The sliding steel gate into hell opened slowly, and reluctantly I stepped into the closed world that is Paul Bernardo’s home, and will be for the rest of his life. Moments later, I was looking into the eyes of Canada’s most notorious criminal. My heart filled with rage over what he had done. I had the overwhelming urge to scream at him.
While his former wife, Karla Homolka, will be a free woman in a few weeks — albeit hounded by the media — Bernardo will live out his life caged in a cell about the size of a walk-in closet. How I came to be inside the Kingston Penitentiary that day is a story on its own.
A few days earlier, I had been out drinking with some buddies when one of them leaned over and whispered: “Would you like to see Paul Bernardo?” “Of course,” I replied, “but he’s in jail.” “It can be arranged,” said my friend. The next morning I was standing at the front door of Kingston Penitentiary, on the shore of Lake Ontario. I had written about the institution many times, but had never been inside. That was about to change. The door clanged shut behind me as I walked into the facility that was home to the country’s worst criminals. There was not a wisp of fresh air inside the walls. My tour took me first to the open range. As I craned my neck upwards and gawked at the rows of cells, I noticed that the receivers on the pay phones at the end of each floor were all off the hook. I was told that, if you wanted to use the phone, you first had to ask for permission from the inmate who controlled that particular floor. This was prison culture. But Bernardo would never be part of that closed society.
“Our guest of honour has his own special area,” said my guide.
It was the ground floor wing for the worst of the worst, the sexual offenders who had to be housed by themselves for their own safety. Plexiglas across the bars in this area of the prison prevented other inmates from hurling objects at them. In prison culture, men who rape and kill children are considered the lowest of the low. Injuring them would be a badge of honour. The gate to the “Bernardo Wing” suddenly opened and I stepped inside, albeit hesitantly.
The air inside was pungent with the rancid smell of caged men who are seldom allowed out of their cells.
As the gate clanged shut behind me, an inmate in the first cell jerked bolt upright from his bunk, pressing his face tight against the bars. His face was chalk white, his eyes wide as saucers, his gaze not of this world.
He stared at me, at times grinning, drool seeping from a corner of his mouth. Opposite the cells was a bank of small television screens, two guards monitoring the activity in each cell via a closed circuit camera.
Extending upward from the floor and arching over the guards was a Plexiglas shield that ran the length of the range. “Why the shield?” I naively inquired.
Just then, a stream of yellowish liquid came hurtling from one of the cells. “Duck,” yelled my guide. I dove for cover as the urine hit the shield and trickled harmlessly to the floor.
“That’s why,” said my guide, somewhat amused as I picked myself off the deck and looked upward at yet another white face peering down at me from the second row, grinning, his front teeth missing.
The shield was dotted with urine stains, spit, feces. Then came a second volley of yellow fluid. The two guards seated at the screens never even looked up. Such was life in this special section.
One of the inmates started yelling. “Forty-seven,” he screamed. “Forty-seven,” over and over again. His screams cut through the deathly silence of the range. My temples began throbbing in pain.
And then I saw him. A chill ran through my body.
Paul Bernardo, probably this country’s most despised killer, was standing at the front of his second floor cell, glancing down at the wary visitor in the prison’s most restricted zone.
Our eyes locked. His appearance was shocking. Gone was the smirk, the cockiness that was Bernardo’s trademark. He was heavier, his features blowsy, his face white. The man who terrorized women for years in Scarborough, the monster who killed two teenagers in St. Catharines, the villain who stalked potential prey in Orlando, Fla., was safely behind bars. Hopefully forever.
At his trial, I sat three rows directly behind Bernardo in courtroom 6-1 on University Ave. Although I work the court beat, for years afterwards I couldn’t bring myself to even venture into that courtroom for fear it would rekindle memories of that gruesome trial.
Even though he was shackled and watched closely by several guards during the trial, he still had that trademark smirk, that cocky attitude that somehow he was going to talk his way out of a lifetime sentence behind bars.
As his four-month trial dragged on in 1995 I began fantasizing about hurting the man who had hurt so many people. In my daydream, I would vault over the benches, grab him by the neck, throw him to the floor and give him a punch in the mouth for each of his victims. For good measure, I would throw in a couple of extra blows for myself.
Was I losing it, I wondered. The Star had brought in a counsellor to talk to those who were covering the trial and editing the copy. “I’m fine,” I told her. I wasn’t. One evening after court, when a group of reporters covering the trial gathered at a bar to drown our anguish in booze, I blurted out my fantasy.
To my surprise, several others had been thinking the exact same thing. Like me, they wanted their frontier-style justice. Such was the hatred for this evil creature staring down at me from his cage.
I thought about that as I looked back at him. I suddenly had the urge to yell at him, like two of his friends had done shortly after his arrest, standing outside the Metro East Detention centre and cursing at his cell.
But the words got stuck in my throat. His gaze was vacant, the cockiness long gone. My anger eased. He disappeared back into his cell. The moment passed. We continued the tour.
“People wanted him to rot in jail,” I said, and my guide finished my thought: “I think they got their wish,” he said. “If you really want to experience what life is like right now for Mr. Bernardo,” said my guide, “you have to go inside a cell.”
We found an empty one, similar to the cage where Bernardo lives 23 hours a day, 365 days a year, getting out only for his daily bit of fresh air in a small, fenced-in compound, or showering twice a week, always watched. The cell was tiny. If you want the same experience, step into a small walk-in closet and close the door. There was a bunk on one side, a toilet at the far end.
The cell was about three paces long, and about as wide as Bernardo’s arm span. Claustrophobia set in immediately. I felt trapped, and thought of animals in the zoo in small cages, and how horrible must be their existence. “I’ve had enough,” I said, turning to leave, just as the bars behind me shut. “What are you doing?” I asked my guide, now my jailer, standing on the other side of freedom. “You wanted the full experience,” he said. “But I didn’t mean it,” I pleaded, grabbing at the bars. They didn’t budge.
I turned back into my new home. I shuddered. The throbbing in my head was now a pounding pain. A minute in a locked cage and the big, tough crime writer was on the verge of tears.
My guide fumbled through his pockets. “Oops,” he said, “I may not have the key.” “I need to be out,” I pleaded, as he searched his pockets. He was taking his time, enjoying the moment. I was terrified. Finally, he found the key and I was freed.
My total time in captivity: a minute, 30 seconds. I vowed never to get so close to a story again. “Someday — not now — but someday I want you to write about your little visit to Kingston,” said my guide.
“Mr. Bernardo will live, grow old and die in there. He’ll have plenty of time to think about his crimes. The public should know that each and every day for the rest of his life will not be pleasant.”
The door to the prison shut behind us. I had my freedom. Bernardo never would.He was declared a dangerous offender, which allows the authorities to sentence him indefinitely to jail, pending regular reviews. “Know what?” I said to my guide. “I would rather take a needle in the arm than live like that.”
“Just be thankful,” said my guide, “that we no longer have capital punishment in this country.”
Raw hide sheath for a Frontier style patch knife .
The rawhide sheath was wet formed around the old patina’d carbon steel knife that I’d re-handled in figured Elm wood with copper pins and features old wooded beads , pheasant feathers and a Sag amulet .
The hawk underneath I made from an old agricultural digging tool and a sawn off hickory sledge hammer shaft with added pyrography for effect and grip .
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