“Serial killers don’t sue you”: Stevie Cameron on writing about Pickton

When investigative journalist Stevie Cameron
stepped into a BC courthouse to cover the trail of convicted serial
killer Robert Pickton in 2003, she didn’t know much about court
reporting. Eight years and two books later, Cameron talks about how she
kept a level head amidst a gruesome reality.
Heather Linda Young reports.

When investigative journalist Stevie Cameron stepped into a British Columbia courthouse in 2003, she didn’t know much about court reporting, and she didn’t know much about the trial she was covering. “I approached the Pickton [case] knowing nothing about it, really,” she said.

But what she did know was she would be covering a great story.

In the four years that followed, she heard all kinds of gruesome details – some of which the general public will never know – about how the now-convicted murderer Robert William Pickton took dozens of women to his pig farm and killed them.  In court, the stepmother of one of the victims almost fainted when she heard what had happened to the women. It wasn’t an easy trial to cover. Despite the unpleasantness, Cameron never considered stepping away from the story.

She penned two books about the horror she saw: the first, The Pickton File, was published in 2007 and focused on Cameron’s experiences rather than the details of the trial. Once the publication ban was lifted in August, she published her second book about Pickton, called On The Farm: Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver’s Missing Women

Cameron spoke about the book and how she put it together to a crowd of about a hundred people last week at the University of Western Ontario. The talk was this year’s Clissold lecture hosted by the school’s Master of Arts in journalism program. You can also watch a video from earlier this year where Cameron talks about the trail (and read an excerpt from On The Farm)

For about an hour, Cameron discussed the trial, her interaction with interview subjects and her process in writing the book.

While On the Farm focuses on Pickton, who was charged with 27 counts of murder but convicted of just six, Cameron also introduces us to all 65 of the women whose remains were identified on his property.

“I wanted to have a story about every woman on the list,” she said.  “I wanted readers to know and care about these women.”

To do that, she had to be organized, she said.

Cameron, who has written for the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail and Maclean’s, spent four months getting ready after her publisher asked her to write the book.  She methodically searched for every newspaper story about the case.  She followed up with every name mentioned in every article – those of both victims and interviewees – to find out who the victims were and how to contact people who might know something about them. From there, she made a list of what she knew about the women and tried to fit every detail into a digital timeline.

“Chronologies solve mysteries,” she explained afterward in a J-source interview.

Any time she read a story, conducted an interview or heard testimony in court, she added all the names, dates and clips into a set of binders. By the end of the trial, she had 40 three-inch binders full of details, hundreds of thousands of clips, and 800 pages of chronology.

She was also the only individual to buy transcripts of the preliminary hearing — for between $30,000 and $40,000, a fee she and her husband took on — and she copied the information into her own records. Although this information was under publication ban until this year, Cameron says it was the most valuable. The defence eliminated witnesses during this time, so she heard a lot of information that would never be told at the actual trial.  

She gave herself a month to plan the structure. Once that was done, the writing was easy, she said. 

“Writing a book is a wonderful thing to do,” Cameron said. She wanted to write this book as if it was a crime novel that just happened to be true. And she stressed that she didn’t do it by herself; she gave a great deal of credit to her editors, agents and publisher.  But, she said, sometimes it felt lonely.

“Because at some point, you have to stop doing interviews. You just have to put your butt on a chair and type.”

Cameron, who has written a number of books about white-collar criminals, told the audience that writing about Pickton was a nice change. She said that like most people, she has always been fascinated with serial killers.

Plus, she added, “serial killers don’t sue you.”

And although Pickton was convicted of six counts of second degree murder and was sentenced to life in jail, Cameron said it wasn’t enough. She expressed disappointment that the other charges were stayed, that DNA evidence was found for other women and no charges were placed and that some missing women were never found.

“It created an aristocracy of victims,” she said.

The good news, she said, is that there are still “very good people who work so hard to see justice for these girls.”  She praised everyone involved in the case, including Crown prosecutors, sheriffs, people on the missing women’s task force, victim services workers, and the 104 forensic anthropology students that helped dig through 383,000 cubic yards of soil on the property.

“And then there was me,” she said, “the very lucky journalist who had the great privilege of telling this story. It was, for me, what every journalist hopes for. It was the story of a lifetime.”

Heather Young is a student in the Master of Arts in Journalism program at the University of Western Ontario.  She has a B.Sc. in Biology from UWO and hopes to end up doing science writing.