This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on August 18, 1997. Partner content is not updated.If there is a benchmark for evil, in the minds of many Canadians it is Clifford Robert Olson. During the last 40 of his 57 years, Olson has been outside the walls of a prison for barely 48 months. But in that short time, he caused incalculable pain, suffering and injury.
Olson's Faint Hope
If there is a benchmark for evil, in the minds of many Canadians it is Clifford Robert Olson. During the last 40 of his 57 years, Olson has been outside the walls of a prison for barely 48 months. But in that short time, he caused incalculable pain, suffering and injury. In 1982, after he confessed to abducting, raping and killing eight girls and three boys aged 9 to 18, a British Columbia court sentenced him to life imprisonment, without eligibility for parole for 25 years. But next week, barely 15 years after that judgment, a private jet will fly Olson from Montreal to Vancouver to ask a specially convened jury for permission to seek an earlier release.
The mere idea of granting Olson that hearing - let alone the remote possibility that he might actually be successful - outrages many people. "It's insanity, a circus!" protests Gary Rosenfeldt, whose 16-year-old stepson, Daryn Johnsrude, was Olson's third confirmed victim. "This whole thing has brought my anger and frustration back to where they were 15 years ago," says Rosenfeldt, who runs an Ottawa-based victims' rights group with his wife, Sharon, Daryn's mother. Inevitably, the high-profile hearing, expected to last two weeks, will also renew the debate about how society should treat its most dangerously deviant members.
It is something of a legal oddity that the hearing is proceeding at all. In January, the Liberal government amended Section 745 of the Criminal Code - the so-called faint-hope clause, which allows people sentenced to at least 15 years with no access to parole to ask to have their parole eligibility reconsidered. The amendments eliminated what had been an offender's automatic right to a jury hearing. They also abolished hearings for multiple murderers. But by the time the new wording came into effect on Jan. 9, Olson, who became eligible to apply under the old rules last August, had already done so. Federal lawyers determined that the new limits could not be applied retroactively - and Olson will have his day in court.
To succeed in his application is something else again. Olson would have to persuade at least eight of the 12 jurors that he should be allowed to apply for parole earlier than 2006, the time specified by his sentence. That will be, to put it mildly, a formidable task.
In one sense, Olson has been a newsmaker from birth - his first mention in Vancouver's press came in January, 1940, along with other babies born on New Year's Day that year. But it was later, growing up on a street of modest houses in neighboring Richmond, that young Clifford's antisocial character began to show. While his mother, Leona, was at work at a local fish cannery and Clifford Sr. delivered milk with one of the area's last horse-drawn wagons, the eldest of their four children acquired a reputation as a mouthy young bully and petty thief. In their 1982 book, The Olson Murders, Jon Ferry and Damian Inwood describe a young smart-alec who was always in trouble - for selling out-of-date lottery tickets door to door, stealing money left out for milk, or tormenting local dogs and cats.
By age 17, Olson's criminal career was in high gear. In July, 1957, he was convicted of breaking and entering and theft. From then until his last arrest, in 1981, Olson never managed to stay out of prison for more than a few months. His convictions were mainly for burglary, fraud and theft. But Olson's deviant sexual side was developing as well. In 1974, he was accused of repeated sexual attacks on a 17-year-old fellow inmate in the B.C. Penitentiary. Four years later, he was identified as the man who indecently assaulted a seven-year-old girl in Sydney, N.S.
Still, by the time he was released from Matsqui Institution in July, 1980, law officers thought of Olson as a hardened con man - but not a killer. "He was seen as a thief, a false-pretense artist, a garrulous, extroverted, egotistical kind of person, but not as a sexual offender," said Bob Lusk, a former parole worker.
On Nov. 17, 1980, 12-year-old Christine Weller left the drab Surrey, B.C., motor court where she lived with her unemployed parents, to go window-shopping at the local mall. A few hours later, the fearless tomboy borrowed a friend's bicycle to ride home. She never arrived. Only a week later did her parents report her as missing. When they did, the police classified her as a runaway and took no action. On Christmas Day, a man walking his dog along the Fraser River dikes in Richmond found the girl's mutilated, decomposing body.
Olson would not kill again - so far as is known - for five months. In early April, he and his pregnant girlfriend, whom he would marry in May, moved into public housing in the bedroom community of Coquitlam - his base of operations for a four-month rampage of sadism. It began soon after the birth on April 10, 1981, of his own son, Clifford III. On April 16, Olson picked up a 13-year-old with long brown hair in nearby North Delta. Colleen Daignault was on her way home when the tanned older man in the gleaming rental car offered her a lift. Olson's usual script was to claim to be a contractor in need of young people to work at $10 an hour - twice the going rate - to wash windows or clean up around job sites. When the youngster accepted the offer, Olson would seal the deal with a drink. Often a little green pill went with the booze. It was chloral hydrate, and taken with alcohol it rendered the kids woozy and helpless. The wooded dikes, hills and side valleys of the Fraser River Delta offered plenty of places with enough privacy for Olson to complete his terrifying script. He took Colleen to a small forest, raped her, then beat her head in with a hammer.
Five days after killing Colleen, Olson struck again - virtually on his own doorstep. On April 21, Olson abducted Johnsrude, who was staying with his mother and stepfather at their home just two blocks from his apartment. Then, for a while, the disappearances came further apart: Sandra Wolfsteiner, 16, in mid-May; Ada Court, 13, on June 21. Drinking heavily, burgling and shoplifting, and only occasionally working in construction, Olson constantly pursued opportunities for theft or targets for his violent desires.
On July 2, less than two weeks after Court's abduction, nine-year-old Simon Partington vanished in Richmond while riding his bike to a friend's. A week later, Olson and a friend picked up 14-year-old Judy Kozma at a bus stop; later that day, Olson slashed and stabbed the promising gymnast repeatedly, dumping her body near a lake at Agassiz. Then, in the week between July 23 and 30, Olson struck four times, taking Raymond King, 15, West German tourist Sigrun Arndt, 18, Terri Carson, 15, and Louise Chartrand, 17.
By then, police were closing in. The RCMP had been aware of Olson since Christine Weller's disappearance the previous November. But it was not until hours after Terri Carson was taken, on July 27, 1981, that police put him under surveillance. Still, Olson managed to kill Chartrand, his last victim, three days later, just as the RCMP was setting up a task force to solve the spate of abductions and murders. Two weeks later, police tailed Olson to Vancouver Island, where he picked up two young women and drove them to a remote dirt road on the west coast. Suspecting he was about to attack one of them, the police moved in and made their arrest.
In custody, Olson struck a hugely controversial deal with police and the Crown. He agreed to take authorities to his victims' bodies - most of which had not been found at the time of his arrest - for $10,000 each, to be paid to his wife and son. In 1986, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected an attempt by the victims' parents to reclaim the $100,000 payoff.
Behind bars since 1981, Olson remains, by all accounts, what he has always been: boastful, vainglorious, mendacious and vicious. Banned by government order from contact with the media, Olson inflates his notoriety in other ways: narrating hours of video about his crimes, selling autographed copies of his card from a serial killer collector set. The cruel streak he once indulged by driving nails and screwdrivers into his still-living victims' brains now finds its outlet in obscene drawings and harassing letters he sends to their surviving family members.
Despite his appalling record of dishonesty, police cannot entirely rule out the possibility that he will shed light on additional crimes. Early last year, RCMP officers spent dozens of hours interviewing Olson, then housed at Prince Albert, Sask. They came away with detailed information about several killings, including three that Olson claimed to have committed in Saskatchewan. It was enough to convince the RCMP to get a court order allowing Olson out of prison for one day last August to guide investigators to alleged grave sites in eastern Saskatchewan. But "when he got to the area," said Prince Albert RCMP investigator Cpl. John Kubat, "he couldn't orient himself to anything. He seemed like it was his first time there." No bodies were found.
Still, authorities take Olson's continuing potential for violence - and escape - seriously. Officials with Corrections Canada, the RCMP and the court complex in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey where the hearings are being held all turn aside most questions about Olson's travel plans, citing security concerns. "The issue for us is his safety," said RCMP spokeswoman Sgt. Donna Brownlee. What is known is that an eight-seat RCMP Citation jet will take Olson, and at least one other inmate, from his maximum-security prison near Montreal to the Vancouver area. He will be housed in a regular holding cell at the Surrey complex, but the high-security courtroom reserved for Olson has undergone renovations to make it even more secure.
Olson seems likely to represent himself, as he did during a preliminary hearing on the same application last March, when he spoke to the court only through a telephone link. He will be allowed to challenge jurors, call witnesses (except his victims' relatives) and cross-examine any that the Crown may bring to oppose his application. Corrections Canada employee Sheila Ménard, a former case-management supervisor at Kingston Penitentiary, where Olson was housed for several years, will testify about his prison record.
Virtually no one expects Olson's application to succeed. "If that jury were composed of members of the lifers group at Millhaven [maximum-security penitentiary], he would still not get out," said Ottawa lawyer Felicity Hawthorn, who has conducted several Section 745 applications on behalf of clients. In fact, the jury may do more than merely reject Olson's application; it can also rule that he never be allowed to make another one. Why, then, is Olson bothering? "I think he enjoys inflicting pain on us, the victims' families," suggests Rosenfeldt, who plans to attend the hearing. "He's going to use it as an opportunity to smirk at us." At the very least, Olson clearly enjoys using the legal system he has violated at every turn to torment his keepers. The most litigious inmate in Canada's history, Olson will almost certainly appeal if he loses his application.
As to why such an odious individual has an opportunity to taunt his victims yet again, that answer may lie in what makes a just and democratic society function. Sociopaths, lacking a sense of common humanity, are incapable of forging bonds of love, family or society - or of understanding the value of laws that protect all people equally, even the worst. That others do understand, even at the price of their peace of mind, makes them different from Clifford Olson.
In May, Clifford Olson sent me a letter saying he was filing a "subponena" to have me appear as a character witness at his judicial review that begins on Aug. 18, where he will argue that he deserves early parole. He said the presiding judge wanted a letter from witnesses summarizing what they would say. I wrote Olson and Justice Richard Low of the B.C. Supreme Court to say I would honor a subpoena, but that I was unwilling to spell out what I would say about Olson's character before I heard the questions.
In early July, I got another letter from Olson saying the court was rejecting me as a witness. He explained that "the court is discrimination [sic] as to who the applicant may call as witness." I admit to some regret over not having a chance to appear - I would have enjoyed telling the jury there was no hope of Olson ever being rehabilitated. My wife, Yvonne, is relieved that I am not going. "The insolence of the man," she said. Insolence is the least of Olson's character flaws.
I guess I understand Olson as well as almost anyone. Despite an order banning him from any contacts with the media, he managed to clear the way for me to visit him every couple of weeks during the better part of a year in the early '90s, when he was in Ontario's Kingston Penitentiary. I also received almost daily phone calls from him. We are conditioned by novels, TV and movies to expect serial killers to be scary and sinister. Not Olson. He comes across as almost benign, ingratiating, friendly and utterly unthreatening - which makes him all the more frightening. Olson's young victims had no chance when he turned on the smarm. As for remorse for his crimes, no way. Olson claims regret, but only as a ploy. "Peter," he would say when asked, "words can't express how badly I feel for the families of these kids." Followed immediately by something like, "Say, how do you think the Blue Jays will do tonight?"
After a story I wrote about Olson appeared in Saturday Night magazine in 1993, Corrections Canada banned any contact with the media. But he still manages to call or write to me occasionally. While horrified by Olson's candor and graphic descriptions of his crimes, I admit to being intrigued by him. He is even funny, which makes it more macabre. In Kingston, Olson dabbled in various religions, eventually settling on Catholicism, and at one point had a dialogue going with the Vatican, which apparently took his protestations of remorse seriously. Of Catholicism, he'd say: "It's a great f---ing religion - no matter what you do, they'll forgive you. And if the Pope forgives me for what I done, who is anyone else not to forgive me?"
The malapropisms that pepper his conversation exaggerate the aura of unreality. While talking of two girls he claimed to have killed in Miami, he said they "lived in a condom." Recalling his anal penetration of one of his victims, he told me: "She was unconscientious when I had annual sex with her." Always full of himself, he bragged: "I've got five or six books in me which could be a trilogy."
In prison, Olson keeps busy exchanging letters with well over 100 groupies, many of them young women - some who even send him nude photographs of themselves, at his request. When he was in the federal pen at Prince Albert, Sask. - between Kingston and his current home at Quebec's Archambault prison - he found a way to cut his mailing costs. He would buy one-cent stamps, type the number 43 on each one, then mail his letters. He found the warning he received from Canada Post amusing: if he abused the mails, it said, he ran the risk of prosecution and could be sent to jail.
Olson is not stupid - he receives marks in the 80s and 90s in university correspondence courses. But he is a chronic liar, so there is no way of knowing when he is telling the truth. In the Kingston Pen, he liked to tell me he had killed 69 people in the United States, most of them teenage runaways. By the time he telephoned me last Christmas, he had upped this total to 97.
While politicians, the media and public fume against the "faint-hope" clause he is exploiting, Olson is under no illusions that he will ever be paroled. He would say with a laugh that he was "the most hated man in Canada" and was destined to die in prison. But for him it is stimulating, even fun, to cause outrage and uproar - something that has marked his 15 years in prison. (He was selected as a finalist in a poetry contest in the United States - with a plagiarized entry.)
During one visit, I asked him how he compared himself with Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic killer of Silence of the Lambs fame. Olson looked at me appraisingly and said: "Peter, there is no comparison. Hannibal Lecter is fiction - I'm real." He has told me that if released, he would "go back to killing," even though he professed not to know why he killed in the first place. As far as I am concerned, he is a persuasive argument for capital punishment. He has laughed when I've told him this and, sometimes, even agreed.
Peter Worthington is founding editor and a columnist of The Toronto Sun
Maclean's August 18, 1997