Written by James Ryan on November 8, 2006 as part of a Criminal Psychology course at Niagara College Canada.
How do you define a serial killer?
Typically, they are people who kill on at least three separate occasions (according to the FBI handbook), taking breaks between murders. The crimes committed are a result of a compulsion that may have roots in the killer’s (often dysfunctional) youth and psychopathological disorders, as opposed to those who are motivated by financial gain (i.e. contract killers) or ideological/political motivations (i.e. terrorism).
In between their crimes, serial killers usually appear to be quite normal and often, but not always, there is a sexual element to the murders. Such is the case with serial rapist and killer, Paul Bernardo. While Paul is most infamous for being the Scarborough Rapist, he and his wife together, Karla Holmolka, are more infamously known for brutally raping and killing Tammy Lyn Holmolka, 15 (Karla’s sister), Leslie Mahaffy, 14, and Kristen French, 15.
Many people have all asked the same question: How? How could someone who seemed so normal, be so insanely cruel and sadistic?
The answer lies in understanding the mind of a sexual sadist. Paul Bernardo was such an individual and in understanding the life of Paul Bernardo and whether or not he was indeed a sexually sadistic serial killer, I will compare the following: the history and demographic details of Paul’s violent acts, the FBI profiling of the Scarborough Rapist (who at the time of the FBI profiling was still at large), Paul’s move to St. Catharines (my home town), his ultimate capture, and finally, the case of Paul Bernardo as it stands today.
First of all, when attempting to understand the history of Paul’s violent tendencies, it is important to examine both his childhood upbringing, as well as, the influence of his relationship with Karla Holmolka.
Some say that Paul Bernardo was born into an unusual family. Paul’s mother, Marilyn, had been adopted early in life by the well-to-do Toronto lawyer, Gerald Eastman and his wife Elizabeth, and was raised in a happy, well-mannered household. Her husband, Kenneth Bernardo, was the son of an Italian immigrant. Kenneth’s father made a very successful life in the marble and tile business, but was very abusive to his wife and children. Kenneth did not go into the family business but became an accountant instead. Kenneth and Marilyn married in 1960 after her father disapproved of her other suitor who did not have the education that Eastman demanded in a son-in-law.
Eventually, Kenneth and Marilyn settled in a nice middle-class neighborhood in the Scarborough area of Toronto. The marriage did not go well and Kenneth, like his father, was allegedly physically abusive to his wife. After giving birth to a son and daughter, Marilyn found refuge in the arms of her previous suitor. This affair resulted in the birth of Paul Bernardo, who was conceived illegitimately, but Kenneth was surprisingly very open-minded about this indiscretion and in August of 1964, the name of Paul Bernardo was listed on the baby’s birth certificate.
Later on however, Kenneth began to have his own difficulties. He fondled a young girl and ended up in court over it. He then started hanging around the neighborhood at night, peeping into the windows of young women. But worst of all, he started to sexually abuse his own young daughter.
The effect on Paul’s mother Marilyn was great and she managed to put on more and more weight until eventually, she became grotesquely obese. Signs of severe depression were also very noticeable and Marilyn stopped taking care of the home and the children and withdrew into her own world in the basement of the house. The children, particularly Paul, keenly felt the effects of the mental and emotional turmoil in the household.
Nick Pron describes Paul Bernardo as a friendly little boy: “He was always happy. A young boy who smiled a lot. And he was so cute, with his dimpled good looks and sweet smile, that many of the mothers just wanted to pinch him on the cheek whenever they saw him. He was the perfect child they all wanted; polite, well-mannered, doing well in school, so sweet in his Boy Scout uniform.”
Later, as he grew up, Paul became more involved in scouting and he worked summers as a counselor. Paul was the most popular counselor with the children. The kids all loved him and he seemed to enjoy being with them. The teenage girls also adored him. He had angelic good looks and a shy, pleasing demeanor. Those who dated Paul in high school considered him to be a thoughtful and considerate lover. Paul was intelligent, worked hard in school and held a series of responsible after-school jobs. Paul had a good head for figures and the makings of a good future businessman.
When Paul was 16, he got into an argument with his mother and she told him that Kenneth was not his real father and showed him a photo of his real father. The effect on Paul was devastating. After that, Paul openly mocked and taunted his mother, calling her such names as a “slob” and a “whore.”
Considering his mother’s infidelity and his “father’s” sick sexual perversions, Paul began to hate his parents. Paul’s attitude in general, and towards women in particular, changed dramatically for the worse. Upon refection, these events in Paul’s life were extremely influential in the direction that Paul would ultimately take as a serial rapist and killer.
When Paul went to college at the University of Toronto, it was there that his sexual fantasies had developed an unusual dark side. Forceful anal sex was his preferred means of pleasure and submissive women were what he sought. Paul had a terrible temper and enjoyed humiliating women publicly. It was not before long, that Paul began beating up on the women that he dated. When Paul finally graduated from college, he got a job as a Junior Accountant at Price Waterhouse.
Then in October of 1987, Paul met the girl of his dreams — pretty, 17-year old, Karla Homolka.
Paul and Karla became sexually obsessed with each other almost immediately and unlike the other girls that Paul knew, Karla encouraged Paul’s sadistic sexual behavior. According to Stephen Williams, “Karla, handcuffed, on her knees and begging for him, was scratching an itch. Paul asked Karla what she would think if he was a rapist. Karla said that she would think that it was cool, and so, their love deepened. Paul started raping women in earnest.”
In 1987, Paul became the “Scarborough Rapist” in the Toronto suburb in which he lived and two years later, the number of his sexual assaults had climbed to 11. Then, after a several-month hiatus, there were several more rapes in 1988. All of the attacks had occurred within a short radius of Scarborough’s Guildwood Village.
Just before Christmas, 1987, one of Paul’s victim’s gave a very specific description of her rapist. “He was good looking, about six feet tall, clean shaven and had no tattoos. Her description and the composite picture she helped develop resulted in the exact likeness of Paul Bernardo. But the police did not publish the photo.”
Finally, in May of 1990, years after the rapes began, the police decided to finally publish the composite picture, which the victims had agreed upon as the likeness of their attacker. That picture, plus the $150,000 reward, initiated a flood of tips, which resulted in the police being inundated with calls. The police did not have the manpower to follow up on all of the leads.
Eventually, a number of Paul’s acquaintances contacted the police about him and Paul was questioned. Paul did not strike the investigator as the kind of personality to be a serial rapist, but he took a blood, saliva and hair sample from Paul anyway. The samples, along with 230 samples from other suspects, were handed over for testing. Only five of the 230 samples fit the blood factors of the attacker and Paul Bernardo was one of those five. Paul’s sample was resubmitted for additional testing in April of 1992, however, the Scarborough Rapist investigation went on hold after the rapes had discontinued.
Coincidentally, at that time, Paul Bernardo had moved to the St. Catharines area with his fiancée, Karla Holmolka. Paul’s reign as the Scarborough Rapist would eventually come to an end, however, with the help of Karla, Paul would move on to his two newest obsessions – kidnapping and murder.
At the time of the Scarborough Rapist case, two prominent FBI profiles (1988, 1992) were completed to better understand the type of individual that would have been associated with these types of violent crimes. Looking back, these profiles were instrumental in the eventual capture of Paul Bernardo.
When reviewing the victimology, “observable similarities were present in that the victims were all white females, 15-21 years of age, with six out of seven of the victims living in the Scarborough area and three of them living in extremely close proximity to one another. Another notable similarity among the victims was their small physical stature, ranging from 5’1″ and 95 pounds to 5’3″ and 135 pounds.”
When reviewing the crime analysis, it was revealed that the “successful attacks occurred when the urge, opportunity and victims all coincided together. The victims were being targeted by the offender in the same areas that the attacks were occurring. It was established that the rapist was following the victims, short distances before attacking them. All victims were attacked outdoors, while walking alone, near their residence during the hours of darkness. Typically, this type of offender starts his attacks in an area with which he is familiar. Anger is the primary behaviour exhibited by the offender during his attacks and his intent is to punish and degrade the victims, as he is angry with all women. His anger is unmistakable when observing the excessive physical force he used against the victims. The escalation in violence is observable in this series of attacks as he was using far more physical force against the victims than was necessary to control them. Based upon our research and experience, that if confronted by a victim who vigorously resisted his attack, the offender was the type who would likely become so enraged, he could lose control and thereby become capable of unintentionally murdering the victim.”
Also observable in the offender was the development of sadistic tendencies.
“The sadist achieves gratification by the victim’s response to his attempts to dominate and control her, either physically or psychologically, by posing a question that would make the victim beg for her life.”
Special Agent McCrary of the FBI was of the opinion that as time had passed, the sadistic component of this offender’s actions would have continued to grow. Research had demonstrated that such an offender would not have stopped of his own decision. He would only stop with the influence of outside forces, such as that he would either need to die or get arrested.
Within nine weeks of Bernardo’s arrival in St. Catharines, Ontario, a rape had occurred in close proximity to his new home.
“This rape clearly demonstrated the same modus operandi used by the Scarborough Rapist as described elsewhere in this document. This pattern is predictable in the case of the sexual sadist. Abduction of a victim virtually guarantees that murder will result. If the sexual sadist has held a victim, he feels in his own mind that he can’t possibly let them go. As his fantasy escalates, he needs more control and gains that control through abduction and forcible confinement of his victims. The ultimate fantasy of a sexual sadist is to totally possess his victims, both physically and psychologically. He seeks to achieve control over their life and ultimately over their death as well.
“Rapists identified as sexual sadists are statistically less than 2% of all of these types of offenders. There is a high probability that the Scarborough Rapist and the sexual sadistic murderer of Mahaffy and French is the same offender.”
Paul Bernardo demonstrates almost all of the characteristics that are typically found in the sexually sadistic serial killer. According to Special Agent McCrary, the National Centre for the Analysis of Violent Crimes (NCAVC) research found that the sexually sadistic serial killer exhibited a high degree of predictability in his criminal behaviour. Special Agent McCrary related that a prime characteristic of the sexually sadistic offender was to keep and conceal journals, graphic materials, and particularly, audio and video tapes, which would feed his fantasies and enable the killer to relive the exhilarating moments of his past offenses for continual gratification.
Lucky for the prosecution, Paul Bernardo kept such videotapes.
“She loved Paul very much. He was so unique and so very wild in bed. She would do absolutely anything to keep his love – anything at all.”
When Paul finally moved from Scarborough to St. Catharines with his fiancée Karla, it didn’t take him long to renew his old behavior. Paul and Karla conspired to rape Karla’s younger sister, which backfired with deadly results.
Paul was very annoyed that Karla was not a virgin when he met her.
“It was, therefore, from Paul’s point of view, Karla’s responsibility to make it possible for Paul to take the virginity of Karla’s pretty, younger sister, Tammy, without her knowledge or consent. Once Karla accepted that logic, the rest was easy. Even the idea of videotaping the rape seemed to make sense to Karla. After all, videotaping was a way to remember important events.
One big problem however, was that during the rape, Tammy had choked to death. With Tammy no good to him anymore, Paul needed a replacement. Paul harped continually to Karla that Tammy was no longer available to him for his sexual pleasure and blamed Karla for causing her death.
After their marriage, Karla and Paul Bernardo lived in their home on Bayview (Port Dalhousie) in St. Catharines.
“On Friday, June 14, 1991, Leslie Mahaffy went out for the evening with her friends and stayed out well past her curfew. Paul pulled a knife on Leslie and forced her to go into his car. When Paul brought Leslie home with him, he gave Karla elaborate instructions on how to make love to Leslie. Every moment had to be just perfect for the videotape he was making. After the prelude with Karla, Paul went in for the rough stuff, while his wife held the camera. The brute force of his anal penetration caused Leslie to scream in pain. The rough stuff escalated and Leslie died. Not long afterwards, the torso of a young woman was found in the water. The body parts that had been found in the concrete block, had been cut from her torso with a power saw. Leslie’s distinctive braces provided the clues to her identification.”
On April 16, 1992, a very popular and attractive teenager named Kristen French was abducted from a church parking lot.
“Karla had lured the pretty girl over to their car on the pretense of asking directions. When Kristen stood by the car looking at Karla’s map, Paul forced the girl into the backseat with his knife. On April 30, 1992, Kristen’s remains were found in a ditch. Her naked body had not been dismembered like Leslie’s, leading the investigators to mistakenly conclude that the murders of the two teenagers were not connected.”
Meanwhile, Bernardo’s name surfaced once again from one of the many tips that the police had received. Two Niagara Regional police officers visited Paul at his Bayview home where Paul was very polite during the interview and admitted to the police officers that he had been a suspect in the Scarborough rapes because of his facial similarities to the composite picture. After the interview, the two policemen tried to contact Detective Steve Irwin of the Toronto police to ask about the results of the inquiry into the Scarborough Rapist case. Irwin eventually responded to the message and explained that final testing of Bernardo’s blood and saliva samples had not been done. Therefore, technically, Paul Bernardo had not been cleared as a suspect.
“Incredibly enough, in February of 1993, several years after blood samples had been taken from Paul Bernardo, the forensic laboratory in Toronto finally got around to analyzing his blood. The tests proved conclusively that Bernardo had raped the three women victims from whom they had semen samples.”
Had the laboratory been speedier, Paul Bernardo would have been in jail instead of raping more women and murdering several schoolgirls.
Back in St. Catharines however, Paul’s wife, Karla, had just charged Paul with assault.
“When Paul started using Karla as a punching bag in the summer of 1992, he really compromised his future. Regardless of the insane things that Karla put up with from Paul, physically abusing her pushed her to the limit. Initially, several Toronto detectives interviewed Karla for almost five hours. By the kinds of questions they asked, Karla understood that the police had tied together the Scarborough rapes with the murders in St. Catharines. Karla was understandably nervous and told her uncle that Paul was the serial rapist and that he killed Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy.”
On February 19, 1993, police executed the search warrants for Paul and Karla’s house and found an amazing amount of evidence. Paul had a written description of every one of the Scarborough rapes plus an extensive library of books and videos on sexual deviation, pornography and serial killers.
The trial of Paul Bernardo was delayed for over two years after his arrest. One of the reasons for the delay was that Bernardo had placed his first lawyer, Ken Murray, in a very difficult ethical situation. Bernardo had given Murray the videotapes that he and Karla had made of their adventures, believing that by doing so, they would never get into the hands of prosecutors.
Eventually, the videotapes were turned over to the prosecutors and Murray withdrew from the case. The Crown asserted that the videotapes showed Bernardo’s attitude towards his victims saying he not only brutally degraded them, but also, continually demanded that they thank him and ask for more. By his behavior, recorded on tape, he showed that he thought nothing of the two girls and would not have hesitated to kill them.
On September 1, 1995, Paul Bernardo was convicted on all of the charges against him relating to the kidnappings, rapes and murders of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. He also faced trials in the death of Tammy Homolka, and the serial rapes in Scarborough.
Under Canadian law, Paul Bernardo can apply for parole after 25 years in prison, although it is unlikely that he would be successful in any bid for parole, given the violent and sadistic nature of the crimes.
“On March 27, 2000, an Ontario appeals court had rejected Paul Bernardo’s bid for a new trial. The panel of three justices took just 15 minutes to make their ruling after hearing four hours of arguments by Bernardo’s lawyers. Lawyers for the French and Mahaffy families said the decision effectively blocks Bernardo from any future appeals, as he doesn’t appear to have any issues that would justify further action.”
Nick Pron reported that Paul Bernardo recently confessed to sexually assaulting at least 10 other women in attacks not previously blamed on him. It is not clear why Bernardo has decided to come forward now (more than 10 years after he was convicted) to confess to the new series of rapes he claims to have committed between 1986 and 1991.
Bernardo is currently housed in a cell that is about three paces long and an arm’s-width across in a wing deemed “off-limits” to other inmates. Prison officials have refused all requests for interviews.
In conclusion, the main reason why I chose to write about Paul Bernardo was mainly because that despite the fact that I grew up in the Niagara Region at the time that all of these events took place (I even had to have my white Chevy Camaro inspected by the RCMP at the Niagara Square Mall parking lot for hair and blood samples), I felt that I did not really understand or know a lot about the mind of Paul Bernardo.
What I have learned is that under the wrong circumstances and influences, individuals such as Paul can come to exist in a society that is otherwise, very safe.
Through analysis of Paul’s upbringing and parental influences, I can conclude that Paul was a confused and misguided youth, who initially may have had all of the potential to become a successful member of society.
I feel that Paul’s relationship with Karla was highly destructive and the main contributing factor into his psychopathic behaviours, regardless of how dominant Paul may have been with Karla towards the end of their relationship.
I believe that the Toronto police really messed up in their investigation of the Scarborough Rapist case by not completing the lab work and that they are in a very big way, responsible for the deaths of Tammy Holmolka, Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French.
Paul Bernardo’s actions, in my opinion, were very consistent with the findings of the FBI reports and overall, I feel quite satisfied that I now possess a much clearer understanding into the criminal mind of the sexually sadistic serial killer.
Next article: Osama bin Laden: Holy Terrorist or Political Scapegoat?