05/09/2012 02:48 EDT | Updated 07/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Pair of Vancouver officers deny 'tunnel vision' caused them to ignore Pickton

VANCOUVER - A pair of Vancouver police officers who've been sharply criticized at the Robert Pickton inquiry denied accusations Wednesday that "tunnel vision" caused them to ignore the serial killer, and instead insisted they were kept in the dark about Pickton.

Det. Const. Mark Wolthers, who is now retired, and Det. Const. Doug Fell, who is still on the force, worked on the missing women investigation from the summer of 1999 until they were transferred the following year.

The inquiry has heard allegations the officers were difficult to work with, used derogatory language when talking about sex workers, followed their own suspect while ignoring work related to Pickton, and withheld information from their colleagues.

Many of those criticisms were contained in an internal Vancouver police report authored by Deputy Chief Doug LePard, who testified last year. LePard accused Fell and Wolthers of "tunnel vision" that kept them focused on their suspect, and wrote in his report that the officers' "destructive conduct compromised the investigation and demoralized the other investigators."

"In my opinion, those findings are disgusting," an emotional Wolthers told the inquiry.

Wolthers and Fell requested to join the Vancouver Police Department's missing women investigation in 1999.

When they arrived, they believed they were looking for a serial killer and they already had their own suspect in mind: Barry Niedermeyer, a man in Alberta with a history of allegations involving sex workers who was later arrested and charged with assaulting Vancouver women.

The pair acknowledged they focused their energy on pursuing Niedermeyer and weren't involved in investigating Pickton in any significant way

But they said they were never asked to look at Pickton, who had been assigned to two other officers. They said their colleagues never told them about several tips implicating Pickton in the murder of sex workers, nor were they invited to meetings discussing strategies for the Pickton file.

"From what I've seen and learned at the inquiry to date, the information (pointing to Pickton) was unbelievably good at that time," said Wolthers. "We were not aware of it."

At one point, the pair set out into the Downtown Eastside with a package of suspect photos to show sex workers. Fell said they asked their colleagues for photos of the 20 best suspects, but they were only given seven, and Pickton was not one of them.

They returned a week later with photos of 10 additional suspects, including Pickton, who was identified by several sex workers.

Other officers have accused Wolthers and Fell of withholding the fact that Pickton was identified, though neither could recall whether they told anyone. They said if they didn't, it wasn't intentional.

In fact, they said if they knew more about Pickton — such as a tipster's claim that Pickton brought a female friend with him to encourage sex workers to come to his farm in Port Coquitlam — they would have passed that information along to sex workers and warned them not to get into a car with him. They had warned women they spoke with to avoid other suspects in their package of photos.

Two of the women they talked to — Tiffany Drew and Jennifer Furminger — later disappeared and their remains were found on Pickton's farm.

As for accusations that they repeatedly referred to sex workers as "whores," Wolthers responded: "This is an outright lie."

In May 2000, Wolthers and Fell learned they would be transferred out of the missing women investigation. They also learned the investigation itself was "winding down."

They still believed their suspect was responsible for the deaths of Downtown Eastside sex workers. They wrote the force's chief, Terry Blythe, complaining about their transfers and the state of the missing women investigation.

"We were kind of shocked that we hadn't found anybody here and we were under the impression that it was being shut down," said Wolthers.

Fell and Wolthers said the chief refused their request for a meeting, and they were told their careers would suffer because of the letter.

Pickton was arrested in February 2002 and later convicted of six counts of second-degree murder.

The remains or DNA of 33 women eventually found on his farm. He once told an undercover officer that he killed 49.