Inside the mind of Texas State’s serial killer hunter
Hap Mansfield | On 22, Jul 2013
by HAP MANSFIELD
It’s called the “Pig Farm” case, one of the most grisly serial murder cases ever recorded in Canada or anywhere else.
So grisly that well fewer than one-third of the perpetrator’s alleged murders were ever prosecuted, and he still has life in prison, which is the steepest penalty under Canadian law. As to the cases that were never prosecuted, the evidence that never went before a jury tells how grisly — the DNA of two victims found in packages of ground meat, a partial leg bone of another victim found in a cistern, assorted bones and teeth buried about the farm property, which Canadian lawmen privately called the “killing fields” …
It was grisly, and it was more grisly than it had to be, due to the initial reaction of the Vancouver police.
In 1998, a young Vancouver detective named Kim Rossmo started to look into a disturbing trend. For years, women turned up missing from a notoriously seedy neighborhood in Downtown Eastside Vancouver known as the Low Track, where life is cheap, especially the lives of women, who were disposable, and worse. Drug addiction and the sex trade, poverty and hopelessness — that was the daily bread.
Rossmo now is the university chair in criminology and director of the Center for Geospatial Intelligence and Investigation (GII) at Texas State. The Pig Farm case started him on his life’s work. But it was not a glorious start.
Rossmo attacked the case with a new investigative technique called geographic profiling for analyzing serial violent crimes based on an inspired, revolutionary algorithm. After he set up a geographic profiling section with the Vancouver Police Department, he was asked to investigate the concentration of women who had gone missing in the Low Track area. It had all the earmarks, Rossmo thought, of a serial murderer.
Rossmo prepared an investigative plan and recommended releasing a public warning that a killer may be preying on prostitutes in the Low Track. He also conducted an analysis of the number of reported missing women over time, adopting an approach used by epidemiologists on disease outbreaks. The analysis statistically supported the serial murderer theory.
Rossmo’s analysis was ignored. A hot-headed inspector in charge of the homicide section scoffed at the serial killer idea, upbraided Rossmo, then refused to even talk to him. Several police officers at one particularly fatal meeting said the inspector had what amounted to a “temper tantrum.” Rossmo’s fledgling geographic profiling division was eventually shut down. His contract was not renewed.
Robert William “Willie” Pickton lived on a 14-acre farm in Port Coquitlam, just outside of Vancouver. Pickton, a quiet, secluded man, lived in a grubby double-wide trailer and maintained the work of butchering pigs on his farm long after he and his siblings made several million dollars by selling some of the family property to developers eager to build townhouses for a burgeoning population.
The money gave Pickton latitude with the down-on-their luck women who had turned to the streets to make a living, and often, support their drug addictions. Pickton could move with relative anonymity in the Low End.
It ended about a dozen murders too late. Allegedly.
On Feb. 6, 2002, police executed a search warrant for illegal firearms on Pickton’s property. They found illegal firearms. They also found the I.D.s, a few purses, and bits of clothing of a number of the missing women in the trailer.
On Feb. 22, 2002, Pickton was charged with two counts of first-degree murder. On April 2 that year came three more first-degree murder charges in the deaths of three more women. On April 9, another first-degree murder charge. Canadian authorities were excavating the property. Four more charges came on Sept. 20. On Oct. 3, another four charges. Now, Pickton faced 15 charges of first degree murder.
The excavations through November 2003. The Crown would argue before court that Pickton butchered his victims. There were fears that bodies were left on the farm to decompose or be eaten by the pigs. There were fears that bodies were fed to the pigs. There have been reports that human meat was mixed with pork meat raised on the farm and sold to the public. The British Columbian government said it spent $70 million on the investigation.
On May 26, 2005, 12 more first degree murder charges were brought against Pickton.
The trial began on Jan. 30, 2006. Pickton pleaded not guilty to all 27 counts. The judge, Justice James Williams, threw out one count for lack of evidence. But there were still 26 counts. Williams later explained in Canadian news reports that a trial for 26 counts of murder would have been unwieldy, perhaps lasting two years and being susceptible to a mistrial. He separated off six counts that he deemed materially different from the other 20. The trial went forward on the six separated counts.
The trial lasted almost two years, anyway. Here are a few of the highlights, according to just one report from The National Post: Pickton did not deny that the remains of the six women were found on his farm. He just denied killing them. The hands and feet of three victims were found in buckets in a workshop freezer. Two halves of one victim’s skull, as well as her hands and feet, were found “in a pink soup of decomposing human matter.” From the wounds on all four, it appeared they were shot in the head with a .22-calilbre gun. Taking apart the walls of a pig pen, investigators found the hand bones of another victim. The jaw, mandible and some teeth of another victim were found on the property.
Here’s more, quoting directly from the story: “During Pickton’s interrogation, his friend (Scott) Chubb was shown on video saying Pickton had told him a good way to kill a female heroin addict was to inject her with windshield-washer fluid. In another tape played for Pickton, his associate Andrew Bellwood said Pickton talked about killing prostitutes by handcuffing and strangling them, then bleeding and gutting them before feeding them to pigs.”
On Dec. 9, 2007, the jury returned its verdict. On six charges of first-degree murder, not guilty. On six charges of second-degree murder, guilty. The difference is technical. First degree murder carries life in prison with no possibility of parole for 25 years. Second degree murder is life in prison, but the judge can set parole at 10 to 25 years. Williams made it 25.
In 2011, the British Columbia provincial government established the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, headed by former attorney general Wally Oppal, to find out what went wrong in the case. After an extensive review, Commissioner Oppal issued a 1,448-page report in December 2012, exhaustively listing the investigation’s failures and apologizing to the victims’ families. He criticized police management for not paying attention to Rossmo’s warnings, which potentially could have helped save the lives of 14 women and sped the investigation forward more efficiently.
Rossmo has never claimed that geographic and statistical profiling is all that’s needed for an investigation. He says is it gives police officers a place to start. One of the barriers to Rossmo’s suggestion of a serial killer in Vancouver was that there were no bodies found and any witnesses were addle-pated from drugs. There was no evidence and there were no reliable witnesses. Pickton, it turns out, had butchered the victims and fed some of the offal to his pigs. Some of the women involved in the case are still too scared to talk. The geographic profiling was the only thing unaffected by these variables.
Rossmo doesn’t discuss the matter angrily. Instead, he wonders, how can we stop making mistakes like this?
“I was very interested in how people could get it so wrong,” he said. “I started reading everything I could about wrongful convictions, which is the other side of a failed, unsolved criminal investigation.”
At Texas State, Rossmo researched a number of subjects, including psychology, probability, organizational behavior, engineering failures, and military disasters, and came up with the framework for what he calls Criminal Investigative Failures. His research has led to a series of articles, a book, and a presentation now in much demand by police agencies.
Rossmo is world famous for his mathematical formula for geographic profiling, and the GII at Texas State is one of the few places in the world where it is taught and practiced. He came up with the formula in an unusual circumstance.
“I was in Japan, doing some unrelated research on police kōbans, and was on the bullet train looking out the window when it hit me. So I wrote it down on a napkin,” he explained.
An article in Maclean’s magazine said Rossmo taught himself calculus when he was in the 10th grade and later asked to take the grade 12 provincial final examination in algebra after the first week of classes. He took that test and scored 100 percent.
“I was very good in math in high school, and at the time I wanted to be a mathematician,” said Rossmo. “But then I got pulled into the adrenaline side and became a police officer.”
Originally studying mathematics at the University of Saskatchewan, he shifted to criminology and then became a police officer in Vancouver. He is the first law enforcement officer in Canada to get a PhD, which he did during off hours while working shift work on patrol. It was the algorithm developed during his doctoral dissertation research at Simon Fraser University that led to the methodology called geographic profiling.
Geographic profiling starts with Rossmo’s formula, which fuels a computer program called Rigel, which, not accidentally, is named after a star in the constellation, Orion, the hunter. It is both common and uncommon sense. The formula takes into account things as simple as a crime location’s relationship to an offender’s residence and tougher stuff like distance decay (somewhat like radioactive decay only with distance and time as measures) and Manhattan distances, the distance that would be traveled to get from one data point to the other if a grid-like path is followed.
“Being a criminal is like having a job,” Rossmo said. “You have to find a target, have to expend energy and time getting there, have to avoid getting seen by witnesses and caught by the police, and so on.”
Serial killers, however, are notable for their gruesome crimes. How does a law enforcement agent even stomach it?
“You need to compartmentalize it,” said Rossmo. “It’s very much like a surgeon. He doesn’t think ‘I’m cutting open a body’ as much as he’s thinking, ‘I need to get to the heart or liver or some organ in order to help this person’.”
The years of research that Rossmo has put into the subject yielded interesting results. The profiling shows that most humans have a pattern, whether it’s figuring when and where to get the closest and best slice of pizza or where and when to commit a crime unseen and how to get home again from the pizza joint with enough time to finish that essay on Hegel, or, in the case of a criminal, elude detection. Rigel, after ingesting hundreds of thousands of bits of data, can do calculations that most often prove to be incredibly accurate. Rigel can figure out, from these calculations, quite literally, where you most likely live.
A computer can figure out human patterns? It can, with the help of the human brain.
“Our minds are better at discerning patterns than a computer,” Rossmo said. “It takes a massive amount of computer code to figure out some things our brains can do in a few moments. Where Rigel outperforms our brains is in instantaneously calculating millions of probability estimates.”
The GII center takes geographic profiling requests and has been most effective in helping police investigate serial crimes. Rigel has been used in a variety of applications from border patrol problems, to the predatory attacks of sharks, to the search for terrorists. It has even been used to trace the origins of diseases such as malaria.
All of this leads back to what is called environmental criminology, a field developed by Paul and Patricia Brantingham at Simon Fraser University, under whom Rossmo studied.
“Paul was my senior advisor in university,” said Rossmo. “Their theoretical work in environmental criminology is the foundation of my work.”
Environmental criminology encompasses ideas that would serve urban planners, well. Ever since Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, there has been an ongoing debate about city planning and efficiency, and much of it has to do with how crime happens in urban areas with easy access, bad lighting, broken windows and little supervision. The Brantinghams’ studies stress place and spatial relationships such as land usage, traffic patterns and street design and the quotidian movements of both criminals and victims.
One of Rossmo’s most basic teachings, however, boils down to something one normally does not associate with crime prevention: creativity.
“It is very important to teach students creativity,” states Rossmo. “If you don’t have it, you can just end up making the same mistakes over and over. The whole goal is to try to help people view their problems in a creative fashion so they can come up with new solutions.”
Rossmo has been involved in a variety of interesting historical projects and has prepared geographic profiles for the Zodiac Killer, the Austin Ripper murders, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the translated World War II Gestapo files from Berlin. His work has been portrayed in movies (Zodiac, for one), detective novels, and TV shows, such as Numb3rs and Law and Order. He has even been incorporated into a fictional character in the novel Burnt Bones by Jay Clarke (writing under the name Michael Slade).
There is actually a geoprofile of the Jack the Ripper case on the GII website. When asked about the extraordinary assertion in Richard Wallace’s 1996 book, “Jack the Ripper, Light-Hearted Friend”, that author Lewis Carroll was actually the Ripper and confessed to it in anagrams in his children’s books, Rossmo laughed.
“You can always find connections if you’re looking for them, like that assertion that the Prince (Albert Victor, the Prince of Wales’ son) did it,” he said. “What do they say, there are seven degrees of separation from everyone? However, the likelihood of a suspect is a completely different matter. No one can find out what happened in the ‘Ripper’ case, really. There needs to be physical evidence, a witness, or a confession.”
It is the mark of Rossmo that no matter what he is working on, he tries to use his brain creatively to come up with a solution. Imagine what it takes to form problem-solving skills and classes from a negative experience like the Pig Farm case.
“I try to be positive about things,” he said. “Everything has a reason or rationale.”