Canadian-born killers

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NIAGARA FALLS, Canada -- The Criminals Hall of Fame Wax Museum, a garish little exhibit snuggled among the tourist traps here, has Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, but Karla Homolka and her ex-husband, Paul Bernardo, are absent.

With multiple rapes, two kidnappings, three murders and six hours of home video to document much of it, Bernardo and Homolka are clearly Hall of Fame material. But at a museum that devotes itself almost exclusively to American psychos, there is no pride of ownership in the accomplishments of a local couple.

Truth to tell, Canadians would like Paul and Karla to go away, something that became harder when Homolka walked out of prison Monday, beneficiary of a plea bargain that still has the locals seething.

"They're all disgusted. They feel she should have been put away for life," said Angela McClelland as she sold tickets at the Hall of Fame's front counter.

Homolka was 17 when she met Paul Bernardo, an accountant-turned-cigarette smuggler. They had sex two hours after they met at a hotel in nearby Scarborough, where Bernardo's hobby was attacking local women. Fixated on adolescent girls, Bernardo asked Karla to help him procure virgins. She complied. On Dec. 23, 1991, on their second try, Karla drugged her younger sister, Tammy, at the Homolka family home in nearby St. Catharines. As they videotaped the rape, an unconscious Tammy choked on her own vomit and died. Nobody was the wiser. Six months later, the pair married in a white-gown ceremony at Niagara-on-the-Lake, and rode off in a horse-drawn carriage to a new life in the St. Catharines suburb of Port Dalhousie.

On the day of their wedding, the dismembered body of 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy was found encased in concrete when the water level dropped at the nearby lake in which the couple had deposited her corpse after raping and murdering her two weeks earlier.

On April 16 of 1992, the pair snatched Kristen French, 15, from a church parking lot in St. Catharines, took her to their home in Port Dalhousie and, over a two-week period, tortured and raped her, then killed her and dumped her body in a ditch.

Karla finally turned on her husband after he used a large flashlight to decorate her face with black eyes and swollen lips. She told police she had been intimidated into helping him. She read up on battered-spouse syndrome and post-traumatic shock and attempted the awkward transition from perpetrator to domestic hostage.

By the time police learned of the videotapes in which a smiling Karla joins in the rape and torture of the girls, they had locked themselves into an ironclad plea bargain that gave her a total of 12 years in prison in return for testimony that was now redundant.

They were especially embarrassed to find yet another drugging-rape Karla hadn't bothered to mention.

"The fact of the matter is that she got away with murder," said Tim Danson, a Toronto lawyer who has represented the French and Mahaffy families, first in their fight to get the killers tossed in jail, then to block excessive publicity about the details, to the point of supporting a court ban on reporting of some of the details.

If the position of the victims' families about press coverage seems severe, Homolka managed last week to surpass it. Before leaving a Quebec prison, where she received her college diploma and perfected her French, Homolka filed suit in Canadian court to ban press coverage about her post-prison life.

Then, hours after she was spirited out of prison -- Canadian prison guards kindly set up a diversion with a dummy getaway car -- Homolka arrived at the studios of the French-language network of the Canadian Broadcasting Company for an exclusive interview where she, in a very real sense, defected from English-speaking Canada to French-speaking Canada.

"I don't want to be hounded and I don't want people to think that I am a dangerous person who's going to do something to their children," Homolka told an interviewer.

Her crimes, she said, were a result of her powerlessness.

"I was in a situation where I was unable to see clearly, where I was unable to ask for help," she said. "Where I was completely overwhelmed in my life and I regret it enormously now because now I know I had the power to stop all of that. But when I was living through it, I thought I had no power."

She now plans to live in Montreal, where coverage of her crimes was less prevalent than in English-speaking Canada.

The inability to comprehend a celebrity killer, someone able to summon attention and play with reality, seems troubling to the Canadian identity.

"We don't have these kinds of killings here. We hear about them in America," said Judi McMullen, a hospital worker who gave me directions to Port Dalhousie.

In a country whose citizens define themselves by something they're not -- Americans -- conduct redolent of Yankee psychosis takes some powerful scrubbing. The city of St. Catharines bought the house Karla and Paul rented at 57 Bayview in Port Dalhousie and, in a public ceremony, knocked it down. The lot was sold, the buyers put up a spiffing new house, and the lot was renumbered 61. Even the address is gone.

Back in Niagara Falls, the traffic was moving briskly at the Criminals Hall of Fame. McClelland said they're considering additions: the D.C. snipers, and the BTK Killer from Wichita. Sometimes visitors ask about Bernardo, and McClelland explains local sensitivities. Once a woman sent her mother and daughter in but stayed outside, explaining she was a survivor of an attack by one of the figures inside, Son of Sam.

As McClelland spoke, a mother approached the counter.

"Is my daughter going to be frightened?" she asked.

"It's just wax statues. No noises, nobody jumping out at you," McClelland said.

The pair went inside. A waxen Ted Bundy awaited them. If they want to see Karla Homolka, they'll have to visit Montreal.

Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist,, 412-263-1965.


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