Willy Pickton is Canada’s most horrific serial killer. He’s been convicted of 6 counts of murder, and could face quite a few more [although a concerned friend notes that technically, Clifford Robert Olsen has been convicted of more, so I changed “prolific” to “horrific”; I am not sure the distinction between 6 murders and 11 is a matter of libelous character assasination, but whatevs, here’s your correction]. But the DNA (and by DNA I mean chunks, basically) of over 80 different women have been found on his farm. This month, he’s appealing his sentence (surely the only time in his adult life Willy Pickton has been appealing) and thus I am reminded of the following, the time he tried to make me a notch in his wood chipper.
My story is relatively simple, and happened long before anyone said the words ‘serial killer’ in the neighborhood. By the way, I live on the Downtown Eastside, about two blocks from one of the corners on which he picked up his victims. According to Statistics Canada, in the 90’s the average life expectancy here was 33, because of drugs, disease, and violence (mostly the first two). The government’s response was to give massive breaks to old folks’ homes, so they’d move in and raise the average. There are three on my block, each an apartment building of several stories. A statistical game, to make the neighborhood look better. It’s now in the mid-forties, which is still less than any nation on Earth [note: on Metafilter someone corrected me. According to the latest stats, Swaziland has a lower average life expectancy, and I wish them luck resolving their civil war and the highest rate of AIDS in the world; depending which site you pick, there are a varying selection of other national suspects as well, few of whom are on major tourist routes], and testament to the fact that even stuffing the bell curve with little old ladies can’t hide a real problem.
Anyway, one night back in the 80’s I was a struggling freelancer looking for a story. The Classical Joint was closing; it was an old jazz club that everyone had played in, from Bessie Smith on up, and I figured, what with editors all being middle-aged, a story about the last night of the Classical Joint would be saleable, so I grabbed my notebook, put on a black turtleneck and jeans, and went. It was packed with regulars all getting weepy on whiskey in teapots (no liquor license, very speakeasyish), and as I was taking notes I saw an ugly dude who seemed to know everyone running around taking pictures with a very expensive bunch of camera equipment. Figured pictures would make the article more tempting to an editor, I flagged him down and asked him if he’d be interested in collaborating, provided the pix turned out well.
Guess who it was!
Well, he was delighted, and boasted that he’d been published several times (got the feeling he hadn’t been paid for it) and would be happy to call me when the pix were developed. I suddenly didn’t feel like it was such a good idea to give him my number, and asked for his instead. He didn’t like that, and kept hammering me for my phone number, turning on as much charm as he could muster and nattering on about his “place in the country”.
That’s what he called it. I must have looked preppy that night, I guess.
That morning, my mother had been telling me to get out more, meet more men, say yes more, take more chances. I looked at Willy and thought “you are not the chance my mother would want me to take.”
Anyway, eventually he realized he wasn’t getting my number, gave me his, said they’d be done by Wednesday, and invited me to the back room, where he implied weed was to be had, among other things. I declined, and off he went. Thank god, because while he was at my table the waitresses gave us both the fish eye and wouldn’t come over.
As soon as he was in the back room, and I mean INSTANTLY, two guys came out of nowhere and asked to talk to me. One, a lanky Old Hippie type, asked, “Willy’s not taking you home, is he?”
I said no, and he replied, “Well, that’s good. Because … not everyone’s nice, you know,” and he walked away. I’ve never seen him since.
The second fellow, a black-haired, bearded guy, sat down and told me several horror stories, the only one of which I can remember is that the passenger door on Willie’s car had no handle on the inside, it was duct taped over. The other two stories were so outrageous I put them out of my head immediately; of course, I’d kill to – okay, bad choice of words. I’d love to remember them now.
Cut to Wednesday. I phoned Willy; he was hard to get ahold of, but we did set a meeting at Tiger’s Cafe for 2pm. I was no fool, so I asked my friend D to swing by at four so there’d be a definite endpoint to the occasion. I don’t know if Willy was hoping it was going to be a date or not, but I was determined to head that off at the pass, although not before I’d gotten the pictures. So head it off at the underpass?
He was late, and when he did show up, in the empty cafe many things became apparent that hadn’t been before. One: he was a snappy dresser. Honestly, he had a Tattersall shirt, patterned Fair Isle vest, and some very good wide-wale corduroy pants with pleats, all in shades of rust, green and taupe. Expensive shoes. He’d put some thought into it, and it worked well with his rusty hair and fair skin. He was not the tanned kind of farmer.
Two: he stank to high heaven. My family has farms, I know what pigs and pig farming smell like, and I know what a shower can do for that. I also know, from my other researches, that serial killers are associated with a particular smell. Willie didn’t smell like pigs, he smelt like something that is nearly impossible to describe. If metal could rot, that would be the smell of it; it was tangy, it seemed charged with negative ions, it nearly made my eyes water, and it was physically repulsive in the extreme.
Three: he thought a bit of hash was all it took to impress me, because he brought out a hash doobie and waved it around for the entire two-hour period. Two hours which he spent blocking my attempts to get information, and trying to talk me into coming out to his “place in the country.” He told me he knew everyone on the DTES, had the most wonderful stories, thousands and thousands of wonderful neighborhood stories, really saleable magazine-style stories, but alas! Without his mementos (his word!) which were all out at the Place in the Country, he couldn’t remember them. No, he couldn’t begin to tell me those stories, not even one. I should come out to the Place in the Country. We could have a barbeque.
It went on and on. The pictures were good, not great; you can see better party pix on Flickr any day now, but at the time eyes were not so sophisticated, nor did cameras compensate for stupidity the way they do now, so his photos were perfectly acceptable in terms of quality. In terms of subject matter, they weren’t: I wanted a crowd shot, a band shot, dancers, something. Nada. All the pictures, and there were many, were of women. Nothing but women. I chose a picture of the blonde waitress and a pic of the redheaded waitress, and said I’d get back to him with what the editor said. He seemed quite pleased at that, but immediately launched back into the Place in the Country rant.
By the way, I’m an egotist, especially when it comes to brains, but I can tell you Willy Pickton struck me as a man who was at least as smart as I was. He is a very, very intelligent man, and don’t let anyone tell you different. If I hadn’t been constitutionally aloof and put on my guard (however skeptically) by those two guys at the nightclub, I could have ended up as a victim. It was only that I was watching for him to pull something that protected me. When I saw him doing it, I felt superior. But I can’t claim it’s because I was some genius.
Eventually my friend D showed up, took one look, and said “We’ve got to go right now. Everyone is waiting.” Of course, there was no “everyone” but Willy didn’t know that. Dolores is just a very, very smart girl.
So we shook hands and D and I left, walking up the street six blocks to a diner. We were there about a half hour when she said, “Don’t look up now, but he’s circling the building.”
He was. He circled that building for two hours, trying to hide in the crowd on the sidewalk, then cutting through the parking lot to go around again and again. We spent quite some time figuring out what to do (we were all on a Nancy Drew kick; the idea of calling the cops and complaining was not an option we considered) and eventually we made our move. I went to the washroom, grabbing our coats on the way. When I came out, D met me at the door after Willie turned into the parking lot, and we both ran for it. Grabbed the first bus we saw and ended up at the opposite end of the city, where we hung out for a couple of hours and then went home by indirect routes, changing buses twice. Oh, we thought we were super spies.
Hella long post, eh? Hope it’s entertaining. Cuz there’s more.
A few years ago I was sitting at my father’s and some dude appeared on the news. “I know that man,” I said, just as the announcer said, “has just been arrested on fifteen counts of murder.”
My father looked at me. “And how do you know this man?” he asked, in his I-am-trying-to-keep-my-shit-together voice.
“He was that weirdo I told you about, at the old Classical Joint when I tried to sell the story. He tried to talk me into going with him to his Place in the Country, and a couple of guys warned me he was a real freak.” The story, by the way, never sold.
As far as my father was concerned, that was it. He was calling the cops. I told him it was fourteen years ago and no laws were broken, but he called anyway. The RCMP did interview me, and I picked him out of a photo lineup (it’s amazing to me where they found that many men who looked like Willy Pickton. Eight other balding gingers with alcoholic faces). At one point one of the officers said, “It’s too bad you don’t still have that notebook,” and of course being me I handed it to her, along with the two pictures. I got the notebook back, but they still have the photo of one of the waitresses.
So that’s the story of how I met Willy. Ironically, when he was arrested I was working on assignment for a website, covering the Missing Women case. I have a book manuscript, Terminal City: Vancouver’s Missing Women, that has to be completely re-written, but frankly it freaked me out so much that I’ve been holding off on updating it. I should, though. Sent it to some agents and while they liked it, they were all looking for something more like “The White City”. They are looking for a Willy Pickton bio, which this isn’t: it focuses on the women and the victimization inherent in the city, an Nietzschean idea. To Vancouver’s credit, it’s since changed. Charges brought by prostitutes are no longer thrown out as “coming with the territory.”
So that’s something.