In the fall of 1987, a seventeen-year-old veterinary employee named Karla Homolka met a handsome stranger named Paul Bernardo at a pet food show in Toronto. That evening, they began a depraved sexual relationship, which would eventually call for the involvement of unwilling, underage girls, including Karla’s younger sister Tammy Lyn Homolka. Bernardo was already a serial rapist when he met Karla, having committed a violent string of sexual assaults in the Toronto suburb of
Bernardo is a figure all too familiar: a privileged middle-class white man who was able to get away with his crimes unsuspected for far too long. But where does Karla fall in the collective list of criminal archetypes? Figures such as Dr. Andrew Malcolm and Dr. Hans Arndt were quick to label her as little more than a battered woman, incapable of acting on her own. After all, her emotional state seemed to match the profile of a woman suffering from extensive abuse. The public will never know the true reality of their
Scarborough that earned him the title of the Scarborough Rapist. After drugging, raping, and accidentally killing Tammy on Christmas Eve, the two went on to kidnap and murder two other teenage girls in the area. When the extent of their crimes finally came to light, they became known as the Ken and Barbie killers, named after the iconic pair of Mattel dolls with similar good looks and blonde hair. Throughout her trial, Homolka was deprived of having any agency in the killings, labeled as little more than a victim and a battered woman. As a result, she served only twelve years in prison for her crimes after receiving a plea bargain. Her then-husband and partner in crime, Bernardo, wouldn’t be so lucky. In July of 1995, he was convicted of the kidnapping, rape, and eventual murders of two Ontario teenagers named Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, as well as an astounding 43 counts of sexual assault—though he is believed to have carried out well over 50. He was sentenced to life in prison with a possibility of parole after 25 years (Karla Homolka 2) and remains in prison to this day.
While Homolka admitted to playing an unquestionable role in the gruesome murders of these three innocent teenage girls, helping plan and execute their kidnappings and participating in their rape and murder, she came away with a significantly lesser sentence than her husband. The CBC Fifth Estate documentary Karla Homolka, hosted by reporter Trish Wood, questions just what it is about Homolka that caused the Canadian justice system to grant her mercy in the face of irrefutable evidence and seemingly obvious guilt. The novel Invisible Darkness by Stephen Williams provides readers with an even closer look at the case, and a very skeptical look at Homolka. He tells the story of the Ken and Barbie killers through narrative, basing the events on eyewitness accounts and interviews with the killers themselves. Both Invisible Darkness and CBC’s Karla Homolka come to a similar conclusion: as a white, middle-class, and conventionally attractive woman, Karla Homolka was able to seamlessly play the role of a woman blinded by love and battered by her spouse. Both sources assert that she did, in fact, have agency in the crimes and was a driving force behind the deaths of the two girls she and Bernardo kidnapped. Homolka was infantilized by the predominantly male authority figures around her, including psychiatrists, lawyers, and even police. The assumption that she as a woman couldn’t possibly have her own agency in such a heinous string of crimes could very well be what spared her from spending the rest of her life in prison.
While the documentary unquestionably holds Homolka accountable for her actions, almost all of the professionals interviewed throughout are male. Many of them seem to have a similar opinion about Homolka: that she is innocent and powerless. Wood continuously responds to the assertions of the male professionals with skepticism, particularly those of Dr. Andrew Malcolm: “She was a naive, simple, innocent, helpless child who was impressed by what her parents thought of her catch [Bernardo], and what her little girlfriends thought of her catch,” says Malcolm, a psychiatrist who spoke with Homolka on several occasions. “She was overwhelmed by this fellow,” he adds (Karla Homolka 3:36). Malcolm goes on to assert that Homolka was rendered completely helpless by Bernardo since the day they met and was therefore powerless to stop any of the heinous crimes that would follow. However, when Wood asks Malcolm what evidence he had that Karla was abused, other than the fact that she’d simply told him that she was, he shifts uncomfortably in his seat and replies “none at all” (Karla Homolka 21:21). At another point in the documentary, Wood explains that a psychiatrist named Dr. Hans Arndt concluded that “Homolka’s experience [with abuse] since age seventeen equaled that of a concentration camp survivor” (Karla Homolka 20:40). When Homolka arrived at St. Catherine's General Hospital in Ontario, she was badly beaten to the point that she had “raccoon eyes” from the bruises that had allegedly formed as a result of Bernardo hitting her.
Homolka is shown in several clips throughout the documentary, giving her account of the events that occurred. She speaks in a soft, high-pitched voice, sitting prim and poised with her hands placed on the table. “If I didn’t turn the water tap off completely, he’d hit me,” she says during a police interview. “If I didn’t say the right thing, he’d hit me. He held knives to my throat, he told me I better watch my back” (Karla Homolka 1:08). Homolka’s advantage of appearance and mannerism lends credence to the claims that she makes. After all, the image of the fearful, battered wife is all too vivid in our collective memory, with prevalence in all forms of media. Though Homolka unquestionably victimized French, Mahaffy, and her own sister Tammy, she still appears to be a victim—that is, Bernardo’s victim. Therefore, by society’s standards, it’s difficult to hold her accountable for the actions that she committed under duress, even though she seems to have done them willingly.
Paul entered Kristen roughly from behind while Karla focused furiously, even as Kristen cried out in pain. “Shut up,” Paul told her, positioning himself and grabbing a handful of long, brown curls while LL Cool J intoned, “Come on, fool.” Then Paul raised both of his hands and pounded his fists into the base of her back. It was a “thump, thump,” done to the music. Tersely, he told Kristen to lower her hips and arch her back. “Smile,” called Karla, as Paul bent over Kristen, turning her face to the camera. Over the next few minutes, Kristen French told Paul Bernardo that she loved him twenty-six times. Each tortured phrasing was different (230-31).
relationship, other than that Bernardo was violent and prone to fits of rage. Homolka unquestionably suffered abuse at his hands—this is evident in photographs taken of her at the hospital after the beating that ended their relationship—but whether or not the threat of this abuse is the only factor that drove her to participate in the rapes and murders of innocent teenage girls raises more than a hint of doubt. However, even as she was in the hospital physically and emotionally recuperating from the final beating, she could be seen “[w]andering the halls in thigh-high baby dolls, wearing push up bras, and clutching Bunky as if it were the Christ child” (Invisible Darkness 20). It is then revealed that “Bunky,” an expensive Gund teddy bear given to Homolka as a gift from Bernardo, was given to Leslie to hold while she was drugged and strangled to death by Bernardo. Though many experts were quick to attribute her actions to being a battered woman, details such as these, as well as her petulant behavior in the hospital, seem to indicate otherwise. As William writes, “At one point Karla fixed a night nurse with her strangely ambivalent eyes and demanded, “If I don’t get the drugs I want, the way I want them, you and Dr. Arndt will regret it. I’m telling you—you’ll all regret it!”” (Invisible Darkness 20). Williams remarks that she doesn’t match the profile of a typical patient admitted for depressive symptoms in the slightest, instead appearing generally happy and outspoken.
The innocent, mild-mannered Homolka we see captured on video in Karla Homolka is much different than the one that resides in the memory of those who knew her. As a high school student, Homolka had a strong interest in the occult and had an apparent fascination with death. In a classmate named Lyn Cretney’s yearbook, Homolka reportedly wrote, “Remember: Suicide kicks and fasting is awesome. Bones rule! Death Rules. Death Kicks. I love death. Kill the fucking world” (Invisible Darkness 33). She often wore black and talked about death and torture to her friends. She once whispered to a classmate, “I’d like to put dots all over somebody’s body and take a knife and then play connect the dots and then pour vinegar all over them” (Invisible Darkness 33). She claimed to have participated in “sadistic orgies, with bondage and hard spankings” (Invisible Darkness 35). These details seem to echo what friends confirm about Bernardo and Homolka’s kinky sex life in Karla Homolka, with one interview describing Karla’s ownership of a spiked dog collar and a pair of handcuffs (Karla Homolka 6:57).
While this behavior may have been a mere product of teenage rebellion, it now seems to be an eerie foreshadowing of the events to come later in Karla’s life. Those who knew Homolka remember her as a strong and independent girl who was a leader rather than a follower, and wasn’t the sort of person you wanted to disagree with. According to Kathy Ford, a former friend of Homolka’s, she was “the tough one” of their high school clique and that “you didn’t want to get in a fight with [her] because she was gonna win” (Karla Homolka 4:15). Homolka’s description of Bernardo has also been questioned by people who knew her. To them, Bernardo seemed to be her perfect match, the man who gave her everything she wanted. “Oh, he was her knight in shining armor,” says Homolka’s friend Jenny Black, “and I mean, we looked at him like that. He treated her well. . . . [H]e took care of her, he took her places. He just seemed to be wonderful for her. She was in love, head over heels” (Karla Homolka 4:50). Their relationship seemed perfect, and friends couldn’t see Homolka participating in anything she didn’t want to be a part of, or enduring any sort of abuse without making it known.
Because Homolka had always been so strong-willed and front-running, it does not seem so hard to believe that she could have played a larger role in the deaths of her and Bernardo’s victims than she let on. Bernardo has always claimed that Homolka was “the killer, in the true sense” and that he did “all the stuff [he] recorded, but [he] didn’t commit the ultimate act” (Makin 19). This claim is supported by the fact that, as the Scarborough Rapist, Bernardo always left his victims alive. He only killed the women he raped when Homolka was present, thus suggesting that he might have left French and Mahaffy alive if Homolka had not been there to convince him otherwise. At one chilling point in the documentary, Homolka seems to make a claim in support of this idea: “He wanted to keep [Mahaffy] for longer, and I didn’t want to,” Homolka says during questioning, “I was going to work, I didn’t want to go to work knowing that this girl was in my house and she could escape so easily, and I didn’t—I was afraid. So I didn’t suggest to him that we kill her on Sunday, but I knew that she . . . I knew that she had to . . . be gone” (Karla Homolka 41:00). This seems to suggest that while Bernardo was more concerned about living out his twisted sexual fantasies for as long as possible, Homolka was more concerned about avoiding being caught—which meant that the victims couldn’t be allowed to live after they were done with them.
In Invisible Darkness, Williams shows us a Homolka who not only participates in the kidnappings and murders, but has a few ideas of her own: “There were a lot of virginal teenage girls to choose from in St. Catharines,” he writes. “Karla suggested they cruise by Holy Cross and that other high school—Lakeport Secondary, near Linwell Road—around three o’clock. Because it was a long weekend, all the classes would be dismissed early. They could take their pick” (215). From Williams’s perspective, the couple seems to view abducting their victims in the same way a child might view shopping for a new toy. Homolka and Bernardo’s victims were either young girls that they kidnapped (in the case of Mahaffy and French) or “Jane Does” that they would befriend and groom into participating in sexual acts with them. Invisible Darkness describes a fifteen-year-old “Jane Doe” who first meets Karla when she is working at a pet store. Karla decides that she’ll make a good “wedding present” to Paul, as she looks similar to Tammy, and invites her over to her and Paul’s home for a “sleepover” after taking her shopping and out to dinner. She proceeds to give “Jane” alcoholic beverages until she passes out, keeping Halcion close at hand in case she wakes up. She then calls Paul home, announcing that she has a surprise. While Homolka would have others believe that she was coerced into committing these heinous acts, the evidence above suggests that she had a much heavier hand than was originally believed.
Throughout the Fifth Estate documentary, psychiatrists and law officials alike continually assert that she had no agency in the killings and was only following Bernardo’s orders for fear that she would suffer the same fate as their victims. However, home movie footage taken of Homolka by Bernardo shows her seeming to enjoy herself as she sexually assaults the helpless and often unconscious teenage victims, including her own sister. The video recordings of the rapes were discovered after Homolka was given her light sentence. In light of these tapes, even the most adamant believers in Karla’s innocence knew that she would have received a much harsher sentence had they been discovered earlier. These tapes, which depicted horrifying scenes of torture and rape, turned the case on its head—but only after Homolka had received a comparatively minor conviction of manslaughter. These twisted films show a much different Karla than the jury had become acquainted with throughout the trial. What appeared to be a pretty, fragile woman in danger was actually a depraved, sex-crazed, and dangerous woman. Though she could always be seen following Paul’s commands, there was an unquestionable air of willingness to her actions. Because of their graphic and brutal nature, the tapes are currently unavailable to the public. However, in Invisible Darkness, Williams describes scenes from the tapes in harrowing detail:
Homolka often holds the camera in the scenes that Williams describes, speaking words of encouragement to Paul and giving “instructions” to the kidnapped girls as he assaults them. In other tapes, she can be seen assaulting the girls herself: “Leslie was lying with her legs spread, with Karla kneeling and kissing her vagina. Paul tried for a close-up of Karla’s face. Raising her head, she smiled and wagged her tongue, with that devilish glint in her eye” (176). In a particularly shocking pair of videos taken shortly after Tammy’s death, Homolka masturbates Bernardo with a pair of her dead sister’s panties before the two of them go upstairs to have sex in Tammy’s bedroom. During intercourse, Homolka wears Tammy’s clothes and pretends to be her (130-31). These video recordings were used as evidence during Bernardo’s trial, in hopes that he could get a lesser sentence when it was proved that he wasn’t the only perpetrator. However, it was too late—Homolka had already received a plea bargain, and the tapes only served to incriminate Bernardo further in the eyes of the court. None of the victims are killed on camera, leaving a question as to who actually committed the murders. Bernardo claims that it was Homolka who killed the girls, while Homolka claims the opposite.
Homolka’s ability to play the pre-established role of the female allowed her to woo enough people into believing her innocence that she escaped the punishment that she deserved. In Perspectives on Female Sex Offending, Myriam S. Denov discusses the dangers of painting women as victims when they’re being examined in the case of a crime: “by overemphasizing women as victims, there is the risk of depriving women of their moral agency.
By realigning the offender’s behavior within the margins of victimhood … the female sex offender and her offence were more easily placed in accordance with traditional scripts regarding gender and sexuality.” Because Homolka committed sex crimes in cooperation with a man rather than acting alone, she is more frequently viewed as a victim to Bernardo, merely a battered woman acting in fear of her life.
Wood, the host of Karla Homolka, notes that Homolka made herself out to be “a victim deserving of leniency” and that she “convinced a legion of psychiatrists that she had committed unspeakable crimes only because she was battered into it by an abusive husband” (Karla Homolka 1:50). Once the facts of the case begin to stack up against their claims, Homolka’s assumed role as a victim begins to reveal itself as a falsehood. She was as much a participant in the murders as Bernardo was—she merely played a submissive role when it suited her, and that role was more befitting to traditional gender roles. Of course, not every expert on criminal psychology was quite as dazzled by Homolka as Arndt and Malcolm. “I don’t accept the battered woman syndrome,” says Dr. Fred Berlin, an authority on criminal behavior interviewed by Wood. “To make the leap from being battered and getting back at your batterer to killing innocent victims is a leap that I’m not prepared to make” (Karla Homolka 2:31). Paul Rosen, Paul Bernardo’s lawyer, claimed that Homolka’s behavior in the courtroom was a far cry from that of the stereotype of a battered woman. “I would pound her with terrible stuff [while she was on the witness stand],” says Paul Rosen, Paul Bernardo’s lawyer, “and she would get stronger, and stronger, and stronger. And at the end of it, no one in that room, or anybody following that trial, would ever have believed that she suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder, or that she was a battered spouse, or that she didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to walk out and blow the whistle, and save herself. Never mind the victims” (Karla Homolka 37:40). The truth is simply that Homolka didn’t want to walk away
Despite willingly participating in the kidnappings, rapes, and murders of two innocent teenage girls, as well as the rape and “accidental” killing of her younger sister, Homolka served only 12 years in prison for manslaughter. She was released in 2007 and now lives a happy, normal life in Chateauguay, Quebec, with her second husband Thierry Bordelais (the brother of her former lawyer) and their three children. Bernardo remains behind bars to this day. Having suffered signs of physical abuse at Bernardo’s hands, Homolka was immediately deemed a victim upon her arrival to St. Catharines General Hospital—a battered woman whose unimaginable suffering had driven her to participate in heinous crimes out of fear for her life. In this way, she was deprived of almost all agency and responsibility in the murders.
Homolka was called things like “innocent,” “simple,” and “helpless,” by psychiatrists who observed her, yet close friends and former classmates remember her as a strong, independent, and often deviant young woman who always did what was in her best interest. Every argument in favor of her innocence can be easily refuted or questioned. If she truly feared for her life, someone like Homolka would have undoubtedly found a way out of the situation long before it became as escalated as it did. After all, she managed to easily slip away from Bernardo after the alleged final beating that lead to her hospitalization at Saint Catharines. Most damning of all, however, is the existence of Bernardo and Homolka’s home video collection. It not only proves the extent of Homolka’s role beyond a reasonable doubt, but it casts the attractive young woman, who managed to convince so many individuals of her innocence and helplessness, in an abhorrent light. She was merely a victimizer playing the role of a victim; a cold and calculating sexual sadist posing as a fearful, battered woman in need of protection.
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