Can you be managed?
In applying for the Greg Clark Award, I wanted to see what it takes to put an accused serial killer to trial.
As a crime reporter in Edmonton, this insight is necessary because an RCMP-led task force, investigating the deaths and disappearances of more than 70 Albertans who lived “high-risk” lifestyles, is ongoing. The police team believes a series of deaths of sex trade workers may be linked.
In the last two decades, the bodies of 14 women, all engaged to some degree in the city’s sex trade, have been found in rural areas around Edmonton. I wanted to know what went on behind closed doors in preparation for the trial of Robert “Willie” Pickton, a British Columbia man facing 26 murder charges in connection to women taken from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
I believed one week would answer most of my questions. Instead, it raised new ones. I got a behind-the-scenes look not at the work of prosecutors or investigators on the case, but the men trusted with handling, or managing, people like me.
My tour guides were Deputy Sheriff Tom Collins and media consultant to the B.C. Attorney General’s office, Mark Jan Vrem.
Each morning, about 20 reporters arrived at a workshop facility half a block away from the New Westminster courthouse, where the government secured a large room furnished with desks, live feeds of the Pickton trial and access to the Internet. News organizations paid $6,000 to maintain desktop bureaus for one year, the length of the trial.
For a reporter, the culture was fascinating. Every single person covering the trial was accredited and therefore kept track of. Their pictures, full names, maiden names, birthdays, drivers’ licence numbers, and home addresses, were all on record. Legal undertakings were signed to ensure reporters cooperated with the law, for example by not broadcasting recordings of court proceedings.
I was in New Westminster during Pickton’s second week on trial. The big-name American broadcasters had cleared out, and the bulk of international news organizations were not expected to return for at least 11 months, when the trial finished.
The world was still watching, but Canadian reporters, sketch artists and videographers were watching much more closely. In turn, Collins and Jan Vrem watched them. They monitored which reporters or sketch artists took which seats in the main courtroom, facilitated discussions between news organizations where issues overlapped, and worked to keep scrums from forming outside the small courthouse. In their words, they were on-hand to put out any fires.
During a trial that has garnered international media attention like no other in Canadian history, the Canadian Journalism Foundation gave me the opportunity to learn how media facilitation works on a very big scale.