01/19/2012 03:43 EST | Updated 03/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Vancouver could have investigated Pickton rather than relying on RCMP: inquiry

VANCOUVER - Vancouver police could have investigated serial killer Robert Pickton rather than simply leaving him to the RCMP in a neighbouring city, the public inquiry into the case has heard.

Deputy Chief Jennifer Evans of Peel Regional Police, who conducted an external review for the inquiry, contradicted the Vancouver police force's long-standing insistence that Pickton was the responsibility of the Mounties in Port Coquitlam because that's where he was killing women.

Evans said Thursday when Vancouver police received information in 1998 and 1999 that Pickton may have been picking up sex workers in the city and killing them at his farm, they should have opened a criminal investigation.

"Due to the number of women that had gone missing, it was my opinion that investigators could have come to the conclusion that Pickton was targeting women in the Downtown Eastside, and he was going in looking (for victims), so the offence would start in Vancouver," Evans told the inquiry.

She said Vancouver police could have opened investigations into the offences of kidnapping because Pickton appeared to pick up women with the intent to kill them. Another possible charge would be administering a noxious substance because informants told police Pickton used alcohol and drugs to lure women.

Instead, the case was spread over several separate investigations involving two police forces, which Evans has said was a key factor in the devastating failure to catch Pickton.

The Vancouver police department investigated the disappearances of sex workers, primarily as a missing person case rather than a criminal investigation.

When they received information pointing to Pickton, they would forward that to the RCMP in Port Coquitlam, because officers in Vancouver believed they didn't have jurisdiction over one of their top suspects.

Meanwhile, the RCMP looked at Pickton as a suspect in the missing women case. The Mounties had already investigated Pickton in 1997, when he was charged for an attempted murder for an attack on a sex worker, although Crown prosecutors declined to bring that case to trial.

Sean Hern, a lawyer for the Vancouver Police Department, told Evans that policing conventions in B.C. dictate that in missing persons cases, the department where the report was made investigates, while homicide investigations are handled by whichever force has jurisdiction over the location of the victim's body.

Hern suggested Vancouver police were acting properly leaving Pickton to the RCMP, which had adequate resources to conduct a proper murder investigation.

Evans said that may have been a reasonable approach until late 1999, when the investigation in Port Coquitlam appeared to "languish" as the detachment struggled to keep up with several other major cases and lessened their focus on Pickton.

At that point, Evans said Vancouver police had a responsibility to ensure that Pickton remained a priority, either by putting pressure on the RCMP or offering to take over that investigation themselves.

"If they (Vancouver police) recognized that the RCMP weren't giving it priority they should have, I think they should have done something to make it their own priority," said Evans.

"That (could) be going up the chain of command in the RCMP, or there was nothing stopping them from conducting an investigation, whether they contact the RCMP saying, 'OK, you're now saying it's not your priority, so we're going to follow up.'"

Eventually, the Vancouver police and RCMP joined together for what became known as Project Evenhanded, but that was yet another investigation with a separate focus. The project was looking at links between missing women cases, but it was premised on the incorrect theory that the disappearances had stopped.

Evans has said chasms between those investigations were large.

New reports of missing women in Vancouver didn't always reach investigators in Port Coquitlam, she has testified. It took months before Project Evenhanded investigators realized women were still disappearing but they were reluctant to shift focus even then.

Tips were slow to move between police forces, too. Evans has noted that RCMP officers who followed Pickton to an animal rendering plant in August 1999 were unaware that, days earlier, an informant had told Vancouver police that Pickton disposed of bodies by bringing them to an unnamed rendering plant.

And most importantly, Evans has complained there was no central, overarching structure to guide the investigation and co-ordinate between officers in different cities. Senior management in each force was slow to take the case seriously, and, even when they finally did, took even longer to communicate with each other to co-ordinate their strategies.

Vancouver police, while initially slow to react, eventually did treat the case with urgency, Evans has said, largely in response to intense pressure from the community and the media. But RCMP in Port Coquitlam were not facing the same pressures from local residents, which allowed the detachment to give the case lower priority.

Pickton was arrested in 2002 after a Mountie obtained an unrelated search warrant following a tip about illegal firearms. Members of the missing women investigation went along, and immediately found the belongings and remains of missing sex workers.

Pickton was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder and is serving a life sentence.

The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm. He once claimed he killed 49 women.