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An ugly anniversary

An ugly anniversary

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the conviction of Paul Bernardo for the murders of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy. I was in my 15th year as the news director at CHCH at the time. It had been five years since Bernardo’s first recorded murder—that of his future wife Karla Homolka’s 15-year-old sister Tammy. Intent on surrendering Tammy’s virginity to Bernardo, Karla stole drugs from the veterinary clinic where she worked and administered it to her sister who became unconscious. The pair then took turns raping the teen. Something went wrong and Tammy started vomiting. The pair called 911 but the 15-year-old never regained consciousness. The next year Bernardo came across 14-year old Leslie Mahaffy in Burlington. He forced her into his car and took her to Karla at their house in St. Catharine’s, where they tortured, raped and murdered the teen before dismembering her and dumping her body in Lake Gibson, south of St.Catharines. The following year, the couple, now married, set out looking for a new victim. This time it was Kristen French, walking home from school. She was forced into the car and taken to the St Catharines house, where she was sexually assaulted over the Easter Weekend and then strangled.

CHCH had played a highly visible role in assisting the police investigation. In 1992 we had produced a documentary—“The Abduction of Kristen French.” The documentary, which I scripted, featured reenactments of the abductions of French and Mahaffy coupled with interviews with police and FBI profilers In retrospect it was a Hail Mary in an attempt to jog memories on what at that point were two cold cases. The real breakthrough in the case came when Bernardo viciously beat Karla with a flashlight resulting in her being hospitalized and the police being brought into the picture. It was then that Karla told her aunt that she and Bernardo were involved in the rape and murder of Mahaffy and French and that the rapes were recorded on videotape. At that time police had not recovered the videotapes of the murders. In return for testifying against Paul, Karla received a 12-year sentence. There was outrage later when the tapes surfaced and it was clear that Karla had fully participated in the crimes.

When Bernardo’s trial finally came up in the summer of 1995, the Canadian media, national and regional turned out in force. Along with the other TV outlets we at CHCH organized what for us was the most extensive coverage of an event, ever. The parking lot on the north side of the University Avenue Courthouse in Toronto became “Camp Bernardo”—a gallows humor reference to the mass of construction trailers gathered on the spot to provide office and editing facilities. We had ordered a permanent microwave feed to Hamilton to allow our reporters to broadcast live updates throughout the day and live into our supper newscasts. It was a circus.

I visited the courtroom when some of the murder tapes (audio only) were being played for the jury. It was horrible to listen to . Seasoned reporters were becoming traumatized. I saw more than one reporter sitting on the steps of their trailer during breaks weeping. Mercifully the trial ended on this day 25 years ago with Bernardo’s conviction on two first-degree murders and two aggravated sexual assaults, and sentenced to life in prison without parole for at least 25 years.

In the aftermath of the trial we arranged for our reporters to have access to mental health counselling. We set it up in a way that no-one, myself included, would know who took advantage of the counselling. For, myself, even though it was my reporters who bore the brunt of the traumatic images and sounds, I found myself, after that summer, losing what had been my passion for news. Eight months later I walked away from what had been a dream job at CHCH and started a small public relations consultancy with Eric Cunningham. I didn’t even bother to negotiate a buyout although they were being handed out left and right at the time at CHCH. It would be many years before I found my way back to the news business and when I did it was with a different perspective.

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