By now, the photograph has accrued the significance of an icon. Taken outside her family’s home in St. Catharines in July, 1993, it is one of the relatively few photographs that actually depict Karla Homolka. It is not a very good shot— like many news photos, it is dark and slightly out of focus. But it is compelling, in its way, perhaps because it hints at the secrets Homolka must still hold within her. On her way to stand trial for her part in the grisly murders of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French what did Homolka think of all the attention, the photographers gathered around her parents’ home? What emotions prevail behind that blank stare? Is there shame? Fear? Hatred? Anything?
This week, some answers were expected. The 25-year-old onetime veterinary assistant was scheduled to give evidence that the Crown says will help prove that her ex-husband, Paul Bernardo, murdered Mahaffy, 14, of Burlington, in June, 1991, and French, 15, of St. Catharines in April, 1992. Now, finally, Homolka—testifying under a plea bargain that resulted in concurrent 12-year sentences for manslaughter—will have her say in the Toronto courtroom where Bernardo is on trial.
By the Crown prosecutors’ telling, Homolka was a slave to Bernardo’s whim, so heavily abused by him that she lost all will or selfcontrol. But questions about the level of her responsibility—in the kidnappings, sexual assaults and murders of Mahaffy and French—remain. Just as surely as the Crown has attempted to portray Homolka as yet another of Bernardo’s victims, his lawyers will attack the star witness’s credibility.
Still, her testimony was expected to at least shed some light on her motivations. So far, those following the case have had to make do with Homolka’s story as recounted by friends, in news reports and in testi-
mony given at the Bernardo trial. The plot line involves a typical suburban upbringing turned nightmare, and a romance gone horribly awry.
In the mid-1970s, Karel Homolka, a Czech refugee, moved with his wife, Dorothy, and his daughters from the Toronto area to a trailer park on the outskirts of St. Catharines, an industrial community set on the south shore of Lake Ontario. Together with some of his relatives, Homolka began a picture-framing business. By 1980, the family had bought a semidetached home in Merritton, a St. Catharines neighborhood. Karel, who later became a lighting salesman, and wife Dorothy, who took a job as a secretary at a St. Catharines hospital, made the comfortable house, with its pool and basement rec room, their permanent home. They live there even now.
The Homolkas had three children: Tammy, bom on Jan. 1, 1975; Lori, bom on June 22, 1971; and Karla, the eldest, who was bom on May 4, 1970. During their childhood, friends say, the family by and large got along, even if Karla seemed intent on getting her own way. But none of that indicated anything other than a healthy self-esteem.
Homolka attended Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School. She performed in the choir and in variety shows. But she was something of
a rebel. She bucked the then-fashionable preppie style in her dress, opting instead for all-black or all-white outfits. By Grade 11, she was hanging out with a small clique of friends and began skipping classes. According to her 1989 graduation yearbook entry, she also belonged to an informal group of girls called the Diamond Club. Their aim, perhaps jokingly espoused, was to marry young—and marry rich.
Homolka doted on her family’s cats, and often spoke out about animal rights—on principle, she refused to participate in dissections during biology class. At 16, she started working part time at a pet store. Through that job, she would come to meet a handsome young bookkeeper with fine prospects—just the thing for a girl in the Diamond Club. His name was Paul Bernardo.
“Check out those chicks,” Bernardo said to a friend when he first saw Homolka sitting with a female co-worker. It was Oct. 17,1987. She and a friend were in Scarborough for a petfood convention, and were hanging out in the restaurant of the Howard Johnson hotel. Bernardo struck up a conversation with the then-17-year-old Homolka, who was wearing an outfit that featured boxer shorts over men’s long underwear. Within an hour, Bernardo and his friend were sitting with the girls in their hotel room. He and Homolka made love that night.
By most measures, Bernardo, then 23, and Homolka were a study in contrasts. He was a careerist on the rise, a junior employee at a Toronto accounting firm and soon to graduate from the University of Toronto with his bachelor of arts de-
gree; she was still in Grade 12. He dressed in designer clothes; she dyed her blond hair a variety of colors. But after their first encounter, they began dating regularly. He was living in Scarborough with his parents, but he would make the l’A-hour drive to St. Catharines at least twice a week. After five or six months, Homolka’s parents suggested that Paul might as well stay over on weekends.
Homolka began to dress more fashionably, and she let her blond hair grow back to its natural color. She also changed her mind about continuing her education after high school, deciding not to attend university because she anticipated a future with Bernardo— marriage and children. In May, 1988, on Homolka’s 18th birthday, Bernardo gave Homolka a promise ring, signifying his intention to propose marriage at a later date. Homolka put the event under the heading “Favorite Moment” in her 1989 yearbook entry, which also included her ‘Wildest Dream”: ‘To marry Paul and see him more than twice a week.”
On Dec. 11, 1989, Paul and Karla announced their engagement. The couple were married 18 months later in a lavish ceremony, complete with horse-drawn carriage and a pheasant dinner, in the nearby community of Niagara-on-the-Lake. The date was June 29,1991—
the same day, in one of the case’s many ironies, that anglers discovered the body parts of Leslie Mahaffy in Lake Gibson, near St. Catharines.
In his opening statements at Bernardo’s trial, Crown attorney
Ray Houlahan painted a very different picture of the courtship. Homolka, he said, will testify that Bernardo began controlling her life soon after they met, that he talked her out of attending university. His car, a Nissan 240SX, had a stick shift—but he would not allow Karla to learn how to operate it. In late 1990, Bernardo moved into the Homolkas’ home. And then, Houlahan said Homolka will testify, Bernardo began expressing an interest in having intercourse with her younger sister, Tammy, then only 15 years old.
When he finally did just that—on the night of Dec. 23, 1990—it was with Homolka’s help, the Crown attorney said. According to Houlahan, she brought home Halothane, an anesthetic, and the sleeping pills Halcion from the animal hospital where she was working as a veterinary assistant. Bernardo’s home-made videotapes, played for the jury while the public heard only the audio portion, reveal what happened next on that night. As the Crown described it, Karla watched Paul anally and vaginally rape her little sister, who had been drugged with a potent mix of Halcion and alcohol. Then, Bernardo forced Karla Homolka to perform oral sex on her sister, Houlahan said. Karla was crying, and when Bernardo asked how she liked it, she replied: “F-disgust-
ing.” When Tammy would not wake up and started vomiting, Homolka called 911, then disposed of the drugs and hid the videotape, Houlahan said; he did not say whether Bernardo had ordered her to do that.
Tammy choked on her own vomit, and her death was ruled accidental. Bernardo, the Crown alleges, used Karla’s role in her sister’s death to effectively blackmail her into submission and compliance with his further crimes. And, Houlahan said, Bernardo’s abuse of Homolka escalated. In subsequent videotapes of Bernardo and Homolka having sex with Mahaffy, French and a woman known only as Jane Doe,
Her letters are a mix of sentiment and superficiality
Homolka can be seen smiling into the camera. That demeanor, Houlahan said, is a direct result of Bernardo’s abuse—and of her fear that she not “ruin” another one of his videotapes, as Bernardo accused her of doing during Tammy’s sexual assault.
But there is another video—shot shortly after the death of Tammy— that ostensibly shows Homolka taking a more active role. The segment, taken in the Homolkas’ rec room, shows Bernardo asking Karla how she felt about performing oral sex on Tammy. “You know I liked it,” she replies. Then, Homolka describes the sexual assault of an unidentified girl. “I want you to do it again,” she says. Later, she offers her assistance. “I’ll go in the car with you [to find virgins], if you want, if you think that’s best,” she says. “Or I’ll stay here and clean up afterward.”
In another scene shot in Tammy’s bedroom, the video shows Bernardo, naked, lying on his back on the waterbed. Homolka is holding the camera, and pretends that she is her dead sister. ‘Tell me you love me,” she says to Bernardo. “I love you,
Tammy,” he replies.
When the final rupture came on Jan. 5, 1993, there was little doubt of abuse in Dorothy Homolka’s mind. Testifying at Bernardo’s trial last month, she described her reaction when she went to visit her daughter Karla at the animal clinic that day. “I saw my daughter come out with black eyes and she
looked like a raccoon,” she said. “[Karla] was very cheerful—more upset by my reaction.” That night, Homolka’s parents went to her house and found their daughter sitting alone. She did not want to leave, Dorothy Homolka recalled, so her father carried her out to their car.
Homolka was granted a divorce from Bernardo in February, 1994. Until this week, she has not seen him since.
Shortly after Homolka left, Bernardo recorded audiotapes—entered into evidence last week at his trial—in which he begs Homolka’s forgiveness. Calling her “pal” and singing along to the rock song Patience by Guns N’ Roses, Bernardo claims that he has contemplated suicide: “When you know you’ve lost it all and there’s no one to turn to, death’s welcome mat is the only place you can go.”
At the rear of the St. Catharines courthouse on June 28, 1993, a throng of reporters and onlookers had been waiting since early morning. At 9 a.m., a Dodge Caravan rapidly approached the entrance to the court’s underground parking lot. In the backseat of the van sat Karla Homolka. As the Caravan went by the crowd and camera shutters began clicking, a spectator yelled out: “Bitch!”
For the first four days of her trial—taken up with legal arguments
over a publication ban eventually imposed by Judge Francis Kovacs—Homolka was impassive, motionless. But on the final day, some emotion broke through. As Crown prosecutor Murray Segal read a 27-minute-long statement outlining the details of the murders of Mahaffy and French, Homolka dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief.
Later that day, Kovacs sentenced Homolka on two counts of manslaughter. In his 75-minute address, he lectured the woman on the gravity of her crimes, and said that she bears responsibility for the deaths of Mahaffy and French. The maximum sentence for manslaughter, he said, is life in prison, but that is reserved for the worst offences and the worst offenders. Although she committed the worst offence, Kovacs said, Homolka was not the worst offender—she co-operated with police, provided information on the crimes and spared the public a long and costly trial. He sentenced her to two 12year terms in prison, to be served concurrently.
She will be eligible for parole in 1997.
By all accounts, Homolka has successfully made the adjustment to life behind bars at the Prison for Women in Kingston. Just two months after her conviction, she began taking correspondence courses in sociology and psychology from nearby Queen’s University. She has a segregated cell, decorated with Mickey Mouse posters on the walls; her bedsheets sport characters from the Sesame Street children’s TV show. Before being moved to the Metro West Detention Centre in Toronto last week, she was earning $5.80 a day making name tags for prison guards.
What does she feel? In the nearly two years before her courtroom appearance this week, there have been no more telling suggestions of her state of mind than the letters, obtained by The Toronto Sun in 1994, that she has written from her jail cell. In them, she discusses her hair, her nails, her diets, her ambitions, all with a bizarre mix of sentiment and superficiality. There seems no remorse. “I’m growing my bangs. Or at least trying to,” she writes. About Bernardo, she seems at once to be disappointed and relieved. “I’m going through some difficult times dealing with the death of our relationship,” Homolka writes. “That’s how I’m trying to treat it—like a death.”
She concedes that she has learned an important lesson. “Life with Paul, as well as being in prison really opens your eyes to how life should be lived,” Homolka writes. She says that when she gets out of prison, she wants to do the things she “never got to do” before— horseback riding, volunteer work with children and with abused women, going out on picnics. And then, on an optimistic note: “Life is going to be great when I’m out of here. I will never take anything for granted again in my life!”
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