Tour of police missing person's unit reassures family member at Pickton inquiry

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VANCOUVER - Cara Ellis vanished from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside during the height of police indifference to the women who worked the sex trade in the impoverished neighbourhood.

Lori-Ann Ellis won't say a serial killer couldn't operate in the area again, but as the missing women's inquiry wraps up testimony this week, she feels reassured that this time, someone is there to take such disappearances seriously.

Ellis, Cara's sister-in-law, has attended every day of the missing women inquiry, learning how dozens of women were picked up from the community and taken to Robert Pickton's farm to be murdered.

Pickton was convicted of killing six women, but the remains or DNA of 33 women was found on the farm.

Most of Vancouver's missing women disappeared between 1997 and 2002 before Pickton was arrested and his farm was searched.

The missing person's unit then was housed in the back of the old police building in the centre of the Downtown Eastside, close to where most of the women went missing.

"You know the one where you can look out the window and watch the girl's disappear," Ellis said wryly.

"I think of it kind of as looking out your kitchen window, having coffee in the morning and watching someone be kidnapped. Are you going to look the other way? Obviously the answer for them at that time was Yes."

Her original missing person's report about Cara in August 1998 was lost.

Cara's blood was on Pickton's clothing the night he was arrested for attempting to kill a sex trade worker in March 1997, but the charges were dropped and the clothing wasn't tested until after Pickton was arrested for 26 murders.

She believes things have changed at the missing person's department in Vancouver. It's no longer a place where people go to retire, Ellis said laughing.

She and Lillian Beaudoin, the sister of Dianne Rock who Pickton was also accused of killing, were given a recent tour of the new seven-member unit.

The unit is in a newer building in east Vancouver once occupied by the organizing committee for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

"I was pleasantly surprised," she said of the unit where a missing person is taken very seriously.

The officers explained how they immediately jump on a missing person report, whether it's a child, an Alzheimer's patient or perhaps someone like Cara, who's life is in danger, she said.

"They made it sound to us like they treat every missing person like their life is in danger."

The inquiry has heard that only one officer was assigned to investigate the reports of dozens of missing women for almost two years in the late 1990s.

Det. Const. Lori Shenher told the inquiry she believed foul play was involved in the disappearances, but she had a very difficult time convincing her bosses there was a problem.

In comparing the old and new units, Ellis said there wasn't anywhere else to go but up after Pickton's killing spree.

"There's nothing they could do but get better, because now you're under the microscope of the entire world, watching what you're doing and seeing if you're going to make the same mistake again."

Ellis, who lives in Calgary, has been living in a Vancouver hotel almost non-stop since the inquiry began last October.

She left her job after promising her husband that she would bring as much information as possible about what happened to his sister. She's preparing to head home after final legal arguments this week.

"Now I can go home knowing that Vancouver is in a lot safer hands than it was before. They don't have a record of finding everybody, but they have a record of finding most of them. I think that's pretty amazing, considering its'a big city and there are a lot of places to hide."

The inquiry was launched to look at the actions of the Crown, the Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP during the time that Pickton was trolling the Downtown Eastside for his victims.

Inquiry Commissioner Wally Oppal will have until Oct. 31 to hand in his report, after hearing from dozens of witnesses around why Pickton wasn't caught sooner.

His original deadline was the end of June, but B.C. Attorney General Shirley Bond granted the extension last week.

Ellis said she'd like to see Oppal recommend a missing person unit for the province, and perhaps the whole country.

"If you have a serial killer in Nova Scotia, who then goes to Edmonton and then over here to Vancouver, they'd be able to spot the pattern right away. I think that is vitally important."

She would also like to see a Canada-wide DNA data bank allowing police and coroners to link remains to those who are missing.

Her family wasn't told that Cara's remains were found for six years after she was reported missing.

"That's a huge amount of time to sit there and not know anything."

Organizations: Vancouver hotel, Vancouver Police Department, RCMP DNA data bank

Geographic location: VANCOUVER, Calgary, Nova Scotia Edmonton Canada

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