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True Crime Canada: The Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka case

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

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

From the outside, Paul Bernardo and his wife Karla Homolka appeared the perfect couple — good-looking, well educated and well-employed. They were living the dream.

Behind closed doors, the St. Catharines, Ont. couple were creating nightmares, dragging women to their deaths through a hell of sex and torture. They went as far as accidentally killing Homolka's sister in a bizarre Christmas gift exchange.

The culmination of the couple's terror was when Homolka turned against her husband to save her own skin and testified against him. Bernardo remains in jail while she walked free years ago.

These are Canada's Ken and Barbie Killers.

The door into the hell that Bernardo and Homolka created was opened when she showed up at a hospital in January 1993.

He had beaten her severely with a metal flashlight and stabbed her with a screwdriver. She had been hit so heavily from behind that she had a raccoon-eyes look from her brain smashing into the front of her skull.

Later that month, she contacted legal aid and a divorce lawyer. The police, however, were interested in her husband.

DNA from him had been matched to semen from an unknown person known as the Scarborough Rapist.

The Scarborough Rapist 

Bernardo first abused a woman in 1984. She was 19 years old.

Three years later, he sadistically raped another two in Scarborough. Five months after that, he met Homolka. They had sex within two hours of meeting.

The Scarborough Rapist attacks led to eight attacks by Christmas of 1988, a toll that reached 12 by the time they suddenly stopped in the spring of 1990.

A year later, a strikingly similar attack happened in St. Catharines. Police didn't link the cases. It was, however, Bernardo.

From there, Bernardo moved to sexually sadistic murders — the so-called Schoolgirl Murders — the killings of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy.

The schoolgirl murders

Mahaffy disappeared on June 14, 1991.

Videotapes found in the Bernardo-Homolka home revealed Mahaffy had been held hostage for about 24 hours, during which time she was drugged and repeatedly tortured and sodomized.

Both agreed they had given her a teddy bear between assaults.

Homolka said Bernardo strangled the girl with an electrical cord but failed to kill her and did it again. Bernardo claimed he was out of the room when she died. 

Whatever the truth, they moved her downstairs from an upstairs bedroom and then entertained the Homolka family. Karla dissuaded her mother from going downstairs.

Once the family gathering was over, the couple dismembered the body using Bernardo's grandfather's circular saw.

Mahaffy's remains were found encased in concrete on June 29, 1991, in Lake Gibson near St. Catherines. Dental records confirmed her identity.

French, meanwhile, was abducted at knifepoint in a church parking lot.

Bernardo and Homolka held French captive for three days.

They videotaped themselves torturing the 15-year-old and subjecting her to sexual humiliation and degradation while forcing her to drink large amounts of alcohol.

They murdered her on April 19, 1992. Then they went for a family Easter dinner.

French's naked body was found in a Burlington side road ditch 11 days later.

Police had initially suspected another man, Jonathan Yeo, in the deaths. But when Yeo was corned by officers and promptly shot himself. Police had to face the reality that they perhaps had two sexual sadist killers in Ontario's Niagara region. It was not something they wanted to admit publicly because of the terror it might cause.

However, Bernardo had long been on police watch lists — just not highly ranked. And, indeed, no one suspected whoever they were looking for as having an accomplice, never mind a female one.

A lack of coordination of police information between jurisdictions — a recurring problem in serial killer cases — was also an issue.

One woman had reported Bernardo, his car and licence plate in a complaint.

Two sisters had tracked Bernardo to his home and taken the licence plate number. Inside the house, French was enduring her last night alive.

Homolka told investigators Bernardo had abused her, and that she had been an unwilling accomplice to the murders. Consequently, she struck a deal with prosecutors for a reduced prison sentence of 12 years in exchange for a guilty plea to a manslaughter charge.

Paul Bernardo, a 'no-contact offender'

It was only after Homolka's plea bargain negotiations that the role of the couple in the death of Karla's sister Tammy Homolka came out.

When Karla went for a psychiatric assessment in March 1993, she confessed to her involvement in a letter to her parents.

On Christmas Eve 1990, two weeks before Tammy's birthday, Karla and Bernardo fed Tammy sedative-laced booze. When she was unconscious, they raped her. When they could not revive Tammy, an ambulance was called. Karla covered up evidence of the assault.

The death was believed to have been an accident — Tammy had choked on her vomit. After Karla's confession, Tammy's body was exhumed.

When the body was re-interred, it was without the Bernardo-Homolka wedding invitation that initially was in it.

The deal to get Homolka's evidence against her husband horrified Canadians, who saw it as little more than a pact with the devil.

Her hearing was covered by one of the most strict publication bans ever seen in Canadian history.

Homolka served 12 years in prison on two counts of manslaughter. She was released on July 4, 2005, and gave an interview to CBC that day — again to the horror of Canadians.

Bernardo was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He remains imprisoned despite an application for parole in 2018.

In his book Dark Paths Cold Trails, Doug Clark describes the sexual sadist as one who gets "their kicks by inflicting physical and psychological pain, savouring the anguish of their victims and their absolute control over them, extending to their power of life and death in the end.

"They lived out their deviant fantasies through domination, control, humiliation, torture, forced sex, and violence. It was all scripted, instructing their victims verbally or in writing, what to do, what to say, how to please them, often recording their suffering to relive later."

Bernardo was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder, kidnapping, unlawful confinement, sexual assault and offering an indignity to a dead body.

He appealed his conviction on all nine counts but asked for a new trial only on the two counts of first-degree murder.

He admitted that he kidnapped the two victims and that confined them in his house while he brutally sexually assaulted them. He maintained Homolka alone was the killer and that he was guilty only of manslaughter.

His appeal was denied.

Bernardo told his parole hearing he wouldn't re-offend, but he remains at high risk for intimate partner violence and a moderate risk for recidivism.

He said he cries about his crimes.

He has taken three treatment courses in prison, including for sex offenders, but shown "minimal gains."

Bernardo is a “no-contact offender.” That means much of his time is in a 2.5-by-3-metre cell. He gets one hour of solitary time on the range, and his yard time is spent alone.

He told the parole board he has hardly any meaningful human contact, and what little he does is "degrading."

"Being me, in prison, is hard," Bernardo told the parole board before they denied him parole.

Further reading

O'Neill, Brian. A Marriage Made For Murder. O'Neill Enterprises

Pron, Nick. Lethal Marriage: The Uncensored Truth Behind the Crimes of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. Seal Books

Clark, Doug. Dark Paths Cold Trails: How a Mountie led the quest to link serial killers to their victims

Court decisions may be found online.