A Life of True Crime: Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka

EDITOR’S NOTE: content warning and trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault and murder.

My dad is an avid bathroom reader. When I was growing up, each of our bathrooms had a wicker basket stuffed with magazines, comics, and newspapers. As a kid I was an avid reader myself, so I appreciated the material. Once I had worked my way through the Archie comics and issues of National Geographic (often more than once), I started reading the newspapers.

Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka

In 1993, the big story in Toronto news was the arrest of Paul Bernardo and the murder trial of his accomplice Karla Homolka. I still remember the photos of the smiling, attractive couple — they didn’t look like monsters. I also remember the pictures of their victims; they looked like girls my mom might hire to babysit my sisters and I — girls only a few years older than me. At eight years old I didn’t fully understand the nature of the crimes I was reading about, but I knew that these girls had suffered some of the worst things that could happen to a person, and this ordinary looking couple were responsible.

I riffled through the newspapers bins and read everything I could find on the murders of Tammy Homolka, Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. I continued to seek out information on the case in the years that followed. My obsession with true crime had begun.

Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka started dating in 1987. This was also the year that police began to connect a series of vicious sexual assaults in the Greater Toronto Area to a perpetrator who would eventually be dubbed the Scarborough Rapist. Young women were being attacked from behind while walking home at night, often after getting off of buses. Eighteen assaults were attributed to the Scarborough Rapist between 1987 and 1990.
The victim in May of 1990 was able to provide a detailed description of the man who attacked her, and a few days later a composite sketch was published in newspapers. Police received a barrage of tips after the image was released, two of which pointed to 26-year-old Paul Bernardo. One of the women who contacted police mentioned that Bernardo had also been a suspect in one of the rapes in 1987. Bernardo was interviewed for 35 minutes in November of 1990; his DNA was taken. He was released the next day.

Police felt that this intelligent, clean-cut, young man was far more credible than the women who accused him. Police in 1987 had thought the same. Police would consider Bernardo more credible than any of the multiple women who came forward between 1987 and 1992 to report that Bernardo matched the physical description, drove a similar car, had been a suspect in other sexual assaults, openly hated women, preferred violent sex, and enjoyed beating and humiliating the women he dated. The cops figured these women were seeking attention or a reward; that they were just out to sully a fine man’s reputation. Bernardo’s DNA was not tested — police didn’t think it prudent. The Scarborough Rapist seemed to have stopped anyway.

As a response to the crimes, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) instituted the Request Stop program in 1991. The program allows passengers to ask to be let off between stops at night, so they can exit closer to home. If you live in or have visited Toronto, you may have heard the cheery announcement about Request Stop over the speakers in a TTC station. I have been sexually harassed while taking the TTC, and know many other women who have had similar experiences. Some drivers immediately respond when asked for help, others shrug it off. I wonder if drivers are told about the origins of the Request Stop program as part of their training. If they knew, would they take people more seriously when they report feeling threatened?

By December of 1990, Bernardo was engaged to 20-year-old Karla Homolka. She wanted to get her fiance a special Christmas gift and he had made clear what he wanted. Bernardo had developed a sexual fixation on Karla’s 15-year-old sister, Tammy, and wanted her virginity. This is when Homolka began stealing halothane (an anesthetic) from the veterinary clinic where she worked. On December 23, after a Christmas party, Karla held a cloth soaked in halothane over her younger sister’s face until she was unconscious, then she and Bernardo raped her together. They videotaped the assault. Tammy vomited and started choking. Karla made an unskilled attempt to clear her airway and revive her, but she died. The couple redressed Tammy and cleaned up so it appeared that she had passed out drunk and choked in her sleep, then they called an ambulance. Despite a suspicious chemical burn on Tammy’s face, police believed Bernardo’s explanation and her death was ruled accidental.

Leslie Mahaffy was abducted from the yard of her family’s Burlington home in the early morning hours of June 15, 1991. The 14-year-old had been locked out of the house by her parents, as a tough love measure for missing her curfew too many times. Bernardo approached her and struck up a conversation. She asked him for a cigarette. While they were walking toward his car, he pulled out a knife and forced her into the vehicle. Leslie was taken to the house Bernardo shared with Homolka in St. Catharines, where the couple tortured and raped her. Again, they videotaped the assaults. It is unclear whether Leslie died by strangulation, or from an overdose of halothane. Her body was found in Lake Gibson on June 29.

The murder of Leslie Mahaffy had a lasting affect on the surrounding communities. I grew up in Oakville, which is the town next to Burlington. When I was a teenager (and like Leslie, a bit of a troubled one), my mom told me, “It doesn’t matter how late you stay out or what you have done, you can always come home.” My mom never forgot reading about how Leslie disappeared while her parents slept inside. She felt great empathy for the Mahaffys. Many of my friends heard similar sentiments from their own parents.

Kristen French was abducted from a church parking lot in St. Catharine’s on April 16, 1992. The 15-year-old was walking home after school when Homolka, pretending to be lost, asked her for directions. While Kristen was looking at a map, Bernardo forced her into the car at knife-point. Kristen was held for days and subjected to torture and rapes; her suffering captured on videotape. When the couple had to leave the house to attend Easter dinner, Kristen was strangled. Her body was found in a ditch on April 30.

Paul Bernardo was questioned about the murders of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French in May of 1992, due to tips police received. Again, they decided he wasn’t worth further investigation, even though Bernardo himself admitted he had been a suspect in the Scarborough Rapist case. In December of 1992, Bernardo’s DNA was finally finally tested in connection with the Scarborough Rapist. He was a match. Paul Bernardo was placed under surveillance.

Karla Homolka was interviewed in February of 1993. She claimed that Bernardo told her he had raped more than 30 women, and that he had forced her to aid him in the crimes against Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French through threats and domestic violence. Niagara police had taken Homolka to the hospital months earlier with two black eyes. She told them that Tammy Homolka had died due to being drugged so Bernardo could rape her. Homolka denied participating actively in the assaults, but she did tell her lawyer that the crimes were on video and the tapes were stashed in their house.

Police searched the house, finding a huge amount of evidence that Paul Bernardo was the Scarborough Rapist, and some connecting him to the murders of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. They did not find the video tapes. Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka were arrested. In what is now considered an embarrassing injustice in Canadian legal history, Homolka’s was allowed to make a plea bargain that sentenced her to only 12 years in prison in exchange for testimony against Bernardo.

As it turned out, the tapes had not disappeared. Bernardo had given them to his lawyer, thinking this would prevent them from being used as evidence against him. But police were already aware of the existence of the videos from the interview with Homolka. The defence lawyer solved his ethical quandary by turning over the evidence to the Crown prosecutor, and then stepping down as Bernardo’s counsel. The tapes showed Bernardo sexually assaulting Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. They also showed that Homolka was an active and enthusiastic participant.

Paul Bernardo was convicted in 1995 and sentenced to life in prison. He has been labelled a dangerous offender and will likely never be released. While incarcerated, Bernardo has confessed to 10 other rapes — most of them occurred in 1986, before the police were tracking the Scarborough Rapist. He is also suspected in at least two other murders of young women.

Karla Homolka refused to participate in a program for sex offenders while in prison. She said she technically had not been convicted of a sex crime, which is true as she had been allowed to plead to manslaughter. She has never taken responsibility for her participation in the rapes and murders of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. She has never apologized to the families. Homolka was released in 2005.

Some people find interest in true crime to be a morbid and distasteful hobby. I don’t think that it’s different from an interest in any part of history. One person might watch a documentary about WWII because they want to see horrors and carnage, while another might watch the same documentary because they have interest in the politics or social issues.

The more cases I read about and the deeper I dive into them, it becomes impossible to ignore the common threads. Fellow true crime buffs probably couldn’t help but see parallels between Bernardo and Homolka and the Moors Murders, committed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in the 1960s. Another couple who abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered young victims; taking photographic souvenirs. Hindley also claimed that she was forced to participate and never took responsibility for her actions (but she died in prison). It’s hard to read about how many times police dismissed tips that Bernardo was the Scarborough Rapist without thinking about Ted Bundy’s crimes in the 1970s. Police had tips connecting Bundy to his series of sexual assaults and murders at least two years before they started investigating him. They repeatedly decided that this clean cut, intelligent, white collar, man was more credible than the women reporting him. All of the cases mentioned above were hindered by a lack of communication between police departments.

Even 50 years ago, no one would know terms like “serial killer” or “Amber Alert” or “school shooter” that are now ubiquitous. True crime has effected our language, our pop culture, and our folklore. It can show us how far we come as a society, and how far we still have to go. The way victims are treated, the vigor with which crimes are investigated, and what we consider justice reflects our values.

I have undeniably seen more autopsy reports and crime scene photos than any person not involved in law enforcement should. It’s a bit creepy. There are nightmarish things humans are capable of doing to each other that I wish I didn’t know. True crime continues to fascinate me none the less. Perhaps because I am still asking the same questions I had in the bathroom when I was eight. How do these monstrous crimes happen? And how do we stop them?

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