Silence of the Pigs
Bonnie Bowman probes a muderous milieu
As I sit in the courtroom staring at the back of Pickton's head, I want to beat on the bulletproof glass that separates us and scream.
—Trisha Baptie, reporting for www.oratorio.com
Well, Clarice—have the lambs stopped screaming? You still wake up sometimes, don't you? You wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs.
—Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs
If the Chinese calendar is anything to live by, we are now in the Year of the Pig. A sign of apparent good fortune, a year so fortuitous there promises to be a big jump in birth rates of “lucky” Chinese children. Coincidentally, it also happens to be the year that one Robert “Willie” Pickton, a sullen-faced pig farmer from Port Coquitlam, is on trial for murdering six women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know he is charged with 26 such murders and suspected of nearly 50 all told. He is accused, and soundly convicted by most, of horrendous misdeeds perpetrated on his now-infamous pig farm. Fargo-like horror stories abound in the media as the trial unfolds: lurid tales of rendering plants, of human remains being ground up into pig food, of a meticulous and painstaking search for DNA in what is being called the largest forensic investigation in Canadian history. Yes, for better or worse, pigs are big this year.
I was living in Vancouver when the women began disappearing from the Downtown Eastside streets. What began as a worried murmur by those closest to the victims finally grew to an outraged roar as women kept vanishing and nothing was being done about it. Why? Because the women lived on the fringes of society. They were prostitutes, drug addicts, plying their rough trade in the poorest postal code in Canada, the scabrous blight on Vancouver’s shiny visage. If it weren’t for the relentless efforts of friends and family, street workers, and some intrepid reporters—notably The Vancouver Sun’s Lindsay Kines, who doggedly wrote about the disappearances and urged a police probe long before it became tabloid fodder to the rest of the oblivious fleece-wearing, cappuccino-sipping masses—one wonders if Willie would still be wearing shit-caked gumboots instead of an orange jumpsuit.
But now it’s big news, isn’t it. There’s a lot to talk about over the water cooler, it’s gripping stuff. A friend of mine says that whenever he accesses his Yahoo UK address, the Pickton trial is one of the top stories in Britain. “They like their gore over there,” he says to me, shrugging. Yes, the spotlight is on. Port Coquitlam, a previously unknown ’burb to the majority of Canadians, is now on the map. I have even heard people in Toronto, where I currently live, referring to the scene of the crime by its West Coast moniker, PoCo. People who have never been to Vancouver, let alone Port Coquitlam, can be heard referring to “the pig farmer from PoCo.” It’s fun to say PoCo. Let’s all say it together.
Having lived in Vancouver for 24 years, I have some idea of how this dubious notoriety must be plaguing the suits in power. They don’t like the Downtown Eastside at the best of times. They clearly don’t need international attention being brought to bear on their dirty little secret, especially now, with the Olympics looming large. From their point of view, it’s the worst of times for this to happen. You can bet they want this cleared up quickly, before the world descends on their doorstep. From my far-removed vantage point, here in the Centre of the Universe, I can almost smell their desperation. It makes me cackle and rub my hands together with wicked glee. And then I feel guilty, not because I am taking great joy from their anxiety (I most assuredly am), but because I stop and remember what is at the root of it all. Or more accurately, who. The women. Yes, the women who are getting buried all over again, buried in the salacious details of the trial by the water-cooler gossips, buried by the power suits who are on a zealous mission to clean up the Downtown Eastside (shades of Expo 86), and buried again by Pickton himself, whose weird habits and habitat are creating far more interest with the bloodthirsty than the lives of the victims.
It’s to be expected. Everyone knows the names of renowned serial killers. Who hasn’t heard of Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, or, to put a local spin on it, Clifford Olson? Can you name even one of their victims? Here in Toronto, and elsewhere in Canada, many can name the victims of our very own golden-haired murderous duo, Paul and Karla. Maybe it’s easier in that particular case, there being fewer names to remember, or maybe, as many would suggest, the victims got way more play because they weren’t drug-addicted prostitutes. At any rate, unless you’re a reporter covering the trial, or in some way connected on a personal level, I challenge you to name the six women Pickton is currently charged with murdering. But you sure as hell know his name by now. It sucks, but that’s the way it is. The guilty are always far more interesting than the innocent. And in that respect, we’re all guilty.
A friend of mine, Jeremy Hainsworth, is covering the Pickton trial for Associated Press. He is there in the courtroom, every day, trying to remain objective to properly do his job. Long ago, he says, he stopped looking at the accused. For one thing, Willie is, by all accounts, impassive and seemingly uninterested in the proceedings. He doodles. He shows no apparent remorse. It doesn’t look like he’ll do anything bizarre, like start screaming and throwing himself against his bulletproof shield, or making lascivious, leering faces to the jury. He doesn’t do anything worth looking at, from a reporter’s perspective. Or maybe Pickton’s blank fašade is far more chilling than any dramatic outburst could ever be. Whatever the reason, Jeremy says he simply can’t stomach looking at him anymore. He shared a personal story with me that illustrates how even reporters struggle to keep the women from getting lost in the translation, being reduced to mere DNA.
On his way home from a particularly grueling day in the courtroom, Jeremy picked up a copy of 24 Hours, a little freebie news rag. The cover featured photos, mugshots, of the missing women. On the top banner was a photo of Pickton. When he got home, Jeremy cut off Pickton’s face with distaste and wrote the names of the women underneath their photos. He then tacked it up on the back of his apartment door. To remind himself, he says, why he’s putting himself through this. “Every day, before I go to work, I look at their faces and their names, and I say out loud: ‘I’m doing this for you.’ Their faces are the last thing I see before I leave each day.” Jeremy is not a saint, trust me. He simply understands that everyone needs reminding. As for doing his job, despite being affected and disturbed by the horror (Jeremy’s seeing a shrink), he concedes it’s a relief to finally be able to write about it. After years of being “in the know,” of being privy to the scuttlebutt on the streets and in the newsrooms, the agonizing lack of legal will, the frustration experienced by many at the interminably slow wheels of justice, he is glad it’s finally all coming out. He calls writing about it “cathartic vomit.” .
Settled in amongst the various media covering the trial are two very brave women committed to seeing it through—Pauline VanKoll and Trisha Baptie, both former sex trade workers who were friends with many of the victims. They, too, are covering the trial in a professional capacity as citizen journalists for www.orato.com in an effort to lend a been-there-done-that voice to the mainstream Pickton reportage. VanKoll and Baptie clearly do not need to be reminded about the women; they were those women. For them, this gig is both professional and personal.
From my knowledge, I am closer to the truth of how these girls lived and died. I was blessed not to have gone to the farm. If I had been, I could have easily been on the list of missing women.
Before the women began disappearing, back in the heady days when people didn’t think twice about eating pork, I too spent a lot of time in the Downtown Eastside. No, I wasn’t a hooker and I wasn’t peddling crack ... sorry, that would’ve added more authenticity, but it wasn’t the case. I was down there getting but a taste of the scene, not the full-on feast as experienced by the orato-gals or anyone else who lived the life. I was venturing into the abyss on a regular basis for something far more civilized—music. More specifically, the blues. And what better setting than the desperate Downtown Eastside. Most of my friends are blues musicians, and in those earlier halcyon days, there were gigs aplenty at the various rundown hotels located on, or just off, the notorious Hastings Street strip. I spent countless evenings in seedy hotel bars like the Balmoral, the Grand Union, the Travellers, the Brandiz, the Columbia, you name it. For years in the mid- to late ’80s, you could find me down there, diggin’ the blues, dodging flying beer bottles, stepping over puke, and watching porn on the television sets while the band played on. “Sit with your back to a wall,” I was cautioned. It was good advice, the only drawback being your proximity to the brick walls—a perfect jumping-off point for the cockroaches.
There was indeed a lot of nastiness going down in the ’hood, nobody could argue otherwise. On any given night, blood was spilled. Take-downs were frequent, and cops wearing black leather gloves could be witnessed wielding their efficient chokeholds in the middle of the bars while patrons either glared at them or sprinted out the back door. Paramedics were everywhere, kneeling on the streets, shooting Narcan into wasted limbs, bandaging up wounds, or trundling people around on stretchers. The revolving lights from cop cars and ambulances, combined with the gaudy neon hotel signs, lit up Hastings Street like a carnival from hell. Naturally, drugs were omnipresent, mostly heroin in those days, either being sold or bought or openly injected, in the bars, in the alleys, and especially in the bathrooms. You don’t want to know about the bathrooms, you really don’t.
But that aside, there’s no denying it was a community. Clearly a lot more colourful than your standard middle - class suburb, most definitely not Pleasantville, but a community nonetheless. It was, and still is, home for many. As I sat in the bars, night after night, I got to know many of the habitués who haunted the hotels. Whether I loved them or loathed them, I can’t help but wonder what their fate will be with the looming and inevitable gentrification plans of Olympian proportions.
It’s difficult to imagine the Downtown Eastside without its familiar denizens—the three-fingered war vets, the embattled bartenders turning the clocks ahead on Welfare Wednesdays, the dealers, the strippers, the junkies and the prostitutes. You couldn’t ask for a better cast of characters than those who populate the Downtown Eastside. Hearing accounts of the Pickton trial, and especially reading the passionate posts by Baptie and VanKoll, brings back vivid memories and some snapshot moments from that Kafkaesque tableau.
Whereas the old - timers barely moved from their terrycloth-topped bar tables, the junkies were in constant motion, sliding in and out of the hotels, weaving through tables, conducting business. Out onto the streets to buy, sell or steal, and back into the bars to unload their merchandise. They hovered by your table, they twitched, they had the snake-oil salesman patter down. You couldn’t get through a night without being hit on repeatedly to buy, buy, BUY! To shell out some dough for the cause, feed the underground economy, purchase something so freshly hot, it would burn your fingerprints off to touch it. You name it, you could buy it—watches, clothes, shoes, books, records, radios, pens, hairspray—everything from the sublime (leather jackets) to the ridiculous (a roll of gauze, obviously pre-loved).
There you sit, back to the wall, sipping your pissy draft beer, enjoying the music, and suddenly you feel the familiar hovering presence that precedes a sales pitch. You turn your head and there, hunkered down by the side of your chair, your salesman. He is clutching something wrapped in blood-stained newspaper. “Wanna buy some meat?” he whispers, shakily unwrapping the newspaper to display a raw dripping hunk of animal flesh, freshly liberated from Save-On-Meats. “It’s a T-bone,” he urges. “Primo.” Naturally you demur. No really, that’s what you do. But it does make me wonder if, considering the current climate, pork roasts are a much tougher sell nowadays.
And lest we forget, no trip down memory lane—or memory skid road in this case—would be complete without the local working girls who daily braved the bad streets and bad dates. There was a bit of a symbiotic relationship between the musicians and the hookers, a camaraderie of sorts. We all got to know a few of the regular girls quite well, those who weren’t so ravaged by their lifestyle that they could still maintain a decent conversation, still be coy and charming, and would sometimes dance or shoot some stick with the boys in the band until duty called them back to the street. They were tough, sure, they had to be. But there was also a refreshing lack of pretence once they decided they liked and trusted you, and in many, a poignant fragility beneath the bravado and the track marks. I remember when we heard that one of our favourite streetwalkers had died, the rumour being she had thrown herself off the Patullo bridge. Her name was Casey and I’ll never forget her. She was a wise-cracking, intelligent and generous young woman. Your textbook hooker with a heart of gold. It was a sad day when we learned of Casey’s demise, even though sudden deaths were not uncommon in that milieu, albeit mostly associated with accidental or purposeful overdoses.
But serial murders? Well, that’s a whole other kettle of pigs. I can only imagine the turmoil and fear that must have been going on down there as, one by one, familiar faces were vanishing. Not being found in a hotel room, slumped in an alley, or washed up on shore, but vanishing completely, poof! A creepy pattern, no answers, and nobody listening. I was sad about Casey, but there was a body and a funeral, what psycho-babble refers to as “closure.” Closure has been a long time coming, if at all, for the families and friends of the missing/murdered Downtown Eastside women. Too long. And now, does a scrap of identifying DNA bring closure? Too CSI for comfort, maybe. How about a severed head in a rusty bucket? Too much disclosure? I don’t know. All I do know is that along with plenty of grief, there was equal anger. And there are plenty of places to direct it. At the cops for dropping the ball early on, at the pig farmer from PoCo, at basically anyone who put their hands over their ears, closed their eyes and hummed when confronted with early suspicions, fears, and possible suspects.
And our good ole boy, Willie, was indeed a suspect with the Downtown Eastside locals. If not Willie himself, then his pig farm was suspect as a possible crime scene, because this was no anonymous far-flung farm going about its business under the radar. This particular farm was Party Central , and everyone knew it. The partying took place in a low-ceilinged long building dubbed Piggy’s Palace. There was live music, there was dancing, there was always a pig roast (in retrospect, ew). Yep, Willie liked his parties. And who attended these soirees? Everyone. Not just bikers and hookers as some would like to think, but community leaders, business people, local politicians. An all-access pass to Piggy’s Palace. And being such a good community-minded citizen, Willie organized several of these shindigs as benefits for worthy causes.
Before the pig shit hit the fan, even I knew about the existence of Piggy’s Palace. Although no longer a regular visitor to the Downtown Eastside, I would hear about the pig farm from my musician buddies who had played out there. At the time, it was considered just another gig, since playing biker-type bashes and benefits was nothing out of the ordinary for the blues cats. Only later did the horror kick in for musicians who had played the Palace.
Two such musicians, Darren and Steve, had played Piggy’s roughly eight months before the story broke wide open. Their band had been enlisted as the entertainment for one of Willie’s infamous benefits. Now, brace yourself. Here comes the irony, and it ain’t subtle. They were playing a benefit for battered women. I’ll repeat that—for battered women. How’s that for a kick in the arse with a frozen gumboot? The mind reels. They could have been playing overtop of human remains. Worse, all those present who partook of the roast pig could have been eating human remains. In fact, after the nefarious goings-on were literally unearthed, a tainted meat advisory did circulate within the community. Darren, horrified when he learned what had lurked beneath the stage, says he managed to “redeem” himself later on by playing a fundraising benefit for the Missing Women’s Foundation. “It found me,” he said simply, gratefully.
And then the stories, the speculation , began in earnest. It was a runaway train and I recall rumours circulating that snuff films were being made out at the farm. Musicians who were still playing the Downtown Eastside bars were getting the goods straight off the street, and the big question was: How come we all seem to know where these women are going, and nobody else does? For his part, Steve met a woman who claimed to have escaped the farm with her life and her lingerie. “She told me he had picked her up—my impression was that it was Pickton—and he took her out to the farm and then he started getting rough with her. She split, wearing nothing but a bra and panties.” The lid on this particular Pandora’s box had only to be lifted a crack, and gruesome creatures began flying out all over the place.
It was hard to stand there with my fingers grabbing onto the chain link fence, my forehead resting on the cold wire, thinking, “How can a segment of the population be so invisible that they can suffer these atrocities, and no one except the dirt I am looking at heard them scream?”
So I sit here in Toronto now, reading accounts of the trial like everyone else. I am not as close to it anymore, but my thoughts are with those who are. There is no place in Toronto like the Downtown Eastside, at least no place so concentrated. There are pockets, naturally, and as I walk amongst the junkies and dealers, the prostitutes, the mentally ill, I remember all their Western counterparts I had become familiar with for a brief period of time. Of the two cities, Toronto is supposed to be the scary degenerate, Vancouver the pretty-boy health freak. But Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside rivals any of Toronto’s mean streets and, by all accounts, it’s only gotten worse since the days I frequented the low track. More organized crime, more crack, a tougher, meaner, more unforgiving place.
But not for long, if the powers-that-be have their way. There’s no doubt the area can use some cleaning up, the old hotels could and should be brought up to code for safety’s sake if nothing else. And that’s all fine and good, except that most long-time residents won’t get the benefit of it. Many will be displaced, despite assurances of alternate low-income housing. If you actually believe that enough affordable housing will be in place by the time the Olympics thunders into town like the running of the bulls (or the running of the bullshit), then you should seriously consider a career in politics.
Yes, the Downtown Eastside residents are apparently expendable. If this were an episode of the original Star Trek series, they’d all be wearing red shirts. And if I wanted to be really cynical and outrageous, I would suggest that some water-cooler gossips might go so far as to say Pickton did them a favour by getting a head start on the ghetto cleansing.
To borrow from Dickens, it appears to be “the best of times and the worst of times” in Vancouver right now. Indeed, it is a tale of two cities—the sparkling postcard image displayed on Olympics tourist brochures, and the pestilent, roach-ridden Downtown Eastside—both of which have gained international attention. Unfortunately for the women working the latter streets, it’s been only the worst of times. If they were lucky enough to have escaped the clutches of a serial killer, many of them now face eviction from their home turf. Insult to injury, ladies.
I’m glad I’m not around for all the drama. I don’t need to be bombarded by the West Coast media with the grisly details of Willie’s trial and I really don’t need daily Olympics hype in my face. But I do not want to forget the lost women, whom, granted, I didn’t know personally, but who led lives that mirrored those of many I had befriended. So this is what I’ll do—I’ll head down to Parkdale, find one of the sketchier bars, have a beer with some of Toronto’s lowlife, and remember the good old days in the Downtown Eastside. As a nod to Jeremy, Baptie and VanKoll, I will raise my glass, and say aloud the names: Sereena Abotsway, Mona Wilson, Andrea Joesbury, Brenda Wolfe, Georgina Papin and Marnie Frey. And maybe, by the Year of the Rat, they’ll get some justice. Maybe we’ll stop hearing their screams.
Copyright © Bonnie Bowman, 2007