The crimes of Paul Bernardo and his wife Karla Homolka were among the most horrifying and controversial in Canadian history.
This article contains sensitive material that may not be suitable for all audiences.
The crimes of serial rapist and murderer Paul Bernardo and his wife Karla Homolka — particularly the 1990s sex slayings of teenagers Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French — were among the most horrifying and controversial in Canadian history.
Around 1 a.m. on 4 May 1987, a young woman was attacked and raped within minutes of getting off a bus near her home in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto. This was one of a series of up to 24 rapes or attempted rapes that took place over a five-year period (see Sexual Assault). The targets of the man called the "Scarborough Rapist" were teenage girls and young women. Most of the attacks happened outdoors, but in at least one instance the perpetrator broke into his victim’s home. The attacks were accompanied by beatings, intense verbal abuse, and dire threats to discourage victims from going to the police. On one occasion, a uniformed Toronto police officer staking out a bus shelter spotted a suspect hiding under a tree and pursued him on foot, but the suspect escaped.
On 17 November 1988, Metropolitan Toronto Police formed a task force committed to the arrest of the Scarborough Rapist. Investigators did not get a significant lead until May 1990, when a victim provided them with a description of her attacker’s face. Police created a computer composite portrait that was given wide circulation, including publication in newspapers. Among the 16,000 responses received over the following weeks were three from people who said the portrait resembled Paul Bernardo.
Investigators twice questioned Bernardo, who lived in his parents’ Scarborough home at the time. They were satisfied that he was not a likely suspect, but as a matter of routine they took samples of his hair, blood and saliva for DNA testing against specimens found on a rape victim’s clothing. DNA testing was then new in Canada, and the Centre of Forensic Sciences (CFS) in Toronto had only one qualified scientist and one technician. The samples taken from dozens of men questioned in the Scarborough Rapist case were among 50,000 collected at that time by police investigating numerous cases across Ontario.
Death of Tammy Homolka
By 23 December 1990, Bernardo, 26, was engaged to Karla Homolka, 20, and was living at her family’s home in St. Catharines, Ontario. That evening, while Homolka’s parents and younger sister Lori slept, Homolka and Bernardo drugged the youngest sister, 15-year-old Tammy Lyn, so Bernardo could rape her. Homolka participated in and videotaped the sexual assault of her sister.
Early in the morning of 24 December, Tammy, still unconscious, vomited and stopped breathing. Bernardo and Homolka dressed Tammy and carried her to a bedroom. They cleaned up the crime scene, hid the videocassette and called the 911 emergency number. An ambulance took Tammy to St. Catharines General Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Niagara Regional Police questioned Bernardo and Homolka – particularly about an unusual burn mark on Tammy’s face. They accepted Bernardo’s explanation that it was a carpet burn Tammy had sustained when he dragged her to the bedroom. The burn had actually been caused by an anaesthetic called halothane, administered to Tammy on a cloth pressed over her face. Doctors concluded that Tammy had choked to death on vomit after overindulging in alcohol.
Leslie Mahaffy Murder
On 1 February 1991, Bernardo and Homolka moved into a bungalow in Port Dalhousie, Ontario. They were married in Niagara-on-the-Lake on 29 June. That same day, boaters and fishermen at Lake Gibson, south of St. Catharines, discovered concrete blocks that encased human arms, legs, feet and a head. The next day another man found a human torso floating in the water. The remains were identified as those of Leslie Mahaffy, 14, of Burlington, Ontario. Her parents had reported her missing on 15 June. While police undertook the investigation of the Mahaffy murder, Paul and Karla Bernardo were honeymooning in Hawaii.
Police searching for clues to Mahaffy's killer were unaware of evidence that would connect the crime to the Scarborough Rapist. Meanwhile, Tammy Homolka’s death wasn’t under criminal investigation at all.
Almost a year later, in April 1992, Niagara Regional Police sought help from the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). An FBI group of criminal profiling experts produced a psychological portrait of the murderer as a sexual predator who would probably kill again.
Kristen French Murder
On 30 April 1992, a female body was found in a ditch along a rural road in the north end of Burlington. The face was battered and the hair had been shaved from the head, but an old injury – the missing tip of the left pinky finger – immediately told investigators that the corpse was that of Kristen French, 15, of St. Catharines.
French’s parents had reported her missing on 16 April. A shoe identified as hers was found in the parking lot of Grace Lutheran Church, which she passed by every day going to and from school. Then a witness reported seeing a scuffle in that parking lot on the afternoon of the 16th. It had appeared to the witness that two people were forcing a girl into a car she described as a cream-coloured Chevrolet Camaro. Police searched the parking lot and found a torn fragment of a map of Scarborough and a lock of brown hair. They began an exhaustive check of cream-coloured Camaros, following what turned out to be a mistaken lead. Bernardo’s car was a gold-coloured Nissan.
Acting on a tip that Bernardo had a penchant for violence and aggressive sex, police interviewed him on 12 May, and once again dismissed him as a prime suspect in what were now being called the two "schoolgirl murders" of southern Ontario. Mahaffy’s remains were exhumed, and medical examiners found bruises on the back that had similarities to the blunt-force injuries on Kristen French’s body. For the first time, police connected the two murders. Niagara Regional Police, working with the Halton Regional Police, established a special task force to conduct the investigation into the two crimes. On 21 July, a re-enactment of French’s abduction was shown on TV. It generated thousands of tips, but no substantial leads.
On 6 January 1993, Karla Homolka was admitted to St. Catharines General Hospital after Bernardo beat her viciously with a flashlight. He was arrested and charged with assault with a weapon, and then released on bail. Homolka never returned to the couple's house in Port Dalhousie.
A month later, the Centre of Forensic Sciences finally matched Bernardo’s DNA with that of the Scarborough Rapist. Police put Bernardo under surveillance and tapped his telephone.
Homolka’s Plea Bargain
Homolka was initially uncooperative with police. After consulting with her lawyer, she said she would testify against Bernardo on the condition of being granted immunity from prosecution. The attorney general for Ontario would not agree to immunity, but was willing to consider a reduced sentence. On 17 February, Bernardo was arrested for the murders of Mahaffy and French, and the Scarborough rapes.
Police subjected Homolka to four days of interrogation. She blamed Bernardo for her sister’s death. She described how Bernardo had kidnapped Mahaffy from the yard of the girl's home, and how she and Bernardo had lured French to their car in the parking lot. She said both girls were used as sex slaves before Bernardo strangled them to death. French had been made to watch a television news broadcast of her father’s emotional plea for her safe return. Homolka claimed Bernardo had boasted to her of raping at least 30 women.
Homolka described herself as a battered wife who was forced to participate in Bernardo’s crimes, and who lived in terror of him. A search of their house turned up a list of the Scarborough rapes, books of a deviant sexual nature, a hunting knife, handcuffs and a videotape of Homolka and Bernardo engaged in sexual activity with two unidentified young women. Homolka was clearly a willing participant in both encounters. She admitted to police that one of the girls had been drugged and was later unaware that she had been raped.
On 6 July 1993, as part of a plea bargain with prosecutors, Homolka was convicted after pleading guilty to two counts of manslaughter in the Mahaffy and French murders. She was sentenced to two 12-year prison terms to be served concurrently. Authorities weren't aware at the time that the initial police search of the Bernardo residence had missed a bundle of videotapes – tapes that would prove to be the most damning and publicly explosive evidence of the case.
On 6 May 1993, Bernardo’s lawyer had retrieved six 8-mm tapes that had been hidden in the Bernardo home. They were not turned over to police until 22 September 1994. The tapes showed in graphic detail the rape of Tammy Homolka, and the torture and rapes of Mahaffy and French. Homolka appeared as Bernardo’s consenting accomplice, not at all as a frightened, forced participant. By this time, the case was dominating headlines, and capturing the attention of people across North America. News of the tapes prompted public outrage. The media accused the prosecution of making “a deal with the devil" in giving Homolka only a 12-year sentence for her role in the crimes. However, the Crown said it was obliged to stand by its agreement.
Bernardo Declared Dangerous Offender
Jury selection for the Bernardo trial began on 1 May 1995. The Crown opened its case on 18 May. The trial lasted four months, during which Homolka spent 17 court days in the witness box. Bernardo was found guilty of all charges against him: two counts each of first degree murder, kidnapping, forcible confinement and aggravated sexual assault, and one count of committing an indignity to a human body. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, and declared a dangerous offender, making parole highly unlikely.
Five years later, in 2000, both the Ontario Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada turned down Bernardo’s efforts to appeal his murder convictions. In 2006, Bernardo’s lawyer said his client had confessed in 2005 to 10 additional sexual assaults. Since 2013, he has been incarcerated at the Millhaven maximum security prison in Bath, Ontario.
The Bernardo-Homolka crimes — apart from their impact on the victims and their families — had a wide-ranging impact long after the trials concluded. The videotapes showing the rape and murder of their victims were ordered destroyed by an Ontario court. Bernardo’s lawyer Ken Murray, who initially retrieved the tapes from their hiding place in the Bernardo home, was charged in 1997 with obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice for failing to turn the tapes over to police. Murray was acquitted of those charges in 2000.
In 1996, a government inquiry into the investigation of Bernardo found that police had made numerous mistakes, that rivalries among police agencies had further harmed the investigation, and that some of Bernardo’s crimes might have been prevented if his DNA sample had been processed and matched more quickly.
Karla Homolka served her full 12-year sentence and was released from prison in 2005 under a series of judge-imposed conditions, including restrictions on her movement and a ban on any contact with anyone under the age of 16. Those conditions were overturned by another judge only months later, prompting criticism from the Mahaffy and French families. Homolka settled in Montreal, where she gave birth to a son in 2007.
Homolka then lived on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe under the name Leanne Bordelais — along with her new husband, Thierry (brother of her prison lawyer Sylvie Bordelais), and her then three children. In 2012, after being discovered in Guadeloupe by a Canadian journalist, Homolka returned to Quebec.
Paul Bernardo became eligible for day parole in 2015 and full parole in February 2018, after having served 25 years in prison (see Probation and Parole). However, in October 2018, his application for both day and full parole was denied by a panel of the Parole Board of Canada, after only 30 minutes of deliberation. As a dangerous offender, Bernardo will likely never be released.