Two of the worst serial killers in Canadian history, and the most contraversial, are Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, aka The Ken & Barbie Killers. This married couple was responsible for the gruesome kidnapping, rape, torture and brutal murders of at least 3 young girls, including Karla’s own little sister, as well as the assault and rape of countless other young women around Toronto’s rough east-end, the suburb of Scarborough. Several more murders have been tied to the pair but without enough evidence to conclusively point the finger.
It all started in May of 1987, when a series of vicious rapes occurred throughout one of Toronto’s rougher suburbs, the city of Scarborough, Ontario. In the period of a week, three young women between the ages of 15 and 21 were suddenly jumped (two of them in their own back yards), held down and raped for more than an hour by a blitz attacker. In July another young woman was attacked by a man fitting the same M.O. as the others, but she fought back and her assailant ran off. Then in December 2 more young women, one 16 and one 17, were brutally jumped, beaten and raped. Toronto Police issued a warning to young women to be careful travelling alone throughout Scarborough. The media jumped on the case, and the “Scarborough Rapist” story gained national headlines.
Between 1988 and 1990 the Scarborough Rapist would blitz 15 more young women, and while the police tried to collect leads they didn’t get very far. One problem was that in the Scarborough suburb the police databanks were overloaded with potential suspects. When one young woman who had been attacked, a 19-year old, gave police an accurate composite sketch, police were able to narrow their suspect pool.
Toronto police began collecting voluntary DNA samples from a pool of more than 120 suspects fitting the description. Two months after the young woman had given her detailed sketch, police knocked on the door of a young salesman named Paul Bernardo.
Paul Bernardo was gracious and charming, invited the detectives into his house and gave them coffee, and after a two hour interview and allowing them to collect a DNA sample they left, satisfied that they could cross this young man fitting the description off their suspect list. It would take another couple of years, and the lives of 3, possibly more, young women for that DNA sample to prove Paul Bernardo was the Scarborough Rapist.
Paul Bernardo came from a broken family. The son of an abusive father, he developed violent sexual fantasies at an early age. While in University he often attempted to fulfill his sadistic sexual urges with a variety of girlfriends, but most were repulsed. After graduation he went to work as a very successful salesman for Amway, and in 1987 he met young Karla Homolka.
Karla was 17 when she met Paul and the two were instantly sexually attracted to each other. Karla worked part-time at a veterinary clinic as an assistant, and her and Paul started a passionate relationship almost immediately upon meeting. Paul fell in love with Karla, not least because she allowed him to play out his twisted, often violent, sexual fantasies on her. Often times these fantasies led to beatings which hospitalized Karla on one occasion.
In 1988, at the age of 18, Karla married Paul. Their wedding was a fairy-tale affair, complete with adoring family and friends, a horse-drawn carriage ride and thousands of dollars in beautiful bouquets. Karla was infatuated with her dashing husband, and she showed no outward hints as to his dark side.
What nobody knew, and what is still debated fiercely today, is that Karla herself had a dark side. Like all pathological killers feelings of empathy for fellow humans, fairness and kindness are absent. Everything is an act. While Paul Bernardo fits the perfect profile of a violent serial killer, Karla Homolka flew under that radar. Her complete lack of empathy and other traits of a sociopath, however, came to light in the summer of 1990.
For a year Paul had been obsessing over Karla Homolka’s younger sister, 14-year old Tammy. In early 1991, as an anniversary gift, Karla drugged her younger sister with an anasthetic stolen from her vet clinic and offered her to Paul to “deflower”. Paul was overjoyed, and proceeded to violently rape the drugged young girl. During this rape Paul and Karla added a new twist to their deviant sexual fantasies, by videotaping the violent assault. In the video, which was presented to the jury during Paul’s trial, Karla is clearly involved in the rape, helping to sexually assault her young sister and egging Paul on. After 45 minutes of brutal assault, young Tammy Homolka began to choke on her own vomit. Panicked, Paul and Karla try to revive the girl but it was too late. Tammy Homolka became the sick couple’s first murder victim.
Paul and Karla redressed Tammy and called 911. She was pronounced dead at the scene. Police were instantly suspicious and placed the Bernardo house under surveillance, but after a few months of seemingly normal life they lifted the stakeout.
A few months after the death of Tammy Homolka, a young 15-year old schoolgirl, Leslie Mahaffy, disappeared from her front porch. An amber alert was issued for all of Southern Ontario but the girl was nowhere to be found. A month later, on June 29, two canoers on Lake Gibson in southern Ontario came across several blocks of concrete that had been exposed due to receding waters during a heat wave. One of the cement blocks had split open, revealing dismembered body parts. The ensuing police investigation confirmed that the body parts were those of Leslie Mahaffy.
Paul had chanced across Leslie on her front porch around 11 pm, and had blitzed her, dragged her to his car and brought her home. There, while filming on tape, he and Karla brutally raped, beat and tortured the screaming young girl. They kept her for several days, taking turns assaulting her. In the video Karla Homolka even tortures the young girl with a cigarette while Paul is away. After several days Paul choked Leslie, took her body to his basement and cut it up into pieces with a circular saw. He then encased her body parts in concrete and dumped them into the lake.
The ensuing investigation brought police back to their suspect pool, and for a third time investigators were knocking on Paul Bernardo’s door. Once again they left without any clues, but police were growing more suspicious of this charming young man who had put his wife in hospital and had his sister-in-law die in his home. He also still fit the profile of the Scarborough Rapist, who has seemingly vanished into thin air.
9 months after Leslie Mahaffy had been found, another young schoolgirl, 16-year old Kristen French, went missing near the same neighborhood where Leslie had vanished. An Amber Alert was put out again across southern Ontario, and this time a witness came forward who said he had seen a schoolgirl matching Kristen’s appearance get into a gold Mazda with a young couple. The time matched the time when Kristen had disappeared.
Several days later, Kristen’s naked body was found in a ditch on a sideroad near Burlington, Ontario. She had been severely abused and badly beaten. Cigar burns all over her body matched those of Leslie Mahaffy. Investigators were now able to declare that they had a serial killer on their hands.
Paul and Karla had intentionally set out to capture another victim. Driving around that sad April day in 1992, they came across Kristen French walking home from school. On a busy downtown street they pulled their car over and asked for directions. While Kristen leaned over to look at a map, Paul pointed a knife at her and forced her into the car.
They took Kristen to their home, set up their video camera and subjected her to the same violent torture and rape their other two victims had had to endure. Kristen, however, fought back. She kicked, bit and spit and tried to resist any way she could. For three days the couple abused her, video taping the whole thing. At one point Kristen looks at Karla and says “You’re going to kill me, but I’m the reason you’re going down.”
Police investigators, once they found Kristen’s body, initiated the Green Ribbon Task Force and devoted all their resources to catching the serial killer. DNA samples left on Kristen’s body matched those of the Scarborough Rapist, who had vanished two years before. Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) invited FBI specialists from Virginia to consult on the investigation, and in May 1992 five FBI experts arrived in Ontario from the States. The net was closing around Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka.
In 1992 Karla Homolka ended up in the hospital with another severe beating by her husband. Afraid for her life, and with all the nation’s media closely following the investigation into the schoolgirl killings and the Scarborough rapes, Homolka realized that their time was coming to an end. DNA found on Kristen’s body had linked the murders of two girls to the rapes of a dozen others, and forensics specialists from the FBI were running those samples against a suspect pool. Homolka knew it was only a matter of time before Paul’s name came up. Karla, hoping to save her own neck, brought battery charges against Paul.
Police arrested Paul that same night, and after 24 hours in jail released him. Karla moved in with her parents and initiated divorce proceedings. One strange thing Karla noticed everywhere she went was a black SUV following her, parked outside of her parent’s place all night, and staying never more than a few feet away from her. It was a police SUV. DNA on Kristen’s body also matched that of DNA taken from Homolka while she had been in hospital. Not only that, but the DNA from Kristen French and the the Scarborough Rapist victims matched that of Paul Bernardo. Police put both Paul and Karla under 24 hour surveillance.
On February 17, 1993, police arrived at Bernardo’s house with and arrest warrant and a search warrant. Bernardo was charged with 12 counts of aggravated sexual assault and two counts of first degree murder. That same day Karla Homolka was placed under arrest and charged with two counts of first degree murder. More charges were levied against the pair in the weeks that followed.
Karla Homolka went to trial first, cutting a deal with the Crown Attorney to testify against Paul in exchange for reduced charges. The Crown, needing her testimony to prosecute Paul to the fullest, agreed. Karla testified that she had been the victim of years of abuse and had acted out of fear. She explicitly testified to Paul’s rape and murder of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French, as well as her own sister, Tammy Homolka. In her trial Homolka played the role of the battered wife, and was sentenced to a plea bargain term of 12 years in a minimum security prison.
In 1995 Paul Bernardo went on trial. His wife’s testimony had helped the prosecution seal a conviction, and a court-ordered publication ban kept the public wondering what was going on. But as Bernardo’s trial went ahead, Paul met with his lawyer one evening and told him about the video tape had stashed in the ceiling above his bathroom. Police investigators had missed the cache during their search of the house. Bernardo’s lawyer retrieved the tapes and watched them. The next day he quit as Bernardo’s counsel and leaked details of the tapes to the New York media, who were not subjected to the Canadian publication ban. “I can longer in good conscience represent this monster.” he told the awaiting reporters. Broadcast on the Buffalo news, the details of the case was picked up all over Canada.
Bernardo was given a province-appointed duty counsel as representation and the video tapes were admitted to court. The court, including the jury, were subjected to hundreds of hours of gruesome video documenting Bernardo’s, and Homolka’s, torture, rape and murder of three innocent girls. The video tapes also blew a hole in Karla’s battered wife defense, as she was clearly an active participant in the rapes and murders.
In 1995 the case wrapped up and Paul Bernardo was sentenced to 95 years in prison with no chance of parole, and was declared a dangerous offender, which means he can never be released.
Controversy about Karla’s plea bargain, often called a “deal with the devil” has surrounded the case every since the video tapes surfaced. Newspaper reports of Karla celebrating New Year’s in prison with champagne and friends enraged the Canadian public, and her subsequent release in 2007, after only 12 years in prison, is one of the most contentious issues in Canadian legal history. Karla currently lives in Costa Rica with a new husband and two young children of her own. Paul Bernardo is in Kingston Maximum Security Prison, in permanent solitary confinement following an attack by a group of inmates that nearly killed him. He will live out his days in a small cell and will be buried in an unmarked prison grave when he dies.