THE BRIDE AND GROOM—YOUNG, BLOND AND ATTRACTIVE—were as perfect as their elaborate wedding, planned down to the last detail. She was a 23-year-old veterinary assistant, he an accountant five years her senior, and they gathered to exchange their vows before 125 friends and relatives in a quaint Canadian village near Niagara Falls. Afterward, on that lovely Saturday in June 1991, the guests supped on pheasant and fine champagne at the Queens Landing Inn and watched Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo ride off into the sunset in a horse-drawn carriage.
For a time the newlyweds seemed to live happily ever after—a couple so clean-cut that their neighbors in Port Dalhousie, Ont., called them Ken and Barbie. But that image was shattered less than two years after their wedding, when Bernardo was arrested for the Scarborough rapes—a series of violent sex crimes committed from 1987 to 1990 against 19 women that had terrorized the so-called Golden Horseshoe, the heavily populated region along western Lake Ontario from Toronto to Niagara Falls. Bernardo and Homolka have also been charged in the deaths of two teenage girls, Leslie Mahaffy, 14, and Kristen French, 15. Last summer, Homolka was convicted of manslaughter for her role in the murders. Bernardo, who now faces two first-degree-murder charges and 48 sex-related charges, will go on trial next April.
The sensational arrest and Homolka’s subsequent trial have filled Canada’s newspapers and tabloid-TV shows, even though Ontario Court General Division has declared a near-total information blackout to ensure that Bernardo receives a fair trial. The ban has only fed the media frenzy, as lurid rumors of snuff videos and sales of body parts gripped the nation. Barred from disclosing any facts, reporters who covered Homolka’s trial would say only that the details were so ghastly that some journalists wept. “You could hear the sobbing all over the courtroom,” says one Toronto reporter.
What is known is grim enough. Authorities say Bernardo had allegedly raped and murdered only a short time before he was married. On the same June afternoon that he and Homolka exchanged vows, in fact, Leslie Mahaffy’s body was discovered in nearby Lake Gibson. Or most of it was. Her corpse had been dismembered with a power saw, and the limbs embedded in several hunks of concrete. Police believe that the ninth grader had been sexually assaulted before her death.
Less than a year later, police say, Bernardo killed 15-year-old Kristen French, who had disappeared two weeks earlier on her way home from school in St. Catharines—a blue-collar city of 131,000 just outside Niagara Falls. She was found in a ditch 30 miles from her home, naked, with her long dark hair shorn. She too had been sexually assaulted, and police believe she had been kept alive for most of the two weeks she was missing. “You wonder, ‘What did she actually go through?’ ” said her father, Doug French, 62, a salesman for a rubber company. “That is the part that really disturbs us.”
Toronto police had actually questioned Bernardo in 1990, before either girl was killed, in connection with the Scarborough rapes but had been unable to make an arrest. He had become a suspect because he bore a striking resemblance to a composite sketch of the rapist, whom many victims described as having boy-next-door looks. Bernardo’s friends had even commented on the likeness when the sketch appeared in the Toronto Sun. “You could say Paul didn’t have a sense of humor about it,” says Van Smirnis, 28, who grew up across the street from Bernardo in Scarborough and was best man at his wedding. Except for the sketch, however, authorities found no evidence linking Bernardo to the attacks. So they collected a DNA sample from him (and from hundreds of other possible suspects) and continued their investigation.
Even in retrospect, his friend Smirnis admits, it is difficult to imagine Bernardo as a killer. Handsome and smart, Bernardo “never let on that he was anything other than a model citizen,” Smirnis says. In high school, Bernardo played on several teams and was an excellent student who “rarely studied [but] got A’s,” Smirnis says. Bernardo’s main interest, though, was the opposite sex. “As long as the girl was reasonably good-looking, he’d go out with her,” says Smirnis. Bernardo wrote in his 1982 high school yearbook that one of his goals was to become rich and famous so he could go to California and “check out girls on the beach.”
That’s why Smirnis was surprised when his best friend settled down so quickly with Karla Homolka. Bernardo had graduated from the University of Toronto in three years and was working as an accountant at Price Waterhouse in Toronto when he met Homolka, then 17. She was in town from St. Catharines, attending a pet-shop convention.
The quiet, petite Homolka fell instantly in love with the dashing Bernardo. She wrote in her high school yearbook that her only wish was to marry him. And Bernardo made it clear his intentions were serious. He began making the two-hour trip every weekend from Scarborough to Homolka’s home in St. Catharines, where she lived with her parents, Karel, a salesman, and Dorothy, a hospital worker. The Homolkas saw Bernardo as “the perfect son-in-law,” Smirnis says.
On Christmas Eve, 1990, while the Homolkas were occupied upstairs, Paul and Karl a were with Karla’s 15-year-old sister, Tammy, when the girl died in front of their eyes. She allegedly choked to death on her own vomit after drinking a mixture of rum and eggnog. Paul told police that his attempts to resuscitate the girl had failed, and her death was ruled accidental. Soon afterward, Paul and Karla got engaged and moved to a $l,150-a-month, Cape Cod-style house in Port Dalhousie.
After the Bernardos’ 1991 wedding, Smirnis and his wife, Joanne, noticed some troubling things about the relationship. “He would control every facet of Karla’s life,” says Van, and wouldn’t even let her touch his clothes. Joanne claims Paul tried to prevent her and Karla from becoming friends. ‘ “There were a few incidents where he’d blow up,” she says. “Karla would start crying, and I’d try to comfort her, and he’d say, ‘Just stay out of my marriage.’ ” Even the couple’s pets aroused Bernardo’s fury. Smirnis says he once watched Bernardo grill and eat Karla’s lizard after it bit him.
In January 1992, Bernardo may-have finally gone too far. He allegedly attacked Karla with a flashlight, hilling her so hard that her left eye was partly dislodged from the socket. The police charged Bernardo with assault, and as soon as Karla was released from the hospital, she hired a Niagara Falls lawyer. She then spent the next several weeks in lop-secret negotiations with police and prosecutors, though it is unclear whether she led police to her husband or not. At the same lime, the results from Bernardo’s DNA tests—delayed for more than two years at a shorthanded police lab—at last linked him to the Scarborough rapes.
On Feb. 17 police surrounded the Port Dalhousie house and arrested Bernardo for the Scarborough rapes. Police also immediately reopened their investigation into Tammy Homolka’s death. (Ontario’s deputy chief coroner has told reporters that the exhumation of her body was “well worthwhile,” but refuses to elaborate.) Finally, in May, Karla Homolka appeared in court and was charged with manslaughter. The next day, Bernardo was charged with the first-degree murder of Leslie Mahafly and Kristen French.
While Karla serves 12 years in the Kingston Prison for Women, and Paul (who has changed his last name to Teale, reportedly to hide his Portuguese heritage) awaits trial in Toronto’s Metro East Detention Centre, the families of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French are struggling to piece their lives back together.
Both girls’ mothers, Debbie Mahafly and Donna French, say they and their other children arc plagued by nightmares, and Mahaffy, a former schoolteacher, spent 2½ months in a hospital receiving psychiatric treatment for her grief. At times she still finds it difficult to do simple tasks. She has tried to focus her energy on a cause close to her heart—victims’ rights—by waging a petition campaign against serial-killer trading cards and organizing a support network for families of murder victims. But she dreads having to live through her daughter’s death all over again when Paul Bernardo comes to trial next spring. “I divorce myself from [Bernardo and Homolka]. I don’t allow them to have any more power than they already have,” Mahafly says, speaking, she hopes, for Donna French and the other victims as well. “It’s too tragic already that so many people have died and been hurt.”
FANNIE WEINSTEIN, SCOTT BURNSIDE and ALAN CAIRNS in Ontario