Shifting Sands

This true crime book by Stephen Williams examines the rapes and murders committed by Paul Bernardo with the assistance of his wife, Karla Homolka in the Canadian Niagara Falls towns of St. Catherine and Scarborough during the early 1990’s. Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French were abducted, held captive and raped by both Bernardo and Homolka before being murdered. Tammy Homolka, Karla’s sister, was drugged with halothane and raped by the couple in the Homolka family home. She died during the assault. Incredibly, the police and Coroner believed the couple’s story that the teenager had died after drinking too much alcohol and failed to properly investigate.

At one point while reading the explicit and horrendous account of the rape of Leslie Mahaffy I did wonder what kind of sicko would want to read this book. This didn’t stop me reading, which probably answered my question. This book is not recommended reading for under 18’s or anyone who will be traumatised by reading depictions of rape, torture, mutilation and murder. These scenes are particularly disturbing because we know they happened exactly as Williams has written them. Bernardo and Homolka video taped themselves raping their numerous victims, some of whom were released because they were too drugged to realise they had been raped. Williams was permitted to sit in the court room, despite not being a member of the press, after a legal challenge by Homolka’s defence team. He and the jury saw the tapes several times.

After feeling annoyed at Williams for including these scenes I later realised they are vital to examining this crime. Williams describes the girls’ ordeal with perfect empathy while not sparing us the horrendous manner in which they were violated and terrorised before being murdered. During these scenes, Williams brilliantly contrasts their bravery and dignity in the face of unimaginable cruelty with the callous selfishness and depravity of their attackers. He is documenting their ordeal in part because the tapes were secretly destroyed at the request of the victims’ families. While this may be an understandable reaction, it also means the best evidence against this murderous pair no longer exists, which may hamper future efforts to keep Bernardo in jail.

Williams meticulously details the incompetence of the Canadian police force and the stupidity of the authorities involved in the case. Bernardo was arrested on Homolka’s evidence after he beat her. The police had no evidence against Bernardo besides his wife’s testimony so they declared her a “battered woman” and arranged a plea deal that would see her serve a minimal sentence for her involvement in the abductions. Williams describes the manner in which Homolka was encouraged by the psychiatrists involved in her case to see herself as another of Bernardo’s victims and use this “fact” to cynically manipulate the police and judicial system in her favour.

The police and other authorities were unaware the couple had video taped the rapes and the defence was in possession of the tapes – withholding evidence until Homolka’s plea deal was arranged. This all came out during the trial. Homolka was released after serving little more than 3 years, with no conditions, and has married and had children. Given she participated in the rape of her own younger sister and caused her death, I share William’s dismay at her lenient treatment in the hands of the Canadian justice system and was permitted to raise children with no plans put in place to monitor their welfare.

Despite numerous searches of the couple’s home, the police had failed to find the tapes which showed Homolka to be a willing participant in the rapes and possibly the killer of the two girls. Williams describes the outrage this provoked in Canada and the extent to which the authorities in Canada went to censor details of the crimes as shown on the tapes to ensure the accused received a “fair trail.” Williams leaves us with the impression the legal rights of the accused were more important to the authorities than the legal rights of the victims. Homolka’s plea deal was upheld despite the fact her evidence was no longer needed and she was demonstrated not to be a frightened “battered wife.” If police had been in possession of the tapes, she would have been charged with murder along with her husband and would still be in prison – like her former husband.

Bernardo had also been questioned a total of 17 times in connection with the Scarborough rapes and every time he managed to fool the police into letting him go. They failed to see the handsome, well spoken Bernardo with his young, beautiful wife could be a serial rapist, much less that she would be involved and a willing participant. The police did not make the link between the rapes and the murders of the teenagers throughout most of the investigation due to poor communication between different branches of the Canadian police. Williams describes this well and his frustration and incredulity pours onto the pages.

Williams also examines the dysfunctional nature of both the Bernardo and Homolka families and how this corrupt family environment may have contributed to the development of their pathological personalities. He also details the toxic social milieu in which the young killers operated and how Bernardo’s predilection for raping young women within his social circle is not taken seriously within the friendship group. He does an excellent job describing the mindset of both killers and the manner in which their psychopathic personalities made them impervious to police interrogation upon arrest and cross examination in the court room. According to Williams, they enjoyed the attention.

Overall Williams argues the “Ken and Barbie” killers got away with their crimes for a number of years largely due to the incompetence of the Canadian police, medical and judicial systems. The effects of family and peer values in normalising unacceptable behaviour are also unflinchingly examined.

I recommend with book with the reservation that it is not for young readers or people who are likely to be traumatised by explicit descriptions of rape and murder.


One Comment

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  1. October 7, 2015

    Great review, Madonna. I’m just too stunned for comfort. I will be on the lookout for a copy. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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