Exclusive: Lead Pickton investigator breaks silence
Don Adam, the former head of the Missing Women Task Force, says he felt compelled to respond to public criticism of police work
VANCOUVER — B.C.'s high-profile Missing Women Task Force has faced scathing criticism that it was merely doing a “file review” of dozens of missing women after the elite team was formed in 2001, a year when eight more victims vanished from the Downtown Eastside.
Serial killer Robert (Willie) Pickton, who was arrested in February 2002, would eventually be charged with killing seven of those women, and the DNA of the eighth was also found on his Port Coquitlam farm.
Criticism — most notably a Vancouver police report on the case made public in the summer – has asked why the task force didn’t go after Pickton the moment it was formed in early 2001?
RCMP brass have insisted they will answer that question and other queries about the Mounties’ role in the case at next year’s provincial inquiry into the missing-women investigation.
However, now-retired inspector Don Adam, who headed the task force from its inception until Pickton’s 2007 trial, has broken his silence in an exclusive interview with The Vancouver Sun, saying he felt compelled to respond to the criticism, if the force will not.
“Eight women would die, from the time I was first asked to look at this case until Pickton was arrested in February 2002. That is a terrible thing to know. I have replayed a thousand times the steps we took. I believe I made the decisions that I had to make,” he wrote in a first-person narrative (published on page C1) that takes the reader inside Canada’s largest ever serial-murder investigation.
Adam’s decision to speak up was not taken lightly. After 34 years as a career Mountie, he retired in late 2007 but has since been working on contract with the RCMP in several high-profile investigations, including the so-called Surrey Six murder case.
RCMP officials told him he would have to resign from his contract work if he chose to speak publicly about the task force, known as Project Evenhanded. So, earlier this month he decided to quit.
“I was the officer who created the Evenhanded Task Force and set its direction, and I am the person who needs to answer these criticisms. The RCMP had asked me not to answer them when they were first made. I had agreed not to. I was wrong,” Adam writes in his narrative.
“By remaining silent, I have allowed inaccurate conclusions to be drawn. The victims’ families have been told that some of their loved ones didn’t need to die if we had done a better job. I need to speak about that.”
In his first-person account, Adam does not name his critics. But it is clear he is most frustrated by the conclusions drawn in a 400-page report written by the Vancouver police’s Deputy Chief Doug LePard, who analyzed various police probes into the disappearance of 64 women from the Downtown Eastside over more than two decades.
LePard’s report, released in August, details shortcomings by his own municipal department, which led the investigation throughout the 1990s until the task force took over the case in 2001. It also outlines perceived mistakes by the Adam-led RCMP-Vancouver police task force, which LePard refers to as the JFO (Joint Forces Operation).
“The investigation of Pickton prior to February 2002 was inadequate and a failure of major case management,” LePard writes.
“An obvious question is, why didn’t the JFO target Pickton? … While any single piece of the information available [from the earlier Vancouver police investigation], in and of itself, was not sufficient to conclude that Pickton was a murderer, the totality of the information available was so compelling that the failure to aggressively pursue it is difficult to understand....
“If the JFO had had possession of all the relevant information on Pickton when it began its work in early 2001, and if a proper analysis had been conducted ... the chances that Pickton would have received a higher priority in 2001 seem likely.”
In a series of recent interviews, Adam agreed to respond to the most pointed allegations in LePard’s report, stressing that when the joint task force was being formed, no one from Vancouver police singled out Pickton as a top priority.
When Vancouver police officers briefed Adam on the missing-women case, they indicated it was most likely connected to the unsolved 1995 murders of three sex-trade workers, whose bodies were found in the Fraser Valley and were linked by a suspect’s DNA, Adam said. Early on, it was determined Pickton’s DNA was not a match.
In addition, Vancouver police told the task force it appeared the women had stopped disappearing in late 1999.
“With a killer who was not active and Pickton eliminated as the suspect in the valley case, it would have made no sense to pursue him at that time,” Adam said of Pickton, who lived his entire life in Port Coquitlam and had never spent time in jail.
Because of a lack of resources, Adam said, Vancouver police had never been able to fully assess all the suspects in their file. By September 2001, the task force had created a list of 30 “worst of the worst suspects,” partly based on the Vancouver investigation, but also based on analyzing suspect DNA from unsolved sexual-assault cases against vulnerable women.
Pickton was on the list, but no new evidence had surfaced since Vancouver police received several tips about him in 1998 and he was investigated the following year by Vancouver police and Coquitlam RCMP, Adam said.
Pickton “sat in the middle of the pack” for a variety of reasons. He hadn’t been recently spotted by police in the Downtown Eastside, so was not elevated to an “active target,” Adam added.
By this time, the task force had determined women were, in fact, still going missing and they had an active killer on their hands.
Adam directed 12 team members to immerse themselves in the Downtown Eastside to watch for the killer’s movements and gather input from sex-trade workers.
LePard’s report also strongly criticized a probe of Pickton in 1999 by Coquitlam RCMP, saying it “was obviously a failed investigation” because the Mounties didn’t seek a search warrant for his farm or follow up on an odd statement the suspect made while being questioned by police.
Adam was not involved in that investigation, but defended the work done by Vancouver police and the Mounties in 1999, noting they had received second-hand information from a troubled, drug-addicted woman who lied when questioned by police about witnessing a murder on the Pickton’s farm. “That meant they had no grounds to get a search warrant,” Adam said.
After Pickton was arrested, the woman told her story to police and became a key prosecution witness at Pickton’s trial, where he was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder.
“The inquiry will need to judge how those factors strike at the strength of [Pickton] as a suspect,” Adam said. “You only have the resources to chase strong suspects.”
Pickton was arrested in February 2002 after a junior Mountie got a search warrant for the suspect’s farm to look for guns in an unrelated investigation, and stumbled across items belonging to two missing women.
The LePard report strongly suggests the task force would never have caught the serial killer without that lucky beak, arguing the team “was not targeting Pickton” and that he was never connected to any of the unsolved sex-assault cases through DNA.
Adam disagrees, saying it was inevitable that Pickton would be caught. “Pickton was continuing to come into the Downtown Eastside hunting for victims, and we were there waiting,” Adam insists. “We would have caught him.”
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