The life and death of Clifford Olson

The Globe and Mail

Short and stocky, his wavy brown hair curling around his ears, Clifford Olson entered a packed Vancouver courtroom on Jan. 11, 1982 carrying an Annotated Criminal Code. Ever the drama king, he looked around with his brown, almost black eyes and smiled at his audience, several of whom were the devastated parents of his victims in the largest serial murder case in British Columbia’s history. After each of the 10 charges was read, he responded “not guilty” in a clear flat voice.

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Three days later Olson, 42, abruptly changed his plea. In a voice that began firmly, wavered and finally broke, he admitted his guilt to 11 counts of first-degree murder – the killing of 16-year-old Sandra Wolfsteiner had been added to the dreadful toll.

The bodies of the three boys and eight girls, aged between 9 and 18, had been found in secluded areas within a 90-kilometre radius of Vancouver. Some of the victims had been raped and sodomized, some were bludgeoned, others were stabbed and one was strangled. All had been drugged and killed in a murderous spree lasting only nine months, from November, 1980, through July, 1981, while Olson was out of prison on mandatory supervision.

“I do not have the words to adequately describe the enormity of your crimes, or to describe the heartbreak and anguish you have caused,” Mr. Justice H.C. McKay declared as the mother of one of the victims sobbed in the packed courtroom. After saying that there is “no punishment that a civilized country can impose that would be adequate,” the judge gave Olson 11 concurrent life sentences and recommended that he never be released.

You’d think that might have been the last anybody heard of Olson, aka the Beast of B.C. In fact, his diabolical antics continued for the rest of his life. Beginning with the infamous “cash for bodies” deal he struck with the RCMP in B.C. (with the approval of then federal Solicitor-General Robert Kaplan), Olson played the criminal justice system like a personal video game for the next three decades. He toyed with police and tabloid journalists, promising them details on unsolved crimes in return for privileges and media coverage; submitted poems and stories to literary contests to the horror of organizers and used his manipulative narcissistic personality and his quasi-knowledge of the law to taunt lawyers and the families of his victims.

He appealed for a new trial and early parole under faint-hope clauses, petitioned for parole on all but one opportunity after he had served 25 years behind bars, and used the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to mount dozens of frivolous and vexatious challenges. In two of his more bizarre legal submissions, he claimed variously that being denied a “Solid Pleasure Life-Sized Revolutionary Not Inflated Sex Doll” and the installation of Plexiglas to line the front of his cell to protect him from other inmates, amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and thereby contravened the Charter.

Olson never showed any remorse for his heinous murders. But the criminal justice system itself changed in response to his diabolical behaviour on both sides of prison walls. His crimes gave rise to the victims of violence movement, their representation at trials and parole hearings, and the establishment of a missing children’s registry; his incessant demands for parole led to an amendment of the Criminal Code barring multiple murders from applying for early parole under the faint-hope clause; and his ability to collect pension and old age income supplements resulted in the passage of Bill C-31 denying such payments to prisoners while they are incarcerated.

Nevertheless, each time Olson made headlines – the most recent occasion was when he appeared before the National Parole Board in 2010 – the families of his victims were traumatized again. Their children will never be restored, but at least now Clifford Olson has been silenced. When he died of cancer Friday at the age of 71, his legal challenges were finally over.

EARLY DAYS

Clifford Robert Olson was born in Vancouver B.C. on January 1, 1940, one of four children of a milkman, but grew up in nearby Richmond. Even as a school boy he was a bully and a petty thief, who tormented cats and dogs and was bold enough to snatch berries and flowers from backyard patches and then try to sell them back to the unsuspecting growers.

‘‘He was always getting into fights at school and getting beaten up,” his father said in an interview. “One day he said to me, ‘Dad, I’m going to learn to be a boxer.’ As soon as he did, he began making the rounds of the boys who had beaten him up and evening the score. Maybe that’s his trouble – that chip on his shoulder.”

Yet, he didn’t always disappoint. His former boxing coach, Tommy Yule, had only positive memories of the “good boy” who was runner up in a Bronze Gloves tournament in 1954, and deemed the most sportsmanlike boxer four years later in a Golden Gloves tournament.

LIFE OF CRIME

Olson frequently played hooky and dropped out of school out after completing Grade 8. He lived with his parents until he was sent to jail for break and enter when he was 17.

Over the next quarter century, he spent all but four years behind bars, racking up more than 90 convictions and seven escapes from custody. A con artist with a charming but manipulative manner, Olson sometimes got early release for good behaviour, and other times had his sentence extended after escape attempts. Few trusted him for long and eventually he antagonized both guards and fellow prisoners.

He met his future wife Joan Hale, a short, nervous divorcee with reddish brown hair in February, 1980. They were married on May 15, 1981, in the People’s Full Gospel Chapel in Surrey, a month after their son Stephen was born.

Unbeknownst to his bride, Olson had already murdered three children: Christine Weller, and Colleen Marian Daignault, both 13 and from Surrey, and Daryn Todd Johnsrude, 16, from Coquitlam. Within days of his wedding, Olson had abducted and killed Sandra Wolfsteiner, 16, of Langley.

A month later he struck again, murdering 13-year-old Ada Anita Court of Burnaby. His sadistic appetite whetted, he increased the speed with which he sought new victims. In July, 1981, he killed no fewer than six children: Simon Partington, 9 and Terri Lyn Carson, 15 both from Surrey; Judy Kozma, 14 and Raymond King, 15, from New Westminster; Sigrun Arnd, 18, a German tourist and Marie Louise Chartrand, 17, from Maple Ridge.

Meanwhile, Olson was wearing out a pew at church, telling anybody who would listen that he had found God and weighing down his coffee table with a Bible. He even posted a solicitation on the church bulletin board advertising window-washing jobs for teenagers. Olson actually made his living as a scam artist and a thief.

Olson was finally arrested on Aug. 12, 1981 near Port Alberni on Vancouver Island on suspicion of trying to abduct two female hitchhikers in his car. By that time, the 41-year-old habitual criminal had spent more half his life behind bars and was facing more than a dozen outstanding charges. He was taken to Chilliwack for questioning and charged two days later with the murder of Judy Kozma, whose nude body with multiple stab wounds had been discovered on July 25.

THE CASH FOR BODIES DEAL

Finding the rest of the victims and extracting a confession out of Olson became the urgent preoccupation for police caught between trying to bring a murderer to justice without any concrete evidence and assuaging the horror of families desperate to know what had happened to their children and to reclaim what remained of their brutalized bodies.

That was the rationale behind the “cash for bodies” deal that was only revealed after Olson was sentenced in January, 1982. The police had agreed to pay Olson $30,000 for evidence on the four bodies they had recovered before his arrest in August, 1981, with an additional $10,000 for each subsequent murder site he identified or body he helped locate. Olson was so chuffed about the arrangement that he provided details about one murder free of charge – “a freebie,” as he liked to boast.

Before Olson gave up any gory details, however, he had insisted that the money was paid to his wife Joan, who had moved with their baby son to her parents’ home in the Kitsilano area of Vancouver. She had played the devoted trusting wife during his trial.

That all changed when she was called as a witness in a lawsuit brought by the families of seven of the victims. The group sued in the Supreme Court of B.C. in October, 1984 to have the $100,000 “cash for bodies” trust fund declared fraudulent and the remaining money given to them as compensation for the murder of their children.

Olson, who had reverted to her maiden name, Hale, at times sobbed and clutched a Bible. She testified that her husband was an alcoholic who frequently beat her and threatened to slash her throat. She also admitted that he had confessed his crimes to her after his trial. “What can I say, honey?” he apparently said. “I did it. It was the booze and the pills.” She divorced him in 1985.

The B.C. Court of Appeal unanimously ruled against the families in March, 1986, arguing that the RCMP payment “was not made as compensation for the deaths of the children.” Rather, it “was authorized ... to obtain evidence to convict Olson of the murders.” The Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear the case on appeal later the same year.

OLSON’S PRISON RECORD

Olson was sent more than halfway across the country after his murder trial and incarcerated in Kingston Penitentiary in February, 1982. He spent 23 hours a day in his cell in a special “administrative segregation unit” in E-block, housing inmates who need protection from fellow prisoners. In his first seven years, he made five requests for a transfer and wangled a trip back to Vancouver after duping police with tales about his complicity in unsolved crimes.

After visiting the cell block in August, 1989, Globe and Mail justice reporter Kirk Makin described Olson as fit and tanned, and as unrepentant as he was notorious. “True to form, he instantly spat out demands and cunningly worded entreaties. Leaping back and forth from his cot to his desk, he shoved letters, writs and court documents through the bars.” The only time that Olson turned away from his obsessive interests in religion and mounting legal challenges, according to Makin, was the hour a day he spent running in the exercise yard.

Two years later E-Block had been shut down and Olson moved to H-Block. Even there, he was placed as far away from the others as possible and put into a specially reinforced cell with floor to ceiling Plexiglas covering the bars. Even his isolation couldn’t muffle the incessant sounds of his typing as he wrote pornographic and sadistic memoirs of his crimes, produced legal challenges, and, before authorities started screening his mail, composed revoltingly explicit and threatening letters to some of the families of his victims.

In 1992, after complaining about back pain, Olson was sent for X-rays to a Kingston hospital. Technicians found a handcuffs key, stolen from prison guards, tucked up into his rectum. That escape attempt thwarted, Olson was transferred, after almost a decade of fractious behaviour in Kingston, to the Special Handling Unit in the maximum-security federal penitentiary in Prince Albert, Sask.

And so it continued, with Olson using the system to apply repeatedly for parole, privileges and satisfaction under the Charter for what he deemed were the cruel and unusual conditions of his incarceration. When the Saskatchewan facility closed down in the summer of 1997, Olson was transferred back east to the super-maximum security Special Handling Unit in Sainte-Anne-des- Plaines, north of Montreal in Quebec.

His last futile appearance before the National Parole Board was in November, 2010. “This is the final time,” Olson told the board in disgust, his greying hair combed forward to camouflage its thinness. “Never again. I’m out.”

For once he was telling truth.