Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book Review: On the Farm by Stevie Cameron

On the Farm by Stevie CameronOn the Farm: Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver's Missing Women by Stevie Cameron, is a difficult book to read. Difficult because of the horrific crimes perpetrated by Robert Pickton, the suffering of the women and their families, and the failure of the police to adequately investigate the crimes early on in a case that was clearly the work of a serial killer. So much pain to wade through, and so much human filth.

White Trash Wonderland


The farm on which Pickton lived and slaughtered was a veritable magnet for the lowest scum on the face of the earth. With white trash royalty (Hells Angels) near-by to provide dead-enders with role models to look up to, you had a nearly endless supply of the kind of people who, to paraphrase Yves Lavigne, walk around with chunks of shit clinging to the hairs around their assholes. Low-bred criminals, drug addicts, and other assorted filth.

And while this very kind of rankism resulted in Pickton getting away with his crimes for so long, it absolutely has to be mentioned that many of the women who were lured to their deaths on his farm were also nasty pieces of work.

To take this rankism even further, filth can be sorted according to degrees of nastiness. At least two lowlifes procured women for Pickton. They would make an irresistible pitch to poor Downtown Eastside prostitutes, promising drugs and money if they came to Pickton's farm. And while it appears that the women doing the procuring did not know that Pickton was a murderer, they are certifiable scum for preying on such easy targets.

Because Pickton was surrounded by filth, it is inevitable that many of the people who relayed information to Stevie Cameron as she wrote this book were unreliable to some degree. Also, they maybe were conscious of the fact that they could paint a positive picture of themselves in their one shot at white trash immortality. As a result, you sense revisionist history coming through in some of the statements that are made. I lost track of the number of times that someone indicated that despite the fact that they spent countless hours on the farm, something they can't quite exactly pinpoint prevented them from ever eating the meat that Pickton produced. Right.

Cameron senses the unreliability of some of her sources of information and mentions when she feels their accounts may be less that truthful. But in a case where so many incomprehensible things took place, you may find yourself even questioning facts that have been confirmed beyond any doubt.

Weirder Than Fiction


You simply could not make up some of the weirdness that played out over the years on the Pickton farm—and here I am talking about events that predated the murders. For example, many years ago a number of insane asylums were in the direct vicinity of the Pickton farm and it is clear that poor old freak-boy grew up an emotionally damaged individual. Reeking of pig shit and shunned by other kids in the neighbourhood, the seeds of his murderous hatred no doubt were sown in those early years.

Cameron interviews countless people who knew Pickton, and she paints a picture of a truly freakish environment. Strange incidents were the norm for Pickton growing up, and there is little doubt that he is, in some ways, a very deranged person. This is not to imply that he is not completely culpable for his actions. And there was never any attempt by his lawyers to claim that he was criminally insane. Later in the book when readers are presented with verbatim exchanges between Pickton and a cell plant, and interviews with police interrogators, the utter strangeness of this freak of nature comes through in spades. His weird rambling speech patterns peppered with skewed aphorisms, non-sequiturs, and bizarre descriptions of how he views himself, really highlight him as an exceptionally weird creature.

But those early tales of his twisted upbringing will not lessen any of the loathing you will feel for this most repulsive and repugnant of individuals who does not truly belong to the human race. However, aside from likely wishing that he could be quickly exterminated and his existence erased from the records for all time, you may also find your hatred for Pickton has a strangely limited shelf life. As if you just can't waste the mind space necessary for such a low, sick animal.

However, you will almost inevitably feel a great deal of anger towards those whose job it is to solve crimes and protect the most vulnerable in society.

The Vancouver Police Department


After reading this book, you may be left with this impression: the degree of incompetence, ineptitude, and arrogance as demonstrated by the Vancouver police department (VPD) in this case, ranks them as one of the worst and most shameful police forces to ever exist. Their sneering arrogance and willful decision not to attach priority to a group of missing people may have indirectly cost countless women their lives.

To read the details of this incompetence and to know that these people are paid with tax dollars to protect us will quite possibly make you physically ill. The police forces in every society should care first and foremost for the weakest and least able to protect themselves.

But based on the facts in On the Farm, the VPD didn't. Their colossal, monumental and historical failure to adequately address the reports of missing women is difficult to comprehend. It is hard not to feel enraged when reading about the years when they disregarded and, according to the book, outright lied to the families of the missing women who literally begged them for assistance.

Cameron discusses the group in top management positions with the VPD who were more concerned with acting like petulant school girls than working to direct resources and instruct their force to solve this case. They had a world-renowned geographic profiler in Kim Rossmo working for them, but they refused to let him do his work. Work that could have led to the capture of Pickton. In this passage, Cameron gives an example of the pettiness that Rossmo had to deal with:
It was October 16, 1995, when Kim Rossmo stepped into the elevator at police headquarters at 2120 Cambie Street on his first day as a senior officer. One of his colleagues joined him. There were no words of congratulations; he didn't even say good morning. Instead the other man turned his back on him and stared at the corner as the elevator ascended. Wordlessly the two men left the elevator on the sixth floor, where top management worked, and walked to their own offices.

As Rossmo travelled to different parts of the world to share his expertise, his ignorant overlords in the VPD worked to undermine him because, according to the book, they were small-minded, jealous individuals. As a number of people point out in On the Farm, perhaps it is the fact that the VPD—like many of our police forces—was rammed full of individuals with only grade 12 educations that they were collectively so ignorant.

As early as 1991, the VPD were told straight up that a serial killer was at work in their city. This information was given to them by a group of expert profilers (including Rossmo). What did the police do with this information? Literally, we are told in the book, at that time, NOTHING was done to address this claim. Imagine the horror, grief, pain, and loss that they could have prevented if they had acted with all the urgency that such a reality should have dictated.

However, the police are not the only ones to blame. A lack of urgency also existed because we allow it. Because we are an extremely self-centred and selfish society—we're satisfied as long as things are going well for us personally. That other people are being slaughtered is meaningless to most of us.

As much as you may want to give the police the benefit of the doubt, it is difficult with the information that is presented in On the Farm. Cameron writes about Bill Hiscox, someone who alerted the police to the crimes he felt were likely going on at the Pickon farm:
The way Hiscox remembers the Pickton farm is that after he and Yelds talked about Willie Pickton and all the women's clothing that was strewn around the place, he began to believe that Willie might just be the person responsible for abducting the missing women. It's a strange coincidence, he told Leng [Wayne Leng, owner of missingpeople.net], that the police charged Pickton with the attempted murder of Sandra Gail Ringwald in 1997. And that was because of "all the girls that are going missing, and all the purses and IDs that are out there in his trailer and stuff."

Yes, amazingly, years before Pickton was finally caught, information as brazen and straightforward as this was presented to the police. But for whatever reason, they weren't able to act on it to a degree that would allow them to catch the murderer much sooner. And so the slaughter continued.

Not only did they not follow up on leads as extensively as they should have, but passages in the book highlight the fact that the police continually insinuated, or even stated outright, that the missing women were not worth the effort involved because they were often drug users and prostitutes:

When Val went to the police to report that Kerry was missing, they weren't interested. Don't worry, she was told. "She is probably off partying." Val couldn't believe what she was hearing. Every time she spoke to someone at the Vancouver Police department the response was the same—dismissive and indifferent. One of the receptionists, Val said later, told her that the women were "just junkies and hookers; don't waste our time."

And when they couldn't be further bothered, apparently they outright lied:

Months later Allan [Elaine Allan, who worked in a downtown Eastside drop-in centre] nagged Dickson [constable Dave Dickson] once too often, and he said he needed to talk to her privately. When they were alone, he said this was a little awkward for him but he felt he had to tell her—Tiffany [Tiffany Drew, one of the missing women] was fine, she was in a safe place, a recovery centre, in fact, but she didn't want to talk to Aschu or to Allan. Tiffany was afraid, he said, that she might start using drugs again if she saw people from her old life. Neither Allan nor Aschu was buying his story. It didn't ring true; Allan knew it couldn't be true. Why would Dave Dickson make this up? She couldn't understand it.
and:
Soon after the women had reported Patty's disappearance to Cameron, a police officer, Ron Palta, joined the conversation. Marion was told that Patty had gone to Montreal. That couldn't be true, Marion thought in horror. In her whole life Patty had never left Vancouver except for a visit to Lake Cowichan, on Vancouver Island. The police had to be lying to her. She was sure her child was the victim of the serial killer who was taking women from the Downtown Eastside.

The Missing and Murdered Women


The most harrowing and intriguing passages of On the Farm contain the tales of the missing and murdered women. Cameron interviews countless family members and friends and the results are very moving and compassionate, but also free of the clich├ęs that so easily could have been used. And in the pitiful and heart-wrenching stories of the women's lives and their descents into the hell of life on the Downtown Eastside, Cameron really pays tribute to them.

When reduced to generalizations it is easy for many people to dismiss the tragedy of these women's lives. Even the most sneering of the "everyone has a choice" crowd, who smugly assume that because they have a reasonable life, all others who have made bad decisions deserve scorn, ridicule and whatever comes their way—yes, even the most self-righteous of those individuals may be moved to see that everyone is worthy of respect and no one deserves what befell these women:
As always, the stories begin when the phone calls stop. The women who went missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside called their families all the time. They called their children to wish them happy birthday. They called their mothers on Mother's Day and their sisters just to gossip. They phoned on Christmas and at New Year's if their families wouldn't let them come to visit. They kept in touch.

These tales are distressing and very tough to read. For example, the story of Cindy Beck:

In her teens Cindy became pregnant and decided to have the baby, a boy she called Tony. Unable to manage, she had to give up Tony for adoption, which must have seemed to her exactly what had to happen; after all, hadn't she been adopted too? She drifted west and fell into the company of people who used drugs; before long she was working as a prostitute to pay for her addictions. In the summer of 1996 her family travelled from Kitchener to Vancouver to look for her but couldn't find her. By the time Cindy disappeared none of her old friends would ever have recognized her; she was careworn, sick, destroyed. There was no hope left in her eyes, no tenderness in her smile. She had seen too much and lived too hard and there was no fight left in her.
Or the story of Janet Henry, who survived an attack by another one of Canada's vicious serial killers, only to have her life ended (quite likely) by Pickton:
His name was Clifford Olson. A vicious con artist and psychopath, he lived in a housing complex in Coquitlam during a killing spree that lasted eighteen months, from December 1980 until July 1981. A teenage girl he stalked and assaulted during this time was named Janet Henry; on at least one occasion he and another man dragged her into a car, fed her drugs—probably chloral hydrate, a knockout drug he used on children—and assaulted her. She was one of the few he attacked who survived, but in the late nineties, Janet Henry, who found herself working the Low Track in the Downtown Eastside, may heve met a different predator. She was reported missing on June 28, 1997, and is thought to have become another of Robert Pickton's victims, but he has not been formally charged with her murder.

A haunting sense of loss lingers in all these stories. Sometimes, you just can't believe what you are reading. One young woman named Diana Melnick disappeared only to become a millionaire months later after being named a beneficiary in her grandmother's will. But she never found out. Pickton was later charged with her murder.

Any Hope at All?


Amidst all the grief and horror, there is the occasional uplifting occurrence. In fact, Cameron weaves the story of Sandra Gail Ringwald throughout On the Farm. She survived an attack by Pickton at his farm in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. Her story is perhaps the most uplifting and hopeful part of this whole sad saga.

And what she did to the scum Pickton will have you cheering:

Lisa Yelds was shocked by what had happened to her buddy [Robert Pickton] but thinks he was exaggerating the number of stitches. When she got there, she guessed he'd had about 150, many of them to repair two long stab wounds in one arm. As well as the stitches, the doctors had stapled the skin on his back to close a six-inch-long stab wound. The biggest job was repairing his throat and jaw. When Sandra Gail first slashed him [Robert Pickton] with the knife she found on the kitchen table, she cut him from ear to ear and then from his ear to his mouth. Not only had the knife entered his mouth, it had cut off the tops of some his teeth and part of his jawbone, so he had to have extensive dental work done, with bridges to connect the remaining teeth.
Cameron informs us at the end of the book that Sandra Gail Ringwald now leads a relatively happy and productive life and she is no longer addicted to drugs.

More Indignities


Cameron addresses head on the sick possibility of what Pickton may have done after he murdered his victims. Many people speculated that he may have fed the remains to the pigs on his farm. Well, that is not only possible, but after reading the details in this book, you would say very likely. The sicker realization is that he may have mixed ground human flesh in with the pork that he sold widely to butcher shops and to individuals throughout the area. The remains of a number of women were found in frozen packets of ground meat in freezers on his property.

Evil and monumentally bereft of anything decent that makes the rest of us human, Pickton almost assuredly dumped the remains of his victims at a rendering plant in Vancouver. And that means that the scope of this horror is even wider than anyone could have imagined. For rendering plants sell the oils derived from the fat of animals to be made into soap and cosmetics.

When you read information like this, the human mind truly cannot compute. It's as if you can feel something short-circuiting in your brain, as if all the qualities you hope are good about people are wiped out by such an incomprehensible thing. And then you think about the families of the murdered women who have to hear about this, who have to allow this enormous monstrosity to settle in to the corners of their minds for the rest of their lives. And then your rage against the Vancouver police department ratchets up another few degrees.

The Other Side


One of the only omissions in this book is the lack of police response to the criticisms against them for perpetrating what is depicted as one of the biggest failures in the history of modern policing. I assume that Cameron tried to get direct responses from representatives of the Vancouver police with regard to their actions. But aside from the public pronouncements the police made in which they came across as disingenuous and ridiculous, no one ever tries to provide a comprehensive and reasonable defense of police behaviour. Of course, this is probably because there isn't one.

Still, I would have liked to have read an interview conducted in which high ranking police were braced with blunt questions such as "How is it possible that your police force failed so monumentally and completely?" Or "How can people beg you for years to investigate their missing family members, and your only response is to be dismissive?"

All we get instead are the gutless deflections offered by police spokespersons:

He wasn't going to discuss the VPD's investigation of Pickton at this time, Driemel told them, but he did add, "I think there's a ton of misinformation out there. I wish I could sit you down, show you the entire timeline, every meeting and everything that was done, right from the inception of this whole process. I feel pretty good about it, but... it's tough, we just can't make it public. If you armchair it and quarterback it now, is there things we could have done or should have done or might have done more of? It's pretty hard to put today's judgment of an issue that was there yesterday. But from what I've seen, it looks like we were reasonably diligent as far as how we dealt with the resources that we had available and how it unfolded.

That a full inquiry will be conducted into the police investigation of Pickton is fantastic news.

Writing Style


On the Farm is an exceptionally well-written book. Like all the best non-fiction books, Cameron uses facts and interviews to present true-life characters so that they come to life on the pages. From the early days of Pickton's life, to the time when he started murdering women, you get a real sense for what pure, undiluted filth this person is. You can almost smell the rancid, repulsive smell of pig shit coming off him in waves as he stalks his prey and attracts other like-minded bags of absolute scum to his orbit.

While most readers will have at least a bare outline in their minds of what happened in this case, you will still find your self gripped by suspense as police finally wise up to Pickton and the investigation on the farm starts to take place. The amount of research that went into this book comes out in the details—in-depth interviews with families of the murdered women, descriptions of the crime scenes on the farm and the forensic work in the labs, and the court-room narrative that makes up the final chapters.

The book is almost flawlessly edited as well. Only a handful of sentences that don't have first-reading clarity appear throughout the entire 700-page book. I may have seen a single typo of note: "The retired mountie who had hunted down Clifford Olson in the 1960's..." Surely it was supposed to read "1980's."

Regardless of whether you followed the Pickton case as it was being covered in the mainstream media, you will likely be shocked by many of the things that you learn while reading this book. For example, as a final indignity to the families of the murdered and missing women, Pickton was shockingly found not guilty at his trial for first degree murder of six of the women. While he was found guilty of second degree murder and will never again know a day of freedom for the rest of his worthless life, the absence of a not-guilty verdict on the first degree murder charges is stunning.

It is easy to judge people while reading this book. Especially those who failed to realize a serial killer was at work and were unwilling or unable to put every resource possible towards stopping him. You may feel exhausted when you reach the final page because of such feelings. But in the same vein, the way a society treats its most vulnerable is a hallmark for judging that society. The lack of on an outcry by most of the rest of us while this was going on is also despicable.

The subject matter in On the Farm is handled with honour and grace that serve the memories and dignity of so many of the women who were murdered. A very engaging book that will pull you in and leave you emotionally hammered by the time you finish reading it, On the Farm instantly becomes one of the greats in the true crime genre.

1 comment:

  1. Humans eating human flesh develope mad cow disease. Pigs that ate human flesh were sold not only in Canada, but the U.S. How much of the mental diseases in the U.S. might have been
    caused by these pigs over the span of 20 years?

    ReplyDelete