Killer's red-light hunting ground still a picture of despair

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2007, 12:00am

At the corner of Vancouver's Main and Hastings streets, a bustling wedge of desperate activity where crack addicts shoot up in plain view and tired-looking women linger, life came to a rare standstill.

'Guilty', someone shouted to the crowd, as a radio carried the first news of the guilty verdict against Robert Pickton. The conviction of a man whose nightmarish activities haunted the district for years was greeted with cheers. Then, a few minutes later, the drug deals, the prostitution and the pimping resumed.

'He's going to jail, but the women down there still have fears, they still have these lives that they shouldn't be having,' said Marge Humchitt, who spent two decades on the streets of the Downtown Eastside as a prostitute.

She wept as she heard that Pickton had been convicted of six counts of second-degree murder. His victims were all women who worked in the Downtown Eastside as sex workers forced into the streets because of their drug addictions.

'It doesn't matter that it's not first-degree,' said an emotional Ms Humchitt, a grandmother of two. 'What's important is that he's going to jail for the rest of his life.'

Whether this is true or not will hinge on Justice James Williams.

While a first-degree murder conviction would have meant an automatic 25-year sentence before the possibility of parole, Pickton's second-degree-murder convictions mean that he could in theory be free in 10 years. The judge will set the non-parole period at sentencing today.

There remain many unanswered questions about the case. The slow response of Vancouver police to investigate the disappearance of dozens of women still grates.

'We want to come to the bottom of why our loved ones were allowed to wallow in the east end and be forgotten when we reported them missing,' said Rick Frey, the father of Marnie Frey, who went missing in 1997. Her jaw was found on Pickton's farm. Kate Hodgson, a community worker, said that although there was a greater awareness of the plight of sex workers, little had changed on the streets of the Downtown Eastside, five years after Pickton's arrest.

Karin Joesbury, whose daughter Andrea was another victim, said: 'There are going to be a lot more Picktons if society doesn't change their attitude towards people like Andrea, who was very much loved.'