THE CASE AGAINST KARLA
By TRISH WOOD
For a journalist interested in true crime, it was a privilege to watch an old pro like Candice Skrapec as she scrutinized hours and hours of a videotaped confession. It was 1997, and we were in a San Francisco hotel room, 4,300 kilometres from the scene of the crimes. As the tape on the portable player wound toward the end, Skrapec was still hyper-focused, transfixed by Karla Homolka -- and by what the young blond was revealing about herself in the videotapes of her statements to a couple of Niagara Regional Police officers. A transplanted Canadian, Skrapec carried herself with the kindly comportment of a grade school librarian. But looks do deceive. Skrapec is a fearless and much-sought-after criminal profiler who, like her fictional counterpart, Clarice Starling, has matched wits with more than her fair share of Hannibal Lecters. And on that March day, her sights were trained on Homolka, dissecting her words, her demeanour -- hunting for motive.
On the monitor, 23-year-old Homolka was dressed up for the officers in her buttons-and-bows schoolgirl best. Her deadpan recitation reduced the grim details of murder and depravity into an intravenous drip, drip, drip of moral vacuity. Skrapec noted, as Homolka went on, how Paul Bernardo's preference for abducting and torturing innocent young women was not the biggest challenge to the couple's domestic contract. On the contrary, Homolka seemed much more ticked off when relating that Bernardo, her husband at the time, had used one of her crystal champagne flutes to serve drinks to the abducted Leslie Mahaffy. Skrapec said this showed Homolka feeling threatened by a captive’s elevated status within the household.
Connections in the crime business had provided Skrapec with a few of the secret details of the case over the years, and she had followed the media coverage closely enough to come to suspect that Hom6lka's relationship with Bernardo was as co-conspiratorial as it was codependent: that while he represented the textbook sexual sadist, Homolka might herself be driven by a dangerous psychopathy -- malignant narcissism The videotapes of Homolka testifying clinched that opinion.
Back in 1997, the profiler was reluctant to be declarative about a case she was not officially involved in. But with a decision looming on whether to parole Homolka this July, Skrapec was more forthcoming when I recently asked her to elaborate on her conclusions. Today, she explains just what the malignant narcissist is: "This personality cannot tolerate humiliation. It is capable of destroying others in the service of meeting its ego needs." In Skrapec's view, Homolka would have had no tolerance for anyone who she thought might take her rightful place at the side of Bernardo.
We know that Homolka is the most notorious female inmate in the country and we know that, thanks to a plea bargain that gave her a 12-year sentence for manslaughter, her crimes have never undergone the scrutiny of a public trial. What we don't have is a full accounting of her actions nor a sensible explanation for her involvement in the kidnapping and murder of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy and in the rape and mysterious death of her sister Tammy.
Clearly, there has been a sea change in opinion since original psychiatric reports painted Homolka as the hapless victim of her sexually sadistic ex-husband. Last fall, the inmate spent a few months at a Saskatchewan prison, where a psychiatric team assessed her and concluded that she is a danger to society. This spring the parole board was considering Homolka's case but Corrections Canada has already recommended against it.
We don't know the basis for the Saskatchewan findings but, at the request of Elm Street, Skrapec and other experts have taken a fresh look at the evidence against the former Mrs. Bernardo. They reach some disturbing conclusions, particularly in the one death that was never considered a murder -- that of Karla's 15-year-old sister, Tammy. What was it Dr. Lecter told Clarice when he finally gave it up about the serial killer Buffalo Bill? Go back to "first principals," he said. Tammy was the first to die at the hands of Paul and Karla. And while she may have been Homolka's youngest sibling, she may also have posed a threat. Skrapec's view of Homolka suggests the old English nursery rhyme "The fly has married the bumble bee," and for anyone who challenged that union, there could be hell to pay.
The photograph of the huge burn on Tammy Homolka's face has bothered me from the second I laid eyes on it four years ago while preparing a story about Karla Homolka for the fifth estate on CBC television. It shows Tammy, on a stainless steel hospital gurney, looking rather peaceful in death except for a red burn obliterating nearly all of her left cheek. I knew she'd been raped and that her death had been attributed to suffocation, the result of inhaling so much vomit into her lungs that she "stopped breathing," as Homolka put it. According to Homolka's version, which has become the accepted one, the throwing up was the result of "a terrible mixture of stuff in her [Tammy]," including general anaesthetic, sleeping pills and alcohol, and all on a full stomach. Homolka stood by her claim that the lesion on the cheek was a "rug burn", the result of Tammy being dragged (while in distress) across a few feet of rec-room carpet into her eldest sister's bedroom because, as Homolka put it, "we needed more light."
But it just doesn't add up. The angry red insult to Tammy's face captured in the photo is a "rug burn"? It just hits you like a punch in the gut.
A decade later and 2,500 kilometres away in San Antonio, Texas, a world renowned expert on how and why people end up in the morgue has agreed to my request to examine photos of the burn and Tammy's autopsy reports. Dr. Vincent Di Maio, the chief medical examiner for Bexar County, has been dealing with suspicious deaths for 30 years, and he is not buying one bit of Homolka's story. Di Maio says he has seen burns like this before and that the one on Tammy's face was not caused by a carpet. He also scoffs at the findings of the officially accepted cause of death. "Aspiration [of vomit] is a bullshit diagnosis," Di Maio says without hesitation. "We never sign anybody out of here with that as the cause of death. As a finding, it's meaningless." He sees it as a symptom that something deadly happened before Tammy threw up, something that caused her to go into a "coma" before she choked and then inhaled some of what had been in her stomach. "If you get shot and there's blood, the bleeding is the mechanism that killed you, but the reason you die is because you got shot," he explains.
It was Karla's hand on the bottle of halothane, a potent general anaesthetic, and Di Maio says it was the halothane that killed Tammy. The nature of the burn is strong proof. It's right there, he says, in the photo.
Two-and-a-half years after Tammy died, Karla Homolka sat in a hotel room at the appropriately named Journey's End Motel in Whitby, Ont., giving her videotaped statements under oath to two members of the Green Ribbon task force. Green Ribbon was set up to investigate the French and Mahaffy murders, and by talking to police Homolka was holding up her end of the first of two plea arrangements. In this first one, the Crown agreed it would not prosecute her and she would serve only 12 years if she testified against her ex-husband -- but only if she told the truth.
On this day, the officers were hearing the details concerning a third victim, Karla's little sister Tammy. Homolka's story was that she and Bernardo planned a surreptitious sexual assault on her sister; that she forged a prescription for a sleeping medication known as Halcion to keep the teen from waking during the attack; and that she stole the bottle of halothane from the veterinary clinic where she worked.
Halothane is always supposed to be administered through a vaporizer that calibrates dosage as the liquid chemical mixes with oxygen and turns into a gas. But Homolka didn't use it that way. Instead, she said, she poured a "very little bit" of liquid halothane onto a cloth and held it "close to [Tammy's] face, not on her face, so she could get a lot of oxygen." According to Di Maio's analysis and to those who have seen the videotape of the assault on Tammy, both of those statements are lies. Homolka's hand is said to be clearly seen holding the halothane-soaked cloth against her sister's nose and mouth, and Di Maio says the burn indicates that, at some point, she must have used it liberally.
Homolka was taking a big risk in saying what she said. If she lied, the plea bargain would be off. But she was also aware that the deal could be cancelled – and she'd probably face murder charges -- if by her own hand she had "stopped the breath" of any of the girls, including Tammy. It's not clear from
the videotape if the officers recording her words had seen the photo of Tammy's face, but Homolka would not budge from the rug burn story.
On the morning of Christmas Eve 1990, Tammy Homolka was declared dead in the St. Catharines, Ont., hospital morgue. It was George Onich, an identification officer with the Niagara Regional Police, who snapped the photos of her face, of that disfigured cheek. The 10-year-old police reports suggest neither Onich nor other officers bought the story that the victim's older sister and fiancé were offering, that a perfectly healthy girl had just "stopped breathing" because she'd had too much to drink or that the lesion was a "rug burn". The police no doubt had the very same hits-you-in-the-gut reaction to the huge mark on Tammy's face.
Three months later, the local coroner, Joseph Rosloski, ruled that Tammy Homolka died as a result of "asphyxia due to the aspiration of stomach contents," perhaps "connected to asthma." The officer who closed the first investigative file ended it with this: "The source of the burn-like lesions about the face remained unexplained." Much of the evidence in Tammy's death was disposed of, but Onich's negatives were filed away.
Tammy's body wasn't exhumed until two weeks after a judge approved Karla Homolka's plea bargain in July 1993. Under this arrangement, Homolka got 10 years for manslaughter in each of the French and Mahaffy cases, to be served concurrently, and another two years were tacked on for her sister's death. But Homolka has never faced charges in Tammy's death.
In his book Invisible Darkness, author Stephen Williams makes the case that Green Ribbon investigators discovered trouble had been brewing between the oldest and youngest Homolka daughters and that, at least in Karla's mind, things had moved beyond ordinary sibling rivalry. Williams obtained a police interview with Mike Donald, the boyfriend at the time of Lori, the middle sister. Donald suggested Tammy was on thin ice with Karla just a few months before she died. "One night we were all sitting in the [Homolka] rec room and Tammy is snuggling up to Paul and saying, 'I'm younger than Karla and I'm prettier than Karla and Paul's going to marry me.’" Donald said Karla told Tammy to "get the fuck out of here and leave Paul alone."
Other police interviews indicated neighbours and friends noticed Bernardo showing a real interest in Tammy in the months leading up to her death and that sometimes the affection was returned. One neighbour said Tammy would "hug him, like when they were sitting and he would put his arm around her and give her a squeeze." To Tammy it was probably an innocent flirtation. But for Bernardo, Tammy was becoming an obsession, not to mention an unwitting guest in Karla's bedroom. Karla Homolka told police that some time before Tammy's death, she had begun impersonating her youngest sister to enhance sex with her fiancé. "He had me say: 'My name is Tammy. I'm 15 years old. I'm your virgin. I love you and I want to marry you.’"
All this takes us back to Skrapec's diagnosis of malignant narcissism. The expert profiler, lauded for her work on New York's Zodiac Killer case, says the minute Bernardo's fantasy moved from the privacy of Homolka's bedroom to that embarrassing "get the fuck out of here and leave Paul alone" evening in the family rec room, Tammy was in trouble. "That's the kind of public humiliation," says Skrapec, that Karla's ego could never have tolerated. Her personality is "really consistent with a woman who cannot tolerate a challenge to her fragile ego. There's going to be some kind of rage directed toward her sister because her sister is going to be the one who succeeds in getting Paul," the profiler explains. "She's the one who is admired." When asked about Tammy's relationship with Bernardo, his ex-wife said this: "Tammy was a real little bitch at times," and, "she was spoiled by all."
On the fourth of five days of testifying at the Journey's End, Karla Homolka, an animal health technician by profession, was explaining why, after her review of the Compendium of Pharmaceuticals and Specialties, she had chosen Halcion as the sleeping pill of choice for Tammy's drinks. "Death was not listed," Homolka said, adding that the book indicated that "if you overdosed you wouldn't die, basically."
She could not say the same about halothane, which she chose in order to keep her sister unconscious for the duration of the sexual assault. Death is listed in virtually all of the halothane literature as a possible outcome of an overdose. And an overdose is nearly guaranteed when you go about your work the way Homolka did. The insert that would have come with the bottle she stole includes the warning that halothane must always be administered through a vaporizer that calibrates exact dosage, with strict limits placed on the amount of the chemical it is safe to use. Even when carefully calibrated, caution requires that the patient (usually a dog or a cat) have a breathing tube down the throat. Resuscitation equipment is also supposed to be nearby. The insert lays out in detail how to use the product safely, but Homolka did the opposite of what is suggested.
Di Maio is suspicious of Homolka's claim that Tammy's death was an accident, suggesting that anyone with a working knowledge of halothane (which Homolka admitted she had) would be well aware of the danger. "Anyone who puts an anaesthetic on a cloth and holds it over a person's face long enough knows that that person is going to die," he says. "You don't have to be a mental giant to figure that out."
The halothane, the photo and the burn on Tammy's cheek tell Di Maio much about the sinister scenario that played out in the Homolka rec room. The medical examiner says the clearly demarcated edges of Tammy's burn show the halothane "had pooled" under Tammy's cheek, so Homolka must have used a whopping dose of it. Also, he notes that the pattern of smaller lesions under her nose and mouth indicates "that it could be a hand pushing the cloth against the face." To Di Maio, it's obvious Tammy Homolka died of a halothane overdose, and he does not rule out that she may have been smothered at the same time.
Di Maio says that under normal circumstances, halothane splashed on the skin would be little more than an irritant, but if you let someone's face lie in a caustic compound for a period of time -- especially if the dying process is decreasing blood circulation -- "then the burn is going to increase in severity." He suggests an expiring Tammy may have lain in this condition for some time.
Early on Dec. 24, 1990, almost a year to the day that Karla Homolka became engaged to Paul Bernardo, ambulance workers arrived on the scene just seven minutes after they were called. They found the teenager Tammy in very bad shape. Karla Homolka has never said exactly what time the sex attack occurred, but given what Bernardo and Homolka told the police, it appears that Bernardo and the two sisters went down to the rec room to put on a movie at about 11 p.m. They only watched for 15 minutes, meaning that the attack probably began and ended some time between 11:30 and midnight. Karla said Tammy got into trouble and started vomiting "moments" after the sex attack, which Bernardo's videotape shows lasting between six and nine minutes. But the ambulance call wasn't made until 1:18 -- roughly an hour later.
Homolka maintained in her statements -- and the video of the sex attack is said to confirm -- that Tammy was lying on her back, slightly on her right side. But, according to Di Maio, the sharply defined borders of the burn indicate that the full weight of Tammy's head was pressing her left cheek into the chemical pooled beneath it. This analysis suggests Tammy must have been dosed with a lot more halothane once she was in a completely different position. As if anticipating having to explain, Homolka's statements are full of changes in Tammy's position (except the one seen on tape during the sexual assault). At one point Homolka said that maybe she just got up and flipped over on to the other side. I don't know."
If Di Maio is right, then any move by Tammy must have happened after the sexual assault was taped, suggesting that Homolka hit her sister with a second, much higher dose of halothane. Supporting this idea is the fact that those who've seen the assault on tape did not notice a burn on Tammy's cheek. I also learned that Bernardo unintentionally supported this theory when he said in a statement (never made public) that he fell asleep after the sexual assault and that Homolka wakened him some time later with the news that Tammy was in trouble. Bernardo said Tammy appeared to be "dead."
At 1:25, two paramedics, Derek Hicks and Scott Bird, arrived to find "all vital signs absent." They noted that Tammy's pupils were "fully fixed and dilated," a very bad sign. It is possible, especially with a young person and even when there's brain death, to get the heart pumping for a quick dash to the hospital -- that is unless the person has been gone for some time. Hicks and Bird inserted a breathing tube and attached a heart monitor in just three minutes, shocking her heart at 1:29, 1:31 and 1:33. But no rhythm, nothing. The readout never moved beyond a flatline. Homolka told the Green Ribbon investigators that the paramedics had restored a heartbeat and that she thought Tammy would survive. This lie seemed intended to cover up the fact that she knew her sister was gone before the ambulance arrived.
By the time Homolka took the stand at Bernardo's trial, none of it mattered. The Crown had entered into a second deal, which granted Homolka immunity from prosecution even if she had lied and even if she had "stopped the breath" of any of the girls. With her new deal in place, Homolka amended her previous statements and positioned the poisoned rag "next to" Tammy's face instead of at arm's length, as she'd suggested to police.
Since Tammy Homolka's death was not legally an issue when Bernardo went to trial for the French and Mahaffy murders, the Crown was under no obligation to call medical evidence into her death. And so the Crown didn't, except briefly on the issue of the mysterious cheek burn. Dr. Raymond Matthews, an anesthesiologist from Kingston, caused a bit of a sensation when he poured halothane directly onto his hand and face, as if it were as benign as the perfume samples Homolka said she shared with Kristen French. Matthews's evidence was technically correct, but as it did not account for the circumstances of Tammy's exposure to halothane, it was irrelevant.
When I recently spoke to Dr. Jim Young, Ontario's chief coroner who was in charge of the medical detective work, he stood by the view that the burn on Tammy's cheek was definitely not caused by halothane. "The burn is a big mystery because we don't really know the cause," he told me. Young regards the burn as chemical in nature, further suggesting it may have been caused by a cleaning agent on a cloth that Homolka had used to wipe the girl's face. This notion contradicts Homolka's own statements about how she cleaned Tammy's face, and it doesn't account for the sharply demarcated edges that Di Maio notes.
It's also a puzzling analysis given that one of the two pathologists who signed off on the report of Tammy's second autopsy says he agrees with Di Maio that halothane was the likely culprit. When "you are dealing with someone who is dying or dead, the skin physiology is different," says Dr. David King of Hamilton General Hospital. "You're dealing wit a chemical in direct contact with the skin. You're not going to get a halothane burn by waving a halothane-soaked rag several inches away from the skin." I reminded him that Homolka stated under oath that the cloth wasn't touching her sister's face. "Well, there you are," he said. King says the Crown was aware of his opinion and doesn't know why he wasn't asked to testify.
Because of the difference in opinion between King and Young, I phoned Young again for clarification. Earlier I'd asked him whether Tammy's vomit could have made the halothane caustic. In this follow-up call, Young said he'd been thinking about that and now agreed that it was hypothetically possible. He maintained, though, that halothane alone didn't cause the burn.
King's autopsy report from 1993, on file with the coroner's office, indicated that, like Di Maio, he too has raised the possibility that Tammy may have been smothered "during the application of some fluid to the face." King also signed the reports of the two autopsies on Leslie Mahaffy, the first girl Bernardo abducted and brought home. But the Crown never called the pathologist to give evidence on either girl. He's been baffled by this for years. King says that, even though Bernardo was technically guilty of murder in the cases of Mahaffy and French, it isn't clear to him that Bernardo was the one who actually killed the girls. "It's obvious to anybody that the Crown realized they had a very weak case [against Bernardo]," he says. Based on the medical evidence he's seen, King says, "I don't know if it's more likely, but it could well have been Karla.
"What evidence is there that Bernardo killed those two girls?" he continued. When I commented that this was what Homolka had testified, he replied: "That's all the evidence that there was, what Karla says."
Karel and Dorothy Homolka still live in the split-level home on Dundonald Drive in St. Catharines, where their youngest daughter died and their oldest began in earnest her collaboration with Paul Bernardo. Dorothy Homolka reports that Buddy, Karla's beloved Rottweiler, was old and ailing and had to be put down just after Christmas. Karel Homolka has had some serious health problems but is coping well. Dorothy Homolka, though, is still trapped on a two-lane highway of divided loyalties and despair: on one side is the memory of her dead daughter, on the other is the eldest one who went so wrong.
She says she still supports Karla but sometimes gets angry with her. She also gets upset with herself and has had electroconvulsive treatments (shock therapy) for the depression she suffers from thinking too often about how much responsibility a mother must bear for the way her children turn out. "There is that mother's thing that says, 'They all came from you, they were all brought up the same way,"' she explains. "Maybe I did something wrong, I know that I shouldn't think it, but it is always there."
When I tell her I've gathered some evidence suggesting Karla may have played a more sinister role in Tammy's death than we knew, she says, "Nothing can change. We can't bring Tammy back." But then she asks me to let her know when the story will run. Not once does she suggest it shouldn't be written. Dorothy Homolka passed the last exit a long time ago.
When Tammy's casket was opened three years after she was buried, it was obvious that even in death the teenager hadn't escaped her older sister's obsession with Bernardo and their upcoming wedding. Tucked in beside Tammy was a bizarre array of wedding paraphernalia, including an invitation and a thank-you-for-attending card. On the front of the card in raised black script were the words "Mr. and Mrs. Paul K. Bernardo". To Skrapec this represents a macabre game of one-upmanship for Karla, who had viewed the younger woman as a real threat to her upcoming nuptials. "It's like she was pissing in her grave," Skrapec says. "She's saying, 'I won, you lost. I'm marrying Paul, not you.’"
According to Homolka's own statements, Bernardo was so distraught about Tammy's death that he tried to kill himself. Karla also let slip to a neighbour that it was after Tammy's death that he began hitting her. Just a few weeks after Tammy died, Bernardo's camera caught Homolka upping the ante in front of the fireplace in the family rec room. In a tape those close to the case dubbed the "fireside chat," Karla impersonated her dead sister. She tantalized Paul with a new suggestion: that they begin abducting schoolgirls together to keep as sex slaves. Paul asked when they should begin, and Karla replied, "This summer because the winter time is too hard." That scene was recorded in January 1991. The following June, Leslie Mahaffy would be dead.
As for Tammy, she will remain frozen in time, the dead teenager from 10-and-a-half years past. She's the one with the burned cheek, in the photo you cannot forget. Even in death, that image speaks louder than all of Karla Homolka's lies -- calling out for a reckoning, a settling of accounts.