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.
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.
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.