updated 12/10/2006 12:27:32 AM ET 2006-12-10T05:27:32

A pig farmer accused of being Canada’s worst serial killer pleaded not guilty on Saturday to charges of murdering women from Vancouver’s seediest streets.

Robert “Willie” Pickton, 56, who is accused in the deaths of at least 26 women, stood and softly said “not guilty” as each of the names of six of the women was read in court.

Some 600 potential jurors were being called in Saturday. Justice James Williams has ruled that the trial will be divided into two parts, with the first six counts being tried first.

Williams acknowledged the trial will “last a lengthy period.” Most estimates put it at about a year.

The gruesome allegations against Pickton fall under a publication ban that prevents the media from revealing details of the alleged crimes until opening arguments on Jan. 8.

Journalists covering the preliminary hearings have been so haunted by the courtroom revelations that some have sought psychological help.

What can be reported is that Pickton was arrested in February 2002 by police investigating the disappearances of sex-trade workers from Vancouver’s grubby Downtown Eastside district.

Health officials later issued a tainted-meat advisory to neighbors who may have bought pork from his farm, concerned the meat may have contained human remains.

Pickton and his brother, Dave, used to throw parties at the hog farm in a barn they had dubbed the “Piggy Palace,” telling neighbors they were raising money for charity. Investigators, however, have said the parties were drunken, drug-fueled raves with prostitutes.

The province has spent an estimated $61 million sifting through acres of soil on the property.

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