Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo met in 1987, when he was 23 and she was 17. They married in 1991, six months after they raped and killed Karla’s sister, Tammy, and two weeks after abducting, raping and killing 14- year-old Leslie Mahaffy. The following year in April of 1992, 15-year-old Kristen French was the next young lady unlucky enough to cross paths with the Bernardos, and her fate would be the same as that of Tammy Homolka, and Ms. Mahaffy.
Three months after Paul and Karla met, a series of brutal rapes began in Scarborough, Toronto, a large suburban area where Paul Bernardo lived. The last assault attributed to the Scarborough Rapist occurred in 1990.
Mention “The Ken and Barbie Killers” to a true crime buff, and you’ll probably hear about two things which make this case significant: one is that Paul and Karla videotaped themselves sexually assaulting Ms. Mahaffy and Ms. French, and Karla’s sister, Tammy. The other is the part those tapes would play—and wouldn’t play—in their prosecution.
Paul Bernardo admitted he was responsible for every sexual assault attributed to him, but he steadfastly maintained Homolka had been the killer; Homolka, of course, pointed the finger at Bernardo, and it isn’t likely we will ever know the truth of the matter. However, to this day Paul Bernardo insists he never killed anyone. And while they are hardly better off, it is worth noting that the 19 victims of the Scarborough Rapist are still alive: not one girl died until Karla Homolka, literally, was in the picture.
Bernardo was never the most stable character in the best of times, and after the death of Kristen French he began to psychologically “disassemble”. In late December, 1992, he beat his wife so badly the ER doctor reported in his 15 years it was the worst case of domestic abuse he’d seen.
On February 1, 1993, The Toronto Metro police received notification of positive DNA matches to Bernardo for three of the rapes in Scarborough, and Karla was only too happy to lend them her views of her now estranged husband. Everything unraveled after that, and soon both Paul and Karla would find themselves facing the legal consequences of their actions.
After a two year investigation beginning with the death of Leslie Mahaffy, and the addition of a large and costly task force, Inspector Vince Bevan, the man whose job it was to apprehend the perpetrators of the French/Mahaffy murders, had clues he could not decipher and little else. An officer of Bevan’s rank should know that eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable; nevertheless, based on the statements of a few eyewitnesses who reported seeing two men in a cream-colored Camaro near the site of Kristen French’s abduction, the Inspector threw all his efforts, and the bulk of the task force resources, into a futile search for a just such a car.
Ideally, neighboring law enforcement jurisdictions work together in a spirit of cooperation to move toward a common goal. In reality, to say the atmosphere was tense between Inspector Bevan’s task force and the Toronto Metro police would be an understatement. When the Toronto detectives interviewed Karla Homolka regarding her husband’s proclivities, Inspector Bevan was not invited to take part in the discussion.
He was, however, allowed to give the Toronto detectives a list of items they could ask Karla if she had seen. And one of the items on that list was the Mickey Mouse watch Kristen French wore the day she disappeared, missing when her body was discovered.
As it turns out, this interview would prove more informative to Karla than to anyone; it told her the police had made a connection between the Scarborough Rapist and the murdered girls, which, in fact, officially, they had not. The following day, Karla saw her lawyer, and after confessing the bizarre circumstances of her marriage, she asked him to seek full immunity from prosecution on her behalf. As she states in her diary, Karla’s plan for the future was “to get (her) stuff back” from the home she shared with Bernardo, and “go out and have some fun.” That is, until the interview with the Toronto detectives when Bevan’s question tipped her hand, which for all intents and purposes enabled Karla to begin mounting a defense before she even became a suspect.
On February 11, 1993, the RCMP met with the FBI to hear the profiler’s theories about men like domestic terrorist Paul Bernardo—and supposed reasons why women like Homolka find them suitable romantic partners. The FBI obliged their Canadian equivalent with a then unpublished paper entitled, “Compliant Victims of the Sexual Sadist”. This paper surveyed seven women who were incarcerated for crimes they committed with their spouses or lovers; generally, it explained their criminal behavior as aberrant, a consequence of their partner’s brutal treatment, or put more simply—they were beaten into being bad. It was in this meeting that the decision was made, the compliant victim/sexual sadist model best fit the dynamics of the relationship between Bernardo and Homolka.
Keep in mind that Ron Mackay, the RCMP officer who introduced the unpublished “Compliant Victims” paper at this meeting was a protégé of Roy Hazelwood, the FBI agent who co-authored it. Agent Hazelwood must have been proud that day, and I say “must have” because neither I nor Roy Hazelwood were there. In fact, Roy Hazelwood would not meet or speak with Karla Homolka about sexual sadists or anything else, until 1996, a year after Paul Bernardo’s trial had ended—and long after Mr. Hazelwood’s theory transformed Karla from a full-status 1st degree murder accomplice into something closer to the girls whose deaths she was responsible for.
When they made the decision that the sexual sadist/compliant victim dynamic satisfactorily explained the situation, none of these men—not the RCMP’s Ron Mackay nor the intrepid Inspector Bevan—had ever laid eyes on either Paul Bernardo or Karla Homolka. “Compliant Victims of the Sexual Sadist” was simply a stroke of luck for the Inspector, as it became the basis for a renewed search warrant and allowed him to take back control of his own investigation.
After almost two years and the addition of his much heralded task force, Bevan did not have a single shred of evidence against Paul Bernardo, in spite of having run his name through suspect data banks 17 times—he actually cleared Bernardo a year before as a suspect in the murders. As late as February 6, 1993, the Inspector was quoted by the press stating his belief there was no link between the murders of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy; two days later the Toronto Metro detectives didn’t fare appreciably better when they conducted their interview with Karla. Even though the detectives note she turned white as a sheet and stammered after the question about the Mickey Mouse watch, they underestimated Karla when they chalked that up to the stress of being interviewed by the police for the first time.
Instead of functioning as an effectively conjoined unit, the multi-jurisdictional teams of law enforcement—Toronto Metro with the Scarborough rape investigation and Bevan with Niagara Regional and the French/Mahaffy murders—were squaring off for what would become the golden Bernardo collar. And Bevan must have seen his career flashing before his eyes, because Toronto Metro, with three DNA matches and more on the way, was winning.
Regardless of the truth of the matter, that Karla was a woman beaten into complying with the twisted desires of her husband was an assumption that would stick because it served, if not a greater purpose, at least a larger one. And in a near perfect example of just how deceiving looks can be, when the astute men of the FBI and RCMP made their decision that the compliant victim/sexual sadist dynamic best fit the picture, the picture they were looking at was of Karla Homolka, taken at the hospital on the night Bernardo beat her.
It’s doubtful even the aforementioned true crime buff has taken the time for a truly penetrating look at this case. Most of what is written will proclaim as heroes the men responsible for the investigation and arrest of Paul Bernardo, the men who prosecuted him simply doing their sworn duty to protect the good citizens of Canada.
But behind this veil of honor, what is now commonly believed to be the basis for everything done in the name of capturing “Ken and Barbie”, has, in fact, little to do with the videotapes or the images they contain—and nothing to do with whether or not Bernardo was in fact a “sexual sadist” and Homolka his “compliant victim”.
In an effort to save his expensive and failing investigation, on February 17, 1993, Inspector Bevan sent his officers to the home of Karla’s defense attorney, after hours and with an urgent message in hand; the police do not habitually rendezvous late at night at the home of defense attorneys. So if you’re any good at poker, you know that when they do, it says a great deal about the hand they’re holding.
In the latter part of 1990, when fiance Paul Bernardo took an “interest” in her 15-year-old sister, rather than end the relationship, or at least call off the wedding, Karla Homolka’s solution was to procure Halothane, an anesthetic used in animal surgery, and sedatives from the vet clinic where she worked as a surgical assistant. The thinking, if you can call it that, was to knock her baby sister out and “give her” to Paul Bernardo as a one of a kind Christmas present; on Christmas Eve, 1990, the plan was put into action.
It was unfortunate for Tammy Homolka, however, that her sister carried out this demented act; as a veterinary assistant, Karla was well aware that if the “patient” has had any food or drink in the previous 24-hour period, using anesthetic is “contraindicated”. And she certainly knew that Halothane was intended to be used with a calibrated vaporizer, not doused liberally on a rag and held over the mouth and nose. But this is something we can be certain Karla did, not only because the happy couple videotaped themselves attacking Karla’s sister, but also because of a particularly disturbing morgue photo of Tammy Lyn Homolka, with a large raspberry red burn covering her cheek and extending to the hairline on the right side of her face.
In spite (or perhaps because) of Karla’s efforts, Paul Bernardo began expressing doubts about the upcoming nuptials. No proof is good enough for some people, but whatever else she was, Karla wasn’t a quitter. Reaching into her bag of tricks again, she lured a young friend of hers (known in court as Jane Doe) to the couple’s home; she then called Bernardo on his cell phone to tell her soon-to-be hubby she had a “wedding gift” waiting for him.
Keep in mind that since Paul Bernardo did not even know Jane Doe, it’s impossible for Karla’s testimony, that he made her summon the teenager to their home, to be anything but perjury, which in and of itself was grounds for revoking the plea-bargain deal. And keep in mind Karla, all on her own, drugged and anesthetized her friend not once but twice, in exactly the same manner she obviously knew had killed her sister just a scant six months before.
Keep all that in mind, because no investigation of Karla Homolka would come out of it, and no additional charges would be brought against her.
Even with six and a half hours of videotape in which she is either directing the on-camera activity, as someone put it, “with all the blasé of a photographer taking baby pictures at Sears”, or actively sexually assaulting Tammy Homolka, Jane Doe, Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French—in spite of that, Karla Homolka would never be charged with a single sex crime, which made both her present and her future circumstances infinitely better than those her partner in crime was facing, and would face.
Paul Bernardo was the real danger, according to the Crown, and Karla Homolka’s testimony against her now ex-husband was deemed so necessary she received two concurrent 10-year sentences for manslaughter on the Mahaffy/French murder charges, with obligatory “Two for Tammy” years, also to be served concurrently, tacked on.
In the photograph of Karla taken after Paul Bernardo beat her in December of 1992, there are long, dark bruises under her eyes; the injury is called a contra-coup, sometimes referred to as “raccoon-eyes”, and it’s caused by a violent blow to the back of the head, hard enough to send the brain slamming forward to the front of the skull. The circumstances under which this injury occurred are as disturbing as the image itself; it takes some digging to find it now, but the reason for the raccoon-eyed injury is in the court transcript from Homolka’s cross-examination. You have to wonder what took Paul Bernardo so long to ask his wife why at each Christmas reminder of Tammy’s demise she was not reduced to the sniveling wreck he was. But when he finally did confront her with this query, looking at the black-eyed photograph of Homolka, it’s obvious the answer was unsatisfactory.
In the story as it’s most often told, when Paul and Karla made their home movie of her sister’s Christmas Eve rape, suddenly Tammy “turned blue” and vomited; supposedly, a noxious combination of alcohol, food, sedatives, and Halothane, caused the vomit to be acidic or caustic. The acidity of the vomit coming in contact with skin is often cited as the most likely source of the burn. But if you look closely at the morgue photo you see very fine facial hair on Tammy’s face, even in the areas the burn covers. Something caustic enough to leave a burn that raspberry red certainly would’ve taken babyfine facial hair with it.
Since it did no damage to the eyebrows or eyelashes, the burn does not appear to be the result of anything flammable or the result of a splash with corrosive material, and the demarcated edges of the burn stand above the top layer of skin, as in relief. In other words, the burn does not appear to be topical and a 2001 article in the Canadian journal Elm Street cites medical examiner Dr. Vincent Di Mao, who says the anesthetic “pools” below the skin.
Keep in mind, it only “pools” in this instance, because it’s supposed to be used with a vaporizer and the Halothane has steadily decreasing amounts of oxygen to mix with. And keep in mind it’s “pooling” because someone’s still applying it to Tammy’s nose and mouth. According to a police report which was never made public, at the time her sister began “to look funny”, as Karla puts it, Paul Bernardo was in another room asleep, and was awakened by her 45 minutes to an hour after the videotape shows the sexual assault on Tammy stopped. Coordinating the events of that night with the starting and stopping point of the videotape, and the time the call was made to Emergency Services—it appears that only Karla Homolka was with her sister when she died.
In the Canadian criminal justice system it is standard procedure to release inmates at their earliest possible parole date, after serving one-third of their sentence. Karla’s two ten year sentences for the French/Mahaffy murders ran concurrently with the two year sentence she received for Tammy’s death, rendering the strange accounting process by which someone arrived at the “Two for Tammy” years, meaningless; even if this weren’t standard procedure, written into the plea-bargain agreement was a clause stating, in effect, parole was only four short years away.
Technically speaking, Paul and Karla were equally guilty of first-degree murder, but unless Karla slipped up on the stand the “deal with the devil” plea bargain arrangement was untouchable. Only Paul Bernardo was facing the full weight of all the charges, and the best result that could be realistically hoped for was a guilty verdict on second-degree murder, instead of first. It wasn’t much, but understandably, no one wanted to give Paul Bernardo much; with second-degree murder convictions he might have the chance at a life outside of prison. Someday. Everything came down to whether a jury could be persuaded it was Karla and not Paul who had the intent to kill.
Homolka states she was present when Bernardo strangled the abducted girls with an electrical cord; Bernardo’s story is, it was always his intention to let the girls go. In both instances, with Leslie and with Kristen, Paul Bernardo states he left the house to get take-out food and to rent movies, and each time when he returned, the girls were dead. People who are of the opinion Bernardo is a murderer say that after using Leslie and Kristen as objects for his sexual gratification he didn’t need them anymore and simply killed them. But looking at everything else he’s done, and the manner in which he’s done it, I have to disagree.
In his testimony Bernardo stated that both weekend nights while he was zigging here for take-out and zagging there for movies, he also stopped at a gas station. The thinking, if you can call it that, was to make sure to fill the tank because he planned to drive the girls home the next day, and didn’t want to come to a sputtering stop somewhere with a missing girl in tow. As ludicrous as that might sound, ex-accountant and pack rat Paul Bernardo kept almost every receipt ever given to him so there is a record of all that zig-zagging here and there. It’s possible of course, this was all an elaborate bit of staging to give himself an alibi—but that’s a lot of work in support of a weak story.
It’s risky business abducting girls in broad daylight, even with a helpmate, and being the prince of a fellow that he is, Bernardo has chosen to “reward” his victims with dinner and a movie, and made three different stops to do it. So—once he’s brought home the bacon, and the videos, and he’s king of his castle again with a pretty, little compliant wife and a young plaything to boot—for the man who desires that and does all this to get it—for the narcissistic, former accountant who never threw anything away, it makes no sense that his next step is to wrap an electrical cord around his harem girl’s neck and strangle her to death.
As much as they are objects on which to vent his rage, in the calm after the storm Bernardo needs the girls like a junkie needs a drug; his need for them is such he aims to make them need him in return. The Scarborough Rape attacks lasted almost two hours in some cases and according to Karla, Bernardo fussed over Kristen French and brushed her hair; he showered Jane Doe with gifts, as Karla states, “trying to buy her love.” Twisted as it as, Paul Bernardo is a “collector”, and these incidents are mini-“relationships” to him; he needs all of them, and to pack rat Paul Bernardo, killing Leslie or Kristen would be the equivalent of an addict tossing away his drugs—by sheer self-interest, it would be unthinkable. It defies our basic structure to destroy what we still need.
Karla, on the other hand, has her own peculiar and mercenary reasoning. Unlike her mercurial partner, she is steadier and more careful. But as attentive as she is, her perception’s somewhat skewed, like one of nature’s mothers stealing eggs from other nests to make her own nest count come out right. There’s something else worth noting about that black-eyed photograph of Homolka: Paul Bernardo beat his wife severely all along her body, and to document how savage a beating she received, the hospital took pictures, head-to-toe. In one of those pictures you can see Karla’s wearing a watch. It’s not a gift, and it’s not a watch she bought—but it’s nothing fancy, just an ordinary Mickey Mouse watch.
A watch just like a million other watches on the wrists of a million other girls, who also never quite outgrew the well-known Disney icon. Nothing distinguishes this item on the surface. But like the girl who wears it in the hospital photographs, what sets this watch apart is hiding in the light.
Unlike a million other watches, this one has a primitive and terrible significance, like jewelry sculpted from the bones of vanquished enemies, worn as both adornment and a warning:…I’m capable of this…if you are not, I’ll wear your bones as well…
But the world seemed mostly good, and right and fine. And as a normal 15-year-old schoolgirl in modern-day Ontario, such predatory thinking would never have occurred to Kristen French.
In the only tape in which we see the two of them alone, Karla regales her future husband with tales of what life has in store for them; the room is dark, and the soon-to-be bride and groom lie before a roaring fire in the fireplace. Cozy. Intimate. All in all it seems quite the romantic setting.
But in her future tales, Karla isn’t talking about the car or the house they’ll have some day, or of all the things they’d buy if they were rich beyond their wildest dreams. She is counting though—there could be 10, 20—even 50—together they could have as many as 50, she exclaims. And what she’s counting off in multiples of 10 for the one she hopes to marry, is the number of young girls that as man-and-wife and side by side, they can enslave.
When she’s asked on cross-examination about the time Kristen French spent in her home, Homolka expresses some regrets, and Bernardo’s defense attorney pounces on a particular phrase she uses; according to Karla, she and Kristen interacted more like girlfriends than abductor and abducted. And she seems a little wistful when she says, “It’s hard…because you get to know these people…”
...You get to know these people...
You get to know these people then the weekend’s almost over…and Karla must be thinking, too, how absurd it is…Paul, driving them home…Leslie…or Kristen…but even Paul and Karla have unspoken agreements…and silent rules, like all couples do—that’s your job, this is mine, and most of it’s understood…and generally men know the silent rules exist and operate accordingly…but sometimes…sometimes men forget the silent rules…a woman’s work, they say, is never done…
…it’s hard, because you get to know these people—
How hard must it have been for Leslie, or for Kristen…thinking she’s the only way they might get out of this…hoping she might save them…and finding out she won’t…
Keep in mind, in that romantic fireside setting, those future tales are woven a mere two weeks after putting Karla’s sister in the ground. And that as she’s counting off young girls in decimation style, Karla tells Bernardo, “They can be our children.”
Keep all that in mind and think how hard it must have been when Karla Leanne Homolka walked away from prison with no restriction placed upon her by the Crown. Think how hard it must have been when they heard the news that day: Karla Leanne Homolka has a child.
In the past year I have asked many Canadians what they think of the disparity in the sentences Paul and Karla received, and some say her sentence was appropriate. They ask if I’ve seen that picture of Karla taken after the beating her husband gave her; I say I have, and they say Paul Bernardo got what he deserved.
They may be right. I do not know.
I only know that looking at Karla Homolka is like looking through a prism—what you see depends upon the light. Hold the picture one way and there’s a victim who’s been very badly beaten; turn it, and there’s a woman sculpting jewelry from your bones.
After Tammy Homolka died, Paul Bernardo saved as many items of hers as he could; he kept an empty cereal box simply because he knew she’d eaten from it. He went so far as to take a healthy dose of the same Halothane and sedative concoction that ended her short life, to know something of what she went through, he says. Such histrionic behavior seems typical of Bernardo. Far more troubling is how unaffected Karla, and others, appear to have been.
The death of Karla’s sister was strangely under-investigated and in Paul and Karla lore, Tammy Lyn’s significance in general is often overlooked. But according to Paul Bernardo, he beat his wife that late December night after she admitted that while Tammy’s death was sad, it was not the emotionally devastating event for her that it was for him–and if that’s true, it presents us with yet another dark aspect of the Bernardo-Homolka tale.
Keep in mind, the Crown maintains that without Homolka’s “help”, the case against Bernardo, for murder, was in doubt. Keep in mind, without that raccoon-eyed photograph of Karla, the compliant victim theory would have been a tougher sell.
Keep in mind why Paul Bernardo says he beat his wife that night.
Keep all that in mind. Then ask yourself what no one asks out loud.
Between the injury that sent Homolka’s brain slamming forward in her skull and a wrist-slap of a sentence—between Paul Bernardo’s savagery and a two-year prison term—ask your heart the question and ask as if it matters; for Tammy Lyn Homolka, where was justice to be found.