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VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canadian serial killer Robert "Willie" Pickton could have been caught sooner, and the lives of many of the women he butchered could have been saved, according to an internal police investigation released on Friday.
Communications problems and a lack of co-operation between different police forces meant the search for women disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside floundered for years as the killings went on, according to the report by Vancouver police.
"I'm not going to sugar-coat this. I owe it to the families and the public to be open and forthright. They will likely find the contents of this report to be shocking and sad," said Vancouver's Deputy Police Chief Doug LePard.
The report said individual officers suspected a serial killer was at work, but they did not get the support they needed from their superiors to pursue the case, and investigators who may have solved the case earlier were never given key information.
There were public complaints long before Pickton was arrested in 2002 that a serial killer was preying on women in one of Canada's poorest neighborhood, but the cases were being ignored because the victims were drug addicts and prostitutes.
A Vancouver police spokeswoman declared in the late 1990s there was no evidence of a serial killer. LePard, who conducted the interval probe, said some officials appeared to have been "in denial."
Vancouver police had identified Pickton as a possible suspect in 1998, but Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigators in the suburban community of Port Coquitlam where he lived let the investigation languish as a low priority, according to the report.
A witness told police in late 1999 she saw a woman's butchered body in the slaughterhouse at Pickton's ramshackle pig farm, but the tip was never followed up. The RCMP interviewed Pickton in 2000 based on other tips, but the inquiry was poorly conducted end never followed up on.
Pickton was charged in 1997 with the attempted murder of a sex trade worker but that case was never prosecuted.
According to LePard, 11 women were murdered by Pickton from the time there was enough evidence to arrest him and the actual time he was taken into custody.
Pickton was convicted in 2007 of killing six women. He was charged with 20 more murders but prosecutors will not bring those charges to trial because he is already sentenced to life in prison.
Pickton told an undercover agent after he was arrested that he killed 49 women.
The report for the Vancouver Police Department says the RCMP appeared to be most to blame for the problems and delays before Pickton's eventual arrest, but it also said Vancouver's own senior officers failed to pressure the Mounties to act.
LePard said many of the changes recommended in the report have already been made, and said that Vancouver police would recommend a public inquiry into the Pickton case so the women's deaths "do not go in vain."
The RCMP said it disagrees with some of the Vancouver Police Department's report, but also said it regrets it failed to find evidence to charge Pickton sooner.
The Mounties have conducted their own internal review and also support a public inquiry.
Reporting Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson