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True Crime Canada: The case of Clifford Olson

Serial killer Clifford Olson was on mandatory supervision after being released from prison when the murder spree unfolded. Warning: This story contains details that may be distressing to some readers.
Clifford Olson was known as a prison sexual predator and a snitch.

Warning: This story contains details that may be distressing to some readers.

When the so-called Beast of B.C. died in prison in 2011 he was angry that he had been toppled from his position as Canada's most prolific serial killer.

Robert Clifford Olson tortured and murdered three boys and eight girls, between the ages of nine and 18, during a vicious nine-month killing spree beginning in November 1980. 

Their drugged bodies were found in secluded areas within a 90-kilometre distance of Vancouver. Some of his victims had been raped or sodomized, others were bludgeoned, some were stabbed, and one was strangled.   

He was on mandatory supervision after release from prison when the spree unfolded.

Criminal history

Olson was first jailed for break-ins at the age of 17. During the next 25 years, he spent all but four of them behind bars, with more than 90 convictions.

Before his murder spree, Olson was already a known sexual criminal in B.C. and other provinces and had a reputation for shooting at people with minimal provocation. To other inmates, he was also known as a prison sexual predator and a snitch.

Only months after being released from jail on Sept. 7, 1980, his spree began.

He married Joan Hale in May 1981 at a church in Surrey, a month after their son was born. By this time, he had already murdered three children: Christine Weller, 12; Colleen Daignault, 13; and Daryn Johnsrude, 16.

Only four days after their wedding, Olson struck again, killing 16-year-old Sandra Wolfsteiner after picking her up as she hitchhiked a ride from her boyfriend's home. 

A month later, he killed 13-year-old Ada Court, after she disappeared while on her way to a friend's home.

By July, he killed six more children: Simon Partington, 9; Judy Kozma, 14; Raymond King, 15; Sigrun Arnd, a 14-year-old German tourist; Terri Lyn Carson, 15; and Louise Chartrand, 17.

Olson, however, was already on police radar during his spree. In July, he was charged with sexual assault in the case of a teenage girl, but was not linked to the deaths or disappearances of any of his victims. 

He was again arrested on Aug. 12, 1981 for attempting to pick up two hitchikers near Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. By this point, police were tailing him.

Inside his vehicle, they found Kozma's address book. He was taken back for questioning and charged six days later with her murder. 

Author Doug Clark reveals in his book Dark Paths, Cold Trails that Olson was at first evasive in interviews. But as RCMP officer Fred Maile pressed him, Olson asked for a copy of the missing children poster he had seen in the police station.

Eight times he pointed at faces, jabbing his finger at pictures. “That one. That one. That one,” he repeated.

Then came the shocker that shocked Canadians.

The cash for bodies deal

Desperate to know what happened to the children and to reclaim their bodies, police struck a "cash for bodies" deal with Olson. He would receive $30,000 for evidence on the four bodies they had already recovered, and his wife and son would receive an additional $10,000 for each subsequent murder site or body he led them to.

B.C. Attorney General Allan Williams approved the deal.

Olson kept his end of the bargain — puffing on cigars as he led police from body to body. The public fury was massive. Horrified, his wife returned the money to the government. Divorce soon followed.

The trial

Olson's trial didn’t last long.

Initially, he plead not guilty to each of the 11 first-degree murder charges read out in court. Three days later, he switched and admitted guilt.

But Olson's extreme narcissism wouldn't allow for him to go and serve his time, quietly. Instead, he continued to seek the spotlight and played the courts, parole system, media and others to his advantage.

He began filing a series of legal claims in an attempt to argue that he was being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, which violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In one claim, reminiscent of cannibal Hannibal Lecter in the film Silence of the Lambs, Olson demanded plexiglass be installed on his cell to protect him from other prisoners. He also demanded a sex doll be provided to him. 

Olson refused to show remorse towards his victims and their families. He taunted them from behind bars by submitting himself into poetry competitions and with outlandish claims at parole hearings.

At his first parole hearing in 1997, he claimed he had killed more than 100 people. Twice, he attempted to get early release by claiming he had inside information on the 9/11 New York terror attacks.

“Do I look like some kind of raving lunatic?” he asked at one of the hearings, to which spectators shouted in agreement.

His parole bid was shut down within 15 minutes.

Influence on the justice system

While he remained unrepentant to the end, when he died of cancer at 71, his reign of continued terror led to several changes in the criminal justice system.

His crimes gave rise to the victim of violence movement, ensuring that they were fairly represented at trials and parole hearings. They also led to the creation of a missing children's registry.

Meanwhile, his constant parole demands led to a Criminal Code amendment barring multiple murderers from applying for early parole under the faint-hope clause. It was also revealed that he was receiving a $1,100 government pension after turning 65, which led to a federal act to deny prisoners such entitlements.

Data from Olson's case also helped develop geographic profiling by former Vancouver Police Department detective Kim Rossmo. Using the information, Rossmo predicted where Olson lived within four blocks of his residence.

Sadly, Rossmo was run out of the Vancouver department by officers unwilling to accept his fast rise in rank after becoming the first Canadian police officer to get a criminology doctorate. Maile, too, suffered at the hands of fellow RCMP officers who taunted and threatened him in late-night phone calls and anonymous notes for being too cosy with Olson. 

But not before Rossmo also accurately stated in 1998 that Vancouver had a serial killer on the loose again.

The attorney general had already said there would never be a serial killer case like it again in British Columbia. But it was already happening with Robert Pickton as Russmo had predicted. 

Police denied it, however, and Pickton would go on to kill 11 women between 1999 and his 2001 arrest.