The Beast of British Columbia
Last Updated July 19, 2006
An artist's sketch of Clifford Olson at his faint-hope hearing in 1997. (Felicity Don/Canadian Press)
Clifford Olson is arguably the most notorious serial killer in Canadian history. He confessed in 1982 to killing 11 young men and women as young as nine years old.
Even after he was caught red-handed, he was still able to strike a controversial deal with police. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police paid his family $100,000 in exchange for Olson's help leading investigators to the remaining bodies.
Now, 25 years into his life sentence, prison psychiatrists say, Olson shows no remorse. He has since claimed to have committed anywhere from 80 to 200 murders. And by his own admission, the self-proclaimed "beast of British Columbia" is likely to kill again.
So it came as no surprise in July 2006 when a jury quashed his request for early eligibility for parole.
But to the families of his victims, it's outrageous that Olson, now 66, could even be considered for parole – especially considering the sadistic nature of his murders.
Victims tortured, sexually assaulted
It was Christmas Day 1980 when 12-year-old Christine Weller was found, strangled and stabbed. The Surrey, B.C. girl would be the first of his 11 known victims – eight girls and three boys, ranging in age from 9 to 18. He reportedly lured them with the promise of a job, then plied them alcohol and drugs. He tortured them, sexually assaulted them, killed them and then dumped their bodies.
As children went missing and bodies were discovered, Olson became a suspect early in the police investigation. He had spent all but five years of his adult life in prison and had been a juvenile delinquent. However, police later claimed they didn't have enough resources to keep tabs on Olson, as he drove thousands of kilometres around the province in rental cars.
Olson's killing spree ended on Aug. 12, 1981 with his arrest. He pleaded guilty in 1982 and struck a notorious cash-for-bodies deal with police. His wife and son got a trust worth $100,000 after Olson led investigators to the bodies. The deal angered many of the victims' families, who felt Olson had profited from their tragic losses.
Olson was sentenced to life in prison, but being behind bars didn't stop his ability to terrorize.
Gary Rosenfeldt, whose 16-year-old stepson Daryn Johnsrude was Olson's third victim, said the killer taunted his family. In the spring of 1981, Johnsrude ran an errand for his mother to the corner store near his home in Coquitlam, B.C. His body was found a month later; the teen had been sexually assaulted. Olson later wrote a letter to Rosenfelt describing his son's ordeal.
"It arrived five years to the day after we found our son's body and in the letter he described in detail exactly what he did to our son," Rosenfeldt said.
Olson also wrote book manuscripts, and was allowed to make a series of videotapes in prison. In them, he described the twisted acts he perpetrated on his victims, including driving nails into their heads and asking them how it felt.
Olson and his crimes left a legacy of fear on the province for many years. However, it would not be the last time Olson would make headlines.
Between 1987 and 2000:
- 488 offenders convicted of murder reached the 15-year point since their sentence in 1976.
- Twenty-one per cent, or 103 of them, applied under the "faint-hope clause."
- 84 of those cases were granted a reduction, an average of six successful applications per year.
Source: Department of Justice Canada
In August 1997, after serving 15 years of his sentence, Olson appeared in a Surrey, B.C., courtroom before a judge and jury asking for an early parole hearing. For four days, the court heard victim impact statements.
The likelihood of Olson's release was slim – it took the jury 15 minutes to reject Olson's request for parole. But, the ordeal angered the victims' families at the hearing. "The anguish, the horrendous pain, we have to endure sitting there watching this show take place – it's wrong that victims have to go through this," Rosenfeldt said.
However, at that time Olson had a right to apply for an early parole hearing under Sec. 745 of the Criminal Code, the so-called "faint-hope clause."
The clause dates back to 1976, when a free-vote in Parliament scrapped the death penalty. It was replaced with mandatory life terms of imprisonment for first-degree and second-degree murder. The judicial review provision, also known as the "faint-hope clause," also came into effect. It allowed those who served 15 years of their sentence to apply for a parole hearing. But, the National Parole Board would still have the final say.
The clause was seen as an incentive for good behaviour, affording prisoners a parole hearing before they served 25 years, at which point a parole hearing is mandatory.
This obscure line in the Criminal Code later became known as the "Olson clause."
The controversy sparked a campaign to have the clause erased. Days after Olson's 1997 parole hearing, the victims' families and others opposed to the clause staged a demonstration in British Columbia. Some members of Parliament and groups representing police and victims argued to have the clause repealed.
The law was eventually amended to exclude serial killers, such as Olson. And for other killers, such hearings would no longer be automatic. The applications would be screened by a judge, and juries would have to be unanimous before a murderer's parole ineligibility period could be shortened. And in April 2006, the Tory government promised to repeal the faint-hope clause.
Olson was the last multiple murderer in Canada to be allowed to ask for early parole.
Twenty-five years later
On July 18, 2006, Olson was again in front of a jury asking for early eligibility for parole. With or without the "faint-hope clause," convicted killers have the right to apply for a hearing after serving 25 years.
Three of the families came to the hearing in Montreal to present victim impact statements. However, the court was suspended before the jury had made its decision.
Before the break, Olson said he wasn't applying for parole and the board had no jurisdiction over him. "I will be staying in my cell," he said. "I won't be coming back to hear your retarded decision."
During the hearing, Olson made bizarre statements. He told the three-member panel he intended to leave the country because he had reached a deal with the U.S. attorney-general in exchange for information related to 9/11. Journalist Peter Worthington, who has interviewed Olson, said the convicted killer can be lucid and introspective about his crimes, then switch to unrelated topics. But, he said, Olson is usually in control of the conversation.
"He knows right from wrong; he just doesn't care," Worthington said. "Everything is a kind of learned behaviour. He's a good con man and he manipulates."
Not surprisingly, Olson, now in his late sixties, was denied his parole eligibility request.
"Mr. Olson presents a high risk and a psychopathic risk," National Parole Board member Jacques Letendre said. "He is a sexual sadist and a narcissist. If released, he will kill again."
Nevertheless, Olson will have a similar hearing not too long from now. Under Canadian law, he is entitled to make a case for parole every two years.
It's a prospect that worries Rosenfeldt, who was present for the hearing in Montreal: "Knowing Canada's justice system, we have grave concerns that he is going to be released on parole someday."
After his stepson's death, Rosenfeldt launched a group called Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime. His research over the years has convinced him that the way Canada handles its violent criminals is flawed.
"We were told by Fred Gibson, the head of the National Parole Board 15 years ago, that everybody gets out," he said. "This system is not designed to keep people in."
Rosenfeldt said that in the past two decades, 58 murders have been committed by people released on parole. His group has been lobbying Justice Minister Vic Toews and Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day to amend the law.
Rosenfeldt said that despite the pain it causes, he and his family will be at all of Olson's hearings, presenting their victim impact statements to try to make sure Olson is not released.
"What's really horrendous about this is this is only the beginning. We're going to have to do this every two years as long as Olson lives. And this is a very, very painful experience for myself, my family."
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