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A horror that haunts Canada

A charming couple. Their shocking crimes. A way of life changed forever.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published December 5, 1999

ST. CATHARINES, Ontario -- The pink clapboard house at 57 Bayview Drive is gone. In its place stands a new house with a new address.

The tangible reminders of what happened here have been obliterated. Not so the horror.

In the early 1990s, on this quiet street just a block from Lake Ontario, an attractive young couple engaged in a frenzy of sadism and murder that would make them the most notorious criminals in Canadian history. Nicknamed Barbie and Ken for their blond good looks, Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo tortured their teenage victims before dumping the bodies and going about their lives with chilling nonchalance.

They got married on the day the first body was found, cut into 10 pieces and encased in concrete. They threw the second body into a drainage ditch before heading to a big Easter dinner.

Today, Homolka and Bernardo are in prison. But while out of sight, they remain very much in the public mind.

Bernardo, sentenced to life, is seeking a new trial on the grounds his first one was fraught with errors.

His ex-wife, who struck a plea bargain so lenient it's been called "the deal with the devil," could be released 15 months from now. She recently provoked a public outcry when she asked to be transferred to a Montreal halfway house.

And legal fights continue over the most sickening evidence in the case: videotapes Bernardo and Homolka made of each other as they sodomized three young women, including Homolka's sister.

The couple's crimes are to Canada what the O.J. Simpson case was to the United States -- murders so shocking, defendants so riveting and an outcome so controversial that they will be talked about for years. Just as the Simpson trial raised broader issues, the Bernardo-Homolka case has had a wide-ranging effect on Canadian life:

It has changed the way the Canadian news media -- far more restricted by law than its U.S. counterpart -- covers criminal trials.

It has focused more attention on victims rights and, by some accounts, has helped to strengthen them.

It has stoked the debate over battered-wife syndrome and forced many to acknowledge that an angelic-looking young woman could be capable of great evil.

But most of all, it shattered the notion that Canada was immune to the kind of monstrous crimes against children that have so frequently plagued its neighbor to the south.

"I think we've become a stronger community because of it," says Bob Kennedy, a St. Catharines city official. "Children are probably cared for and watched more than they were before. A lot of parents might have taken for granted that you drop your child off and everything is safe, but this was a real awakening."

It was an awakening that might never have had to happen if police in Toronto -- and Paul Bernardo's friends -- had acted years sooner on their suspicions.

A chilling partnership

In May 1987 women in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough were terrified by a series of especially brutal rapes. "That looks like Paul," Bernardo's pals remarked among themselves when a composite drawing of the suspect -- a clean-cut young man with blond hair and even features -- appeared on newspaper front pages.

Bernardo, a junior accountant, was among hundreds of men asked to give a DNA sample to police. But the sample was not tested at the time because even the police found it hard to believe that a well-educated professional could be a serial rapist.

The youngest of four children, Bernardo grew up in Scarborough in what has been described as a loveless household. He was in his teens when his mother hit him with the devastating truth that he was the product of an extramarital affair.

Outwardly, though, the gregarious, charming Bernardo seemed unaffected by the news. He took great pride in his appearance, wearing $900 Hugo Boss suits and regularly visiting tanning salons between vacations in Florida. His fantasy, he told a friend, was to be the world's most powerful businessman with a stable of "school-girl virgins" to satisfy his lusts. Karla Homolka was not a virgin when she met Bernardo in October 1987 but she was beautiful, young and, as he soon discovered, almost as crazy about sex as he was. She was born and raised in St. Catharines, about 60 miles from Toronto, and loved animals so much that she went to work for a chain of pet shops. It was on a trip to Toronto, where her company was holding a convention, that the 17-year-old Homolka saw Bernardo in a hotel bar and, as she later said, developed an "indescribable infatuation" with him.

Although he was six years older, Bernardo, too, was smitten and began frequent visits to St. Catharines. Homolka's friends noticed that the once-assertive young woman seemed to change in Bernardo's presence, acceding to his every demand to the point of wearing her long hair in pigtails so she would look even younger.

Bernardo also became enamored of Homolka's 15-year-old sister, Tammy. The pretty blond would be "a great Christmas present," he suggested.

As she testified years later, Karla Homolka used her job at the pet store to illicitly obtain sleeping pills and the anesthetic halothane. As they watched a movie on Dec. 23, 1990, Karla slipped the pills into her sister's rum-and-eggnog and slapped a halothane-soaked cloth over her face. Bernardo and Homolka took turns videotaping each other as they sexually abused the nude and unconscious girl while her parents, unaware, were in another part of the house.

Tammy choked to death on her own vomit. Before calling paramedics, Bernardo and Homolka cleaned her up, redressed her and put her into her own bed. Authorities believed Bernardo when he said Tammy had simply had too much to drink and that he had tried to revive her. The coroner ruled the death accidental, despite the strange burn-like marks on Tammy's face.

Bernardo's dream of becoming a chartered accountant ended after he failed the exam the third and final time. But he began smuggling cheap cigarettes and liquor across the border from New York. He made enough money that he and Homolka were able to rent a two-story house in Port Dalhousie, a lakeside area of St. Catharines once popular as a summer resort for wealthy people from Toronto.

It was here that the debauchery would take an even deadlier turn.

'Some things are worth dying for'

Early on June 5, 1991, Bernardo was cruising the streets of nearby Burlington when he saw a girl with long blond hair. He forced her into his car and took her home to the second-floor master bedroom that doubled as a torture chamber. Over the next 48 hours he repeatedly raped and beat her as Homolka ran the video camera.

Leslie Mahaffy was just a few days short of her 15th birthday when she died. Bernardo either strangled her with an electrical cord (Homolka's account) or she suffocated when she fell asleep face down on a pillow (Bernardo's story).

The couple didn't let Mahaffy's death get in the way of their plans. Bernardo hacked the body to pieces, encased them in concrete and threw them into a lake. As two canoeists made a grisly discovery that June 29, Bernardo and Homolka were getting married in a lavish ceremony complete with horse-drawn carriage and pheasant dinner.

Among those who read with shock about Leslie Mahaffy's murder were Doug and Donna French. They and their daughter, Kristen, a rower and figure skater with long brown hair, discussed what to do if she were ever approached by a stranger.

On a rainy afternoon 10 months later, French was walking home from school when she noticed a young couple with a map motioning to her from a car in a church parking lot. Apparently reassured by the woman's presence, French approached -- and was dragged inside at knifepoint.

For three days she was beaten and forced into various sexual acts while Bernardo and Homolka again took turns videotaping each other, according to later testimony. French finally stopped obeying Bernardo's lewd commands: "Some things are worth dying for," she told him.

It was Easter Sunday and, as Homolka pointed out, they were due at her parents' house for dinner. They would have to do something about French. Homolka later claimed Bernardo strangled the girl; he said she accidentally choked.

They dumped the body on the way to dinner. Homolka gave her husband an Easter card: "To the most wonderful man in the whole wide world."

'Deal with the devil'

Longtime friends noticed Bernardo's increasingly strange behavior, including an obsession with rap music and its violent lyrics. They noticed, too, that the Scarborough rapes had stopped as soon as he left Toronto while young women had begun turning up dead shortly after he moved to St. Catharines.

But his eventual undoing would come at the hands of his accomplice. Nine months after Kristen French's death, he beat Homolka so badly she went to the hospital. Then she started talking to police.

On Feb. 17, 1993, Paul Bernardo was arrested and charged with the French and Mahaffy murders as well as the Scarborough rapes. The investigation into Tammy Homolka's death was reopened. Police spent weeks searching the house on Bayview Drive and removed 900 pieces of evidence, including some videotapes and carpet stained with French's vomit.

But there was a problem. Police had only Homolka's word that Bernardo had done the actual killings. Because one spouse cannot be compelled to testify against the other, prosecutors had to strike a deal to get Homolka's cooperation after she was arrested.

Canadians read very little about the plea negotiations or anything else. In Canada, unlike the United States, news media are banned from reporting on any evidence until a trial has begun. And judges can restrict coverage of the trial.

The allegations against Bernardo were so shocking it was feared he couldn't get a fair trial if details of the case came out. So when Homolka went to trial in July 1993, the judge put a gag order on Canadian journalists and barred foreign reporters altogether.

Homolka was convicted of two counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 12 years, with the possibility of release in 2001. It was a plea bargain so lenient that more than 300,000 Canadians would later sign a petition in protest.

But at the time, they didn't know enough to object. The media couldn't report that Homolka had pleaded guilty. They couldn't report on the emotional comments of the victims' parents or the prosecutor's 25-minute statement of facts that brought tears to the eyes of veteran police officers.

"A catalog of death and depravity" was all Toronto's Globe and Mail said.

Over time, the public's quest to learn more about the case proved the futility of trying to block the spread of information in the Internet age. Border police seized the Buffalo News and other U.S. publications that carried stories, and Canadian cable networks blacked out Larry King Live and A Current Affair. Nevertheless, details of the banned information streamed into Canada via e-mail and computer bulletin boards.

But it was not until 1995, when Bernardo's trial began, that the full horror of what happened began to emerge. Authorities now had all of the videotapes, including six especially revolting ones that Bernardo's original lawyer had found in the house but had waited months to give police. Mindful of the media circus in the Simpson case, Judge Patrick LeSage banned TV cameras from the courtroom and allowed only jurors and lawyers to view the tapes. Others could listen, but many found even the sounds so disturbing that they left after the first day.

The newly discovered tapes showed that Karla Homolka had been a far more active and enthusiastic participant in the sex torture than authorities thought when they struck the plea bargain. Since she couldn't be prosecuted again, she could -- and did -- testify in excruciating detail.

Demurely dressed and speaking in a soft, girlish voice, Homolka claimed she had been a battered wife forced to go along with Bernardo's perversions. Although he left the house at times, Homolka said she dared not free the young women or call police for fear he would kill her.

But there was the troubling matter of the tapes. How did she explain the smiles on her face and her apparent enjoyment as she was sodomizing Kristen French and her own sister, Tammy?

Homolka had a ready answer. She said Bernardo had gotten so angry that he had hit her on the head after she made a disgusted face while performing oral sex on her sister.

"He never let me forget that I had ruined his only videotape of Tammy, and he constantly beat me for it," she testified. From then on, "whenever I made a videotape I smiled and acted happy so I wouldn't . . . give him another excuse to beat me up."

The tapes stop short of the actual killings and Christie Blatchford, a Canadian journalist who covered Bernardo's trial, is still unsure who committed the murders. But there's no doubt in her mind that Homolka could have.

"Bernardo certainly was the more overtly physically violent, but Karla had, in my view at least, the capability, the inclination and certainly the opportunity," says Blatchford, now a columnist for Toronto's National Post. "At one point, Bernardo went out for 45 minutes for pizza and she had 45 minutes alone in that house. She couldn't pick up the phone or undo the bonds? Come on, now!"

Expert witnesses supported the battered-spouse argument and even some journalists found it hard to believe that such a small, attractive woman could have been a willing participant in such terrible crimes. To Blatchford, that is one of the morals of the story.

"It's a feminist lesson," she says, "because the real measure of equality is that women are every bit as human as men and that means we're capable of all the evil and degradation men are."

When he took the stand, Bernardo admitted he had done a "lot of terrible things."

"I deserve to be punished," he said, "but I didn't kill these girls."

The jury didn't believe him. They convicted him of first-degree murder, along with several lesser charges. He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.

Last month, Bernardo's lawyers asked for a new trial on grounds the judge had hurt his only chance for acquittal -- to show that Homolka had committed the murders. By admitting expert testimony on battered-spouse syndrome, the lawyers argue, the judge helped create a climate of sympathy for Homolka that swayed the jury against Bernardo, now 35.

"Even assuming that Homolka had been the victim of years of abuse, that did not in any way prevent her from having been the one who killed either or both of the girls," the appeal says.

But the most startling news was that Homolka, now 29, wanted to be transferred to a halfway house so she could start to prepare for her re-entry into society. She withdrew the request late last month after an outcry from the public and the victims' families.

"That she should not even serve the time she has been given is pretty offensive to them," says Tim Danson, a lawyer representing the Frenches and Mahaffys. "It confirms for us that she just doesn't get it at all. . . . She's exposed herself for what she really is, which is a psychopath incapable of feeling remorse."

Lingering effects

The case has taken a heavy toll on the families. The Mahaffys separated after Bernardo's trial, and both Frenches have developed serious medical problems. To spare them further anguish, Danson has repeatedly gone to court to block release of the videotapes showing their daughters' torture and abuse. The tapes are being sought as evidence in pending criminal cases, including one against the lawyer accused of withholding them from police.

"These tapes are child pornography" that should never be made public, Danson says.

In general, though, he thinks the case has helped even the balance between the defendant's right to a fair trial and the rights of victims and their families to privacy and respect.

"I think even our opponents would agree that the legal landscape of this country in terms of victim involvement has been changed significantly," Danson says. "If we started out at 0 out of 10, now's we're at 71/2."

The case has also helped bring about a greater balance between freedom of the press and the right to a fair trial. While they are given equal weight in Canada's constitution, the importance of a fair trial has traditionally ranked higher in a nation that has a great respect for authority. As a result, trial coverage tended to be straightforward accounts of who-said-what on the witness stand with no analysis or commentary.

"But during the Bernardo case all that changed," says Bert Bruser, an attorney for the Toronto Star. "Columnists wrote, there were talking heads on TV commenting all the time, and nothing bad happened. The trial was conducted fairly and people, including judges, realized that it's possible to have columnists columnizing during a trial without necessarily tainting jurors.

"There's a lot more freedom than there was 10 years ago. We're not like the Americans but we're moving in that direction."

Among those "pushing the envelope," as she calls it, was Blatchford. She continues to write extensively about the case and predicts that Canadian journalists will dog Homolka's every step when she is released.

"We will hound her and track her movements and make her life a living hell. But Canadians are a wretchedly fair people, and we will have to be careful not to hound her too much or people will get p----- off at us in the press."

-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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