VANCOUVER — Lorelei Williams decided not to attend the 2007 trial of notorious B.C. serial killer Robert Pickton, who was linked to the murder of her cousin Tanya Holyk, because she felt it would be too traumatizing.
More than 15 years later, she says families like hers are having those wounds reopened with news that the RCMP has applied for the destruction of an estimated 14,000 exhibits collected as part of the Pickton investigation.
"This information only gets dropped on us during Christmastime, which is already hard for the family members without their loved ones, especially the children, especially the mothers," she said.
Family members and the advocacy group Justice for Girls said Monday the evidence police want destroyed could be used to convict other people or solve some of the dozens of unsolved cases of women who went missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Mounties say all relevant evidence has been retained and they can’t keep every piece of property indefinitely.
Sasha Reid, who runs a database of missing people and unsolved murders in Canada, said the Pickton case is not complete and if the evidence is destroyed police lose any chance of convicting other suspects connected to what happened on Pickton's pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C.
"I'm concerned because advances in DNA analysis are growing every single day. You can't say that there's no evidentiary value," she said.
"And beyond DNA analysis, there are other reasons for why that evidence has evidentiary value. How about the fact that this is an unsolved ongoing case, where there are very clear, very obvious, other suspects?"
Pickton was found guilty in 2007 of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole for 25 years in the deaths of six women.
When the Supreme Court of Canada upheld his sentence, first-degree murder charges involving 20 other women, including Holyk, were stayed because Pickton was already serving the maximum sentence.
The Supreme Court of Canada decision notes that Pickton's statements to police "implied the involvement of others but not to the exclusion of the accused."
Williams said if she had a chance to speak with RCMP Commissioner Mike Duheme she would ask him how he would react if the victims were members of his family.
"I don't think they would destroy the evidence. They protect their own. You know, they don't care about us," she said.
RCMP spokesman Staff Sgt. Kris Clark said in a statement that "all evidence is being preserved."
"To put it simply, the RCMP is not authorized to retain property indefinitely and is making application to the court for disposition of that property. Ultimately, this process is required by law and is for the intended purpose of returning property to the rightful owners, where applicable, or for the disposal of items not claimed," he said.
Clark said the Mounties "have been working closely with the victims’ families to return their loved ones’ belongings as well as local First Nations to ensure disposal is done in a culturally sensitive way."
Justice for Girls said in a statement that it's aware of five similar applications to dispose of exhibits related to the Pickton case that have been granted since 2020. It says it doesn't know how many exhibits have already been dispersed or destroyed.
The latest application is scheduled to be heard in B.C. Supreme Court on Jan. 25.
A letter endorsed by more than 40 organizations, academics and Indigenous groups was sent to the federal public safety minister, B.C.'s government and Duheme, asking them to "take immediate steps to preserve Pickton evidence."
The letter says families of victims connected to the 20 charges that were stayed hold out hope that one day they will know what happened to their loved ones.
"Disposal of the exhibits will quash any remaining hope they have and solidify their perception that their daughters, mothers, sisters and aunties are less important than the space required to keep that evidence," the letter says.
The letter also calls for changes to the law governing evidence disposition, particularly in unsolved cases involving Indigenous and marginalized women and girls, and for more accountability for the RCMP.
It says police should prioritize resources for unsolved missing women's cases related to Pickton.
The letter is endorsed by groups including the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the Union Of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said in a separate statement that the lives of Pickton's victims matter and their families have gone through hell and back.
"This evidence, which includes cherished belongings of stolen loved ones, holds a truth, and as far as I’m concerned, the police have no authority over the truth,” he said.
B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma said in a statement that she is aware of the RCMP's application and it's important the court supervise the process to make sure it's "conducted with sensitivity and involving appropriate engagement with the families of victims."
"Our understanding is that the court will be provided with submissions on how to avoid any steps that could unduly jeopardize the integrity of future investigations, and I have asked my ministry to remain in dialogue with their federal counterparts to this end," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 11, 2023.
Ashley Joannou, The Canadian Press