Killer's Release Repels, Transfixes Canada

A correctional transport vehicle stops at the Canadian penitentiary where Karla Homolka is detained. Homolka is to be released within a few days.
A correctional transport vehicle stops at the Canadian penitentiary where Karla Homolka is detained. Homolka is to be released within a few days. (Jacques Boissinot -- Associated Press)
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 3, 2005

TORONTO, July 2 -- Sometime before Tuesday, a pretty blond woman of 35 will slip out of a penitentiary near Montreal, trying to escape a media mob that has been waiting for this moment for 12 years.

The saga of Karla Homolka has transfixed the country since she helped her husband drug, rape, torture, videotape and kill two teenage girls and cause the death of her own sister. Throughout the trial and ever since, her eyes -- hard and icy under her wavy hair -- have stared regularly at Canada from newspaper boxes and television screens.

She has now served her full prison sentence for manslaughter, and her impending release has prompted expressions of alarm in the media and Parliament. Appalled and fascinated, Canadians can't seem to get enough.

Homolka has been both analyzed and demonized. Web sites make competing offers for her head in murder or her hand in marriage. Lawyers, even those representing figures only remotely involved in the case, have buzzed between cameras and courtrooms with legal petitions and sound bites.

The courts have added conditions to her sentence. Lawmakers have vowed to rewrite the laws. A filmmaker is promising a movie on her story. Two books and a TV special are already out. Her jailhouse gay lover is chattering away on television, and her now ex-husband is apparently eager to tell all, if only the warden would let him. He's serving a life sentence for murder.

"People are in a frenzy about it," said Peter Rosenthal, a Toronto criminal defense lawyer. "They are talking about having stiffer penalties, talking about bringing the death penalty back. It's a frenzy of vengeance."

Respectable newspapers have turned over their front pages to purple-prose columnists. "Lock up your children," warned the Globe and Mail. A prominent television news host, CTV network's Mike Duffy, sniffed with no apparent irony, "We are just a higher class of human than she is."

"It's over the top," said Suanne Kelman, interim chairman of the Ryerson University School of Journalism in Toronto. "You would think she represents the greatest threat to humanity in the 21st century."

The dilemma for the mainstream press, Kelman said, is that "it's just the kind of story people love. People love sex scandals, and they are fascinated by sex murders. They love it when the murderer is a woman, especially a sleazy blonde." Homolka, she said, "wouldn't get this kind of attention if she were a homelier woman, or an older woman."

But she is neither. According to press accounts of her childhood, Homolka was just 17, a bright 11th-grader, when she met Paul Bernardo, 23, a charming and handsome man, in 1987. They had sex in a hotel room two hours later and were engaged two years later.

They were an attractive couple, but Bernardo would ultimately be found by police to be a serial rapist, with occasional assistance from Homolka. In 1990, according to court testimony, Homolka and Bernardo drugged her younger sister, Tammy, 15, with animal tranquilizers after a family Christmas dinner. Bernardo raped Tammy, who later died, apparently from choking on her own vomit.

A year later, Bernardo kidnapped Leslie Mahaffy, 14, from outside her house; in 1992 he took Kristen French, 15, from a church parking lot. Both were raped, videotaped and murdered with Homolka's help, according to court testimony. But in 1993, Bernardo beat Homolka with a flashlight, and she went to police, where their past began to unravel.


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