Toronto Star

November 6, 1999

That long, hot summer . . .

Karla Homolka reopens wounds left by a chilling trial amid the heat of '95

By Rosie Dimanno
Toronto Star

IN THE HEAT of that sweaty, sordid summer, this entire city was chilled to the marrow.

The blood ran hot, then cold, in 1995, when Karla Homolka took the stand to testify against her estranged husband, Paul Bernardo, charged with first-degree murder in the sex slayings of 15-year-old Kristen French and 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy.

The public had been warned - insofar as the media were allowed to even hint at what had transpired during an earlier trial, wherein Homolka pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a pre-arranged 12-year sentence for her complicity in the killings of the schoolgirls. Homolka had also admitted her complicity in the death (originally ruled an accident) of her own baby sister, Tammy, who choked on her vomit after she'd been drugged and sexually assaulted by the gruesome twosome in the family home on Christmas Eve, 1990.

Our courts protected Karla at her trial, imposing a sweeping publication ban on the proceedings in St. Catharines, and even banishing private citizens from our alleged open courts, out of fear that someone might reveal something about the travesty of justice that had unfolded. All this, ostensibly, to protect Bernardo's right to a fair trial, though his lawyer had dropped objections to an open proceeding.

Thus Homolka - after having enjoyed at least one final fling with a man she picked up in a bar (as she explained later, she didn't want her last experience of man-woman sex before entering penitentiary to be that thing she'd had with Bernardo) - was granted the full protection and secrecy of our benevolent court system.

But here is the final, wretched irony: Karla Homolka seems to be the only person unchanged by the events of that long, torrid summer.

She remains what she's always been - breathlessly self-absorbed, without conscience, without remorse, without a shred of human decency.

It's the rest of us who have been forever altered.

A trial is inherently dignified, no matter how coarse or revolting the crime; no matter how vulgar and pornographic the evidence. It's the trappings of the justice system, right down to the swishing black robes of the lawyers and the scarlet sash of the judge, that lends a patina of gravity and stateliness to the proceedings.

Those constants were present in courtroom 6-1 of the University Ave. courthouse as well, even as media from near and far constructed their scaffolding across the street from the building. It looked, from outside, not that much different from the spectacle unfolding in Los Angeles, where the O. J. Simpson trial went on and on.

Justice Patrick LeSage brought his considerable wisdom and courtly demeanour to the affair; a remarkably composed jury behaved beautifully; even courtroom spectators managed to control their outbursts, while watching pornographic tapes that LeSage permitted to be viewed by one and all - these not the infamous videos of the assaults on Leslie, Kristen and Tammy.

But, at heart, all this composure was a facade.

Nothing could diminish the horror and grotesqueries unfolding in that courtroom, with Homolka - deliberately anti-sensual in her demure outfits, limp haircut, lack of makeup and modest demeanour - on the witness stand for three weeks.

Over that time, she could not help herself; her innate character emerged: She transformed, before our eyes, from meek and compliant to obstinate and defiant and, finally, to triumphant and in the clear, leaving that courtroom with a toss of her now more artfully styled blonde hair.

She had said, at one point, under the relentless cross-examination of lead defence lawyer John Rosen: ``The real punishment is living with my guilt and my shame for the rest of my life.''

Liar.

As we know now, from the affidavit Homolka filed in support of an appeal of a decision by her warden at Joliette prison to deny her early escorted pass privileges, this predator-killer has no shame and no guilt.

After electing not to go before the parole board for early release, Homolka attempted an end-run by quietly applying for temporary escorted passes for a period of six months, to spend daytime hours at a halfway house.

The Star was tipped to this scheme and wrote about it, quoting extensively from the appeal file documents that were subsequently subjected to a publication ban. But not before the public was informed and immediately expressed its rage.

It's a curious thing, how much more angry the public is toward Homolka than toward Bernardo, who was convicted of killing Kristen and Leslie - according to Homolka, her husband strangled both girls after their confinement in the couple's home. Neither death is captured on videotapes the couple made of their repeated and vicious assaults on the girls.

There is a sense that - with no capital punishment option - Bernardo, who was also the Scarborough Rapist, got the best, or worst, that the Canadian courts could throw at him: 25 years in prison with no chance for parole, and a subsequent dangerous offender designation, which could see him held even beyond that quarter-century, perhaps for his whole life. Bernardo's lawyer just this week filed an appeal for a new trial on the two first-degree murder convictions. But Karla, according to prevailing sentiment, got away with bloody murder.

She waltzed into her own trial - after enjoying freedom while out on $110,000 bail - secure in the knowledge of her ``deal with the devil'' that she would receive no more than a piddly 12-year sentence, having promised to appear as the crown's main witness at Bernardo's trial.

It was a travesty, necessitated by the failure of police to find those incriminating videotapes until after the deal was struck. (And that required Homolka to do some fast dancing, conjuring up her ``dream'' scenario, wherein she recalled yet another sexual assault, on a teenager described in court as Jane Doe, who survived her drugging and raping ordeal, with no memory of it in fact. Karla had never told her interrogators about that one, while insisting she had been entirely forthcoming. Now she was faced with evidence to the contrary.)

The public seethed. That fury was further fuelled by Crown Attorney Ray Houlihan's gerrymandered contention that Karla had been a chronically abused and brutalized spouse - traumatized, a victim of battered wife syndrome - who'd played her role of smiling sexual sadist on those videotapes to save her own skin and to keep Bernardo from revealing her complicity in Tammy's death to her parents.

No sensible explanation was ever offered as to why Homolka offered Tammy to Bernardo as a sexual gift, when they weren't even married at the time, nor living together, and Karla could have easily revealed Bernardo for the pervert he was. Yet she continued to plan her ornate wedding, even griping when her parents urged something more modest, or to delay the nuptials, after Tammy's death.

But, oh no, not our Karla. Not the girl who claimed that drugging and raping Tammy was preferable - kinder, gentler - than allowing Bernardo to grab the adolescent off the street as he'd threatened, and raping her without benefit of Halothane or that cocktail of sedatives.

The mind reels. The stomach heaves.

No matter how carefully, how delicately, the media attempted to report Homolka's testimony at Bernardo's trial, there was no getting around the ghastliness of the evidence. Such language had never been published in Canadian newspapers or heard on broadcasts. Such acts of sexual depravity had never been documented within the context of a court proceeding where the critical evidence was a series of homemade videotapes.

Sex and intimacy became ugly and contorted. Reporters at the trial admitted they were recoiling from natural conjugal relations with their spouses. Everything felt sordid and soiled.

But on and on Homolka went: Yes, that was she inserting her finger into her insentient sister's vagina. Yes, she was the one who lured Kristen French into the car on the afternoon the girl was abducted while on her way home from school. Yes, that was she performing oral sex and analingus (a word many of us had never known before) on the victims and her husband. Yes, that was she impersonating her dead sister while she was having sex with Bernardo. Yes, that was she ignoring Leslie Mahaffy's pleas for mercy, her moans and whimpers of pain as she begged to see her family, her little brother, one more time. Yes, that was she who played dress-up with Kristen French, following Bernardo's script, trying out perfumes and makeup. Yes, that was she plunging a bottle into Kristen's rectum.

Karla . . . Karla . . . Karla . . .

And every day - sometimes in clumsy fashion, often with feelings of self-loathing - men and women and even children would discuss these horrendous details, at work, around the dinner table, in movie lineups. The trial was omnipresent.

Despite our repugnance, we couldn't turn away. But we survived it, ultimately. It was, I think, the minimum we owed the victims, those beautiful girls: To not shield our eyes, to not cover our ears.

They lived and died it. The least we could do was not hide from it. In truth, I believe, the depravity of Paul and Karla Bernardo never soiled nor tainted the loveliness of those girls. The killers couldn't steal the grace from their victims.

``Some things are worth dying for,'' Karla told the court Kristen had said, shortly before her murder, when she would no longer submit to Bernardo's commands.

We were foolish, if we believed that it was all over when the trial concluded, the jury rendered its verdict and the guilty went to jail.

Karla and Paul are out there still, scheming and plotting and commanding our attention by their very existence.

What we thought we'd buried with the passage of time was actually still there, just below the surface, just below the skin.

And now, those horrors - that fury - feels just as raw as it did four years ago.

That's what Karla has done to us this past week. She picked off the thin crust over an old wound. She made everybody bleed again, most especially the families of those murdered girls.

I fear we will never be rid of this succubus.



Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. E-mail: dimanno@hotstar.net

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