Deadly Innocence


By Scott Burnside

By Alan Cairns

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Karla and Paul seemed like the picture-perfect newlyweds, but were really a pair of vicious killers who abducted, sexually tortured and murdered innocent schoolgirls, videotaping their evil acts in suburban Niagara Falls. Billed as the crime of the century in Canada, this case has received a great deal of media coverage on both sides of the border. Includes eight pages of photos.


In order to protect their identities, pseudonyms for Paul Bernardo's ex-girlfriends and victims have been used throughout this book.


Copyright © 1995 by Scott Burnside and Alan Cairns

All rights reserved.

Cover design by Tony Russo

Cover photo by Canada Wide Feature Service

Warner Books, Inc.
Hachette Book Group,
237 Park Avenue,
New York, NY 10017

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A Time Warner Company

The Warner Books name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

First eBook Ediotion: November, 1995

ISBN: 978-0-446-55035-2

Love, Honor, Obey

Never let anyone know our relationship is anything but perfect;
Always smile when you're with Paul;
Be a perfect girlfriend for Paul;
Remember you're stupid;
Remember you're ugly,
Remember you're fat…

—From Karla Homolka's "self-improvement" list



She was a vibrant, spirited young woman who suddenly became a deranged man's plaything. He was the child of an upwardly mobile family, whose father cut the lawn in dress clothes and whose mother was obese and unkempt. They came together in a night of furious, passionate sex, and from there began a journey into terror.

A Main Selection of True Crime Book Club®


If this book has merit, it is entirely the result of the people who have chosen to tell us their story. For many, talking about this was a painful process. But, put simply, they felt the telling of the truth was worth the pain. Dozens of people whose lives have been touched by this strange and tragic tale have chosen to trust us to tell that story. For that act of trust, we are humbly grateful.

Some of these people we can thank openly: Van Smirnis, Alex and Kathy Ford, Lisa Stanton, and Patty Seger. Others, whose jobs and careers depend on anonymity, were no less helpful in sorting through the rumor, the innuendo, the falsehoods. We thank you, too.

We are, by trade, journalists. We are not book writers. No one knows this better than Warner Books editor, Jeanne Tiedge, who bravely waded through some three thousand pages of manuscript, guiding the mass of information that follows to its final form. Thank you.

Our agent, Helen Heller, is also acutely aware of our shortcomings as authors and our stubbornness as journalists. She, too, deserves a vote of thanks for her unflagging support.

As journalists, we ply our trade at the Toronto Sun. "The Little Paper That Grew," is one of the largest daily newspapers in Canada and one of the great success stories in print journalism anywhere.

From top to bottom, from publishers to senior management, through to the general assignment reporter on the street, there has only been support from the Toronto Sun for us and this project. Our colleagues and superiors have endured two trials, secret meetings, coded telephone calls and just plain cantankerousness from the authors. Thank you one and all.

On a personal note, Mr. Burnside would like to thank his spouse and best friend, Colleen McEdwards: You were always there when I needed a hug or a gentle nudge. Always. Thank you.

Alan Cairns would like to thank his dear son, Robbie, who did without his father so many nights and weekends: Don't ever forget I love you. I would also like to thank Jennifer Beale without whose inspiration and support none of this would have been possible; Lahring Tribe, for teaching me wisdom; my late grandparents, George and Mary Cairns, who raised, fed, and clothed me and taught me wrong from right by their own example.



Alan Cairns and Scott Burnside


September 1995


To the south of St. Catharines, Ontario, between it and the neighboring city of Thorold, lies a serpentine-shaped stretch of water called Lake Gibson. Not far from two of the Great Lakes and the tourist attraction of Niagara Falls, this smaller lake is part of a man-managed water area that feeds the Ontario Hydro power-generating station at nearby DeCew Falls, which in turn feeds electricity to Canadians in the region. The scenic area has a long-standing history as a perfect getaway spot for country driving, picnics, skimming stones, canoeing, and fishing; a few secluded places serve as destinations for lovers—usually teens—seeking privacy; if luck is on their side, anglers can net relatively pollution-free pickerel, lake trout, speckled trout, and, on a good day, salmon. Of all the people who visit Lake Gibson, perhaps only the fishermen, those who watch the waters most, would be aware of the water fluctuations in this tranquil lake. While the average water level is 556 to 557 feet above sea level, it can drop three or more feet during peak times of power usage.

On Saturday, June 29, 1991 at approximately 5:30 P.M., William Grekul and his wife decided to launch their canoe into the fast-flowing waters not far from a dirt path off a gravel shoulder on Beaverdams Road. It was a perfect site because immediately to the right of the land protrusion, a small back eddy, perhaps thirty meters across, provided calm waters. But upon reaching the water's edge, Grekul was dismayed to see that the water level had dropped about two feet. He would have to stand in the muddy bank to launch his canoe. It was then he noticed five blocks of concrete half buried in the slimy mud. With his wife waiting for him to push off, Grekul used a paddle and his foot to dislodge what he thought was a discarded patio slab from another block of cement. The concrete block tipped into the mud. To Grekul's bewilderment, the bottom part contained what appeared to be part of a human body. Refusing to believe his own eyes, Grekul turned around, climbed into the canoe, and pushed away from the blocks. Unsure of what he had seen and anxious to escape the hot summer day, Grekul shouted his apparent find to a couple of fishermen on a nearby bridge and then paddled off for two hours. Upon their return to shore, the Grekuls noted two fishermen standing a dozen or so feet from the slabs, completely oblivious to them.

"Hey, you should look at those blocks. It looks like there's part of a body in there," Grekul called to Reverend Michael Doucette, thirty-eight, and his son, Michael Jr., nineteen. The elder Doucette assumed that the canoeist was pulling his leg, but he felt obliged to check out his find. Doucette trudged through the slime to the blocks and turned another one over with his foot. There, encased in the concrete block, was a human thigh and a human shin and foot. A thigh lay in the block Grekul had uncovered. He looked at the other blocks and it appeared they were leaking blood or fluids of some kind. The Doucettes ran out to Beaverdams Road and flagged down a passing fire truck that was searching for teens reported to have been starting brush fires.

Within an hour a dozen Niagara Regional Police officers from the force's Welland branch were at the scene. Two more concrete blocks were discovered nearby. As uniformed officers scoured the surrounding area for fringe evidence, detectives took a cursory look at the slabs. In just over six years as a police forensic investigator Terry Smith had seen enough blood and guts to last him a lifetime. Having attended the major crime scenes, he was used to photographing, taking fingerprints and plaster prints of footprints, preparing suspect facial composites of crime suspects, and taking weights and measurements of evidence. But never had he videotaped a scene as eerie as the one before him. When darkness fell, he elected to secure the area overnight and start afresh the following morning.

Tipped to something newsworthy happening at Lake Gibson, reporters and photographers swooped to the area. Later that night, police wouldn't say much about the find. The body was so crudely dismembered that they couldn't ascertain even a tentative cause of death; nor was there any suspected identification because there were no recent disappearances of young women in the St. Catharines area. Staff Sergeant Ed Tronko told reporters: "I've never seen anything like this before. I've seen some pretty morbid stuff in my time, but never have I seen anything quite like this."

The next morning at about 8 A.M., fisherman Randy Zdrobov, his sister Karen, and Zdrobov's friend Randy Corman pulled their vehicle up to the Beaverdams Road-spot to see numerous police cruisers parked there. Behind the cruisers, a length of yellow tape stretched from shore to shore of the tiny peninsula fishing spot. A Niagara police officer told them a better fishing spot would be the secluded bridge over Faywell Rd., a narrow lane off DeCew Road, which, of course, led to the DeCew Falls generating station. Reaching the idyllic fishing spot, Zdrobov and his sister put lures on their lines as Randy Corman fished from one of the steel bridge's concrete support posts.

"Hey, Randy, come here!" shouted Corman. "Look at that, man."

From atop the bridge, Zdrobov's eyes looked down; about five feet below him, a blackened human torso floated atop the murky water. To keep the torso from floating under the bridge and away in the current, Zdrobov held it in place with the tip of his fishing rod. Judging from the breast development, the body was clearly that of a female. The torso's limbs and the head had been crudely removed, perhaps cut by a saw or hacked with an ax.

As he was about to examine the seven blocks at Beaverdams Road, forensic investigator Smith was called to the find at the Faywell Road bridge. When he arrived, Zdrobov stood on the bridge, still using the tip of his rod to prevent the torso from floating away in the current. Smith realized immediately that the dismembered trunk was that of a female. He noted the absence of any penetrating injuries such as a knife wound. Thorold firefighters launched a rescue boat and cradled the torso in a metal basket with handles at the ends. Smith returned to the initial site as scuba divers continued to probe the lake in the area of the blocks for more evidence. The blocks were removed and placed in polyethylene bags and, along with the torso, were driven to the regional forensic pathology unit at Hamilton General Hospital and sealed in a refrigerated vault at the morgue.

That night, Debbie Mahaffy watched televised reports about a dismembered female body that had been found in Lake Gibson. Initial reports estimated her age at mid-teens to mid-twenties, five feet five, and about 110 pounds. Nobody, least of all Debbie Mahaffy, wanted to believe it was her missing fourteen-year-old daughter, Leslie.

Smith returned to the morgue the next day, July 1, 1991, to measure and weigh the blocks on an electronic scale. The three smallest blocks, which contained the right upper arm, right forearm and hand, and the left upper arm, weighed 39.8 pounds, 48.2 pounds, and 50.8 pounds, respectively. The next-heaviest block was one foot by one foot by eight inches and carried the severed head. The right thigh was encased in a block weighing a total of 106.6 pounds; the left lower forearm and hand and the lower left leg and foot were in a slab weighing 104 pounds; and the right lower leg and foot and the left thigh were in a slab weighing 126.6 pounds. As Smith, a short and lean man, struggled to lift the blocks and their grisly contents onto an examination table, he concluded that whoever threw the blocks into the lake must have been fairly strong. The torso itself weighed 53 pounds.

Smith and pathologist Dr. David King set about removing the body parts by delicately chipping away at the interior concrete borders with small chisels and hammers. Police were still baffled over the body's identification: there was no clothing, the ears were pierced, there was no nail polish, the hair was blond but had the appearance of having been dyed brown, and the eyes were apparently brown. Because of the hair and the eyes, police initially ruled out the body as that of Leslie Mahaffy despite the fact there were braces on the upper and lower teeth—just like those of the missing teen. Because of the dismemberment and the adherence of the concrete to the skin, the remnants were not easy to examine.

At 1:35 P.M., July 2, 1991, while Smith was again examining the body parts with Dr. King, he was told Niagara police divers had recovered a broken concrete block that had once contained the torso from under the Faywell Road bridge. The concrete casket was brought to Hamilton and weighed. The implication was enormous. It appeared the total weight of the casket and the torso was 200 pounds, meaning that whoever had tossed it over the bridge would have to have been extremely strong. More likely, two people had thrown the blocks into the lake. That day, X rays were taken of the body parts and Dr. King, in the presence of Smith, King's assistant Paul Swioklo, and resident medical student Robert Chen, commenced his medical examination of the remains and handed Smith various samples, including hair, splenic blood, bile samples, a hair from the anal cavity, brain tissue, swabs from the cuts to the limbs, and a vaginal wash.

As the days passed, police in Niagara and the adjacent Hamilton-Wentworth and Halton Regions, pored over missing-persons' reports and decided that no other teenage girl had gone missing within the short time frame that the person whose dismembered corpse was found in the lake could have been killed. Halton detectives still feared it might be Leslie Mahaffy, even though the Niagara detectives had ruled Leslie out because of the brown eyes and dyed-blond hair. Police took fingerprints and decided they would compare the teeth with Mahaffy's dental records.

On July 4, 1991, Ivan Severinsky took delivery of some concrete samples at his office, McGlone and Associates Ltd., in the St. Catharines area. A concrete expert, Severinsky was asked by Niagara police to determine what kind of concrete had been used to encase the young girl's corpse. Starting with the basic questions, Severinsky would, through a process of elimination, figure out the concrete type. He figured that whoever made the blocks must have used at least nine bags of Kwik Mix concrete. Police would ask local hardware stores to track down their sales of the cement.

Despite assurances from police, her husband, and other family members that the dismembered corpse could not be Leslie's, Debbie Mahaffy sensed the worst. Any doubts she had were eliminated when July 5, 1991, Leslie's birthday, passed without Leslie telephoning either home or a friend, which Leslie had done almost daily when she had run away from home before. When Robert "Dan" Mahaffy returned to Midland for work the week of July 8, 1991, Debbie went with him out of fear and loneliness. Together they stayed at his hotel room and awaited any news.

Meanwhile, Niagara detectives were cautioned by pathologists that the corrosive lime in the cement would have eaten through the eye skin and the cornea within hours and would have ultimately destroyed the colored iris, making it impossible to judge eye color. Leslie's dentist was on vacation in early July at his summer residence in northern Ontario. But he agreed to compare the jaw of the deceased girl with Leslie's dental records. On July 9, 1991, the dentist examined the charts and the dismembered girl's teeth and solved the mystery.

As the Mahaffys' watched Cal Ripken Jr. hit a three-run homer and the American League take the National League 4–2, in the televised All-Star Game at Toronto's Sky Dome that night, Debbie Mahaffy heard footsteps approaching the hotel room's open door from the parking lot. She knew her worst fears were about to be confirmed even before Halton Regional Police Detective Sergeant Bob Waller, staff inspector Kent Laidlaw, and a victims' specialist arrived at the door. They knocked.

"You found her, you found her in the lake, didn't you?" cried Mahaffy.

Then Waller told her the hardest news he'd ever had to deliver in his career as a police officer.

It was the day before Debbie Mahaffy's birthday.


At the same time that William Grekul canoed along Lake Gibson, a young couple was married in a carefully orchestrated ceremony and reception many compared to a fairy tale. St. Mark's church, a magnificent stone building in the picturesque tourist village of Niagara-on-the-Lake, was the perfect and preferred setting for many brides-to-be in this quaint town not far from Niagara Falls and the New York–Ontario border.

But as the groom's mother struggled to her feet and began lumbering toward the head table at the Queen's Landing Inn, it looked decidedly more like a Monty Python script than a Brothers Grimm fantasy.

Marilyn Bernardo's ill-fitting mauve dress stuck to her lumpy body in an unflattering manner, leaving the distinct impression that she wasn't wearing a slip underneath. Her dark, short hair was slick, matted to the side of her head; from early in the wedding day there had been speculation about whether she had washed it at all, or had simply left it to dry haphazardly in the humidity. One couple, friends of the bride, suggested unkindly that Marilyn looked as if she'd been dragged through a hedge backwards. On her left leg was a white cast, which clomped noisily as she drew closer to the head table.

Alex and Kathy Ford glanced at each other from opposite ends of the head table and held their collective breaths. Married five months, they were close friends of Marilyn's son, Paul Bernardo, and his honey-haired bride, Karla Homolka.

Kathy fiddled absently with the puffy sleeves of the satiny, peach bridesmaid dress. Alex adjusted his bow tie. They were not quite sure why the sight of Marilyn ambling toward them filled them with such nervous anticipation, but the feeling grew nonetheless. Although they were separated by other members of the wedding party and couldn't share their thoughts, both recalled Marilyn's earlier entrance at historic St. Mark's. Refusing to wait for her traditional escort down the aisle to the front of the church, Marilyn had chosen to make her own way to her assigned seat, the echoes of her cast drifting into the wooden rafters on this hot, sticky June day in 1991.

Other guests waited patiently, fanning themselves with the wedding program Paul had produced on his computer and commissioned friends to tie with a pink satin ribbon. They watched Marilyn as she plunked herself down next to her wheelchair-bound mother at the front of the church. The conversation between the two women was loud, swirling uncomfortably around the rest of the pews, stiff competition for the soothing baroque music playing in the church.

From their seats in the designated bride's section of the church, Kathy Ford's parents, Stan and Lynda Wilson, tried to watch the mother of the groom without being too obvious. But it was painfully clear to them that Marilyn was giving a giant wad of gum a ferocious working-over.

"There's only one word to describe that woman," Lynda Wilson whispered to her husband, a math teacher at the St. Catharines High School, attended by both his daughter and Karla.

"Yeah," her husband answered, "cow!"

Outside the church, a magnificent horse-drawn landau rolled gently to a stop. Bells on the dun animal's harness jingled merrily. Cars full of tourists had slowed along the tree-lined streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake, beeping their horns in congratulations at the quaint sight on this fine Saturday morning. Tourists in sun hats and T-shirts motioned to each other to watch as the landau passed on its way to St. Mark's. A man on a bicycle paused to consider the spectacle.

Karla Homolka, resplendent in her white flowing gown, smiled slightly from the back of the landau. She sat facing her father, Karel, who was grinning self-consciously at the attention, a little stiff in his black tuxedo and black bow tie. Even the driver of the landau was dressed regally in a formal black jacket and a top hat.

"Smile, Karla!" someone yelled from the steps of the church while a video camera held by Karla's uncle followed the bride's every move. And, always obliging, the diminutive twenty-one-year-old grinned.

Minutes later the tall, striking figure of Alex Ford appeared in the doorway. One of four ushers, he escorted Karla's mother, Dorothy, down the aisle while the matronly strawberry blonde looked around nervously. Dorothy's entrance was the signal for the gathered guests that the time was near. Programs rustled and cameras were unholstered in anticipation.

Alex and the rest of the ushers stood in a line next to the groom, who was shuffling from foot to foot. The service had been delayed, and Alex couldn't help but think that Paul and Karla deserved this. Habitually late, their big day was also marked by delays.

Still, Paul Bernardo gave no indication of any nervousness or even mild concern about the delay in his wedding ceremony. His blue eyes were alert as he gazed toward the rear of the church watching for his bride.

The guests, who numbered more than 150, restlessly shifted in the wooden pews, as the church's grand organ released the first notes of the Bridal Chorus, followed by "Here Comes the Bride" from Wagner's Lohengrin. As the bridal party appeared in the doorway, the sun framed their entrance, surrounding them with a soft glow as the bridesmaids walked down the aisle.

Paul's sister, Debbie, older than the groom by two years, appeared first, a tall woman teetering unsteadily on her heels. There were smiles and discreet waves to guests as the procession, in matching peach, made its way forward. Kathy Wilson Ford and Debbie Purdie, both high-school friends of Karla, walked down the aisle as well as Karla's younger sister, Lori, and another childhood friend.

Finally the bride appeared, her father gently holding his eldest daughter's elbow. They passed Marilyn Bernardo, whose obvious chewing continued uninterrupted, and arrived at the front of the church. Paul smiled even more broadly as he nodded and accepted Karel Homolka's gift of his daughter in the traditional handing over of the bride.

Karel, a small wiry man with a pleasant disarming grin, bowed ever so slightly and smiled self-consciously as he retreated to his seat next to his wife, Dorothy.

Karla handed a garland of roses to her maid of honor, Debbie Purdie, and with both hands gently lifted the delicate veil from her face. Paul's head was slightly bowed, his hands clasped, and it seemed as though all of Karla's nervous attention was focused on her soon-to-be husband.

"Dear friends, we have come together in the presence of God to witness the marriage of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, and to rejoice with them," the minister announced, his salt-and-pepper beard and flowing white gowns giving him? a distinguished look. "Marriage is the gift of God and the means of displaying which man and woman become one flesh. It is God's purpose that a husband and wife become compelled to each other in love."

Somewhere, a child let out a screech that, picked up by the microphone, reverberated through the church. The child belonged to one of Paul's ushers and childhood friends, Steve Smirnis, and although the groom betrayed no emotion, he later gave Steve a dressing-down for having brought his baby boy to the church.

To Paul's right, the men of his wedding party were smiling and appearing attentive. They looked comfortable, but they were not. Most, with the possible exception of Alex, were suffering debilitating hangovers. Although the wedding pictures didn't show it, several of the guests remarked quietly that it looked as though the men of the wedding party had slept in their tuxedos. Earlier, most of the group of young men in their mid-twenties had been wearing sunglasses until the last possible moment in a not-so-subtle attempt to shield their bloodshot eyes from the unyielding sunlight or the judgmental inspection of the guests. Their boutonnieres which had arrived late, were jammed onto their lapels haphazardly.

Karla's bridesmaids were all smiles as well, beaming despite the heat, their bulky dresses, and the uncomfortable heels.

When the minister asked if anyone knew any reason why Paul and Karla shouldn't be married, Karla's younger sister Lori whispered aloud, "Is jealousy a good reason?" Kathy Wilson Ford thought she must have been hearing things. The words were spoken quietly by the slight, blond-haired girl, a year younger than Karla, and without a hint of irony or humor. But the moment passed and Kathy shook her head almost subconsciously: another surreal element to a wedding and relationship full of oddities.

After the exchange of vows and rings and readings from the Bible, Paul and Karla faced each other for the first time as man and wife. They smiled and embraced, Karla's tiny hands on Paul's biceps.

There was polite applause as the traditional signing of the register ensued. Karla's longtime friend and neighbor, Sarah Anderson, moved to the front of the church, where, accompanied by the organist, she provided a haunting version of the hymn "O Perfect Love."

Once the ceremony was over and everyone had left the stifling heat of the church, the official wedding photographer, a fastidious man named Haig Semerjian, competed with assorted handheld cameras as Paul and Karla posed inside the landau carriage. Behind the carriage, a Cadillac limousine was waiting to transport the bridesmaids while a black limousine waited for the ushers.

A second wedding group, thrown off schedule by the delay in the Bernardo/Homolka service, waited patiently in the parking lot of the historic church. They didn't have to worry about taking down bows and flowers from the sides of the pews from the earlier service, since someone had forgotten to bring them.

A friend suggested to Marilyn Bernardo that perhaps they should move out of the way so the next group could make its way inside.

"Fuck 'em," Marilyn said without missing a beat, still rolling her gum around inside her mouth.

Finally, the landau moved on, bells jingling, bride and groom toasting each other with champagne, grinning and waving like characters on a parade float.

Behind, on the cobbled lane, the horse had deposited a great pile. No one bothered to clean it up.

At the reception several hours later, as the mother of the groom thumped toward the head table, Alex and Kathy Ford had a pretty fair idea of what was on Marilyn Bernardo's mind. Pheasant.

The entrée, pheasant stuffed with veal, was Paul's idea. In fact, the entire wedding was pretty much his creation although as Kathy and Alex couldn't help but notice, he'd borrowed ideas liberally from their recent wedding. Paul had picked out Karla's outrageously expensive dress—more than $2,000 U.S. for the stunning Demetrios number; a figure that continued to fluctuate depending on whom Paul was trying to impress. Karla's high-school friends who were in the wedding party or who'd gone to help her get fitted for her big day thought the Cinderella-style gown, festooned with heavy beads and sequins, was too imposing for Karla's tiny frame. Still, Paul was not to be denied. He'd supervised the purchase of the dress in Niagara Falls, New York, and had smuggled it back into Canada folded under the back tarp of his shiny gold Nissan 240SX sports car. The booze for the postwedding party had also been smuggled in from the States.

Even the bride's hairdo was dictated by the groom. Kathy and Debbie had lobbied unsuccessfully to have Karla's long, golden locks put up. It would look regal, stunning, they reasoned. How could she get her veil to stay in place with her hair down? They even tried to subvert Paul's decree by appealing directly to Karla's hairdresser. But Paul wanted Karla's hair down, and down it would be.


On Sale
Nov 15, 2008
Page Count
584 pages