In 1998, Lorimer Shenher had been working just two days heading Vancouver’s Missing Persons Unit. His job was to investigate the growing number of women missing from the Downtown Eastside. An anonymous tip suggested Robert Pickton could be responsible for the disappearances. But missed opportunities, lack of resources and jurisdictional challenges nearly prevented the capture of the serial killer who is now serving a life sentence for the murders of six women between 1997 and 2001.
“That was really my world for almost two years,” said Shenher, the author of That Lonely Section of Hell: The Botched Investigation of a Serial Killer Who Almost Got Away. He is the guest at North Island College’s Write Here Series Friday, Nov. 3.
The book is partly a true crime story but it’s also a memoir.
“It’s my experience going through that investigation, and then the things that it brought up for me, in terms of having to face my place in policing and what I came to know about policing as an institution,” Shenher said. “Honestly, it’s one of those things you couldn’t make up, where truth is more horrifying than fiction.”
Throughout the investigation, the frustrated detective couldn’t wrap his head around how he was supposed to proceed. Shenher would find what he thought were answers, but would then hit a wall. It was as if there was a disbelief within the VPD that a serial killer of that magnitude could be operating in this corner of the world.
“It’s pretty mind-blowing that kind of circumstance can exist in modern time. A lot of stereotypes play around: who the women were, and what their stories were.”
Shenher is soon to retire after 27 years with the VPD. For several years, he’s been on medical leave for PTSD, with the understanding that he wouldn’t return to the force.
“The book was hard to write. It’s hard to revisit it,” said Shenher, whose talk will consider the bigger picture of policing in Canada, and how stereotyping, racism, classism and sexism can colour the way police see the people they’re working for, and how these things can get in the way of a quality investigation.
“There’s a lot of intersecting things. You look at the missing Indigenous women inquiry; Islamophobia in Canada. I think national security people need to be more educated about differences amongst Canadians. You may not agree or understand where they’re coming from, but you still have to treat them fairly and not bring these stereotypes into your work. It’s really damaging as we can see from a lot of these cases where the police end up being dead wrong, and they’re treating people that isn’t the way that they would probably treat a white person. Let’s be honest. Or a middle class person, or a non-addicted person, or whatever you want to substitute for the way marginalized people get treated.”
Aside from the investigation, there’s another compelling side to Shenher’s story. Until recent years, his first name had been Lori.
“I transitioned to male back in 2015, right after my book came out. That was a big thing for me, obviously, but it was also a huge relief. I hope to bring the same kind of illumination to that topic as I did to this one (Pickton investigation). People just don’t understand. Most people don’t know any trans people, they don’t really understand how that works. I don’t really understand how it happens.”
Shenher is writing a second book, more of a coming-of-age story that’s a memoir of his last couple of years. He read an excerpt last year at the Words on the Water writers’ festival in Campbell River.
“I’m kind of a regular person who was born with this odd condition, and just tried to deal with it throughout my life.”
The Nov. 3 talk is at 7 p.m. in the Stan Hagen Theatre at NIC. The event is free.