05/11/2012 03:54 EDT | Updated 07/11/2012 05:12 EDT

'Common sense' that Pickton was top suspect in missing sex workers: officers

VANCOUVER - It was "common sense" that Robert Pickton was the top suspect in the disappearance of sex workers in the late 1990s, but the RCMP failed to pursue him with any urgency, two former Vancouver police detectives told a public inquiry Friday.

Instead, the Mounties brushed off informants who claimed Pickton was murdering sex workers and then transferred the lead investigator off the case, causing the RCMP's investigation to fizzle out, retired detectives Mark Chernoff and Ron Lepine told the inquiry.

Chernoff and Lepine, who were members of the Vancouver Police Department's missing women review team, said by August of 1999, police had heard from several informants who claimed Pickton was murdering sex workers.

They also knew Pickton was accused two years earlier of attempting to kill a Downtown Eastside sex worker at his farm in Port Coquitlam.

But when they shared information from their informants with the RCMP, who assumed jurisdiction over Pickton because he lived in Port Coquitlam, the Mounties were immediately skeptical, said Chernoff.

"Based on the information (from informants), the lay of the land, his history and especially the incident in 1997, I thought just using common sense, it all seemed to make sense that this should be a person that we focus on very clearly," Chernoff told the inquiry.

"If you had credible information, you take it as far as it could go, and you either eliminate someone or you determine that they were involved. And that's what I thought should have been done in this case."

Chernoff and Lepine were assigned to investigate a tip from a man named Ross Caldwell, who had lived at Pickton's property and came to police with a story told to him by one of Pickton's friend's, Lynn Ellingsen.

Ellingsen recalled walking in on Pickton in his barn and seeing him skinning a sex worker who was hanging by her neck, Caldwell told the officers. Caldwell also told police he saw handcuffs in Pickton's trailer, and that Pickton told him he could easily dispose of bodies.

Vancouver police already had another informant, Bill Hiscox, who claimed Pickton was murdering sex workers. And after Caldwell, two more people — Leah Best and Ron Menard — told police they heard the same story from Ellingsen.

Chernoff said Caldwell was consistent and credible, and investigators in Vancouver believed what he was saying.

But Caldwell also had legal problems and used drugs. Those troubles came to a head in August 1999, when Vancouver police interviewed Caldwell in Port Coquitlam with RCMP members in attendance. Caldwell had been up most the night doing drugs and was in rough shape.

"It was really quite a bad incident, and one that probably led to the downfall of many of the RCMP officers looking at him with much credibility," said Chernoff.

"It took a left turn, and it never came back. Some of the RCMP members were saying he was a flake, he wasn't credible now, the information was probably made up."

The RCMP interviewed Ellingsen and she denied ever telling the story. She refused to take a polygraph test, also known as a lie detector, but the RCMP believed her and disregarded Caldwell, the inquiry has heard.

As it turns out, it was Ellingsen who was lying to police. She later became the Crown's star witness at Pickton's trial, where she recalled walking in on him murdering a sex worker.

Soon after, Cpl. Mike Connor, the RCMP's lead investigator and someone the Vancouver police regarded as a strong ally, was promoted and transferred out of the Pickton investigation.

When Connor left, the RCMP's investigation appeared to stall, said Chernoff.

"We were happy for the fact that he was promoted, but quite honestly shocked about how he could be taken away from such an important file at probably the most critical time," said Chernoff.

"That culminated in the end of the (RCMP) investigation. It took everything out of it. When he was gone, there was nothing really left."

Next week, several RCMP investigators involved after the fall of 1999 are scheduled to appear.

They include Const. Ruth Yurkiw and Const. John Cater, who interviewed Pickton in January 2000 in what has been widely criticized as a sloppy interrogation. Also on the witness list for next week is RCMP Insp. Earl Moulton, who was in charge of the Coquitlam detachment.

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

The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his property. He told an undercover police officer that he killed 49.