Oppal denies pre-judging missing women findings

Inquiry head releases statements to Attorney-General

Missing Women Inquiry head Wally Oppal.

Missing Women Inquiry head Wally Oppal denied Monday he has made up his mind that police bungled their investigation of serial killer Robert Pickton or that Crown was wrong to drop charges of attempted murder against him in 1997.

His statement, released Monday, was an attempt to clarify comments he made to the Attorney General in a June 30 letter and a July 5 phone voicemail pressing for increased funding for groups representing women and First Nations.

Oppal said then A-G Barry Penner’s deputy raised concerns July 15 that he may have pre-judged key questions.

Pickton’s 1997 arrest came after a naked and badly bleeding sex trade worker escaped from his Port Coquitlam farm – five years before he would finally be charged with murdering multiple women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

If charges had proceeded and not been stayed in 1998, Oppal said in the letter, “it is clear that the murder of a number of missing women would have been avoided.”

He said in the statement he did not meant to imply Pickton would have been convicted for that incident or that Crown’s decision to drop the case was wrong – an issue that is before the inquiry.

“Why there was not sufficient evidence, or for that matter, why Pickton was not caught earlier is a question that I will be investigating.”

All six of the women Pickton was ultimately convicted of killing – Sereena Abotsway (of Surrey), Mona Wilson, Andrea Joesbury, Brenda Wolfe, Georgina Papin and Marnie Frey – died after the 1997 incident and investigation.

A further 20 counts of murder never went to trial and Pickton claimed to an undercover police officer he had actually killed 49 women.

In the voice mail, Oppal warns Penner of the poor optics of the government refusing to fund hearing lawyers for “poor aboriginal women” who had been repeatedly ignored by authorities.

“The police gave them the back of their hands to these women and disregarded what they had to say,” Oppal told Penner. “So they can’t cross-examine the police, who are of course well-armed with publicly funded lawyers.”

Oppal stressed the accusations before the inquiry of an inadequate police investigation and of ignored attempts to alert authorities about missing women are “mere allegations” he will carefully assess based on the evidence that emerges.

“I have not reached even preliminary conclusions on the facts,” he said.

“In my phone message, I simply wanted to emphasize that these allegations deserve to be explored, and that I believe funded counsel for those making the allegations, not just those refuting them, would assist the process.”

The province ultimately refused to add the extra $1.5 million to the inquiry’s budget that Oppal had requested, but the commission has shuffled its budget so four more lawyers can represent the views of women and First Nations at the inquiry.

Several groups that were denied funding had vowed to boycott the hearings, which begin in Vancouver Oct. 11.