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B.C. coroner apologizes for handling of serial killer victim's remains

Robert William Pickton was charged with 26 counts of murder and convicted on six. He told an undercover officer he killed 49 people.
A 2002 jail cell footage still of B.C. serial killer Robert Pickton after his arrest on murder charges. GLACIER MEDIA FILE PHOTO

Warning: This story contains disturbing details that may be distressing to some readers.

B.C.’s chief coroner has apologized to the family of one of serial killer Robert William Pickton’s victims for the mishandling of her remains after his 2007 trial.

Marnie Frey vanished in 1997. Her jawbone was found on Pickton’s Port Coquitlam farm, the biggest crime scene in Canadian history.

Still, father Rick Frey is unsure if chief coroner Lisa Lapointe’s letter means there was an indignity to a human body, a Criminal Code offence. He wonders if anyone would be charged if that were the case. He’d like to see that happen.

“If it was a member of the public, damned right they’d be nailed,” he said. “Why are they covering this up?”

But, he added, “she’s not coming anywhere close to saying that.”

After a year-long 2007 trial, Pickton was convicted by a B.C. Supreme Court jury of the second-degree murder of Frey as well as five other women. Twenty further charges were stayed.

Rick Frey was called to the coroner’s Burnaby office in December 2010 to retrieve his daughter’s remains.

He was given a small urn with several chunks of bone in it. They held a small going-home party for friends and family in a local hotel room. The urn took the centre spot on a table.

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. It led to six charges and convictions.

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

But, when Rick Frey and wife Lynn attempted to bury Marnie, they were told they could not as the remains were not acceptable to do so. Thus began a multi-year fight with B.C.’s government to bury their daughter.

Glacier Media chronicled that fight in a 2018 investigative series, looking at the coroner and undertaker’s roles, how the complaints were handled through the RCMP, the Office of the Ombudsperson and Consumer Protection BC.

Now, in an Oct. 5 letter to the Freys, after an investigation into the work of those same agencies, the chief coroner has apologized for how the remains were handled.

“I have previously confirmed that the management of your daughter’s remains by the Coroners Service in 2010 was not consistent with routine practice at the time,” Lapointe wrote. “I have extended an apology for the distress you and your family experienced as a result of the actions of Coroners Service employees.”

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.”

That changed again in a January 2015 briefing note Lapointe sent to then B.C. attorney general and minister of justice Suzanne Anton. There, Lapointe said, “current practice and policy will ensure that errors that occurred with respect to the return of the remains will not happen in the future.”

Glacier Media had to fight in 2019 to get the BC Coroners Service policy book but found nothing on the handling of such remains.

That said, Lapointe has noted the Pickton case posed unique challenges for the coroners service.

In a January 2012 memo to the deputy chief coroner, Norm Liebel, former deputy regional coroner Owen Court said he took remains to Lawrence 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.

Both Court and Little have maintained they did things strictly by the book.

In the new letter, Lapointe told the Freys that investigations by the other independent agencies have also been concluded.

“While I understand that you are aggrieved at decisions made by those responsible for your daughter’s remains in 2010, you have since been provided with all available information about what occurred,” Lapointe said. “There is simply no further information to provide, and no further action that can be taken.”

But, Lapointe’s questions about the remains go back as far as January 2015.

In a January 2015 briefing note to Anton, obtained by Glacier Media, Lapointe 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.”

That note did say there were errors with the return of the remains.

Lapointe’s letter came after Rick Frey sent Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth a letter in July, part of a correspondence that goes back years.

Glacier Media has reached out to the province for comment.

The Pickton case, the struggle of artist Pamela Masik to show the paintings of the women and the Freys’ experiences were documented in Vancouver director Damon Vignale’s 2013 film The Exhibition.

The documentary won the 2014 International Emmy for Outstanding Arts Production.

The film was rejected by the Vancouver International Film Festival and has never been publicly screened in the city. The film is available online.