The phone rings in Peter Ritchie’s 13th floor office in the art deco Marine Building in Vancouver. It’s March 1997 and Port Coquitlam pig farmer Robert ‘Willie’ Pickton needs a lawyer.
The phone rings in Peter Ritchie’s 13th floor office in the art deco Marine Building in Vancouver. It’s March 1997 and Port Coquitlam pig farmer Robert ‘Willie’ Pickton needs a lawyer. He’s being charged with attempted murder for allegedly stabbing Downtown Eastside sex trade worker Wendy Lynn Eistetter repeatedly with a knife at his farm. Pickton is undoubtedly relieved when the charges are stayed the following January. (Why the Crown didn’t pursue the case is still unclear, and there’s a publication ban on search warrants issued at that time.) Ritchie doesn’t hear from his client until early 2002 when the balding 52-year-old calls to say he’s in trouble again. Shortly after, Pickton is charged with the first-degree murders of two women, Sereena Abotsway and Mona Wilson, also residents of the Downtown Eastside. “The case started to take on a life of its own very quickly,” recalls Ritchie. He pauses. Sitting in a leather chair in his office, white hair neatly combed and round glasses framing his blue eyes, the 61-year-old is calm and circumspect. If you were facing a double murder rap, it’s Ritchie you’d want sitting beside you in the interrogation room. Peter Ritchie isn’t the top lawyer in town but he’s certainly one of the most visible. And he does, in fact, enjoy a very good reputation amongst his peers. The 2003 Martindale-Hubbell Canadian Law Directory, based on confidential surveys of lawyers, awarded Ritchie a “B” rating for his skill level (“from high to very high”) and gave him an ethical rating of “V” for “very high”. William Deverell, former lawyer, novelist and creator of the TV show Street Legal, has been a friend for decades. “Clients in unusual or extreme difficulties are often referred to him,” he says, “because Pete is known to give his all and brings to his work a detached professionalism. His clients know that while he may not sympathize with them, he does not judge them.” Three years ago the public rushed to judgment, including the friends and relatives of a growing list of missing Vancouver women. Could their loved ones have met a horrific, violent end at a rundown hobby farm, home to notorious local party hall “Piggy’s Palace”? Were those muddy fields and that ramshackle barn a final resting place for not two but possibly dozens of victims? Family members anxiously converged at the entrance to Pickton’s farm as more than 80 police officers, archaeologists and forensic experts combed the property. Experts in the study of human teeth and bones flew in from universities across Canada to search the four-hectare site. The RCMP/Vancouver Police Joint Missing Women Task Force dealt with a deluge of publicity. Ritchie proclaimed his client’s innocence, saying Pickton and his family were “shocked” at the allegations. Pickton now faces 15 counts of first-degree murder and the Crown says they will add seven more charges before the case goes to trial. New DNA material found on the site may lead to further charges. The number of names on the missing women list has climbed to 69. Pickton is in custody at the North Fraser Pretrial Centre in Coquitlam. And Ritchie is at the centre of one of the biggest criminal cases in Canadian history. On a grey December day, Ritchie pauses in his office hallway to chat with a law student about the latest ski conditions at Whistler. “I come from a skiing tribe,” he says. He is a doctor’s son, born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 1943. The day he finished law school, Ritchie hitchhiked to Vancouver, attracted in part by the good skiing. His brother coached the national team for many years and this winter Ritchie is skiing competitively again in local ski races at Whistler. Ritchie’s interest in law began in the early ’60s, when he was an undergraduate arts student at the University of Western Ontario. He found himself spending afternoons at the courthouse, watching the proceedings and trying to figure out what was going on. When he studied at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto (class of ’69), he spent more time in the courts across the street than he did in class. “The courtroom is a fascinating place,” he says. “It involves the range of human debates, human emotions and human interests.” In his twenties Ritchie worked as a prosecutor for the City of Vancouver. “Here’s what I looked like,” he says, pointing to a black-and-white photo hanging on his office wall of a fresh-faced young man with dark hair. “I was immersed immediately. I got to do trials on my first day.” In 1973 he and three other lawyers started their own firm. For Ritchie, the trial work only intensified. “I was at court every day for the first 12 years of my practice.” Some of that was spent defending the Doukhobors, a religious group who believe in disrobing and burning objects as a form of protest and spiritual ritual. “Not many lawyers have been in a courtroom with 29 naked clients on a hot summer day, but after a while you don’t pay much attention to it,” he says. “I guess you can think of it like Wreck Beach – with a judicial bench in there.” Ritchie is known amongst his friends for his dry sense of humour. He often responds to questions with a one-liner, claiming “my delusional age is 51 years old,” and reporting that his undergraduate degree is in “Ceepology,” a reference to Ceeps, a beer joint frequented by University of Western Ontario students. Callers to his West Vancouver apartment are greeted by a message on the answering machine of Ritchie simply repeating “blah, blah, blah,” before the beep. “He knows how to warm up the jury with a few jokes,” says Marilyn Sandford, his law partner of 14 years. “He never loses sight of the seriousness of the situation, but he knows that a little bit of levity at the right moment goes a long way. He makes people feel at ease.” He may be widely known as a criminal lawyer, but the bread and butter of the Ritchie Sandford law firm is civil cases. At the moment Ritchie is working on behalf of a woman who was severely injured in a car accident; sorting out an insurance claim on an extraordinarily valuable wine collection; and untangling a property dispute between feuding neighbours. He has also taken on various environmental causes over the years. On his office wall is a painting of young people being arrested at Clayoquot Sound in 1993, given to him by a protester whom he represented. Ritchie rarely acts for powerful institutions; instead, he tends to accept clients who might be categorized as underdogs. “I relate more to environmentalists than to logging companies,” he says, “more to individuals than to the government and the police.” Prior to their partnership, Marilyn Sandford says Ritchie took on several lawsuits against the police. “There aren’t many lawyers who will do it. It’s not terribly rewarding and your chances of succeeding aren’t high. He was a trailblazer in his work.” The amount of information in the Robert Pickton case is staggering – Ritchie receives an estimated 5,000 pages from the Crown each week. His law firm opened a second office to accommodate the four full-time and four part-time lawyers tackling the case plus support staff and various experts called in to digest the scientific evidence. Together they are working on Pickton’s defence, collecting information on a computer system and trying to determine what will be valuable once the trial begins. Ritchie or other members of the team regularly visit their client in jail to give him updates. Ritchie sighs when asked what it’s like working with Robert Pickton. “I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of calls from the media about that but I don’t respond to them,” he says. Nor will he comment on why Pickton chose him as his lawyer. “Because of client-solicitor confidentiality, it would be unethical for me to say too much about the case.” Ritchie himself made headlines when he quit the case in 2002 because of a funding dispute with the provincial government. Eventually Pickton agreed to turn his considerable assets (largely property) over to the government in exchange for them funding his defence and Ritchie resumed the case. That same year Ritchie took the unusual step of asking the judge to close the courtroom to the public during Pickton’s preliminary hearing. Ritchie feared international media coverage of the case would result in information being circulated in Canada, making it impossible to find a jury that wasn’t biased against his client. Canadian and international media outlets, as well as families of the missing women, objected. “I was angry that Ritchie wanted the public to be excluded from the courtroom while, at the same time, he was asking for money from the public purse to mount Pickton’s defence,” says aboriginal activist Ernie Crey. Forensic experts identified DNA from his sister Dawn, who has been missing since 2000, from material unearthed at Pickton’s farm. “I didn’t want to be excluded from the hearing and I was angry that he even attempted that approach.” [pagebreak] Judge David Stone decided to allow the public into the courtroom; however, he warned the media that they could be barred from the hearing and face jail time for breaking the publication ban.
The judge’s refusal to grant Ritchie’s request might well be the first of many losing battles for Pickton’s lawyers. Given the mountain of evidence against him, and the teams of police and government lawyers working to convict him, is there even a milligram of hope that Port Coquitlam’s most notorious landowner will ever walk free? Why did Ritchie agree to handle this case, which is destined to gobble up the final years of his legal career? Fellow lawyer Jim Millar chalks it up to the challenge. “Peter likes to suck the adventure out of life, either as a skier or in whatever he does. The Pickton case is a historical case and it’s something most lawyers will never experience. It’s bound to be interesting. That’s why people go into criminal law as opposed to more lucrative, more sanitized areas of law. People are there for the experience more than for the money.” But another colleague, Winton Derby, says he’s surprised Ritchie has stuck with Pickton’s defence. “He certainly doesn’t need it for his profile or to enhance his career. It’s going to be a long, difficult case and I think he could use his talents elsewhere.” Ritchie himself offers a predictable answer: “Sometimes lawyers have to defend highly unpleasant causes, but it’s not because they want to do those sort of cases. It’s because the case has to be resolved. There are lawyers who see it as a civic duty to ensure they get resolved the right way, as unpopular and as unpleasant as it may be.” Ritchie is more talkative about a previous client, Gillian Guess, who had a habit of hogging the headlines. In 1997 he received a phone call from Guess, who was being charged with obstruction of justice. While serving on the jury for a murder trial she became romantically involved with Peter Gill, one of the accused. Ritchie’s client quickly became a magnet for media attention thanks to the John Grisham-ish novelty of the case and to Guess’s outspoken nature. Evidence relating to the love affair was made public in court, including wiretap recordings from Guess’s bedroom and entries from Peter Gill’s diary. Her penchant for wearing short leopard-print skirts and other revealing outfits only attracted more press coverage. Ritchie was seen at least once grabbing his talkative client by the elbow to lead her away from the TV cameras. Not surprisingly, The Vancouver Sun named her one of the “Top B.C. Newsmakers of 1998,” describing her as a “tacky and tabloid” figure who “seemed to relish her high-profile role as Vancouver’s fallen woman.” Ritchie feels the media went too far. “The public vilification of Gillian was excessive,” he says. “Her frailties were recognized but none of her strengths were, and her motives were only discerned to be singular when perhaps they weren’t. Dealing with her personally, I can say she was a delightful person and a very interesting client to have. “Gillian would probably recognize that she presented some challenges for her lawyers,” Ritchie continues. “She was not her own best friend – I’d be the first to agree with that. She’s spirited and highly controversial and not a shrinking violet. When it comes to assigning the authors of her misfortune, I think she’d be standing at the front of the line.” During the trial Ritchie argued that Guess was manipulated by her lover. The judge, however, described Guess as having a “narcissistic and self-absorbed personality,” and she became the first person in North America to be convicted of attempting to obstruct justice by having an affair with a defendant while serving as a juror. She was sentenced to 18 months in jail, but was granted day parole after only three months. Guess had no money to reimburse Ritchie for the years he spent working on her case, although he did receive some payment through legal aid. “When lawyers start measuring their time, you’re lucky if you’re making $1.18 an hour,” he laughs. “You do it for other reasons.” The Guess story was fascinating to him because it is extremely rare to hear jurors testify about their deliberations. “Lawyers and judges endlessly speculate about what jurors are doing, about the manner they decide a case,” he says. “From that point of view, it was a once-in-a-lifetime case.” Ritchie also represented Ryan MacMillan, a young man who attended a New Year’s Eve party in 1997 in Squamish where lawyer Bob McIntosh was fatally assaulted. MacMillan threw a punch at McIntosh, a neighbour who was checking on the party, and the father of two fell to the floor where he was kicked in the head by another partygoer, Ryan Aldridge. In December 2002 Ritchie successfully negotiated a plea bargain for his client, reducing his charge to assault causing bodily harm. MacMillan received a conditional discharge, avoiding jail time. Aldridge was sentenced to five years in prison. Ritchie’s remark at the time, describing his client’s involvement in the incident as “a small dustup,” earned him a scathing editorial in The Squamish Chief. “We were completely appalled to hear the offhand comments of lawyer Peter Ritchie on the courthouse steps after successfully negotiating a plea bargain for his client, Ryan MacMillan, last week,” read the editorial. “Maybe Bob McIntosh’s death isn’t that big a deal when, like Ritchie, you’re also representing a star client like Robert Pickton, who’s accused of 15 counts of first-degree murder in the biggest serial-killing trial in Canadian history.” Katy Hutchison, Bob McIntosh’s widow and mother of his 12-year-old twins, didn’t want to comment on her feelings about Peter Ritchie, but she did say his description of MacMillan’s involvement in her husband’s death was “most regrettable.” Ritchie’s reaction? “My client wasn’t responsible for that crime. What happened was a tragedy and my statement didn’t imply that it wasn’t. It was a statement on the degree of involvement of my client.” Once again Peter Ritchie finds himself in an unpopular position as the representative of Robert Pickton. It’s December 20, 2004 and Ritchie, dressed in a dark suit and red tie, heads to the Supreme Court of B.C. in New Westminster to talk about setting a trial date. The audio system in the gallery isn’t working, so the judge gives permission for the spectators to enter the courtroom. Reporters and families of the missing women, all with concentrated looks on their faces, stream into the small room, filling seats at the back and standing against the wall. Pickton’s image appears on a television screen at the front of the courtroom. He is sitting in a bare room, wearing a red prison uniform. His only movements are the occasional folding of his hands and the slight turn of his bald head. “The defence is anxious to commence the trial,” says Ritchie, standing before Associate Chief Justice Patrick Dohm. “However, we’ve spoken to court before about the enormity of the material in this case. Perhaps it’s unparalleled.” [pagebreak] He explains that the huge amounts of information being released by the police, and the possibility of more charges against his client, make it impossible to move ahead any faster. The judge agrees to delay the setting of the trial date and asks Ritchie and Crown prosecutor Michael Petrie to give an update to the court at the end of March. Ernie Crey, who is still waiting to hear if Pickton will be charged in his sister’s murder, came to watch the proceedings. “I’ve been frustrated with the delays in the case and I thought some of it might be attributed to foot-dragging on the part of the defence council,” he says. “But after listening to both the Crown and the defence in front of the judge, I see that Ritchie is getting on with his job. My questions were answered and I’m a little more comfortable with the situation now.” Ritchie says he still isn’t getting access to all the material he needs from the Crown and he may have to pursue a court ruling on the disclosure of information. The trial is unlikely to begin before 2006. “There are some members of the public who think the whole process should be truncated and ended quickly,” he says, “but any person who thinks about it for a little while is on the better path.” Lawyers often pay a heavy price for representing accused serial killers. It was described as “the Shantz factor” during Ritchie’s funding dispute with the government. Robert Shantz was the lawyer who represented Clifford Olson. In 1983, the serial killer pleaded guilty to the brutal murders of 11 B.C. children. Shantz, who still practices law in Maple Ridge, says the all-consuming high-profile case affected his health and strained his relationship with his family. He had no time left for other clients, which resulted in a loss of income and the break-up of his law partnership. Shantz recalls receiving hate mail and criticism from strangers for representing Olson. “If you’re defending somebody who’s a rotten S.O.B., a lawyer gets painted with the same brush,” says Shantz. “The more heinous the criminal acts are, the more some parts of the public want to lay that on you. It’s a common leap with criminal cases to assume that a lawyer is the same kind of person as the client they’re representing.” At the Canadian Legal Conference and Trade Show in Montreal in 2003, Robert Shantz gave a presentation on representing unpopular clients, focusing on his experience with the gruesome Olson case. “One does not escape unscathed from an encounter with a sociopath,” he said. “It became impossible to remain totally professional and to keep the evidence of each case separate from my personal feelings. I had always been able to examine the Crown evidence and the defence evidence and look at it to tactically prepare the case – prosecution or defence – and lock it away in its airtight container until required for trial. I began having difficulty relating normally to other people. I shied away from people I didn’t know.” Ask Peter Ritchie about the emotional impact of working on the Pickton case and this normally chatty man grows quiet. “I never talk about things like this,” he admits. Accustomed to cross-examining witnesses and having reporters shout questions to him about his clients on the courthouse steps, Ritchie is clearly uncomfortable when asked to bare his own soul. “Some things are emotionally difficult to deal with, but the lawyer has to do a professional job and get through it.” At the beginning of the Pickton case, Ritchie’s office received hate calls which were investigated by the police. “I worried for a while about some people in society who may present security risks for people on our team,” he reveals. “It is not a pervasive worry, but it’s something we have to be alert to.” Ritchie doesn’t believe business at his law firm will be affected because of his association with Pickton. Most of the firm’s work comes through word of mouth from other clients. “We hope to rely on the integrity of the law firm to carry us through difficult times like this,” he says. Inevitably, once the Pickton trial finally begins, Ritchie will find himself staying up late thinking about the case, or reaching for a pen in the middle of the night in the condo he nicknamed ‘Lonesome Bluegrass Towers’ to write down cross-examination questions. He might have to miss performances of The Organ, the all-girl melancholy pop band to which his oldest daughter Katie belongs. It will be harder to find the time to have dinner with his two other twentysomething children, both college students. To manage the stress, he’ll still try to slip out to play some of his favourite music at the local bluegrass jam where he’s been spotted in the past with his guitar and mandolin. When it’s all over, he’ll head out to his property in Grand Forks with his family to unwind. To date Ritchie is pleased that media outlets have followed the judge’s publication ban orders. “I don’t think it’s going to be easy to find a jury,” he says, “[or] easy to be a member of the jury, but hopefully those orders from court which have restricted the availability of information will make the task easier.” And he is optimistic that during jury selection the judge will allow him some latitude to weed out those with preconceived notions about the case. “In Canada,” Ritchie points out, “lawyers are typically quite restricted in what they are able to ask prospective jurors about their attitudes, but in this case the judge may reconsider that.” Ritchie says he’s not drawn to controversial causes – the phone rings and he has to respond. And when the Pickton case has concluded, he’ll be back in his office, ready to answer when it rings again.