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Pickton could have been stopped years earlier, victim's relative believes

Lori-Ann Ellis wears a memorial t-shirt remembering her slain sister-in-law Cara Ellis as she stands on the balcony of her Vancouver hotel room Oct. 14, 2011.

jeff vinnick The Globe and Mail

Lori-Ann Ellis, by her own admission, is a heavy smoker, a bad sleeper and has a horrible diet. She tears up easily, whenever she sees young women who remind her of her sister-in-law Cara Ellis, who disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in January, 1997.

Ms. Ellis came to the Pickton inquiry earlier this week in search of answers. She has been trying for years to piece together how Cara lived and died. She has managed so far to figure out only scattered parts of the puzzle. At almost every turn, she has hit roadblocks.

However, her questions are at the centre of the work of the commission of inquiry that began this week. By her reckoning, Ms. Ellis believes serial killer Robert Pickton could have been stopped shortly after Cara disappeared.

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She questions why police ignored a missing person report she filed in 1998, and how the Vancouver Police Department could have lost its investigative file into her sister-in-law's disappearance. She is upset that no one will ever be charged with Cara's death.

"This could have been stopped in 1997," Ms. Ellis said Friday in an interview. "If there are bad cops out there, they need to not be cops any more."

The Missing Women Inquiry, headed by former B.C. attorney-general Wally Oppal, is looking into why Mr. Pickton was not arrested sooner, and whether a decision in 1998 to stay charges of attempted murder was justified. Mr. Pickton was arrested in 2002 and convicted in 2007 of second-degree murder of six women. He has said he killed 49 women.

About 15 victims' family members attended the first week of the hearings. Ms. Ellis indicated she was relieved finally to be sitting in the hearing room in downtown Vancouver, learning new tidbits about life in the Downtown Eastside.

She began her search for Cara in the summer of 1998. Cara was a creature of habit, Ms. Ellis said. She would call home on birthdays, to talk about news in the family, or when she was arrested. And then for months the family would hear nothing.

Ms. Ellis said she filed a missing persons report with the Vancouver police in 1998. She later learned the report was thrown in a drawer and not retrieved until 2005, three years after Mr. Pickton was arrested.

The family first learned of Ms. Ellis's link with Mr. Pickton in January, 2004, when police said Cara's DNA had been found on the farm. But they would not say any more, Ms. Ellis said. "They said it would compromise the trial.… I asked if it was enough to prove she lost her life at that time. They said yes, but they would not tell us what it was."

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Ms. Ellis went to Mr. Pickton's trial to learn more. She found it difficult to hear the gruesome details. "You just sit there and brace yourself. It was like on a plane going down and you were just holding on for dear life," she said. But at end of the trial she did not know much more about her sister-in-law. The charge in Cara's case was among 20 against Mr. Pickton that were held back for a second trial that was never held.

Ms. Ellis heard the Vancouver Police Department was providing a copy of its investigative files to family members. "I was very excited to get to see the file. I thought, now I might have some insight into things I missed." But then she was told police could not find Cara's file.

The RCMP came to speak to the family in August, 2010 after the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Mr. Pickton's conviction. Police told the family that Cara's blood was on a prayer card – with the 23rd Psalm, The Lord is My Shepherd – on a shelf in the slaughterhouse on the Pickton farm. They found a trace of Cara's blood and a tiny piece of bone elsewhere on the farm.

The family was also told that Cara's DNA was on clothing that Mr. Pickton was wearing in March, 1997, when he was arrested for attempted murder of another woman. However, police did not discover the DNA until 2004.

Mr. Pickton could have been stopped, she said, if police had done a proper investigation in 1997.

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