POLITICS

Families of Pickton's victims leave inquiry longing for normalcy

06/10/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 08/09/2012 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - Angel Wolfe has to reach back more than a decade to remember a time before she had to think about murder trials and public inquiries and a man named Robert Pickton.

It was roughly 10 years ago, living in foster care in Toronto, that she learned her mother Brenda's remains were found on Pickton's farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C.

It was a few years before that when the phone calls from her mom suddenly and inexplicably stopped.

And not long before that was the last time she saw her mother, sharing their goodbyes as Brenda put her daughter into foster care in Vancouver. Soon after, Wolfe moved to Toronto, where she lived with her father and then in foster care.

But searching her memories for a time before all of that, Wolfe pulls out a memory: one of her family's regular trips to Vancouver's Stanley Park in the late 1990s, picking seashells on the beach.

"One day I found a starfish and I wanted to bring it home, and my mom wouldn't let me because they stink," the 18-year-old says with a hearty laugh that hides the years of trauma that followed.

"So we had a little fight about that. I wasn't allowed to bring home the starfish."

In the years since, her mother and the man who killed her have permeated nearly every aspect of Wolfe's life — most recently sitting through a public inquiry in Vancouver, which ended last week.

Wolfe and other relatives of Pickton's victims, many of whom live outside Vancouver and have spent much of the past seven months between a hotel room and the inquiry, are now returning home after what may be the final high-profile public events of the Pickton saga.

They are now returning to their lives, but some say they're unsure how to find normalcy after dealing for so long with the disappearances of their family members and the monster that took them.

Brenda Wolfe vanished from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in 1999. She was among the six women Pickton was convicted of murdering, though he is believed to have killed dozens.

Angel Wolfe says her mother's disappearance will continue to guide her life after the inquiry.

She's joined her stepmother at a Toronto-based organization called Sextrade101, which advocates for sex workers and offers them help to leave the streets. Wolfe is one of the group's speakers, using her story to reach out to at-risk women and girls.

"I go around to schools and other events and I share my story, everything I've been through, my mother, how I've grown up in care, the problems I've had growing up as aboriginal, and the issues that a lot of women find themselves in," says Wolfe.

"I want to be that girl who comes in and tells my story and then they think twice."

The public inquiry put Wolfe's high school graduation on hold, but she hopes to attend university, where she's considering a degree in criminology.

For Lori-Ann Ellis, who lives in Calgary, the disappearance of her sister-in-law Cara Ellis has dominated her life for the past 15 years.

It was Ellis who travelled to Vancouver in the late 1990s to search the streets of the Downtown Eastside for Cara, whose DNA was later found on Pickton's property.

She lived through Pickton's murder trial, and she attended all but one day of the public inquiry.

Now, Ellis, 51, is returning home to Calgary, where she works as a travel agent.

Ellis says she's hoping to return to normal life, but she's still not sure what that will look like. She points out that she met her husband in the early 1990s, meaning Cara's disappearance and the subsequent legal proceedings have overshadowed more than two-thirds of their marriage.

Because of his work, Ellis's husband stayed home for much of the inquiry. Even though the families' expenses in Vancouver have been covered by the B.C. government, she says it's still been difficult on her husband, living apart and surviving on just one income.

"My husband, with his one paycheque, was supporting the house and keeping it going, and my mother in law, Cara's mom, lives with us, so also keeping her going. I think they ate a lot of macaroni over the winter," she says.

"We made it through. We're tough people."

Ellis says her first order of business at home in Calgary is to catch up on the "Young and the Restless" and enjoy some home-cooked food, namely shepherd's pie.

Nevertheless, she also expects the end of the inquiry won't mean leaving the case behind entirely.

"There is life after this, and what it is exactly I'm still going to have to figure out," she says.

"If someone rings and needs a comment, I'll still be there, but I'm going to trying to live my live, enjoy my kids, pray for grandchildren — all those real-life things people do every day."

Oppal's final report is due Oct. 31 and is expected to be released to the public, and the families, shortly after that.

The inquiry examined why police failed to catch Pickton before he was arrested in February 2002.

He was eventually convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, though the remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm.

He once told an undercover police officer he killed a total of 49.