and demolition operations.

Tanya Carr, the daughter of a family friend who had a niece/uncle relationship with Robert Pickton, lived on the farm in his trailer from the spring of 1994 to the fall of 1995. She said people came and went at all hours. There were workers, their trucks and their girlfriends, and people showed up randomly in the evening. She confronted at least 20 people she believed were trying to steal tools from the workshop, she said.

The next stage in the evolution of the property came in the mid-1990s, when the Picktons sold off a chunk of the land for housing, a park and a school for about $5-million.

Lorne Loewen, an operator of heavy equipment, was involved in preparing land for the housing development at the north end of the site. The trucks would reach the area by driving through the Pickton farm, entering from Dominion Avenue. Mr. Loewen recalled “undesirable people” were often there looking for Robert Pickton, trying to sell things. Sometimes it looked like a yard sale with people asking to buy topsoil.

The pig butchering continued. About twice a week, Mr. Pickton dumped six barrels, each holding up to 300 pounds of raw waste, at a Vancouver rendering plant. He was known there as “the pig man.”

Horrific graveyard

By the mid-1990s, the testimony indicated, addicts had begun hanging out at the property and sometimes staying for extended periods.

Andrew Bellwood and Lynn Ellingsen stayed in Mr. Pickton's trailer at different times in 1999, the year that two of the women – Brenda Wolfe and Georgina Papin – went missing. Gina Houston, who brought her young children to the farm every day in early 1997 to ride horses and play with the farm animals, said she saw women in Mr. Pickton's trailer in 1999 with crack cocaine paraphernalia on the bed.

By the time police raided the farm in 2002, the property had become a horrific graveyard. Police testified they found Mr. Pickton's trailer strewn with women's clothing, makeup, sex toys, syringes and duct tape. An asthma inhaler belonging to a missing woman, Sereena Abotsway, was discovered inside the trailer. A gun with a dildo stretched over the barrel was in the laundry room.

Partial human remains of four women were found in and around the slaughterhouse. The head, hands and feet of two more women were found in a freezer in Mr. Pickton's workshop. Bloodstains of one of the women were found throughout a motor home next to the workshop. The site had been completely changed from a working farm to a rural nightmare.

“You own a piece of land for as long as you're here for, but you'd never own a piece of land, the land owns you,” Mr. Pickton said in 1991. “This land has been here for many years before you've been here and the land will be here many years after you're gone.”

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