By James Stairs
Vancouver (dpa) The details of the serial murders of six prostitutes and drug addicts in Vancouver have turned so grisly in the second week of a sensational murder trial that some newspapers have stopped printing them, or are offering them only online.
Robert Pickton, 56, stands charged with killing 26 of the 61 women reported to have vanished over two decades from the seedy lower east side of Vancouver.
For years, police played down the possibility that the disappearances were linked. The tone changed quickly when an army of forensic investigators uncovered gruesome evidence on a pig farm in a suburb outside the western Canadian city.
The trial has gripped Canada. The gruesome details have also attracted attention of the world press, with hundreds of journalists accredited to attend the trial from several countries.
In anticipation of the media demand, a new courtroom was built in a Vancouver suburb. In the opening days of the trial, the room was packed with reporters and onlookers jostling for space.
For two Canadian reporters, who quietly sit amidst the chaos. the horror of the charges hits closer to home than most. They patiently sit, jotting notes on to small notepads. determined to tell the full story, no matter how painful it becomes.
Pauline VanKoll, 42, and Trisha Baptie, 33, are former prostitutes and drug addicts who worked in the same poverty-stricken Vancouver neighbourhood as the victims. They are reporting on the trial for orato.com, a citizen journalism web site.
The two admit that they were skeptical of the trial before it began, unwilling to forgive the police for downplaying the disappearances.
But the numbing work of the investigators, sifting through 292,824 cubic metres of soil and sending 400,000 swabs of evidence to the laboratory, helped sweep away Baptie’s distrust of the authorities.
“The police might not have taken the missing women seriously at first, but when they found the first signs of something seriously wrong, it is pretty evident they threw all the resources they could at it,’ she wrote.
And while still heartbroken and angry that her ‘friends will still be dead no matter what new policies and procedures,’ she writes that they may not have died ‘in vain if through all this, some very serious and open discussions happen around drug detoxification beds, drug rehabilitation, better supports for kids in care and ‘safety for the girls on the streets.’
Pickton, who has pleaded not guilty, is facing trial for six murders in the current proceedings. The remaining 20 charges have been held over for a second trial.
The pig farmer was arrested in 2002, triggering an 18-month forensic marathon on his farm in the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam. Prosecutors say DNA evidence was found on the property from some of the missing women.
The bloody details – of decapitated heads being split in half and bodies hanging from hooks on the farm – shocked Canada. Many readers, angered at the sensational tone of coverage, inundated media outlets with complaints. The outcry prompted several newspapers and broadcasters to change their coverage and issue warnings about the graphic material.
Several outlets began offering two formats of coverage: a censored version in print and an uncensored version online.
But for VanKoll and Baptie, the debate over how to cover the story was never a question. Their focus was never going to be on the stomach-churning details of the case, they explained, but on the victims and how easy it was for them to disappear.
Paul Sullivan, editor-in-chief of orato.com, explains that the women, who have been off the street and drug-free for several years, were selected for their life experiences rather than their journalism backgrounds.
‘We tried to find people to give first-person accounts. We wanted people who had lived the story and feel the story – who are the story,’ he said.
Sullivan said that the testimony has been hard on the fledgling reporters, and that their job is to add to the context of the story by explaining life on the street.
‘Both women see this as part of their healing, but it’s been tough,’ he admitted. ‘I don’t know if they were ready for the impact of sitting in the same courtroom as Pickton.’
VanKoll and Baptie’s reports are raw and emotional.
‘My anger at the end of last week’s trial was almost uncontrollable. It reminded me of the anger I once felt when I was on the street. I couldn’t hold back my tears for the street sisters killed,’ VanKoll wrote last week.
Baptie wrote that nothing had prepared her for the first day of the trial, ‘listening to the Crown describe how heads of victims were cut in half, how bodies had been mutilated and other atrocities I will let other media report,’ she wrote.
‘It was a physical blow … The words spoken became a tangible thing that hit me and left me gasping for air – it left me reeling at the horror at what had been done to the women I used to work alongside on Vancouver’s streets,’ she wrote.
Pickton is the first person to be charged in the disappearances, which were not initially probed because, police explained, women working in the sex trade are difficult to track and there was no evidence that they had been abducted.
The cases of the 35 other unaccounted-for women remain unresolved.
Victims’ families charge the Vancouver police department with apathy in the investigation and reluctance to identify the killings as the work of a serial killer.
Had the women not been prostitutes or drug addicts and had the public known a serial killer was at large, much more attention would have been paid to the disappearances, they say.