04/11/2012 02:30 EDT | Updated 06/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Crown file related to '97 attack on sex worker destroyed, Pickton inquiry hears

VANCOUVER - The Crown's file on a 1997 attack of a prostitute in which Robert Pickton was charged with attempted murder was destroyed two years after a fateful decision to stay the charges, despite a policy that such records should be archived for 75 years, a public inquiry heard Wednesday.

The inquiry is looking at how police and prosecutors handled the various investigations into the serial killer, and the hearings have now shifted to the decision by Crown counsel to effectively drop the attempted murder case against Pickton.

After the charges were stayed, 19 more women later connected to Pickton's farm in Port Coquitlam disappeared before his arrest in February 2002.

The inquiry's work has been hampered because most of the records that laid out how the Crown handled the case were destroyed in June 2000. The file would have included the RCMP's report to Crown counsel, the prosecutors' notes and other records that detailed how the case proceeded between the attack in March 1997 and the stay of proceedings in January 1998.

Randi Connor, the prosecutor who entered the stay of proceedings, agreed Crown counsel policies dictated that cases involving serious offences such as attempted murder — which were placed in red-coloured file folders to signify their importance — must be archived for 75 years,.

She couldn't say why that didn't happen.

"Absolutely, the file shouldn't be destroyed," Connor testified.

"It puts me at a horrible disadvantage that I don't have my notes, I don't have precise dates. It is, I can assure you, an awful position to be testifying on events 14 years later without the benefits of my notes and that file."

Pickton was charged after he and a sex worker were in a bloody knife fight on his farm in Port Coquitlam. The woman nearly died in hospital. She arrived with a handcuff on her wrist, and Pickton later arrived in the same hospital carrying the key to those handcuffs in his pocket.

Connor has already told the inquiry she stayed the charges because she believed the victim's heroin addiction would make her an unreliable witness at trial, and without the witness, she wouldn't be able to contradict Pickton's claim that he acted in self defence.

However, Connor has been unable to remember key details about her involvement in the case, such as when she was assigned to the file, when she first attempted to interview the victim, and exactly what she and the victim talked about when they finally met in January 1998 — less than two weeks before the trial was set to begin.

Leonard Doust, a lawyer for the province's criminal justice branch, told the inquiry the file was among 71 boxes of documents that were destroyed in June 2000. He didn't explain why the Pickton file was among those documents, but he said the attorney general's ministry has investigated what happened and will present its findings to the inquiry soon.

Connor has already acknowledged she didn't warn the woman, the woman's mother or the police she was considering dropping the case or attempt to get the woman help so she'd be a more reliable witness.

She said the police would have been aware that charges that are stayed can be revived within a year, and she said it would have been up to them to keep in touch with the victim and report back if she was in better shape.

The victim only found out about Connor's decision after the charges had been stayed. Connor didn't have a phone number for the woman, who was living on the streets in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, so she informed the woman's mother, who passed on the message.

The woman told a lawyer for the inquiry in an interview earlier this year that when she found out, she was furious and used a payphone to call Connor at home. The woman said in the interview that a young girl picked up the phone and handed it to Connor.

"I said, 'How ... dare you drop those charges?'" the victim said, according to a profanity-laced transcript read aloud at the inquiry.

"She said, 'I'm at home having dinner with my family right now.' She said, 'If you want to talk, call me in my office.' And I held the phone way out and I was flipping. I said, 'I don't (care) if you're in Hawaii,' and then I think she hung up on me when I said that. And that was that. I never did phone her."

Connor denied the phone call ever took place, noting her only child, a son born two years earlier, wouldn't have answered the phone.

The woman attacked by Pickton testified at the preliminary hearing before Pickton's murder trial, but her story was never shared with the jury that eventually heard the case. The jury convicted Pickton of six counts of second-degree murder.

She was set to testify at the public inquiry this week, but a commission lawyer announced on Tuesday that she had changed her mind about appearing.

Art Vertlieb told the commission the woman was still traumatized by the attack and was afraid of the impact testifying would have on her and her family. Vertlieb said the inquiry could complete its work without her testimony.

Pickton's arrest in 2002 set off a massive search of his farm in Port Coquitlam, where the remains or DNA of 33 women were found.

He once told an undercover police officer that he killed 49 women.