Saturday, February 10, 2007

Karly Curls

Everybody has a sore spot. An old sports injury that flares at an inopportune moment; the bad back that tightens without warning; a something or someone that pops up from time to time to remind you life can be incredibly unfair and unjust.

For me the wound that just won’t heal is Karla Homolka.

Karly Curls. Schoolgirl Killer. Serial Rape Enabler. Paul Bernardo’s “Better” Half. She came into my life uninvited and thanks to a Justice system that refuses to admit it made a mistake and allows ever greater injustices to be perpetrated, she just won’t go away.

For those who don’t know the story, there are a ton of books on the subject and endless web sources. In brief, Karla and her husband Paul, the perfect suburban couple, were responsible for the deaths of three teenage girls, Leslie Mahaffey, Kristen French and Karla’s kid sister Tammy. They also drugged and sexually abused other women. Many believe they were responsible for other deaths. They videotaped their crimes.

When the police finally arrested Paul, Karla offered to testify against him in return for lesser sentences, claiming to be a battered wife and unwilling participant in what had gone on. Shortly after the deal was done, the incriminating videotapes were discovered. But, according to authorities, nothing could be done to undo what became known in the Canadian press as “the deal with the devil”. Karla served 12 years for Manslaughter and is now a free woman, living under a new identity in Quebec.

She popped into the news this week with rumors that she has had a child.

I’m not a believer in Capital Punishment. But I do believe that someone who kills should not be given the opportunity to do it again.

Part of the process I used in writing and producing “Top Cops” was spending time on the job with cops. That included being present at a number of homicide scenes. Some were mundane, some appalling. My first was a decapitation, my last made Hannibal Lechter seem like a Vegan.

But all of them had the same emotional impact. Being in the presence of someone who has died violently hits you with an enormity you’re never quite prepared for. The whole scene roils with both the echoes of the savage, uncontrolled emotions that caused it as well as the unfathomable dimensions of what’s been taken away.

Trust me – it’s not at all like “CSI: Miami”.

Oh, sure, there are cops who go for the gallows humor or play the tough guy role. Everybody grieves differently and everybody deals with horror in their own way. And no matter how much we all intellectually know we could perpetrate such crimes, there’s no description for being in the presence of the act.

Paul Bernardo went to trial in Toronto in 1995 and a US network I had done a show for asked me to attend. They were considering an MOW and wanted me to write it. I knew a little about the case but not much more than the average person. You needed passes to get into the courtroom and the network arranged one for me and one for a reporter from their NY affiliate, who was arriving to do a story.

The Reporter was standard issue, attractive, energetic and excited at breaking a story the American media had not paid much attention to. Paul would be her OJ.

The trial had been going on for a couple of weeks, but we were there for the appearance of the star witness, Karla Homolka; one of my duties being to short list the actresses with network obligations who could play her.

The courtroom was packed and I had to explain the differences from a US courtroom for the Reporter. The robes. The dock. And a video system that had been installed to both serve justice and protect the public and the victims. Video monitors were placed where they could be seen by the Judge, the Jurors, the Accused and the Witnesses. But they could not be seen by the public. However, the audio portion was made available in open court.

We took our places. The Judge and the Lawyers took theirs. Bernardo was brought in by his Jailers. He struck me as the kind of guy you saw all over Bay Street (our version of Wall Street). Well dressed. Well groomed. With the same pointless demeanor and detachment from life you see in a lot of people in the financial trade.

If you saw Christian Bale in “American Psycho” you’ve seen Paul Bernardo.

Karla arrived from a different holding pen and the spectators all craned and buzzed in reaction. I didn’t think she looked as attractive as she had in the newspaper photos. She was calm, conservatively dressed and well spoken; initially taking pains not to make eye contact with her ex, the Accused. When she finally did, it reminded me of the way one of my ex’s had looked at me in divorce court. Detached but familiar, knowing this was the last time we’d ever be in the same room together.

The Crown Prosecutor led Karla through her testimony, sticking to the script written in their deal. Battered wife. Terrified and unable to stop the monster she was married to. Wanting so much to save “those poor girls” and her sister. But she was just so damn small and helpless and trapped.

Karla wasn’t a very good actress – and by this time she’d had time to practice. Having sat through many police interrogations where both the interviewing officer and the eyes on the other side of the one-way glass are watching for any hint of a lie; I couldn’t fathom how anybody had bought what she was selling. But they had. It was a good story and now they were all stickin’ to it!

When Paul’s Lawyer had the opportunity to cross-examine, he tore her tales apart. Within an hour I was convinced that while Paul was a nasty piece of work, Karla was beyond any evil I have ever encountered.

And this wasn’t due to some brilliant lawyer building “reasonable doubt” in the Jury. It came from the words and actions of Karla herself. All around me the faces and the reactions were the same. Nobody believed a word she was saying. Not one word.

And then they played the tapes. Over and over and over. Minutely re-examining the hours before the murders in heart-breaking detail.

I won’t describe what I heard. Not that I can’t. I won’t. Nobody else needs the images in their head that were put into mine that afternoon. What became obvious to every person in that courtroom was that despite the truly unspeakable things Paul Bernardo had done, it was Karly Curls who did the killing.

By the end of the day, the Reporter was devastated. She may not have been much of a journalist, but she knew what she’d witnessed could not be repeated. And I knew this was one script I would not write.

The Reporter flew home, but I went back. Not because I’m some kind of masochist, but because I had to understand. Not understand what had happened in that quaint suburban house of murders on the shores of Lake Ontario, that was painfully clear; but why the Canadian Justice system was so avidly pursuing such a massive miscarriage of Justice.

Don’t get me wrong. Paul Bernardo deserves to spend every second of the rest of his life in prison. But he should have had company.

A couple of years later, the production company I was working for was asked to bid on a screenplay based on the case called “Invisible Darkness”. It was well written and got to some of the “truth” but not in a way that would have made anyone question the “deal with the devil”. About a year ago, a fairly trashy US film called “Karla” came and went in about a week. It too followed the official version.

I’m not one of those who thinks certain stories shouldn’t be told. I’ve sat with the families of murder victims I’ve portrayed. I’ve seen the pain that reliving their loss causes and wouldn't want to be a party to creating more of it. But all of those cases ended in Justice. Those families had the closure that Justice provides and were able to look at the dramatic portrayal of their loved ones as making a difference, either in preventing a similar crime or raising awareness of a problem.

The victims in the Bernardo/Homolka case did not receive Justice and that’s why the feelings about it run so high whenever the story reappears. But something bigger keeps Justice from happening and I still don’t know why.

We all understand that Governments lie and sometimes Justice is perverted to serve a “greater good” or to protect someone or something larger than the rest of us can understand. And often I wonder what that something or someone was here. Who did Karla get to or who needed to keep her free? What person in power did she touch at some level or who needed to protect her? Even my best conspiracy theory generator can’t come up with one that makes sense.

So now Karla may have spawned and the powers that be insist she’s rehabilitated, has served her debt to society and/or has the right to build a new life. Maybe that’s true. Maybe I should just forget it and move on.

But those tapes of children being tortured keep playing in my head and the images I get tonight are of a woman in a garret nursery in old Montreal, cooing over a cradle -- just like the last scene in “Rosemary’s Baby”.


wcdixon said...

Jim...shit man...that's messed up.

Heart Of Darkness said...

Generally, I'm not for death sentence, but there are certain people that shouldn't be allowed to breathe...

The Film Diva said...

Well, that was a chilling open to my Sunday morning coffee and biscuits....

I read the "true" story version when that TV movie KARLA came out -- the battered wife defense seemed a little too pat given the horrific and calculated nature of the crimes. In some people the "empathy" part of their brain is just burnt out/shut down/non-existent. I'm surprised she's not on a sexual predator list and being watched by your version of child protective services. Even if the gov't made a bad deal they should be monitoring her....

Crashdummie said...

Everything may look calm, but we don’t know what’s happening underneath the surface… We live in a mad world, and sometimes you wonder whether there is any goodness and justice on earth...

joanne said...

(Forgive me if this comment has already been posted, the text box keeps popping back up)
My study of law compelled me to study this case all day today, and, until I ran across this article it hadn't occurred to me that the "accomplice" may have had someone with a little leverage, yet,concealed pulling for her.
I haven't come across much information concerning her parents. Were there any publicized details of her family life? What about her extended family? Family members that have connections or affiliates in the legal or political sectors?

jimhenshaw said...


There is a lot of information on the family in Stephen Williams' book "Invisible Darkness". He's another strong proponent of the "Somebody in power helped her" theory. Although I believe he feels those actions were more to protect the system.

All I really recall was that Karla's parents held a BBQ for her and all of her friends the weekend before she went to prison -- and that's after learning she had helped kill their youngest daughter.

So, I'd say there's a certain amount of disfunction there. But they don't seem to be people with any major connections.

And Karla is no longer monitored by anybody. She, her baby and her new husband moved to the Caribbean island of Anguilla a couple of years ago under assumed names. Where she is now is anybody's guess.