Interrogation is a fine art, and the Pickton jury saw it on view all week
Finding the key to Robert Pickton—if, indeed, it was found—was a deceptively complex operation. While his Port Coquitlam, B.C., farm yielded secrets of serial murder from the moment he was detained on Feb. 5, 2002, on a minor gun charge, the man was a closed book, an unreadable mystery. The first week of his trial in B.C. Supreme Court on six of 26 firstdegree murder charges has been consumed by a videotaped interrogation of Pickton, conducted five years ago on Feb. 23, a day after he was arrested on the first of many murder charges. It would be months more before most of the damning evidence of body parts was unearthed, but for all its limitations, the grilling was a carefully orchestrated example of police tradecraft.
The session stretched from 10 a.m. until almost 10 p.m. in a cramped interview room of the RCMP Surrey detachment. It was conducted in tag-team fashion by an elite interview team trained for major crime interrogations. Unknown to Pickton, who had no lawyer present, the interrogation was broadcast in two other rooms in the detachment. One held five officers of the interview team, who’d been scouring Pickton’s background for two weeks, and who, the court heard this week, salted their interrogation with lies and misinformation. The other housed a team of investigating officers, crime profilers and psychologists. For all that, Pickton, with his gradeschool education, proved an elusive quarry.
Neil Nelson, a commander with the St. Paul Police Department in Minnesota and an expert in interrogation training, says videotaped interviews provide crucial context. “It raises the veil of what happens in the interview room,” he says. “It lets the jury, it lets the judge, become an audience.” This, then, is what Pickton’s jury saw:
BUILDING RAPPORT Sgt. (now Staff Sgt.) Bill Fordy, in classic good-cop fashion, is both gentle and non-judgmental as he begins
a probe for common ground. Fordy talks of likes and dislikes, about disappointments and tragedies in his life: how a series of injuries kept him from trying out for the NHL; he spins the fiction that his mother died of cancer, as Pickton’s much-loved mother had.
Bonding with the suspect is a technique long taught at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa by now-retired RCMP Staff Sgt. John Raster. Raster, author of The Criminal Investigatoris Resource Guide for Interviewing, described many of his techniques in a story published in 2000 in Pony Express, the RCMP internal magazine. Get the suspect “on side,” he advises. Sharing personal experiences sets the tone for open exchange. “It’s important to find something about the subject that you like,” Raster said. “You don’t give up secrets to people you don’t like.” They talk about favourite foods, how Pickton likes pork, but not vegetables or “fancy stuff.” Later, when sandwiches arrive, Fordy takes his own sub and picks off the vegeta-
SGT. FORDY TALKS OF DISLIKES, LIKES, FAVOURITE FOODS. PICKTON LIKES PORK, BUT NO ‘FANCY STUFF.’
bles, “all the gross stuff.” He strokes Pickton’s ego. He enjoys discovering why interesting people “end up the way they end up,” Fordy says. “Quite frankly, Rob, at the end of the day you could be just a pig farmer or you could be somebody very, very important.”
Fordy goes through a poster of 48 missing women. None of them have been to his farm, Pickton insists. Most answers are monosyllabic, but Pickton describes his heartbreak when, as a 12-year-old, he returned from school to find his pet calf killed and hanging in the barn. He didn’t speak to his family for days. “I finally realized that we’re not here forever,” he says. “We’re here for the time we’re here for.”
SEARCHING FOR MOTIVE Fordy grows less tolerant of Pickton’s denials—a technique also taught interrogators. “The more often a lie is repeated the more ingrained it becomes,” says Raster’s Pony Express profile. At several points Pickton asks to be returned to his cell. He is denied. He notes he shouldn’t be speaking without his lawyer-
but Fordy keeps asking, and Pickton keeps answering, after a fashion.
Fordy furiously presses emotional buttons, warning that denial is futile and probing for a justification that Pickton might use as a springboard to a confession. “You know,” he says of the growing forensic investigation at the farm, “they’re spending $1 million a month just to get you.” He invents a series of child disappearances, in the apparent hope Pickton will plead to the prostitute murders as a lesser evil—another common interrogation technique. Everybody hates child killers like Clifford Olson, he says. “He is the worst kind of killer,” says
Fordy. “The thing you have to ask yourself is, what kind of a killer do you want to be remembered as.”
Fordy says there are “two camps” among arresting officers. “There are a lot of people right now who think you’re a crazy, sick, demented wacko,” he says. Other cops believe the women have no self respect, they’re selling their bodies, jamming needles in their arms, spreading disease. Maybe, he suggests to Pickton, “they are masters of their own destiny.” Fordy likens Pickton’s denials to his mother’s cancer. “That is what this lie is like, a cancer and it’s going to kill you.”
Fordy is spelled by Const, (now Cpl.) Dana Lillies. She breezes into the room, offering
food and sympathy, all the while searching for motive. “You’re a good person who has done some things that we have to deal with,” she says. “I want to understand what it is you’re feeling when you kill one of these women. Are you feeling angry, are you feeling scared?” she asks. “Is it like a switch that gets flicked on and you just react, or is it something you plan for weeks in advance?” There are subtle changes with her arrival. Pickton’s denials and long silences continue, but he tries for sympathy. “Do I deserve anything to eat?” he asks when she offers food. “I should be
on death row,” he says. Lillies tells him to be strong. “For what, dying?” he asks. “I’m dead. I’ll be locked up here forever.”
THE CLOSER Staff Sgt. (now Insp.) Don Adam takes over for the last 90 minutes. His tone is hard and impatient; he is both head of the missing women’s task force and founder of the RCMP’s interview team. “Willy, I know we can convict you; you’re screwed,” he says. He ransacks Pickton’s psyche, searching for a motive. “The first one, was it that you caught her trying to steal? Or was it that anger and rage just took you over? I know you hated them. They infected you. They stabbed you. They used you. They stole from you.” Adam plays the ego. Pickton will be a jailhouse hero, he predicts. “You made the police look stupid. There you sat right under their noses, every few months killing a girl and they didn’t even have a clue.” It’s horrible, he
tells Pickton. “It’s horrible but it’s impressive. You may well be the most successful serial killer in the North American continent.” Pickton—curiously more animated and alert at the interview’s close—tries to negotiate a deal to get police off the farm. He agrees with Adam that he did a poor job cleaning up the stains and blood-soaked mattresses in a mobile home on the farm. “That’s right, I was sloppy,” he says. He’d still be free if he’d disposed of the women’s
ADAM PLAYS THE EGO. ‘YOU’LL BE A JAILHOUSE HERO,’ HE SAYS. ‘YOU MADE THE POLICE LOOK STUPID.’
ID, and burned the mattress, Adam tells him. “I know,” says Pickton. “Oh, it must piss you off,” says Adam. “I know,” says Pickton, showing remorse for, if nothing else, his poor housekeeping.
In court this week, Pickton’s lawyer Peter Ritchie attacked the validity of admissions eventually made by Pickton. He stressed the length of the interview Pickton endured, and that he was plied with deliberate lies. These included allegations that he had sex with the corpses of women killed, and that children, as well as prostitutes, were disappearing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Police also exaggerated the amount of blood in a trailer on the farm, and incorrectly told Pickton he’d contracted hepatitis C from a prostitute when that was more likely from a hospital procedure.
Still, it was sound strategy for prosecutors to open with an exhaustive replay of the tape, experts say. That—and a related tape of Pickton’s conversation with an undercover officer planted that night in his cell—may be the only time in the year-long trial the jury hears the accused speak, let alone react to the allegations. “Those kinds of images don’t leave you easily,” says Neil Boyd, director of the graduate program in criminology at Simon Fraser University. “My sense is that unless the jury regards the conduct of police as particularly outrageous, they’re not likely to discount the validity of the testimony.” M
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