05/16/2012 02:22 EDT | Updated 07/16/2012 05:12 EDT

Failed police investigation into Pickton a 'major embarrassment': former mayor

VANCOUVER - The fact that Robert Pickton's victims were poor, drug-addicted sex workers from Vancouver's blighted Downtown Eastside contributed to the slow police response, a former mayor told a public inquiry Wednesday.

Philip Owen described the "badly handled" investigation as a national embarrassment for the city.

Owen, who was mayor and chairman of the city's police board from 1993 until 2002, told the missing women inquiry that a mix of indifference and incompetence within the Vancouver police and the RCMP allowed Pickton to continue killing for years.

"The lack of response to the disappearances of all these women was a function of the part of the city they went missing from and class, the disadvantaged, vulnerable position they held in society, wasn't it?" asked Cameron Ward, a lawyer representing the families of missing and murdered women.

"Partially," said Owen. "And also because it involved the RCMP in Port Coquitlam and that slipped through the cracks."

Owen suggested police should have been able to catch Pickton as early as 1998. He noted by then Pickton had already been accused of attempting to kill a sex worker at his property in Port Coquitlam in 1997, though charges in that case were never brought to trial.

The inquiry has heard the former mayor and the police board ignored the community's concerns about missing sex workers and instead adopting the police line that there was no evidence of a crime, let alone a serial killer.

But Owen said there was little he or the board could do to find out what police were doing or order the force to change direction. The board sets broad policy, Owen said, but can't interfere with the day-to-day operations of the police.

Owen acknowledged he initially accepted the police department's view there was no evidence a serial killer was preying on sex workers, but he said he grew skeptical over time. The police chief and other senior officers within the force, he said, were slower to change their minds.

"It was a horrible issue. It was a disaster. It was badly handled. It was badly managed," said Owen.

"It's an embarrassment right across the country."

Family members and community groups in the Downtown Eastside had been raising alarms about missing women in the neighbourhood for years. By 1999, those concerns had escalated and family members of the missing women were calling for a police task force and a $100,000 reward.

Owen was initially opposed to a reward, but eventually supported it during a police board meeting in April 1999. The police argued against issuing a reward, saying it wasn't necessary because there was no evidence the women were victims of foul play.

An obscure crime news website quoted Owen in 1999 dismissing the reward as little more than a "location service," paying people to locate sex workers who had merely moved away to other cities.

On Wednesday, Owen cast doubt on the report. He said he couldn't recall ever making the statement and didn't recognize the reporter's name at the top of the story.

Owen insisted his main concern was ensuring the city wasn't on the hook for the entire reward.

"I was concerned about Vancouver being on the hook,and I had no authority to commit Vancouver to $100,000," he said.

In the end, the city put up $30,000 for the reward and the B.C. government contributed $70,000.

In 2010, Vancouver police announced some of the reward money had been paid out to six tipsters, although the force didn't identify who received the money or how much was paid to each.

The inquiry is examining why the Vancouver police and the RCMP failed to catch the serial killer as he murdered sex workers in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Pickton wasn't caught until February 2002, when police obtained a search warrant for his farm on a tip about illegal firearms.

The arrest sparked a massive search of the property, where the police found the remains or DNA of 33 women. Pickton once boasted to an undercover police officer that he killed 49.