Skip to main content

Clifford Olson is led away from court in Regina, Sask., April 4, 1996. Olson will appear before the National Parole Board next week after serving nearly 25 years in prison for the slayings of 11 young people in British Columbia. Olson is now entitled to such hearings every two years, renewing calls for changes to the Criminal Code so that "life means life."

More than 30 years have passed since Clifford Olson was arrested and charged with murdering these 11 children. We will never know what they might have become, what career heights they might have reached, what pleasures they might have enjoyed as ordinary, or extraordinary citizens.

Having a child die is a parent's worst fear, but to have a child abducted, tortured and murdered, turns that grief into a nightmare of unfathomable proportions. Nothing will bring these children back, nothing will erase the horror of their deaths.

Nobody can say if the families' pain will be eased with Olson's death from cancer Friday in a prison hospital. Each child was different and so was the way each was mourned. Some families have kept out of the media glare as Olson infamously taunted them with sadistic disclosures to tabloid journalists, nefarious legal appeals, and futile appearances before the National Parole Board. Others have been very vocal with the media and have insisted on being present at every parole hearing to stand before Olson on behalf of the children he murdered.

The reactions to the news that Olson was dying ranged from anger to uncertainty. "I've waited 30 years for this. Once he is dead, justice will be done. They should not have taken the death penalty away just before he murdered our children," Terry Bizeau, mother of 15-year-old victim Terri Lyn Carson, said in an e-mail to The Globe.

"I just hope when he dies, it's real soon. I hope it's really painful for him," Ray King, the father of 15-year-old Raymond King, Olson's eighth victim, told the National Post.

Sharon Rosenfeldt, whose 16-year old son Daryn was Olson's third victim, was more ambivalent. "It was very much a shock. It's very emotionally difficult," she said in a telephone interview. "There is no blueprint for me to follow on how I am supposed to respond to this. A lot of people would think that I am jumping up and down with joy. That's not the reality of it. The reality is that, maybe now, after 30 years, with his death, I can put my son to rest."

What we do know is that the criminal justice system has changed since Olson murdered these children. Surviving family members are now treated with much more respect and dignity when their loved ones are murdered. They have a voice and an opportunity to express how their lives have been affected by crimes against their loved ones.

Today, it is hard to imagine parents of a missing child being shuffled around and ignored the way the Rosenfeldts were treated when they reported Daryn missing on April 21, 1981, two weeks after his 16th birthday. Daryn had gone to the local mall in the middle of the morning on Easter weekend to pick up some dry cleaning and buy some supplies from Shoppers Drug Mart for his mother. That's where Olson spotted the teenager and lured him into vehicle with promises of a $10-an-hour job washing windows.

Initially, the police told the Rosendfeldts that Daryn was probably a runaway and that they didn't even classify teenagers as "missing" for at least 48 hours. As days and then weeks passed with no sign of their son, the Rosenfeldts began hearing about other children from their area who had disappeared.

On May 2, the police called to say they had found the body of a boy and asked for Daryn's dental records. On May 8, an RCMP officer called to ask for details of Daryn's clothing and the name of their dentist. Two days later the police called to say that the dead boy was definitely not their son. The next morning they called back to say they'd made a mistake. The body was Daryn's after all. "I remember screaming.. and then I remember being on the floor...and seeing Gary on the phone," said Mrs. Rosenfeldt whose voice still shakes with the reflected trauma of the way she and her husband were notified of their son's death.

Of course the Rosenfeldts, especially Gary, who was Daryn's stepfather, were prime suspects. Mrs. Rosenfeldt can still remember the police taking her sobbing nine-year-old daughter aside for questioning – without a family member present. The Rosenfeldts and other families weren't given pertinent information before it was released to the media.

Every significant development – Olson's arrest and horrific details about the way their children had died – came to them in shock waves from random news bulletins. Even at Olson's trial, the families were treated as curiosity seekers queuing for seats in the courtroom, rather than traumatized family members. And they only learned about the infamous "cash for bodies" deal after the trial when the Crown prosecutor revealed the details to the press.

At every step of the investigation, prosecution and incarceration of the sadistic murderer of their children, the families were treated as an inconvenience, rather than emotionally affected participants. Out of their anger and humiliation the Rosenfeldts reached out to other families, forming the Parents of BC Murder Victims in July, 1981.

"Over and above the death of Daryn, and the ugly manner in which he died," Mrs. Rosenfeldt said, "our anger became very much focused on the justice system. It was born out of sheer hurt at our loss of dignity in the way we were treated and in particular for the loss of dignity for my little boy. Nobody, I felt gave a damn about his life, other than us, and my family."

When the Rosenfeldts buried Daryn in his home province of Saskatchewan, on May 19, 1981, his mother made a promise standing over her son's grave. "I will not return to this grave until I can hold up m head in front of you and tell you that things are going to be better," she vowed. It took 16 years.

By 1983, they had joined with other victims' groups across the country to form a national charitable organization called Victims of Violence. They began lobbying police chiefs, provincial Attorneys-General and the federal Solicitor-General to develop a protocol for notifying families about a death and for involving survivors in the criminal justice system.

Things that we take for granted nowadays, such as victim impact statements at sentencing and parole board hearings, were non-existent when Olson went on his nine-month murderous spree beginning in November, 1980. Amber Alerts, a National Registry of Missing Children, amendments to strengthen the Criminal Code with respect to sexual assault, child abduction and sexual abuse have also become standard.

What spurred the Rosenfeldts to feel things had changed, was Olson's Section 745 "faint hope" appeal for early parole after 15 years in prison in 1997. Before the hearing, the RCMP met with the families and set up a quiet room for those needing respite during the proceedings. That consideration allowed the Rosenfeldts to return to their son's grave and tell him that "his life mattered and things were better for other people now."

The diametrical difference in attitude in the last 30 years was underscored in the middle of September. Officials with the Correctional Service of Canada phoned the families, who had registered to receive information, alerting them that the murderer was terminally ill with cancer. That advance warning was not a legal requirement, but it was a courtesy to prepare the families for the inevitable news flash that the man known as the Beast of B.C. had breathed his last.

It won't make what happened to their children go away, but it was the right thing to do. And there is some comfort in that.

The 11 child victims Clifford Olson abducted, molested and brutally murdered in the Greater Vancouver area between November, 1980 and July, 1981.

Christine Ann Weller, 12, Richmond

Colleen Marian Daignault, 13, Surrey

Daryn Todd Johnsrude, 16, Coquitlam

Sandra Wolfsteiner, 16, Langley

Ada Anita Court, 13, Burnaby

Simon Patrick Partington, 9, Surrey

Judy Kozma, 14, New Westminster

Raymond King, 15, New Westminster

Sigrun Charlotte Arnd, 18, a German tourist

Terri Lyn Carson, 15, Surrey

Louise Chartrand, 17, Maple Ridge

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe