Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Paul Bernardo & Karla Homolka

Why Karla?

By Katherine Ramsland

Karla Homolka was released from a Canadian prison in July 2005, and the media held a "Karla watch" in anticipation. What they thought might happen is anyone's guess, but they were correct in believing that their audience wanted to follow every second of her first moments of freedom.  Some hate her, some support her, and others are merely curious.

Karla is just one of a number of females who have participated in killing teams, so what makes her special? Some experts have called her a compliant victim of abuse, and yet there's something about her participation in certain acts and her manipulation of the system that makes that analysis less than satisfying. As a result, other experts have referred to her as a prime example of a female psychopath, which would account for her ability to dupe the system.  It also accounts for the widespread fascination: Psychopaths who egregiously defy social morality are considered larger than life, so given the perceptions about Karla, it's no surprise that she garners full-page newspaper spreads, radio and television shows, at least one book, and two movies devoted to her. Despite her partner's obvious deviance, she's the one people want to try to understand. Clearly, she's attractive, and that's a factor, but there's certainly much more.

To briefly review, Karla Homolka met Paul Bernardo in 1987 and began a torrid romance. She was 17, Paul, 23. To friends they seemed the perfect couple, although Paul was secretly raping women in Scarborough. Karla was a seemingly simple, middle-class girl who found herself attracted to a sexual sadist. She let him do whatever he desired and by some published reports, his demands became increasingly brutal. Nevertheless, she supposedly invited more.

Six months prior to their storybook wedding in 1991, Karla offered Paul her 15-year-old sister, Tammy, as a Christmas gift. She'd drugged the girl with a tranquilizer from the vet's office where she worked so Paul could rape her while she was presumably passed out from alcohol consumption. Instead, Tammy died, and it was ruled accidental. The two got away with it, and then took videos of themselves with Karla wearing Tammy's clothing and pretending to be her virginal sister. At no point did she protest and in fact seemed amused — an indication that she felt no remorse.

After the two bought a house, Paul brought home two girls, Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. Both were held captive, terrorized, abused, raped, and finally killed. Paul took videotapes of most of these acts. It later turned out that Karla had lured Kristen French to the car to kidnap, because, as she later put it, Paul liked young girls and she wanted to keep him happy. She had also assisted in dismembering and getting rid of Mahaffy's body.

Females who kill in association with adult males usually follow the male's lead — behavior derived from his dark fantasies. The female is usually sufficiently dependent on him to remain passive, and she may fear being abandoned or beaten. Most have longstanding insecurity and are poorly educated. Many were abused during childhood and during the relationship became isolated from friends and family.

But in Karla's case, none of this is true.  She was confident, educated, and had a good support system with her family. Paul even lived with them at one time. If Stephen Williams' accounts in two books are to be believed, Karla was clearly co-equal in the violence, rather than passive, and even suggested some of it herself.

Paul also beat Karla at times, so she finally left in 1993. When the police began asking questions, Karla quickly made a deal. She offered details about what Paul had done to the two girls in exchange for two ten-year terms for manslaughter, to be served concurrently. Two more years were added after videotapes were uncovered and authorities realized her role in her sister's death.

Little research has been done on the remorseless female who uses a man to act out her desire for violence, but this could be a case in which such a dynamic occurred. That Karla could kill her sister and then continue to stay with her co-killer, participating in more rapes and murders, signals a deviant personality. She was also caught on videotape spontaneously telling Paul that she wanted to get many more young virgins for him.  Yes, it pleased him, but the phrasing sounded neither passive nor scripted.

In addition, in prison, Karla appeared to thrive. Seven psychologists and psychiatrists examined her and agreed that she showed the symptoms of battered spousal abuse, although some observers believe she boned up on the syndrome via coaching and books. In 2001, the parole board referred to her as a psychopath — cold-blooded, manipulative offender who shows no remorse, yet she has reportedly written a letter of apology to her family about her sister's death and complained to psychiatrists about nightmares from her past. (The attorney for the other victims' families has stated that she has never apologized to them, which, if she were a typical 'compliant accomplice,' she would likely have done.) And she appeared to have some fun while incarcerated.  She got involved with a woman (who later claimed to have been manipulated into giving her gifts), and participated in parties and fashion shows.

Just before Karla stepped out into society again, Judge Jean Beaulieu ruled that she still presented a risk to society (despite psychiatric reports that she did not), and conditions were set for her post-release behavior.

Since professional opinion is divided on whether or Karla is a victim or a dangerous psychopath, it's not possible to make definitive comments without resorting to "armchair psychology." However, ambiguity over this issue will continue to fuel the intense interest in her. If she's a psychopath, she's quite calculating and clever, fooling even trained professionals, who seem to have discounted the voluntary nature of her role in her sister's murder. If not, then she appears to be a singularly adaptive and resilient victim of abuse. Few have been so fortunate. She's divorced from Bernardo now and will probably make no contact, as dictated by her release conditions, but one can only wonder what her future behavior will be as "Karla Teale." It's difficult to predict, especially since so many records about her case are sealed. Thus, the "Karla watch" will likely continue for some time.

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