Robert Pickton, one of Canada's most notorious serial killers, died on Friday, 12 days after he was assaulted in prison.

Pickton, an inmate at Port-Cartier Institution in Quebec, was 74.

For some, the death brings closure. But it also leaves open questions about the botched police investigation into Pickton, who was convicted in 2007 of six counts of second-degree murder but was suspected of killing dozens more women at his pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C.

Correctional Service Canada said in a statement that Pickton's next of kin had been notified of his death, as well as victims who registered to be informed.

Among them was Cynthia Cardinal, whose sister, Georgina Papin, was among the six women whose deaths resulted in Pickton's life sentence.

Pickton chose his victims from society's margins, women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, many of them Indigenous. He once bragged to an undercover officer that he had killed 49 women.

“This is gonna bring healing for, I won't say all families, I'll just say most of the families," Cardinal said.

"Because they didn't get their day in court, (that's) what I'm really sad about. But I'm also feeling really happy right now,” said Cardinal.

“I’m like — wow, finally. I can actually move on and heal and I can put this behind me."

Correctional Service Canada said an investigation was underway into the May 19 prison assault on Pickton that involved another inmate.

"We are mindful that this offender’s case has had a devastating impact on communities in British Columbia and across the country, including Indigenous peoples, victims and their families. Our thoughts are with them," the correctional service said.

Quebec provincial police spokesman Frédéric Deshaies said Friday afternoon that Pickton had died "in the last few hours." 

He said police were also continuing to investigate the assault and that a 51-year-old suspect was in custody.

Quebec police had said last week that doctors planned to try to wake Pickton from a medically induced coma, to see if he could survive on his own after what prison authorities had called a "major assault."

Pickton had been serving his life sentence at Port-Cartier Institution, about 480 kilometres northeast of Quebec City, since being transferred from British Columbia's Kent Institution about six years ago.

At the time of his sentencing in December 2007, B.C. Supreme Court Justice James Williams said it was a “rare case that properly warrants the maximum (25-year) period of parole ineligibility available to the court.”

In addition to Papin, Pickton was found guilty of killing Sereena Abotsway, Mona Wilson, Andrea Joesbury, Brenda Ann Wolfe, and Marnie Frey. 

But the remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm.

One of them was Stephanie Lane, who was 20 when she vanished.

Her mother, Michelle Pineault, said she was overjoyed by Pickton’s death.

"So, 28 years I have lived without my daughter, knowing that this animal murdered her, and that there was no justice for her in any way, shape, or form. So I'm elated. I'm happy,” said Pineault, who burst into tears.

She attended a ceremony at CRAB Park near the Downtown Eastside in honour of Pickton's victims.

Pineault said that since losing Lane, "my life has not been about my daughter — my life has been about Pickton."

She said his death felt something like justice.

Lorelei Williams, whose cousin Tanya Holyk’s DNA was also found on the farm, said at CRAB Park that she was "overwhelmed with happiness," at Pickton's death.

Pickton was only arrested in 2002 because RCMP officers were executing a search warrant for illegal firearms on his farm. They stumbled upon the remains and belongings of missing sex workers.

Police then began searching the property in what would be a years-long investigation.

Vancouver police were criticized for not taking the case seriously because many of the missing were sex workers or drug users, and in 2014, the failures of the investigation resulted in a settlement of $50,000 for victims' children who had sued all three levels of government and the RCMP.

Pickton — who was known as "Willie" — became eligible for day parole in February, which sparked outrage from advocates, politicians and victims' relatives who criticized Canada's justice system, saying he should never be released.

B.C. Premier David Eby said Friday it was a difficult day for everybody affected by Pickton’s “horrific crimes.” 

“I am sure it brings closure. For others, it reopens old wounds,” Eby said at an unrelated news conference on Friday.

“I want to take the moment to reflect on the fact that Pickton preyed on the most vulnerable people in our society, people who were classified as less than equal, not as worthy, and was able to murder so many people just because of the profile of the people that he chose to victimize."

He finished his remarks by saying "good riddance."

Sue Brown, director of advocacy with non-profit group Justice for Girls, said while some saw Pickton’s death as a moment of closure, it also closed “another potential door for answers."

“There may be some sense of relief, but I know for some that there's still so many remaining questions unanswered,” said Brown, whose group is among those fighting in court to preserve evidence in the Pickton case.

The RCMP has applied to dispose of about 14,000 pieces of evidence collected in the investigation, saying it takes up substantial space and continues to run up costs.

"(Pickton's death) makes the physical evidence much more important, now that one person who's had personal knowledge of what transpired on the Pickton farm and (what) may have become of many of those women, has now passed away,” Brown said.

“All of his knowledge has gone with him. And so consequently, I think that makes the push to preserve the evidence so much more imperative.” 

Lawyer Jason Gratl, who represents a number of families of Pickton’s victims in nine lawsuits against Pickton and his brother, David Pickton, declined to comment on behalf of his clients.

Darryl Plecas, a former prison judge at Kent Institution who went on to be Speaker of the B.C. Legislature, told The Canadian Press last week that Pickton was a likely target for others in prison because of his notoriety and his diminutive size.

Plecas said he was familiar with Pickton from his time at Kent and called him "short, frail … five feet nothing."

"Have you ever seen Willie Pickton? … A hundred pounds kind of thing, like soaking wet. He is not a big guy."

— With files by John Bongiorno in Montreal

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2024

By Nono Shen and Chuck Chiang