The story of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka is a familiar one to many true crime aficionados (particularly Canadians like myself), but it’s my closest brush with murder – at least that I am aware of!
Paul Bernardo was called the Scarborough Rapist, the Schoolgirl Killer, and he and Karla Homolka were dubbed the “Ken & Barbie Killers” because of their unsuspecting appearance. Both were good-looking, wealthy young blondes who worked together to lure, torture, sexually assault, and murder young girls. Their victims included Leslie Mahaffy, Kristen French, and Karla’s own younger sister Tammy.
The stories were all over the news, of course, while police investigated Paul’s early crimes: over a dozen sexual assaults on young women he mostly followed home from bus stops in Scarborough – a suburb of Toronto, Ontario (which I call my home town) in the late 1980s. Then the creepy couple made headlines together while they committed murders in the early 1990s, and finally went on trial in 1995.
I, however, was 10 years old in 1995 and hadn’t yet realized a fascination with true crime. What first piqued my interest was the handful of books about the killer duo that I noticed on my older brother’s bookshelf in 1999. At that time, I was a high school student in Burlington, Ontario – just like Leslie Mahaffy had been when she was abducted by Bernardo. My brother explained that another victim was grabbed from St. Catharines, Ontario, nearby where he himself was living at the time. Thoroughly creeped out and hungry for more, I borrowed his books.
I learned that Bernardo’s story started with a father who was convicted of sexually assaulting young girls including Paul’s sister, which encouraged in Paul a very unhealthy relationship with women and sexuality. He was into pickup artistry, which escalated into full on sexual assault and violence with his early girlfriends, and later, strangers. When he met Karla Homolka, he confessed his “dark desires,” and apparently being so enamored with him that she couldn’t say no, she teamed up with him to lure and torture victims.
She first offered up her sister Tammy as a “Christmas Present” for Bernardo after drugging her eggnog. They assaulted her while videotaping the whole thing, and though they didn’t intend for her to die, the same fate eventually befell two others they abducted as well (because dosage is a specific science, and blindfolds slip, and things don’t always go according to plan!)
At first, they explained away Tammy’s Death and no foul play was suspected. When they wound up with the dead bodies of strange young women on their hands, Paul dismembered the corpses, buried them in concrete, and dropped them in a lake.
I learned about killers keeping trophies (like Paul & Karla’s video tapes), and being convicted on DNA evidence (but not before being overlooked on account of rich-white privilege, and being handsome).
I was eager to discuss all that I had read with my bro, who then told me about his personal affiliation: he had met Paul and Karla several times. He was working at a grocery store in St. Catharines, Ontario, with Karla’s other sister, Lori, and they often came into the store. He said they always seemed sweet and he never would have imagined they were such sadistic criminals!
That summer we were often back and forth between Toronto > Burlington > St. Catharines; driving around, wasting time, exploring the shopping malls of the region (as one does with their summer vacation from school, I guess).
Still pretty hung up on the stories of the Ken & Barbie killers, when we passed by the grocery store where my brother used to work, we decided to pop in. He was just pondering aloud what Lori Homolka might be up to now, when she walked right past us, on her way to the breakroom (she was still working there!)
A really fascinating aspect of following true crime, and particularly serial killers, is the synchronicity of it all, and those “small world” moments you have when you read the stories. This, the first case that hooked me, has followed me around as I met more Canadian lovers of true crime, and they have shared their stories with me.
I even worked with a cook in Toronto whose previous gig was at the Kingston Penitentiary, where he cooked Paul Bernardo’s meals! Now, I have found a home in Montreal, Quebec, where Karla Homolka currently lives. This case was the closest to home for me, and the one that really struck me with the true crime bug, and it always makes me wonder how many times I’ve unwittingly crossed paths with murderers.