Finding—and photographing—Karla Homolka

Finding and talking to Karla Homolka was hard enough. Taking her picture was a whole other challenge.

It is destined to be an iconic image: Karla Homolka, the woman who served just 12 years for her part alongside Paul Bernardo in the sexual torture and murder of three young schoolgirls, picking up a child of her own. She is on a veranda somewhere in the Caribbean, amidst a swirl of jungle; she wears a floral summer dress, her arms toned, the arms of one of her three young children raised up to her.

With its subject depicted in stark profile and engaged in a ritual of motherhood, the photograph amounts to a diabolical re-enactment of the Madonna and Child—heart-wrenching, disturbing, utterly arresting. “She helped kill the children of three families, including her own, and now she has three dependent kids,” says Paula Todd, the freelance journalist who last month discovered and confronted Homolka, in hiding in Guadeloupe. “It’s an important image that’s going to make us really think hard about what we’ve done.”

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What is it we’ve done? Todd, a lawyer and former TVO and CTV news broadcaster and legal analyst, insists Canada’s judicial system caused an injustice by allowing Homolka to spend scant time in jail in exchange for her testimony against Bernardo—despite the later surfacing of video evidence demonstrating her active participation in the crimes. Together the couple committed the sex slayings of Kristen French, 15, and Leslie Mahaffy, 14, and Homolka orchestrated the fatal drugging of her sister Tammy, 15, so that Bernardo could rape her. Her testimony helped put Bernardo in prison for life, with no chance of parole, but Homolka’s plea bargain, Todd argues in turn, unleashed a potentially dangerous killer upon the world.

It was that injustice, as well as Internet rumours suggesting Homolka had become a schoolteacher in the Caribbean, that convinced Todd to take a week’s vacation and, financed by a line of credit, track down Homolka. Later, she commissioned a photojournalist to stake out Homolka’s residence and, under cover of jungle and in the most uncomfortable circumstances, capture her image. “When I discovered she might be teaching children—she had killed children, and that she might be teaching them—I felt there was a public interest in finding out what Canada and our judicial system had done, potentially, to other countries,” Todd says. “When she disappeared in 2007 there were some people, including lawyers, who said, ‘Good, that’s great she’s gone and not in this country anymore because she’s dangerous.’ I find that difficult to swallow—that’s the biggest international case of NIMBY.”

Todd went armed with the barest toehold of evidence suggesting Homolka’s whereabouts: “a routine administrative certificate” containing the vaguest suggestion of an address. Yet the gamble worked, and Todd’s hour-long encounter with Homolka is described in her ebook, Finding Karla: How I Tracked Down an Elusive Serial Child Killer and Discovered a Mother of Three, released this month. In it she writes of stumbling across Homolka “bent over the sink . . . a petite woman with light hair.” She is married to her lawyer’s brother, Thierry Bordelais, and has two sons and a daughter. At one point during the surprise meeting, while Homolka briefly loses herself in nurturing her youngest son, Todd asks if she can take her photograph. “No way in hell,” Homolka says, according to the book. “But, then, just for a second, she arches slightly into an S-curve, baby at her breast, and lifts her face to me. The pose is slightly sensual. It reminds me of something.”

Not long after that confrontation, Todd returned to Guadeloupe with former Life photographer Zoran Milich. The pair were committed to getting that photograph—the one Homolka wouldn’t permit. “Traditional journalism is solid reporting backed up with photographic evidence,” Todd argues. “If I was going to do a full report here, photographs would just be a traditional part of the story.” She knew Homolka would prove a difficult subject: “One thing I noted is she didn’t have a deep tan, and it’s really hard in that country to not get tanned—the sun is so bright, the temperature is high. So my conclusion was she stays inside quite a lot.”

They rented a car and drove past Homolka’s small apartment building dozens of times, scouting for a suitable vantage. But the area presented a small, tight-knit community that took notice of any novelty—especially two prowling white foreigners. “I realized this was going to be a hell ride,” says Milich. “Not being a paparazzo—and this felt paparazzo.” As it turned out, the project morphed into something more akin to a National Geographic wildlife shoot. Milich discovered that behind Homolka’s residence, above the lush, thick jungle and a pack of angry wild dogs, a rocky mountain rose. There he spoke to two elderly, good-natured women who owned a section of land on the mountainside: they were mother and daughter and had strung up around the property images of Caribbean saints, a fusion of African and Christian. Milich asked permission to take photographs from the land, explaining he wanted to shoot a local sporting event. He brought the women wine, gave them some money and set up camp for four days.

The property, on high ground opposite Homolka’s veranda, just happened to be the site of a goat farm. The animals would become part of Milich’s daily routine: he walked up one side of the mountain, then tumbled down the other on a cascade of small stones to reach his hiding place across from Homolka’s building. “The goats were really upset I was there,” he says. Soon they formed a phalanx directly above him, an apparent attempt to force him from his spot. “I never heard a goat snarl before,” says Milich, who could hear Homolka’s voice from his vantage calling to her children in English. “I was afraid the goats would give me away.”

As these goats continued to nip at Milich, he trained his camera, equipped with a 600-mm-equivalent lens, through thick foliage toward the veranda, perhaps as far as two city blocks away. Temperatures soared to 40° C, the humidity was oppressive, the bugs fierce. “It was like Heart of Darkness,” he says. At night, “everything started singing and chirping and there were things eating at your ankles.” Four days went by: no sign of Homolka. “I was beside myself,” he says. Then, on the fourth day, “I saw what I thought was her—my heart started going, you start sweating.” He struggled to contain himself, gripping the manual focus. “All of a sudden, here’s the miracle: a light wind blows just enough to do this,” and Milich demonstrates by parting his fingers in just the way the leaves parted to reveal Homolka reaching for her child. Milich unleashed a barrage of exposures, the shutter firing.

She had been on the veranda all of four seconds. And he had got her. “The way I look at it she’s just another subject matter for the eye of this merciless camera,” says Milich, who the following week went on to shoot I’ll Have Another, the Canadian-owned Triple Crown hopeful.

Moments later, one of Milich’s hosts called to him: “Monsieur! Monsieur!” She was agitated and speaking quickly. Milich does not understand French but recognized one word: “Rapide! Rapide!” She led him to his car and he took off—convinced his quarry had been alerted to his presence and was poised now to become his hunter.

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