The young man in the prisoner’s box is a broad-shouldered figure, his light brown hair closely cropped at the back and sides, his dark suit carefully pressed. At 30, he is good-looking, in a bland kind of way, and he grew up in a typical Canadian suburb. But last week, he stood accused of unspeakable crimes, and, despite months of rumors, the detailed description of the case by the Crown prosecutor shocked and upset spectators in courtroom 6-1 in downtown Toronto—none more so than the parents of the two teenage girls he is accused of molesting and murdering. For more than two years, while publication bans prevented the public from learning the details of the case through official channels, the question for many had been: were the alleged actions by bookkeeper Paul Bernardo as brutal and depraved as the rumors had suggested? Last week, Crown prosecutor Ray Houlahan’s answer was, effectively, yes.
Houlahan’s 4V2-hour outline of the Crown’s case against Bernardo was not in itself evidence, as he repeatedly reminded the jury of eight men and four women. And Associate Chief Justice Patrick LeSage of the Ontario Court, who is presiding over the trial, stressed that the jurors must make their decision only on the evidence. For his part,
Bernardo has pleaded not guilty on nine counts, including two each of first-degree murder, kidnapping, unlawful confinement, aggravated sexual assault and one count of offering an indignity to a dead human body. In a calm voice,
Houlahan set out “what I anticipate the evidence will be.”
He said that the Crown will attempt to prove that Bernardo beat, raped and finally strangled to death teenage schoolgirls Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. Bernardo, he said, used his victims as sex slaves after abducting them, inflicting sexual abuse on them—much of which he carefully recorded on videotape. Then, the prosecutor charged,
Bernardo killed his teenage victims because he was afraid they could identify him. In all of that, Houlahan told the silent courtroom, Bernardo was aided by his former wife, a onetime veterinarian’s assistant named Karla Homolka whom he had made “subservient” through beatings and psychological abuse.
Houlahan’s opening statement ended two years of official silence on the case, which had heightened public curiosity and fuelled rampant speculation. The intense interest in the trial was evident in and around the seven-storey courthouse where the case is being heard. Before Houlahan outlined the Crown’s case, spectators began lining up at 5:30 a.m. for the 118 seats available to the public each day. “I wanted to get a good look at him,” said Charlene Price, a 23-year-old student from Newmarket, Ont. “I’ve seen him on the news and he looks like an average, everyday person.”
While members of the public laughed and joked as they waited to be admitted to the courtroom, their expressions quickly changed once they began hearing about the last days and final hours of Mahaffy and French. Throughout the Crown’s detailed description of their ordeal, spectators slumped in their seats, shook their heads in disbelief and eventually left the room looking numb and incredulous. “It was shocking, very disturbing,” said Don Suppsela, a 45-year-old supply teacher from Oshawa, Ont., after hearing Houlahan’s address to the jury. “When the prosecution said exactly what happened to those girls, how could you not be affected?”
For the parents of the victims, who sat at the front of the courtroom
just a few feet from both the jury and Bernardo, the trial promises to be an emotionally and psychologically excruciating ordeal. Debbie and Dan Mahaffy and Doug and Donna French comforted one another at trying moments in the statement. When Houlahan described the dismemberment of his daughter, Dan Mahaffy wrapped his arm around his wife and she buried her head, sobbing, in his shoulder. “No matter how much you prepare them for the evidence, it’s going to be very, very difficult,” said Tim Danson, who had earlier presented legal arguments on behalf of the families urging a very restricted view-
ing of the controversial videotapes. “This is going to be a long haul and they have no illusions about it.”
Starting last week, the Crown was expected to call 80 to 90 witnesses, including police officers, forensic experts and friends of Bernardo. In his statement, Houlahan asserted that Bernardo abducted Leslie Mahaffy, 14, from the backyard of her Burlington, Ont., home early on June 15, 1991, and subjected her to a day of sexual abuse, much of which was recorded on videotape. Houlahan said that Bernardo also forced Homolka to engage in sexual acts with Mahaffy. After strangling Mahaffy, Houlahan said, Bernardo used a power saw to cut her body into 10 parts and, with Homolka, dumped them in a nearby lake.
On April 16, 1992, Bernardo and Homolka, by then married, lured 15-year-old Kristen French of St. Catharines, Ont., into their car and for three days confined her, in Bernardo’s alleged words, as a “sex slave” in the couple’s l'fy-storey Cape Cod-style bungalow. At the end, said Houlahan, Bernardo strangled French with the same electrical cord he had used to kill Mahaffy, and he and Homolka intentionally dumped her body near the gravesite of Leslie Mahaffy.
From below left, Tammy Homolka, Leslie Mahaffy; Kristen French; Bernardo: from the Crown, a 4 ^-hour presentation outlining abductions, sexual assaults and brutal murders
The most crucial witness for the prosecution will be Karla Homolka. As Houlahan acknowledged publicly for the first time last week, she made an agreement with the provincial attorney general’s department in May, 1993, to plead guilty to two counts of manslaughter and to testify against Bernardo; in return, she got concurrent 12year sentences. Her plea, and the evidence against her, however, were subject to a publication ban to protect Bernardo’s right to a fair trial. Homolka is expected to spend about 10 days on the stand, and Houlahan said the evidence will show that she was an unwilling participant in her husband’s acts. Defence lawyers will not present their arguments until after the prosecution completes its case.
The second crucial element of the Crown’s case will be the 3’/2 hours of homemade videotapes shot by Bernardo and Homolka. Houlahan acknowledged that the tapes were in the possession of Bernardo’s original defence team all the while Homolka’s case was under way, but unaccountably that evidence was not produced. The tapes were only turned over to the Crown last September after
Bernardo switched lawyers. According to Houlahan, the tapes will show dozens of acts of sexual and physical violence, as well as degradation. The Crown intends to show the videos on television monitors, which have already been placed in the courtroom. LeSage said that he will announce the day before the viewing whether members of the public and the media may watch the videos. If not, only the jury, the accused, the lawyers and a few court officials will join the judge in seeing the tapes. Houlahan ended his opening address with a series of rhetorical questions about the tapes, which left no doubt what the Crown hopes to prove by showing them. “As you watch those videotapes,” Houlahan said, “it will be important for you to decide and assess who, if anyone, was playing the dominant role. Who, if anyone, was in control? Who, if anyone, had the power? Who made the threats of death and destruction?”
Last week, the public also learned the details of another grisly aspect to the Bemardo-Homolka story. According to Houlahan, in the fall of 1990 Homolka succumbed to pressure from Bernardo, who was then living with the Homolka family, to allow her fiancé to have sex with her youngest sister, Tammy, who was then just 15 years old. On Dec. 23, according to the prosecutor, Bernardo said to Homolka: “Now this would make a great Christmas present for me.” Later that evening, while Homolka’s parents and her younger sister Lori, then aged 19, were sleeping upstairs in their house, Bernardo and Homolka mixed Tammy two drinks, both laced with sleeping pills. After the teenager passed out on a couch in the basement recreation room, said Houlahan, Bernardo performed vaginal and anal sex on the unconscious girl while Homolka held a rag soaked in an animal anesthetic to Tammy’s nose to ensure that she did not wake up. He videotaped himself. When he was fin-
ished, said Houlahan, Bernardo forced Homolka to perform oral sex on her sister and filmed the act. With the camera running, Bernardo asked Homolka how she liked it, to which she replied: “F-g disgusting.”
The incident ended tragically when the still-unconscious Tammy became nauseous and choked to death on her vomit, despite efforts by Bernardo and Homolka to revive her. The couple were questioned by police but denied any involvement. A coroner did not detect the presence of either the sleeping medication Halcion or the anesthetic Halothane because he did not
perform the blood tests that would have revealed their presence.
Although Bernardo and Homolka escaped detection, Tammy’s death had a deep effect on their relationship. Houlahan told the jury that Bernardo often threatened to reveal Homolka’s involve ment in her sister’s death, and warned her that she could go to jail for life unless she participated in his other alleged actions. He also beat her viciously, said the prosecutor, because he was annoyed that she had expressed her disgust during the taping of the basement molestation of Tammy. The Crown’s argument is that Homolka thus tried to avoid further beatings by pretending to enjoy the sexual acts that Houlahan said occurred
To friends, they appeared to be a happy couple
later with Mahaffy and French.
Houlahan told the court last week that Bernardo and Homolka met in the fall of 1987 while she was attending a pet food convention in Scarborough in connection with a part-time job she held at a St. Catharines pet store. At the time, she was a petite, blond 17-year-old highschool student from St. Catharines. He was a 23-year-old graduate of the University of Toronto and worked for an accounting firm. He stood she feet, one inch, weighed 180 lb. and still lived in his parents’ two-storey home on Raymond Drive in an upper-middle-class part of Scarborough. A romance quickly blossomed, and by Christmas of 1989 they were engaged. Eighteen months later, on June 29, 1991, they were married in a
lavish ceremony at Niagara-on-the-Lake, 20 km east of St. Catharines. To family and friends, they appeared to be a happy, upwardly mobile young couple.
In February, 1991, they moved into their rented St. Catharines home and began preparing for their wedding in June. According to Houlahan, Homolka will testify that on the evening of June 14, a Friday, Bernardo went cruising in his metallic beige Nissan 240SX sports car. He carried with him a knife, rope and pantyhose to disguise his face. By this time in their relationship, said Houlahan, Bernardo had begun sharing with Homolka his fantasies about kidnapping young women to use as sex slaves. On that evening, said the prosecutor, he drove to Burlington, 50 km west of St. Catharines, and stalked Mahaffy, who had returned home about 2 a.m. to find herself locked out of her house. Bernardo, according to the Crown, apparently lured her to his car by offering her a cigarette, then abducted her at knifepoint.
The prosecution’s version of events is that over a period of approximately 24 hours, until the early morning of Sunday, June 16, Mahaffy was drugged, beaten and sexually assaulted while blindfolded so that she would not be able to identify her captors. In one of the assaults, which Houlahan said appears on the videotapes that the court will eventually see, Bernardo forced Mahaffy to perform a variety of sex acts on him; Mahaffy and Homolka are also shown performing oral sex on each other. Mahaffy, said the prosecutor, begged Bernardo to let her go home to see her seven-year-old brother—but Bernardo feared that she could identify him or his car. In the end, said Houlahan, “the accused decided it was too dangerous to allow Leslie Mahaffy to live.”
Houlahan told the jury that evidence during the trial will show that Bernardo and Homolka turned off the video camera before the teenager was murdered between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. on Sunday, June 16. According to the prosecutor, they gave Halcion to Mahaffy, who by then was hysterical and pleading for her life, and Bernardo strangled her with a length of black electrical cord while the teenager lay unconscious, holding a teddy bear Homolka had given her for comfort. They put the body in a basement root cellar because Homolka’s parents were coming for a Father’s Day dinner that afternoon. And on Monday, June 17, while Homolka was at work, Bernardo cut up the body using a power saw he had been given by his grandfather. He encased the parts in concrete, and with Homolka’s assistance disposed of them in Lake Gibson, an isolated spot near St. Catharines. Coincidentally, the parts were discovered by recreational fishermen on June 29—the very day that Homolka and Bernardo were married in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Kristen French’s ordeal began on Thursday, April 16, 1992, while she was walking home from school to start the Easter long weekend.
According to the Crown, Bernardo and Homolka abducted her in broad daylight in a church parking lot after luring her to their car on the pretext that they were from out of town and needed directions. Houlahan said Bernardo always intended to kill her because she was never blindfolded and was capable of identifying her captors. The only question was timing, he said, and that was resolved by the fact that Bernardo and Homolka were scheduled to have dinner on Easter Sunday at her parents’ home. According to the prosecutor, Bernardo strangled French that morning with the same electrical cord he had used to kill Mahaffy, following a final sexual assault involving anal intercourse.
The jury heard that French experienced much the same treatment as Mahaffy at the hands of Bernardo and Homolka. She was savagely beaten, given liquor laced with tranquillizers and forced to endure many painful and degrading sexual acts. But Bernardo, according to the Crown, also played vicious psychological tricks on French, in part because she had become defiant and refused to co-operate with him. At one point, Houlahan quoted French as having said: “Some things are worth dying for.”
Following Houlahan’s powerful opening address, the Crown began painstakingly presenting the evidence that it believes will substantiate its accusations against Bernardo. One retired police officer described the house where Bernardo and Homolka lived, while another witness introduced aerial photos and maps of the sites where the abductions occurred and the bodies were found. But before the jurors heard that testimony, LeSage carefully reminded them that the horrifying tale they had heard from Houlahan was not evidence—just a guide to the prosecution’s case. “Keep an open mind and absorb the evidence as it is introduced to you,” the judge told them. For the men and women who will judge Paul Bernardo, that is a challenge they will face for many weeks to come. □