The most notorious serial killer in Canadian history is Paul Bernardo who was responsible for the deaths of three teenage girls and the sexual assaults of over a dozen women. Bernardo who is also referred to as the Scarborough Rapists as he terrorised the Toronto area for several years before his crimes turned deadlier. At the end of his run as the Scarborough Rapist Bernardo met Karla Homolka and the two would spend a lot of time together and soon came up with a target, Karla’s younger sister Tammy Homolka. Karla reportedly spiked her younger sisters food with valium and when the fourteen year old passed out she was raped by Bernardo as her sister watched. The two would repeat this behavior over the coming months until the day came when the drug mixture was too strong and Tammy Homolka never gained consciousness. Soon after Paul would kidnap Leslie Mahaffy and brought her home to Karla where the two tortured and sexually assaulted the fourteen year old. According to Bernardo Karla gave the girl an overdose of drugs where as Homolka claimed that Paul strangled the girl to death. The body of Leslie Mahaffy would be found by a river in Southern Ontario. The next teenage victim was Kristen French who would be kidnapped, tortured and sexually assaulted all on videotape. Again both Bernardo and Homolka claimed at trial that the other was responsible for Kristen French death. Two years after giving his DNA to police in regards to the Scarborough rapist cases the results finally came in tying Paul Bernardo to the crime scenes. When the murders of Tammy Homolka, Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French came up Karla Homolka was quick to sign a deal with prosecutors that saw her plea guilty and receive a maximum of twelve years in prison. Paul Bernardo received a life sentence with no chance of parole for twenty five years which at the time was the maximum sentence in Canada
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As he made his first pitch for parole after 25 years in prison for some of the most horrific crimes in Canadian history, Paul Bernardo was eager, agreeable, strangely docile and unfocused.
Paul claimed to have discovered and confronted the psychological reasons for his sadistic sexual atrocities, including a series of rapes and the murders of two teenage girls. He said they stemmed from low self-esteem, misguided coping mechanisms, “cognitive distortions” and the disinhibitory effects of stress and alcohol.
“At the time of my crimes, I was everything they said I was,” he said. “It hurts. Because I did horrible things.”
Slouching in a chair at Ontario’s Millhaven Institution before two Parole Board of Canada members, wearing a blue crew-neck T-shirt over a slight paunch with unkempt light brown hair, his voice was soft and breathy, with an occasional slight repetitive stutter.
Paul Bernardo, 54, was quick to answer questions and spoke at length, but strayed from the main topics, which focused on his life in prison and his efforts at rehabilitation. His answers were thick with psychological jargon, focused on general behavioural patterns and theories rather than the extreme specific details of his inner life and his view of his crimes. The lead board member, Suzanne Poirier, suggested his understanding of himself seemed a bit “academic.” He was not obviously evasive, but his answers rarely seemed to satisfy the question. Strangely, he often nodded along with questions, almost encouragingly.
For the parole board, the question of whether to let Bernardo out of prison comes down to one simple consideration — whether he presents an “undue risk” to society. After a day-long hearing, at which the mothers of his murder victims Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French, and one rape victim, gave impassioned statements, the board’s decision was exactly what was widely expected — not just because first-time applicants usually fail, but because there has hardly ever been an applicant as notorious and reviled as this.
Bernardo’s request for day or full parole was denied after the briefest of deliberations. Letting him go, even though by law he will be subject to correctional supervision for the remainder of his life, would be unduly risky, the board found. He can be considered again in two years. He has been eligible to apply for day parole since 2015, and for full parole since his minimum 25-year incarceration expired this year.
Paul claimed to have empathy for his victims now, but at the time of his crimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he was in his 20s, he was more concerned about his own distress, and his thought that exerting control over victims would restore his self-esteem.
Bernardo said he did not enjoy his crimes, for the thrill of the hunt or being aroused by inflicting pain, but rather that he used his attacks to feel better about himself, to ease his pain rather than increase his pleasure.
“I didn’t consider their (his victims’) emotions as much as, obviously, I should have,” he said. “I offended to raise my self-esteem because when it was low, I felt terrible… I didn’t go out with the intent to hurt them, I did it for myself.”
“Mr. Bernardo, please,” said Poirier in incredulous exasperation. She then described the Scarborough rapes for which he was convicted, in which young women were grabbed at bus stops and raped in the bushes. But Bernardo stuck to his story that he did not set out to inflict pain.
“But if they didn’t do what I wanted them to do, then I punished them,” he said. This was to ease his own pain, with a “disregard” for theirs. This is why he claims he’s not actually a sexual sadist, as he has been labelled.
Paul said his problems with self-esteem are better now that he allows himself to be vulnerable. “I’m a very flawed person,” he said.
The self-awareness of Bernardo was not a terribly compelling story.
Shockingly, he identified his failure to save the life of Tammy Homolka — he was a lifeguard, after all — as a key moment in the escalation of his behaviour, for the guilt it caused him. He said it led to two suicide attempts.
“I failed the Homolkas,” he said. “I failed Karla.”
Paul Bernardo was convicted of manslaughter in Tammy’s death, which was part of a plot in which his ex-wife Karla Homolka drugged her sister Tammy unconscious so Bernardo could rape her. Karla pleaded guilty to manslaughter in her sister’s death, and also those of French and Mahaffy, and has served the entirety of her controversial 12-year sentence. She now lives in Montreal.
Poirier took him to many contradictions and outrageous statements in his lengthy file, such as his resentment of his victims and their families for demanding his lifelong incarceration. Paul Bernardo explained some of this by saying that, after many years in solitary confinement, “I became defensive. I had guards up.”
“When I did my offending, I had justifications for why I offended,” he said. Over time, through therapy, he said he has been able to “knock down” those justifications to see his behaviour for what it was. “It hits you hard on an emotional level.”
“It devastates me what I did in the past. I cry all the time,” he said. “What I did was so dreadful.”
Asked why it hurts to cry, he said, “It hurts. Because I did horrible things.” He was not actually crying.
“Every day I wake up and I treat people well. I don’t disassociate what I did,” he said. He said over and over again that he cries a lot. He said he is ashamed. Frequently, he seemed to be approaching something like remorse, but then would drop an incongruous comment such as: “My biggest problem is communications skills.”
Paul said his childhood was made difficult because his tongue was attached to the floor of his mouth and he needed a minor operation, then speech therapy.
“This is why I offended in the first place. It was always hard to express what I was feeling,” he said. “I always felt inadequate.”
Paul Bernardo said he developed strange coping mechanisms to relieve his anxiety, such as scraping his own body where people had touched him. These set people off and marked him as socially “weird.”
Paul Bernardo gave details of a 2014 romantic relationship, which caused his psychologist concern because it coincided with increased fantasies about dominant sex acts including anal sex, and a serious increase in masturbation. He denied pursuing the relationship for the possible positive effect on his chances of release.
“Sex is a very small part of my life now,” he said. “Back then it was a very big part.”
Paul Bernardo was impassive as the day began with victim impact statements. Donna French said it was “unthinkable” that her daughter’s murder, which came chronologically second, should not add a second to Bernardo’s minimum sentence. Both French and Debbie Mahaffy quoted his trial judge Patrick LeSage telling Bernardo that he requires jail, “and in my view for the rest of your natural life.”
Paul Bernardo’s proposal was for a conditional release to a nearby facility that could monitor increased freedoms. With help from lawyer Fergus O’Connor, he said he imagines being moved to a lower security facility and being granted temporary absences, “so you can see what I’m saying (about his rehabilitation) is true, in a controlled environment.”
His lawyer suggested a facility on the grounds of Collins Bay Institution. O’Connor said Bernardo is “resolved and equipped” to continue his good behaviour.
“No one’s asking to be let out the door today,” Bernardo said. “Everybody’s scared. There’s no reason to be scared, not from me.”
His report to the parole board indicates he has shown “positive institutional conduct,” notwithstanding the homemade weapon found in his cell earlier this year, for which a criminal charge was dropped. He has done three treatment courses, including for sex offenders, but shown “minimal gains.” He is seen as having a tendency to portray himself in an “overly positive light,” and to rationalize his actions to suit his own purposes. He is regarded as having a high risk for intimate partner violence, and moderate risk for recidivism.
Paul Bernardo is a “no-contact offender,” meaning he spends most of his day in his cell, with one hour of solitary time on the range, and his yard time is spent alone. He said he has hardly any meaningful human contact, and when he does it is “degrading.”
“Being me, in prison, is hard,” he said.
Correctional Service of Canada did not support his release, and he is regarded as having a “low re-integration potential.” His parole officer, Meagan Smith, was especially cutting in declining to add anything at the end of the hearing. “I found Mr. Bernardo presented today as he normally does.”
Offered the final word, Paul Bernardo said, “I’d like to emphasize I’m never re-offending again. I don’t have the justifications. I’ve got rid of them through therapy and hard work… What I did was so terrible and I’ll never re-offend again.”
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