Unsolved murders leave B.C. investigative journalists in constant search for answers
It’s been five years since Neal Hall retired from his position at the Vancouver Sun and the long-time crime reporter still thinks about the unsolved murders he covered.
Covering cold cases can take a toll on a reporter’s mental health. The public looks to journalists for information on murders and missing people, but when cases go unsolved, information becomes increasingly scarce.
Sitting outside a busy Gastown cafe, the 65-year-old Hall describes a career full of unsolved cases with no conclusion in sight. It is not far from the neighbourhood where Hall and fellow Sun reporter Kim Pemberton began writing about disappearing sex workers in the 1980s. “We had noticed these women going missing in the Downtown Eastside and we kept suggesting there was maybe a serial killer,” recalls Hall. “But the police said there was no evidence of a serial killer.”
He compares reporting on the Downtown Eastside’s missing women to covering the case of Clifford Olson, the late B.C. serial killer who murdered 11 children and young adults in the early 1980s
Looking at articles from that time, Hall says, there was an obvious bias against sex workers, with headlines using the term “hookers,” and police largely failing to take the plight of sex workers seriously. Hall remembers when a drug-addicted woman came into the Sun newsroom claiming she witnessed a woman being killed, but since she was a “junky,” no further investigations were made by police. It was this passive attitude that annoyed Hall—and also made the process of covering such cases so challenging.
Hall has slowed down now that he’s no longer covering murders and court hearings. Aside from trying to keep his wife’s Gastown clothing store afloat, he is remarkably free of stress these days.
“Covering death does have an effect on you and I got to the point where I wanted off,” says Hall, who officially retired from the Vancouver Sun in 2012. “I sort of had it; I had written about death so much.”
Death and a legacy of unresolved cases is part of Vancouver’s history, with some cold cases going back more than a century. Reporters reflect on certain cases, but in any conversation about crimes in B.C. they will most likely bring up serial killer Robert Pickton, who was proven of killing 49 women (mainly sex workers from the Downtown Eastside) from 1983 through 2002, but was only convicted of second degree murder for six victims in 2007.
It was that case and the imagery from the details, that eventually pushed Hall away from covering death and unsolved cases.
“You get a lot of death, a lot of horrible death, ugly humanity, and it can affect you,” says Hall, describing his time covering murder cases.
Author Eve Lazarus detailed some of those cases in her 2015 book Cold Case Vancouver: The City’s Most Baffling Unsolved Murders, including the case of the Pauls Family who were murdered in their east side home in 1958 and Babes in the Woods, a case of child murder victims found in Stanley Park in the late 1940s. As Lazarus makes clear, unsolved cases often fade from public view because other events overtake them. Five days after the triple homicide of the Pauls Family, for instance, the Second Narrows Bridge collapsed, sending 79 workers into the frigid waters of the Burrard Inlet; 18 died.
“Cold murder cases, or as some police officers like to refer to them, ‘unsolved’ cases, are never closed,” writes Lazarus. “The detail of the lives and deaths of the people I’ve written about are active files in Vancouver, North Vancouver, Langley, and Surrey. The names of the police officers on the case files may change, but their desire to solve the murders does not.”
Between Prince George and Prince Rupert is a section of Highway 16 known as the Highway of Tears. In that lonely stretch of road, a suspected 40 women, mainly Indigenous, went missing between 1969 and 2011.
Though a majority of those cases have gone cold, Vancouver Sun reporter Lori Culbert, continues to pursue several of them. She has travelled portions of Highway 16 for a week with a photographer and two local Indigenous people to speak with families of victims still searching for answers. “It’s devastating. You think about the Highway of Tears, and some of the victims were 12—they were little girls, they’re children—and you meet the parents and this has taken over their lives. They never stop thinking about it, and those cases stick with you,” says Culbert.
What makes the investigation even more difficult, she adds, is that the victims’ families are often marginalized and feel ignored, leading them to put a great amount of faith in reporters to tell their story and find their loved ones. It frustrates Culbert—being unable to bring comfort to the grieving families.
It’s a feeling she’s had for much of her career: before covering the Highway of Tears, Culbert wrote about the missing women of the Downtown Eastside, along with fellow Sun reporter Kim Bolan and former Sun reporter Lindsay Kines. “I’ve covered so many tragic stories, it’s hard to remember them all…you can become desensitized to them,” says Culbert.
Wayne Clary, a retired RCMP investigator, understands how Culbert feels. “These unsolved cases are difficult,” says the 61-year-old officer. “They’re a marathon, not a sprint—and even then, you don’t get the results. That’s not really satisfying, and it’s hard to keep your [officers] motivated.”
Clary notes that a lot police officers like to be solving cases and moving onto the next, but with unsolved cases you can’t simply “catch the bad guys and put them in jail.” For the veteran cop, the most emotional aspect of investigating unsolved cases is meeting the victims’ families. “You connect because you’re right there and you experience all their feelings and frustrations and you get emotional,” says Clary.
Talking to reporters who have covered cold cases in B.C., there are certain common elements, including cases being so old that information is lost or family members have died. Then there’s the issue of DNA testing, which has improved dramatically since the Highway of Tears and Pickton cases. “Since those days, when no evidence was kept—or it was kept improperly, so any DNA was gone—police today are working under different circumstances,” says Culbert.
Even with those advances, however, Clary says that the majority of unsolved cases will never be solved. “If it’s a missing person, if we haven’t uncovered the body, if we have no DNA at the crime scene, if they haven’t told anybody, that’s probably not going to get solved.”
As for Neal Hall, he still thinks about the cases he covered, but discussing them brings up unwanted memories from the past. “I was glad to get away from the murder and mayhem. It weighs on you after a while. You aren’t writing fiction. They’re real people, real families, real victims—and it’s upsetting.”