Missing Information

Article excerpt

The cloak of secrecy over PROJECT DEVOTE may be making investigators' jobs even tougher

It's been three years since the announcement of a joint RCMP/Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) task force to examine the cases of Manitoba's slain and missing women.

Trying to determine what they've accomplished since the Aug. 26, 2009 announcement is a near-impossibility.

Neither the RCMP nor the WPS will reveal the task force's budget, timeline, how success is measured or even where its officers work. Requests to interview police Chief Keith McCaskill and RCMP assistant commissioner Bill Robinson for this article were denied.

The task force is a maelstrom, fed by political interests, the anguish of families, historic mistrust of police by aboriginals, perceptions of racism and a police bureaucracy operating under a cloak of secrecy.

The work seems nearly impossible. Some cases are decades old. Many victims worked in the sex trade, exposing them to a number of strangers. In some cases, no body has been found.

In an email, a Manitoba Justice spokesman said each police service pays the salaries of its members. The province, he said, supports the project with funding through the Provincial Policing Services Agreement. There is not "a dollar figure that was specific to the task force."

The province has also committed to support "extraordinary costs" of Project Devote as required, he said. Since the police services refuse to reveal their budget, it's impossible to know what those costs entail.

The province has assigned two prosecutors to work on Project Devote. They added a staff member to stay in touch with the families of the victims.

Here's what else we know:

In mid-August 2009, both police forces insisted they would continue to investigate their cases separately. That changed by the end of the month after the bodies of Cherisse Houle, 17, and Hillary Wilson, 18, were found weeks apart.

At the time, the botched British Columbia police investigation of serial killer Robert Pickton was front and centre in the public's mind.

The Manitoba task force was formed and given the job of examining unsolved homicides of women and missing-women investigations where foul play was suspected.

Some believed the move was purely political.

In February 2010, task force members had identified 84 cases of interest but they said nothing pointed to a serial killer -- something that worried those who would have preferred a serial killer to 84 separate killers operating in Manitoba with impunity.

In September 2010, police announced an arrest in the 2004 slaying of transgender Winnipeg sex-trade worker Divas Boulanger.

In an internal email sent three months earlier, the RCMP's Robinson wrote: "... one of the files involving a transgender worker that ended up with the task force and then passed back to the investigators has been solved. Arrests are forthcoming, this will be an exceptional break for the team -- MCU-SCU-Missing Women's Task Force-Cold Case."

Although arresting Boulanger's alleged killer was first credited to the task force, that claim was later dropped. It would be two years before the hard work of investigators landed the first arrest.

In December 2010, a Free Press investigation revealed that for more than a year after it was announced, the task force didn't formally exist. It showed "a document to formalize the Integrated Task Force" had still not been completed by Oct. 19, 2010.

Manitoba Justice refused to release any documents related to the task force, including its annual budget, mission statement and the names or titles of the officers on the task force. That intransigence continues today.

RCMP officers made it clear at the time while there were no documents formalizing the task force, its work was well underway.

In May 2011, it was announced the task force's work would continue under the name Project Devote. …