Willie Pickton: The Pig Farmer
March 23, 1997, Port Coquitlam, British Columbia: An elderly couple driving on a rural road outside of Vancouver spot a terrifying sight: a woman, bloody and wounded, desperately flagging them down for help. A handcuff dangles from one bloody wrist.
The couple takes the woman, Wendy Lynn Eistetter, to the nearest hospital. Eistetter has been stabbed numerous times, to the point of being partially disemboweled. But she is, somehow, still conscious. She tells hospital staff, and then police, a harrowing story.
Eistetter had been engaging in sex work on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, in an area called the “Low Track.” The Low Track is the poorest postal code in Canada, home to an untold number of addicts, homeless, and the mentally ill. Many engage in sex work or the drug trade to feed their addictions, or just to survive.
Despite his overpowering stench and filth, Eistetter agreed to go with a man she knew as Willie, in exchange for alcohol and drugs. She got in his truck, and he drove her out to his pig farm in Port Coquitlam.
After they had engaged in consensual sex, Eistetter asked to use Willie’s phone to call her boyfriend. When she was about to dial the number, he came behind her and locked a pair of handcuffs on her wrist. She fought back, and Willie wasn’t able to get the other cuff on her.
She tells police that Willie then came at her with a butcher knife. She says she fought him off, eventually getting the knife away from him and slashing his throat with it. Willie’s wound was so serious, she says, he passed out from blood loss.
In spite of her serious injuries, she ran to the nearest road, where she eventually flagged down the couple.
What Eistetter doesn’t know is that Willie Pickton is in that same hospital at that exact same moment. He had somehow recovered enough to drive himself to the hospital after she fled.
Police question Willie. In one of his pockets, an orderly finds a handcuff key — a key that unlocks the cuff around Eistetter’s wrist.
A few days later, Willie Pickton is charged with attempted murder, aggrevated assault, and unlawful confinement.
Eistetter’s injuries are so severe that she remains in the hospital, recovering, for several weeks. Unsurprisingly, she is utterly terrified of Willie and refuses to testify against him. Though they have the couple’s testimony — as well as the medical staff’s — and the physical evidence of Willie’s key matching the cuffs on her wrist, without Eistetter’s testimony, the prosecution decides to drop the charges. She’s addicted to drugs, they reason, a prostitute who no one will believe.
Besides, Willie, despite his odor, is a well-liked member of the community. He and his brother, David, run Piggy’s Palace — a kind of bar/event facility — on their farm. Several members of the police force, along with prominent local business owners and even government officials — enjoy the good times at Piggy’s Palace.
Even though they don’t press charges, they keep the evidence collected from Willie. His clothes and rubber boots sit on a shelf in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s evidence locker and gather dust.
This was not the first time the Vancouver Police Department had dismissed the concerns of sex workers from the Downtown Eastside. In the two years before Eistetter’s attack, 21 women had vanished from that area, yet the VPD refused to investigate any of the disappearances. Since most of the women were sex workers, addicts, or homeless (or sometimes, all three), the VPD insisted that the women were fine and had simply pulled up whatever stakes they had and left town.
Certainly no one in the police was suspicious of Willie, a simple pig farmer. While he enjoyed the parties at Piggy’s Palace, his real business was his hog farm. Just as he had done all his life, Willie raised and slaughtered pigs, then sold or gave away the meat to to local folks. He would also roast a pig (or three) for events at Piggy’s Palace.
It was the only life Pickton had ever known, really. He and David, along with a sister, Linda, were born and raised on their parents’ pig farm. The family had lived in very primitive — and filthy — conditions. Their mother, Louise, let the pigs and other livestock wander through the house, and never cleaned up after them.
The Pickton kids were made to work hard on the farm, from sunup to sundown. They would only go to school two or three days a week because they had so many chores to do.
Far from being an escape, school was even more unbearable for the Picktons. Because they were always so filthy and smelled so bad, the other kids teased and bullied them. It didn’t help that Willie was slow, which made school even more frustrating for him. So Willie would often skip school and hide under his bed instead. When he was 16, he dropped out of school entirely.
Willie would learn his most important lessons outside of school, anyway. The first lesson came when he was a young kid. He had saved up his allowance and bought a calf as a pet. He loved and cared for it every day, and it seemed as though he had finally found a little happiness, some emotional connection.
Until one day, he came home from school to find his beloved calf missing. His father told him to look in the barn. There, he found his pet strung up and slaughtered.
He was inconsolable and didn’t speak to anyone for weeks. The emotional trauma stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Later, he learned another dark lesson. When David was 16, he took the family truck out for a joy ride. While he was driving, he hit a 14-year-old neighbor. Panicked, he drove home and told his parents what had happened.
Rather than go back to help the boy, or even call an ambulance, Louise had her older son drive her to the scene of the accident. There, the boy lay on the side of the road, unconscious but alive. Louise rolled the boy into a ditch and left him there, face down in a puddle of water. He died by drowning.
After Willie quit school, he got work as a butcher’s apprentice, where he would learn the darkest lesson of all.
After the Picktons’ parents died in 1978, the three siblings inherited the property, which was by now worth millions of dollars. Linda, wanting nothing to do with the farm she so despised, sold her share to David and Willie. The brothers then sold part of the acreage, which gave them a windfall. David moved into the family home and Willie moved into a trailer house nearby.
They used some of their money to convert a big barn into Piggy’s Palace Good Times Society, which they registered as a non-profit to avoid certain regulations.
While there were plenty of family-friendly events held at Piggy’s Palace, it also hosted wild parties frequented by the Hell’s Angels. Drugs and booze flowed freely, and sex workers were brought in from Vancouver’s Eastside for entertainment.
Regardless if it was a family reunion or a Hell’s Angels orgy, Willie would have plenty of pork for sale — even though he had come into a lot of money, he continued to raise and slaughter pigs.
Part of his job was to to take the pork processing scraps to a rendering plant in Vancouver, where they would be turned into products like lipstick and soap. After delivering the scraps, he would drive to the Eastside and avail himself of the porn shops and sex workers there.
To most of the addicts and sex workers on the Low Track, Willie seemed like a nice — if smelly — guy. As time went on, however, some residents began to notice that sometimes when girls left with Willie, they didn’t come back. Many of them went to police with their suspicions, but were ignored.
However, it wasn’t just the sex workers and addicts of the Eastside who were suspicious of Willie. Bill Hiscox was a day laborer who worked at the Pickton brothers’ salvage yard. He would have to go to the pig farm to pick up his paychecks, and he described it as a “creepy place.” Hiscox knew about the rash of missing women, and knew that Willie frequented the Low Track area looking for women.
In 1998, after hearing about Eistetter’s attack, and again in 1999, Hiscox went to police with his suspicions. He told them everything he knew, including that he had heard from a friend that some of the missing women’s belongings were in Willie’s trailer. He told them how Willie would “joke” about his meat grinder, telling friends that if they ever needed to get rid of a body, that was the way to do it.
Hiscox also told the police that he suspected that Willie might be serving human meat at Piggy’s Palace.
Police took his statement and promised to follow up. They questioned Willie, who denied everything, and got his consent to search the property. But they never did.
Not long after the second time Hiscox called in with his suspicions, another person called in with an even more disturbing tip. The man told police that his sister, Lynn Ellingsen, had been living with Willie Pickton for a while. Then Lynn told him she had to flee in fear of her life after witnessing something horrific.
Lynn told him that one night Willie had brought a woman home from the Low Track to party. She said she remembered that the woman had a pretty color of nail polish on her toenails.
At one point, the woman and Willie went into his room to have sex; Lynn stayed in the living room and did some drugs until she passed out.
She said she woke up some time later and thought she heard a noise. She went outside to investigate and saw a light on in the slaughterhouse. She told her brother that she went to the slaughterhouse and opened the door to see what was going on.
That’s when she saw the woman’s painted toes dangling right in front of her face. The woman had been strung up and disemboweled like a hog, and Willie was slicing the flesh off her thigh.
Lynn screamed, which caught Willie’s attention. She said she promised him she only wanted some drugs and cash, and she’d go away and never tell anyone. Willie actually agreed to this and let her go.
However, this entire tip was hearsay. In order to act on it, the police would need to hear it from Lynn, the actual witness. But Lynn was deeply involved with the Hell’s Angels, so she would not talk to the police.
Later that year, Inspector Kim Rossmo, who had developed a technique called “geographic profiling” to find patterns in unsolved crimes, went to his superiors with a shocking theory: there was a serial killer preying on the poor women of Low Track.
Rossmo’s theory was dismissed. Nevertheless, he stood by it, even as the police continued to publicly deny there was a serial killer. For his stubbornness, he was demoted.
Meanwhile, the families and friends of the missing women — the number kept growing — were agitating for an investigation. Finally, after much public pressure, in January 2001 the RCMP and the Vancouver PD launched the Missing Women’s Task Force.
As soon as they opened a tip line, it was flooded with calls. And several of these calls mentioned Willie Pickton and his pig farm.
Yet the police did nothing for over a year. It was only when a truck driver who made deliveries to the farm called in with an unrelated tip that police sprang into action. The Vancouver police executed a search of Willie’s trailer on Feb. 6, 2002, looking for illegal weapons.
His trailer was beyond filthy. But in all the clutter, an investigator spotted an asthma inhaler that had been prescribed to Sereena Abotsway, a 29-year-old woman who had gone missing in August 2001.
Based on this evidence, investigators obtained a second search warrant, this time for any evidence of the missing women. In Willie’s trailer, police found clothing, shoes, jewelry, and ID cards belonging to several of the missing women.
But investigators needed to search the entire property — over 40 acres containing multiple outbuildings and a salvage yard. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, “the pig farm became the largest crime scene in Canadian history. Investigators took 200,000 DNA samples and seized 600,000 exhibits. Archaeologists and forensic experts needed heavy equipment to sift through 383,000 cubic yards of soil in search of human remains. The cost of the investigation was estimated at nearly $70 million.”
In two outbuildings, buckets were found containing the skulls — which had been sliced in half with a bandsaw — and the hands and feet of Abotsway, Andrea Joesbury, and Mona Wilson. Other remains were found in plastic garbage barrels. But perhaps even more disturbingly, investigators found more human remains cut into pieces and stored in freezers alongside ground pork and other cuts of meat.
The massive search also uncovered hundreds of tiny bone fragments scattered throughout the property, indicating that at least some victims had been fed to the pigs.
On Feb. 22, 2002, Willie Pickton was arrested and charged with the first-degree murders of Abotsway and Wilson.
The search of the Pickton farm continued for 22 months, and it eventually recovered DNA from 33 women. In addition, the boots and jacket that had been sitting in an evidence locker since 1997 were finally tested and found to contain DNA from Andrea Borhaven and Cara Ellis, two of the missing women. Personal belongings and DNA from Borhaven and Ellis would also be found in Willie’s slaughterhouse.
As more evidence was uncovered, Willie was charged with more murders.
However, the DNA testing uncovered more than just evidence that dozens of women had lost their lives at the Pickton farm. The Canadian health authorities had to issue a public warning about meat that had come from the farm — meat that had been served at Piggy’s Palace and given to neighbors. Tests showed it had been contaminated with human flesh. DNA from Inga Hall and Diane Feliks was found in several packages of ground pork found in a freezer on the property, and human tissue was found in the meat grinder.
Human DNA was also found in the barrels he used to transport his scraps to the rendering plant, suggesting Willie had disposed of at least some of his victims there as well.
While Willie was in jail awaiting trial, he confessed to an undercover cop posing as his cellmate. In his recorded conversation, he says he was going for the big “five-O,” implying he had killed 49 women.
In all, he was charged with the murders of 27 women and stood trial on Jan. 22, 2007. The judge decided that, because of the sheer size and complexity of the cases, the trial needed to be split into two. In addition, one of Willie’s victims who had not been identified was dropped due to lack of evidence.
So now Willie was on trial for the murders of six women: Marnie Frey, Georgina Papin, Brenda Wolfe, and Joesbury, Abotsway, and Wilson. The trial lasted most of the year, and on Dec. 7, 2007, he was found guilty on all counts — but not of first-degree, premeditated murder as he had been charged. The jury found him only guilty of second-degree murder because they believed he was too slow to plan the murders. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years, the harshest sentence allowed under Canadian law.
It was expected that prosecutors would bring Willie to trial for the other 20 women at some point, maybe as he neared his parole eligibility. However, in August 2010, prosecutors announced they would not prosecute the other 20 murders on the grounds that even if he was convicted, it wouldn’t make any difference to his sentence. Needless to say, many of the victims’ families were outraged at this news.
There was also outrage at the way the Vancouver police and the RCMP had allowed a serial killer to victimize women for at least a decade. So, under public pressure, British Columbia launched an inquiry into how the case was handled. In December 2012, the commission investigating the case released their report, which was titled Forsaken. It pointed to “‘blatant failures’ by police — including inept criminal investigative work, compounded by police and societal prejudice against sex trade workers and Indigenous women — [which] had led to a ‘tragedy of epic proportions,’” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Former investigators on the case cited rampant misogyny and sexism in the RCMP as being a major barrier to the investigation. One investigator said that there had been enough information in the case file to obtain a search warrant in 1997, but the RCMP “did nothing.”
The inquiry recommended several reforms to prevent another case like Willie Pickton, including increased cooperation among the various regional police forces, increased funding for emergency shelters for sex workers, investigating missing person’s reports immediately, and keeping those files open until they are resolved.
While some of these reforms were adopted by the Vancouver police, the RCMP remained resistant to change. As a federal public service agency, reforms can only be implemented by an act of Parliament. Over the years, numerous sexual harassment and unnecessary use of force allegations would give rise to inquiries, which then recommended reforms, which then died in Parliament.
Soon after the Forsaken report was released, Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu (who was not the chief during the Pickton investigation) issued a public apology for not catching Willie Pickton sooner. He went on to assure the public that his police department would treat missing persons from the Downtown Eastside as a top priority.
Today, the Pickton farm is engulfed by urban sprawl. Only a small fenced-off area indicates where so many women lost their lives.
Some of the victims’ families and local activists pushed for a memorial to be built on the site. Instead, plans were drawn up for a healing garden with water features and butterfly-friendly plants to be built very close by, on the site of a former wastewater settling site. After a few years of planning, the city of Port Coquitlam instead created a nature park on the site, named Blakeburn Lagoons, which opened in 2018. However, instead of including a memorial to the Low Track women who were murdered on the Pickton farm — the original impetus for building the park — it includes a space to “reflect, heal and honour any person or circumstance of their choice,” a decision that many feel erases the victims.