IS KARLA FIT TO BE A MOTHER?
She’s out of jail and has a new baby. Some experts don’t see the problem.
It’s not clear how Karla Homolka spent her first Mother’s Day. Falling as it did just nine days after her 37th birthday, it would have been the perfect occasion for a family celebration. Maybe her parents and surviving sister drove down from Ontario to get better acquainted with the baby boy she gave birth to in a Montreal hospital on Feb. 2. Perhaps they all went to brunch at a local restaurant. Or it could be that the festivities simply took place in the bungalow she shares with her son and her new companion, Thierry Bordelais, in the South Shore community of Longueuil. (There’s been no confirmation that they are married, although Karla wears a wedding ring these days. ) It’s not even hard to imagine that he brought out a video camera to capture the special moments, just like her ex, Paul Bernardo, used to do.
One has to speculate because Karla, now known as Leanne Teale—she and Paul legally changed their surnames toward the end of their relationship—has pretty much dropped out of sight since her release from jail in July 2005. Her decision to drive straight from the women’s prison in Joliette to the downtown Montreal studios of Radio-Canada for an indepth interview robbed most of the country’s media of any incentive to chase her. There have been brief flurries of interest, like when her then-employer went public with claims she was violating the terms of her release by having contact with children and consorting with known criminals. A local television station cornered her at a bus stop once only to be met with a mute refusal. Overall, the disappearing act has been remarkably swift and successful for the country’s most notorious female killer, a strong contender in a current online poll for “the worst Canadian ever.” The media had no inkling that she was preg-
nant, or even in a relationship until after she gave birth last winter.
Karla served her time. Every last day of the 12 years she received in a controversial plea bargain that saw her testify against Bernardo in exchange for lesser charges of manslaughter for her involvement in the kidnapping, rape, torture and murders of Leslie Mahaffy, 14, and Kristen French, 15. Having denied her any form of supervised parole, the Crown invoked a special section of the Criminal Code to impose strict conditions on her movements, associates and behaviour, post-release. But a Quebec Superior Court judge found in Karla’s favour in November 2005, quashing the so-called 810 order. Since then, she has been at liberty to do whatever she wants within the bounds of the law. She could conceivably even contact her ex, or the Mahaffys and Frenches, or the two other young women who survived her and Paul’s sexual assaults.
So far, she appears to be living life as a model citizen. But that doesn’t make the notion of Karla free, happy, in love, and blessed with a healthy child, any easier to stomach. Tim Danson, the Toronto lawyer who speaks for the French and Mahaffy families, says it has been a troubling few months. “It’s been painful for them. Painful because she’s having precisely what they can’t have.”
The families have never strayed from their belief that Homolka will never be reformed.
ONE SHRINK DESCRIBED HER AS A NARCISSISTIC PSYCHOPATH. ANOTHER SAYS SHE WAS JUST ‘BAD FOR THREE YEARS.’
8 “She’s a psychopath, a master-manipulator, a person who freely and consciously engaged in the murder of Leslie and Kristen and her own sister,” says Danson. “And if she comes back into the company of the Bernardos of the world she will do exactly what she did before.” The Frenches and Mahaffys have often entered the legal fray. They won an agreement that saw the Crown destroy Karla and Paul’s trophy videos and photographs of their teenagers’ final hours. They argued unsuccessfully to reopen Karla’s plea deal after another case, the rape of a “Jane Doe,” came to light, and fought to keep her Section 810 conditions in place. Now, they worry about what might happen to the baby, but they’re too tired to launch a new crusade, says Danson. Mostly, they just ask themselves the question that’s on a lot of minds. How can it be that Karla Homolka is fit to be a mother?
Since the night she first sat down with police in February 1993 to talk about her by-then-estranged husband, Karla Homolka has hardly lived the unexamined life. She has been interviewed, deposed, cross-examined, poked and prodded by all manner of investigators, lawyers, counsellors and psychiatrists. If there is a psychological test, she has been subjected to it—often more than once. Between her 1993 plea deal and her 2005 release, Homolka was examined by at least 16 different mental health professionals, and her prison file contains almost two dozen status reports and formal risk evaluations.
The bulk of those studies all came to the same conclusion: despite her heinous crimes, Karla Homolka is pretty much normal. “All the documents available since her arrest, including even the tapes, show that before meeting this man, she was behaving very well—no mental illness, no drug abuse, not impulsive,” says Dr. Louis Morissette of Montreal’s Institut Philippe-Pinel. A well-respected psychiatrist with more than 25 years of experience treating violent criminals, he examined Homolka in 2005 and testified on her behalf at the Section 810 hearings. “I’m not saying she’s good and did good things, but her progress has been steady, and she comes from a good milieu. She was bad for three years.” Karla’s risk of reoffending is very low, he says, as long as she stays away from “controlling people,” like Paul Bernardo.
That caveat—a common theme in most of her evaluations—has never sat comfortably with the public. Particularly after the extent of her participation in the French and Mahaffy murders, and other unpunished crimes, became known. In 1990, Karla offered her sister Tammy up to Paul as a Christmas gift, plotting out the rape for weeks in advance. She held the halothane-soaked rag over her sister’s face, administering what would prove to be a fatal dose of the anaesthetic. She even participated in the rape as her husband caught it all on tape.
In June 1991, when Paul kidnapped Leslie Mahaffy on a whim, Karla was initially a little irked—their wedding was just two weeks away—but only became really upset when he gave the teen a drink from the good champagne flutes in between the rapes. Whatever her level of distress, it wasn’t enough that Homolka considered asking for help, or calling the police when she left the house to take the family dog for his daily walk. Upon her return, she joined in the attacks, and even gave the girl her teddy bear to hold while she was strangled. The next day, the couple entertained Homolka’s parents.
By Easter weekend 1992, Karla was clearly relishing her role as a femme fatale. As she and Paul drove around St. Catharines, she
selected Kristen French as their next victim, then approached the 15-year-old for directions, giving her husband the chance to sneak up and grab her from behind. In between their videotaped assaults, Karla guarded the girl while Paul ran out to get some takeout and a movie. Again, Homolka participated in the rapes, fuelling Paul’s fantasies and at one point dressing up in a schoolgirl’s uniform like her victim. French died on Easter Sunday afternoon, because an impatient Karla wanted to make sure that they wouldn’t be late for dinner at her parents’ house.
The Ontario government reacted to the public outrage-350,000 people signed a petition demanding that Homolka’s plea deal be scrapped when the rape of “Jane Doe” came to light in 1994—by asking retired judge Patrick Galligan to examine the bargain. His report concluded that without the incriminating videotapes that came to light much later (police never found them in their 71-day search of the Bernardo home in the spring of1993), the authorities had little choice. Galligan accepted Karla’s explanation that she had developed amnesia about the Jane Doe assaults, and endorsed the Crown’s view that Homolka was as much a victim as a killer.
Prior to her sentencing, and early in her incarceration, Karla’s psychiatric reports tended to stress the physical and mental abuse she suffered at the hands of her ex-husband. (The final rupture in their relationship came when Bernardo beat her with a flashlight and stabbed her with a screwdriver, putting her in hospital.) Their diagnoses were fairly uniform: Karla was a battered woman suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
As time went on, dissenting opinions started to develop. A 1999 report noted that Karla seemed to be having trouble accepting any responsibility for the deaths of Mahafly, French and her sister, instead presenting herself
“strictly as a victim.” In 2000, a psychologist who examined Homolka’s file, but did not interview her, raised questions about whether she was suffering from PTSD or was truly a battered woman. (Beyond the attack that hospitalized her, there is little other than Karla’s word to substantiate her other claims of abuse.) In 2001, a psychiatrist from Montreal’s Douglas Institute, Dr. Bertrand Major, went a step further, declaring Karla to be a psychopath who suffered from narcissistic personality disorder, and simulated her amnesia over the Jane Doe rapes.
As skeptics point out, all of the voluminous studies on Homolka have the taint of politics about them. The early findings seemed to justify the plea bargain. The latter reports tended to back up Corrections Canada’s decisions to deny her parole, keep her locked up until the end of her sentence, and impose special conditions upon her release. One thing is unquestionable—in comparison to her jailhouse compatriots, Karla was a model prisoner. In 12 years, she never once committed a disciplinary infraction, satisfactorily completed all of her “life skills” and anger management courses, and even earned a correspondence degree in psychology from Queen’s University.
The sole black mark during Homolka’s incarceration was a relationship she struck up with a male inmate in late 2001, while they were both warehoused at the Ste-Annedes-Plaines maximum security prison. Karla met Jean-Paul Gerbet—a French national serving a life sentence for murdering his Quebecer girlfriend, Cathy Carretta-while working in the prison library. They wrote each other sexually charged letters, exchanged
IT’S PAINFUL FOR THE VICTIMS FAMILIES, SAYS THEIR LAWYER ‘SHE’S HAVING PRECISELY WHAT THEY CAN’T HAVE.’
clean pairs of underwear, and once stole a kiss between the stacks.
Morissette says no one should be too concerned about that flirtation, suggesting it was more a result of a shallow dating pool than any sort of fixation with dangerous men. Prison “hookups” are hardly unusual (Homolka herself had a same-sex relationship at Joliette) and all the potential romantic partner are dubious in one way or another. And while Morissette refuses to confirm or deny whether he has continued to treat Karla after her release, he speaks authoritatively about her post-release behaviour. “She has learned to stay away from controlling people.” Homolka’s long-term treatment prospects are good, he says, in part because her crimes were not motivated by sexual compulsions or deviancy. “She did it for power.”
But with many differing opinions over the years, the public may well be justified in asking how the system can be so sure she won’t do it again, if the doctors can’t agree why she committed the offences in the first place. As one of her early psychiatrists, Dr. Angus MacDonald, wrote in 1995, there is something at the heart of this killer that even the pros have trouble reconciling. “Karla Homolka remains something of a diagnostic mystery. Despite her ability to present herself very well, there is a moral vacuity in her which is difficult, if not impossible to explain.”
Karla has always been a big believer in the magic of childhood. In jail, her cell was packed with stuffed animals and decorated with the kinds of posters and hearts-and-flowers tchotchkes that an eight-year-old might choose. A lifelong Disney fanatic, Homolka even had Mickey Mouse bedsheets on her prison cot. No small irony, given that what initially piqued the police’s interest in her was the cartoon rodent watch visible in the photos the hospital had taken to document Bernardo’s beating. (The timepiece was exactly the same as the one Kristen French was wearing the day she disappeared.)
And Karla has always been forthright about her plans to start a family. From her first days in custody, she was preoccupied with building a new life, plotting out just what to tell potential suitors about her past. “She wishes to meet a man who believes in the moral values of marriage, who is educated, loyal, who wants children,” a prison psychiatrist wrote in 1998. The ideal man would love his mother, like pets, have no criminal background, and “if possible” be attractive. (A reproductive fantasy that was certainly more wholesome than the ones she shared with Bernardo. Early in 1991, just weeks after Tammy’s death, she and Paul made a pornographic videotape in which she masqueraded as her dead sister. Lying in a post-coital embrace, she urged Bernardo to rape more young girls. “You can take their virginity. They’ll be our children,” Karla said, laughing.) In jail, Karla even made a bid to sign up for parenting classes, but was rejected on the grounds that her crimes involved minors.
Once released and free of her conditions, there were certainly no legal impediments to Homolka’s desire to reproduce. Despite the nature of her crimes, her manslaughter conviction meant that she was never classified as a sex offender. (In fact, Homolka had to make multiple requests before jail authorities agreed to let her participate in their sex-offender treatment programs.) Court-ordered chemical castration—drugs that lower the libido— was therefore never an option. And forced sterilization has been illegal in Canada since the Supreme Court’s 1986 “Eve” decision.
Common sense (and revulsion) aside, there appears to be little hard evidence to suggest that Homolka’s offspring face any greater danger than anyone else’s kids. In large part, that’s because there are so few other examples of female multiple murderers who have gained their freedom while still young enough to have children. The trend in women’s corrections these days is to give offenders more, not less,
access to their kids. Most new jails, like the project announced by Manitoba’s NDP government in April, are being built with nursery units and playgrounds, so mothers who give birth in custody don’t have to hand their infants over to youth protection. With the vast majority of female offenders incarcerated for non-violent, drug-related crimes, the notion is that children can be a key factor in rehabilitation, helping their mothers learn responsibility and providing incentive to stay clean.
And research into the children of inmates has tended to focus on the negative psychological and economic effects of separation from their parents, not what happens to the kids who are born after mom or dad returns home. For example, a recent British study found 48 per cent of boys who were separated because of parental imprisonment between birth and age 10 went on to have adult convictions. Other research points to greater risk of mental health problems, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment and failed relationships. But relatively scant attention has been paid to differences between the children of male and female offenders. And questions like whether the children of violent offenders are more or less likely to have problems have yet to be answered. “Researchers are still having trouble finding out what the effects of paren tal imprisonment on children are,” Joe Murray, a developmental criminolo-
SHE TRIED SIGNING UP FOR PARENTING CLASSES IN PRISON BUT WAS DENIED BECAUSE HER CRIMES INVOLVED MINORS
gist at Cambridge University, wrote in an email. “And little is known about how those effects differ according to the type of crime parents have committed, and whether they are caused by enduring stigma.”
Of course, in a case like Karla’s, child protection authorities always have the option of stepping in and removing the infant from real, or potential, harm. Quebec’s Loi sur la protection de la jeunesse dictates that professionals who come in contact with children are required to report “any situation” in which they have “reasonable grounds to believe that a child requires protection under the Act.” There are suggestions that a nurse at the hospital where Homolka gave birth lodged a complaint, but the provincial Order of Nurses denies any knowledge, as do those close to Karla. Sylvie Bordelais, Homolka’s long-time lawyer, says she knows nothing of the matter, and has had little contact with her former client since the 810 order was lifted in 2005. “I only know what I read in the paper.” Bordelais, who shares a surname with Homolka’s new companion, also flatly denied media speculation that she played any role in bringing the couple together. “Thierry? Who’s Thierry?” she snapped. “I have no idea if I’m related to him.”
Calls to another Montreal lawyer who recently acted for Homolka were not returned. And repeated attempts to contact her par-
ents at their St. Catharines home were not acknowledged. In a brief conversation with reporters in early April, Thierry Bordelais said it is time to leave his spouse in peace. “She paid her debt to society. She has the right to a private life.”
Quebec youth protection authorities are legally bound not to comment on their cases. But the recently redrawn Loi would seem to offer few reasons for Protection de la Jeunesse to have any lasting involvement in a case like Homolka’s. Michael Godman, the long-time director of youth protection for the Batshaw Centre, which services Montreal’s English and allophone communities, consulted on the act’s redrafting. He says the emphasis is now on diverting low-risk cases out of the system, and concentrating resources on children who are deemed to be in imminent danger of abuse, abandonment or neglect.
The revised act does give authorities new powers to intervene where there is a risk— not just evidence—of serious abuse. (Godman uses the example of a mother who hooks up with a man with a history of child sex offences.) To some,
Karla Homolka’s case might sound like the perfect occasion to test drive those preventative powers. But like the “moral” intervention grounds in the old law, they are unlikely to be broadly applied, says Godman.
The province has long taken a liberal view of who is fit to rear a child. “If you have a mother who is a prostitute or stripper outside of the home... we’re not the moral police,” says Godman. “A father could be a criminal, or be in the Mafia, for God’s sake, and still be a good parent.”
And just as there is no necessary correlation between criminality and a bad home, there’s nothing to say that someone with a murderous past can’t have a loving future. In biological terms, killing and reproducing are two sides of the same coin. “Mating and murder are very closely related,” says David
Buss, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Texas in Austin. Most of the motives for killing—at least for men—are intimately related to sex: rage at rivals, jealousy over infidelity. Killing has also evolved as a strategy for gaining the things men need to attract mates—tools, food and territory in the past, money and status today.
Women also kill for almost exclusively reproductive reasons—to protect children, or rid themselves of an abusive partner. The reason that Karla’s case is so unusual, says Buss, is that she appears to have killed as a mate retention strategy. “She wanted to keep Bernardo happy and keep him with her.” Buss, who in his work has examined 400,000 FBI files and interviewed more than 300 killers, says he’s never found another situation like it. But no matter how unique Karla is, he’s not surprised that she wanted a baby: “Selection has designed us to be reproducers and killers.”
SO FAR, SHE APPEARS TO BE A MODEL CITIZEN. BUT SEEING KARLA FREE, HAPPY AND IN LOVE ISN’T EASY TO STOMACH.
Neither is Stephen Williams, the author who struck up a 2lhyear dialogue with Karla, corresponding with and visiting her in prison. The exchanges, which became the basis for his book Karla: A Pact With the Devil, showed her to be a “rare bird,” he says. Williams says there are really no parallels to Karla’s case—a celebrated killer who ultimately was set free without conditions or supervisions. But given her improbable second chance, he says he would be surprised if she ever harms anyone else, let alone her baby. Karla is five-foot-four and slight, notes Williams, and despite her bloody past, hardly the stuff of nightmares. “I don’t fear the bogeyman or the night crawler,“ he says. “The people that really scare me are the people who gave her a future.” M