Record of Horror
Much as the O.J. Simpson case has riveted its American audience, the Bernardo story, over the past 2½ years, has held Canadians spellbound. In February 1993, Bernardo, who lived with his wife, Karla Homolka, now 25, in St. Catharines, Ont., was arrested for a series of sexual attacks on 19 women. The arrest stunned the couple's neighbors. But even more shocking was the fact that not only was Bernardo, an aspiring rap singer who had worked as an accountant for Price Waterhouse, charged with the rapes but he was later convicted of killing two young girls, Leslie Mahaffy, 14, and Kristen French, 15.
Two years ago, Homolka, who once worked as an assistant to a veterinarian, pled guilty to reduced charges of manslaughter in the deaths of Mahaffy and French. In return for a relatively lenient 12-year sentence, she agreed to testify against her husband, whom she divorced last year. Her courtroom account of their marriage, complete with stories of physical abuse and depraved sex, sounded like something out of Sade. Ultimately, Bernardo tried to portray himself as contrite. "When I look back," he told the court, "on how our life went and how our sexual fantasies went and how they hurt so many people, I can't believe it."
Those who followed the four-month trial had trouble believing it as well. During his seven days on the stand, Bernardo was by turns disarmingly matter-of-fact and brazenly evasive. He admitted that he had kidnapped Mahaffy and French, who were selected because they were young and attractive. The goal was to turn them into sex slaves. Bernardo also acknowledged taking the girls to the couple's Cape Cod-style house, where they were sexually assaulted and tortured. But he insisted he had not actually killed them, claiming that he was in the garage filling his car with gas when Mahaffy died, and that French had somehow strangled herself on a length of electrical cord being used to restrain her. As Bernardo told it, he and Homolka had shared an "equal partnership" in the crimes.
But the 12 hours of videotape introduced as evidence told a very different story. (Only the judge, jurors and lawyers actually saw the tapes, which were found hidden above a light fixture at Bernardo's house months after his arrest. Reporters and spectators heard just the audio portions.) In one sequence, Bernardo could be seen raping a bound French, who was abducted while returning home from school on April 16, 1992, and held for several days. On the tape he can be heard forcing her to say "I love you" over and over to him, even as she cries out in pain. At one point he ordered Homolka to get him a Kleenex. "Get me a couple, Kar," he said. Then he barked, "Get me a lot. What are you, a f—king idiot? "In the case of Leslie Mahaffy, who was kidnapped from her backyard in the early morning hours of June 15, 1991, Bernardo was filmed raping and sodomizing the girl only a few hours before she was killed. With Mahaffy screaming in the background, according to prosecutor Ray Houlahan, Bernardo looks at the camera and smiles. Though Homolka is also seen having sex with Mahaffy on the video, she does not utter a word. Leslie's body was dismembered, encased in concrete and dumped in nearby Lake Gibson; Kristen's abused body was found in a ditch.
The effect of the tapes on the spectators, especially the families of the murdered girls, was profoundly disturbing. (Most of the details had earlier been withheld from the public on court order.) The night she was kidnapped, Mahaffy had been locked out of the house by her mother, Debbie, who was trying to teach her daughter a lesson about breaking curfew. Listening to Leslie's wrenching screams, Debbie could barely contain her grief. "She almost collapsed," says Alan Cairns, who both covered the trial for the Toronto Sun and, with Scott Burnside, wrote a book on the case to be published this month. "She tried to stand up and she almost fell she was so shaken."
So horrific were the tapes and testimony that any note of normality seemed jarringly incongruous. At one point, Kristen, who had been repeatedly raped, told Bernardo, "I don't know how your wife can stand being around you." On the stand, Bernardo himself produced a moment of presumably unintended levity. Trying to explain what motivated him, he told Houlahan during cross-examination, "Obviously, looking back, I had a problem with sexuality. For me to explain now, I don't think I can. Down the road I'm going to have to seek professional help for it." At this point, waves of derisive laughter swept the courtroom.
At her own trial; and in her testimony against Bernardo, Homolka shed a good deal of light on how she had become his accomplice. They had met in 1987, when she was 17 and he 23. She said she was instantly smitten by Bernardo's good looks and charm. They were married in June 1991. The wedding seemed perfect, but even by then the couple was deep into depravity, having already killed Leslie, whose body was discovered the day of their wedding. Bernardo wanted nothing less than total domination over Homolka. As early as 1988, she said, he had forced her to buy a dog choke. "Paul wanted me to purchase it so he could put it around my throat while we were having sex," she told the court. After their honeymoon he insisted that she write him a fawning love note every evening.
But the real turning point in their relationship came in 1990, when Homolka helped Bernardo drug and rape her 15-year-old sister, Tammy, which resulted in Tammy's choking to death on her own vomit the day before Christmas. At the time police didn't realize a rape had taken place and ruled the death accidental. Explaining her participation in the assault, which Bernardo had videotaped, Homolka said she hoped it would be just a passing sexual fantasy for her then-fiancé. "I still loved him, and I wanted to make him happy," she said. Ultimately, she testified, Bernardo beat her nearly every day, which she claimed rendered her completely subservient.
After his conviction, Bernardo was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for at least 25 years. What's more, Canadian law makes it possible to keep certain dangerous criminals in jail indefinitely. The fact that he will no longer be free to torment any more victims is about the only solace that the families of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French, as well as the other women he attacked, could take from the proceedings. "Only the trial is over," said Leslie's father, Dan, after the verdict. "Leslie is still not coming home."
FANNIE WEINSTEIN in Toronto