Questions remain about cremations of Pickton victim remains

Coroner, funeral director say proper procedures followed

This is the first in a series of two articles examining what happened to the remains of some of Port Coquitlam, B.C. serial killer Robert Pickton’s victims.

Some of the remains of convicted B.C. serial killer Robert Pickton’s victims were allegedly cremated concurrently, cremated without informed family consent, mislaid and, in one case, heated and smashed with a mallet.

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Records and interviews have revealed that the province’s chief coroner, a provincial investigator whose orders were partly reversed, and two licensed undertakers allege that cremations did not meet standards – allegations the regional coroner and local undertaker involved refute.

An investigation by Glacier Media suggest a pattern of confusing handling of victim remains, along with complaints about  communication to the victims’ families they feel has deepened their trauma.

Further, records obtained under the province’s freedom of information law show a discrepancy in the number of cremations: eight sets of remains were cremated, but nine burial permits were issued—two sets of remains were cremated out of necessity.

CPBC-Investigation Document... by on Scribd

Several other remains are unaccounted for either in records or recollections of those involved. The handling of remains continued long after the cremations, when one family received vertebrae of a victim overlooked as part of police holdings and not used as evidence against Pickton.

With the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2010 confirmation of Pickton’s conviction on six counts of second-degree murder, the remains were no longer required as evidence. They were ready to be cremated and returned to families.

But the process by which the remains were dealt with has left some families questioning if the remains they received were even those of their loved ones.

Victim Marnie Frey’s father, Rick, doubts the remains he has are his daughter’s. A forensic anthropologist, Dr. Mark Skinner, examined a bone provided to the family and said its bone structure could have been Frey’s but could not conclude so.

“Are they the actual remains of my sister?” asked Jason Fleury, brother of Pickton’s last victim, Mona Wilson.

The chief B.C. coroner had her own questions about the process. Lisa Lapointe, in a January 2015 briefing note to then-attorney general Suzanne Anton, said most remains were returned to families in 2010 but that there were lingering issues.

“Some bone fragments and pulverized bone were inexplicably not returned to some families at that time,” the note said. “There is no satisfactory explanation for the delay in the return of all of the remains to all of the victims which should have been returned to families once identification of the deceased was confirmed and the police investigation was concluded.”

Chief Coroner Attorney Gene... by on Scribd

Lapointe told the Frey’s lawyer, Neil Chantler, in September 2011 remains were stored in a dignified and respectful manner before they were returned to families. But in June 2013, she wrote Rick Frey that the management of the remains did not meet service standards and that the Coroners Service did “not normally involve itself in the disposition of remains.”

Lapointe Sept 27 2011 Lette... by on Scribd

Lapointe June 27, 2013 by on Scribd

In an interview, Owen Court, the regional coroner who oversaw the handling of the remains, said he was surprised at the time to hear of the chief coroner’s apology. She had earlier defended him.

That 2013 letter wound up in the media, after Court had left the Coroners Service. The deputy solicitor general apologized to Court in late 2013 for the embarrassment of Lapointe’s naming him in it.

Last July, B.C. Solicitor General Mike Farnworth wrote the Freys and noted the Lapointe apology.

“The Coroners Service advises that they have provided your family with all documentation necessary for the respectful disposition of your daughter’s remains in the manner of your choosing at any time,” Farnworth wrote.

Lapointe has not been available to be interviewed.

Court said the Pickton case presented steep learning curves, with many people learning as they went.

A 2015 draft copy of the Coroners Service Investigative Policy Manual obtained by Glacier Media does not cover how remains should be disposed. It does allow policy exemptions in unusual cases that should be discussed with a supervisor, the chief coroner or the chief’s deputy. Records show Court turned to the Coroners Services director of legal services and inquests, Rodrick Mackenzie, for cremation authorization forms.


Family Questions Remain

The Freys consulted two undertakers after receiving their daughter’s remains. Funeral director Chris Dorrington of Campbell River said in an interview that he told the family proper cremation procedures were not followed. Sandy Poelevoorde, an undertaker in Campbell River, wrote the family, Dorrington and a forensic anthropologist that she could not bury the remains without being certain they were Marnie Frey’s.

Chantler, who represented victims’ families at the 2011 Missing and Murdered Women’s Inquiry examining police handling of the Port Coquitlam farmer’s killing spree, called the handling of cremations “abhorrent.”

“These women were treated in death because of how they lived: No respect for the families. No respect for the women,” Chantler said.

Chantler, the families and two undertakers place particular responsibility with former deputy regional coroner Owen Court and crematorium operator Lawrence Little for the handling procedures during 2010 cremations.

But both maintain they followed the rules—to the point of “paranoia,” Little said.

“It was an honour to be asked by Owen to assist him in the second part of the journey these families were going on,” a clearly emotional Little said in an interview.

“This should be a reverent process.”

No bone remains were cremated together, Little and Court said.

In the case of very small bone, Little said, cremation could destroy anything returnable to families, so mechanical pulverization was impossible and destruction had to be done manually. That included using a mallet.

But Dorrington said small remains can be processed using a device resembling a coffee grinder or, when brittle, broken up by hand. He said if Little had been uncomfortable processing the small remains, they should have been put in a larger box and returned to the family for a decision.

“They would have known, yes, this is Marnie,” Dorrington said.


The Cremations

Eight women’s remains were cremated but redacted Consumer Protection B.C. (CPBC) records leave unclear whether a ninth set went to the crematorium.

A tenth set, part of Stephanie Lane’s spine found on Pickton’s land, didn’t make it to the cremator. The bones didn’t even make it into evidence in Pickton’s trial.

They languished in RCMP storage and were returned to her family in 2014 with no charges against Pickton.

“This family is owed a conviction,” Chantler said.

Little said a cremation at 1,800-1,850 degrees Fahrenheit (982-1,010 degrees Celsius) reduces a body to skeletal remains—calcium, which does not burn. He said the bones are then mechanically pulverized to a common consistency unrecognizable as bone.

That information is on the back of Little’s Pacific Crematorium cremation and disposition form, details he said are consistent with provincial law. Funeral officials have complained the law is vague and open to interpretation; they have called for reforms to make it clearer.

Pickton was charged with 26 murders connected to the disappearances of dozens of women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He was convicted in December 2007 in the killings of Frey, Wilson, Georgina Papin, Andrea Joesbury, Sereena Abotsway and Brenda Wolfe. The remaining 20 charges were stayed.

Evidence against Pickton included three bisected heads found with hands and feet in buckets, multiple bones found in pigsties and multiple DNA samples found throughout his property. The bones were similar evidence, leading to the six charges.

The other 20 charges resulted from women’s DNA being found. The farm became the biggest murder scene in Canadian history and Pickton Canada’s most prolific serial killer.

“We have experienced the most horrific way a person’s child could perish,” Rick Frey said in November 2011 email to funeral director Poelvoorde. He said the family is haunted by “pain and agony.”

In interview, the Papin, Wilson and Joesbury families echoed that grief.

There are inconsistent memories among family members and officials of the process to retain remains and cremate them—or, for that matter, how many cremations there were.

In a January 2012 memo to the deputy chief coroner, Norm Liebel, Court said he took remains to Little’s Pacific Crematorium in August 2010. His note didn’t discuss how many sets of remains were involved. He had taken custody of the remains from the RCMP in Coquitlam in June 2004.

But the Wilsons, Freys and Papins said they gave Court no permission—or they are unclear what they agreed to due to their trauma at the time.

B.C.’s Cremation, Interment and Funeral Services Act and regulations establish a priority list for authorizations of cremations, with family members at the top of the list. Coroners are not listed.

Court said families gave written or verbal authorization. He said Coroners Services records would show that if released. Attempts to obtain records through the service have been ongoing since September.

Redacted sections of records from Eileen Diersch, an investigator for the CPBC funeral industry regulator, indicate eight sets of remains were designated for cremation.

Her review found six cremation authorizations signed by Court.  Her notes indicate no cremation consent forms in two cases.

A ninth set of remains may have been taken to the crematorium, Diersch’s notes said. “He [Court] couldn’t recall if he brought them or not.”

The eight includes two women’s DNA profiles of Inga Hall and Cindy Feliks found at Pickton’s farm. They were cremated concurrently under one cremation number, Diersch’s notes said. Court said no remains touched others.

Pickton’s 2007 trial did not hear about this matter. The Feliks and Hall charges against Pickton were stayed.

Court said ground meat was cremated for disposal as there wasn’t anything to be returned to the two families. He said the situation was “delicately” explained to them.

Prosecutors had wanted to tell Pickton trial jurors about Feliks’ and Hall’s DNA as well as a leg bone from Wendy Crawford but the judge did not allow it.

Diersch found six burial permits granted to the BC Coroners Service and three to Little’s Personal Alternatives Funeral Home.

“This brings the total to nine but we were advised that eight cremations took place,” Diersch said.

She said the extra burial permit involves a woman where no charges were laid.

 “Was she cremated that night as well?” Diersch asked in her January 2012 notes.

But charges were laid in the Crawford case, so the ninth burial permit cannot be her remains. This brings the number of remains to 10.

Diersch’s notes said Court’s records said two women’s remains were cremated at the same time. Court and Little explained there were two cremators used concurrently.

Court said in an interview “everyone went to great lengths here to ensure the remains were handled properly.” He said he met with Chantler and went through documents on the remains handling “page by page.”

“It appeared to me his concerns had been addressed,” Court said. “We never heard from him again.”

Court said it was a joint decision of the coroners service, police and prosecutors that the service “would hold onto the remains until the entire process was complete.”

“I stand behind every action that was taken,” Court said.

And Court defends Little.

“That man went over, above and beyond and he’s been dragged through the mud,” Court said.  “Accusations were made against him that were untrue.”
“I’m still thankful for what he did,” Court said.


The Investigation

Diersch’s initial investigation arose from a complaint from Lynn and Rick Frey about his daughter’s remains. When Diersch found the crematorium had handled other Pickton victims’ remains, she widened her investigation.

Diersch found Little was non-compliant under the Cremation Funeral and Interment Act with respect to authorizations, record-keeping and participation in her investigation, and he was fined $3,250 with respect to issues arising out of the conduct of the investigation. Little and Court are adamant the remains were handled respectfully and not mixed up for cremation.

On appeal, CPBC senior investigator Robert Penkala overturned Diersch’s compliance order against Little, except for an obstruction finding. He said Little “did not have proper notice of the full scope of the allegation.” His fine was reduced to $500.

A B.C. Ombudspersons Office investigation reviewed the coroner's service file. It concluded the family should have notified of the intention to cremate the remains.

Dorrington said the investigation was too wide-ranging in examining other remains.

Little said CPBC officials never asked to see the crematorium process. But he declined to comment further, fearing regulatory retaliation.

Diersch said she was not authorized to discuss the case, referring calls to the CPBC, which has repeatedly declined to comment or to make executive vice president Tayt Winnitoy available for an interview.


Families Confused

There continues to be confusion about the police investigation into the deaths.

After Rick and Lynn Frey raised concerns publicly, Lane’s family came forward in 2014 to say they had been given part of her spine.

Court knew nothing of Lane’s remains until contacted by Glacier Media. He’d left the coroners service prior to the Lane revelation.

Marnie Frey’s remains still sit on a Campbell River funeral home shelf. Records show Little said her remains were too small to be cremated. He has said they were heated to make them brittle and then broken up manually to fit in an urn.

Told not to bury the remains by RCMP as they could be criminal evidence, the Freys remain in limbo.

RCMP Letter to Freys by on Scribd

RCMP Supt. Murray Power, who had met the Freys on possible criminal charges regarding the remains handling, said in an interview Crown decided not to proceed with charges because there were “no elements of a criminal offence.”

But the Freys found out the case had been dropped through the Glacier Media investigation.

Some families still want explanations from the Coroners Service, CPBC, the RCMP and the Ombudspersons’ Office, all organizations involved in such issues.


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