TORONTO - There are no tears for Clifford Olson.
I had an hour’s meeting with Olson, now dead reportedly from cancer, in Quebec’s Ste-Anne-des-Plaines penitentiary last November when he asked me, instead of a lawyer, to attend his parole hearing.
I agreed, but only if he understood I was not his advocate. I felt not only should he never be released from prison but that he should have been executed 28 years ago.
Olson laughed. The idea of a journalist being at his side instead of a lawyer amused him — partly because it confused prison authorities.
Besides, Olson said the only lawyer he really trusted was Bob Shantz of Maple Ridge, B.C., who has represented him since his conviction in 1982 of killing 11 young people in the Fraser Valley.
Later, Olson said he relished the look on the faces of family members who attended the hearing when I clarified to the three parole board members that I thought he should have been executed a long time ago. Olson thought I was kidding. I wasn’t.
I was surprised when Olson told me he’d been operated on for cancer in 2004 — colon cancer, one of the nastiest cancers. He was in remission, which was confirmed by prison assessments to which I had access.
“Are you concerned?” I asked, somewhat taken aback at the news. My father had died from colon cancer.
“Naw,” said Olson. “I’m back to training and running — but I’m having a will drawn up. I want to leave money to families of victims —another lie. I’m going to contact my brother that I haven’t wrote to since I been inside, if you get what I’m getting at.”
As if aware time was running out for him, Olson sent me several cardboard boxes of his papers, documents, writings, to do with as I wished. I haven’t looked at them yet.
For close to 25 years I’ve known Olson — since he first contacted Arlene Bynon who hosted an interview show on Toronto radio station CHFI and is now on AM640. Before his transfer to Prince Albert pen in Saskatchewan, I spent a summer interviewing Olson on a weekly basis in Kingston Pen. He’d been found with handcuff keys in his rectum, planning an escape.
He turned against Arlene when she wouldn’t visit him in Kingston.
Ever since he’d periodically phoned me — at first collect, but later in Ste-Anne-des-Plaines, on his dime — sometimes three, four, five times a day.
But he hadn’t phoned since May. I was relieved not to be pestered but since pestering people never bothered Olson, I wondered if he was sick or had been shut down.
It was a constant source of wonder that he phoned me, despite a ban on his doing so.
Apart from Bob Shantz, I guess I know Olson as well as anyone can know a homicidal and narcissistic sociopath. He is a congenital liar and manipulator. You can’t believe a word he says. He relishes attention, mindful of the Russian proverb: “With an audience, even death is attractive.”
In the early 1990s I brought noted U.S. criminal lawyer Melvin Belli to Kingston pen to visit Olson, who claimed to know the identity of the Seattle Green River killer of some 50 prostitutes. He got Belli to be his lawyer, to get immunity in the U.S. if he revealed the killer.
Olson provided a photo of someone he said was the Green River Killer, now living in New Zealand. In the photo was a car. By tracing the license plate we got an identity. I phoned the guy who turned out to be a born-again Christian who wrote prison inmates urging salvation.
When I told him that Olson was identifying him as the Green River killer, he said: “I guess the poor guy has nothing else to do in prison...I’ve never been to Seattle.”
I’ve been criticized for keeping in touch with Olson. This is mindless criticism.
If there’s ever going to be understanding of what makes such people tick, one has to keep probing. And Olson was a serial killer unlike any other. He had no conscience or normal emotional feelings. He had to pretend them. He wheedled, flattered, joked and used whatever worked to get his way. In prison he got on pretty well with guards, but if they relaxed he’d exploit them.
By keeping in touch I learned he was getting old age pension from Canada ($1,200 a month), was defrauding the mails by tampering with stamps, was sending porn photos to people, was writing to U.S. presidents, was claiming murders throughout the U.S., and that he had advance knowledge of 9/11.
I wrote a book about him, which the U.S. publishers decided wasn’t what they wanted. They anticipated a Ted Bundy-like story with the police steadily closing in on him. Olson’s story is one of no one realizing in 1981-82 that there was a serial killer loose in B.C.’s Fraser Valley. Olson chose victims well — kids from broken homes or dysfunctional families — kids whose parents didn’t care.
When he got them drunk, doped them, raped and killed them, buried or dumped them in the woods, authorities assumed they were runaways. Sometimes the parents didn’t miss the kids for days. When some bodies were found, no one imagined a serial killer was loose.
Male or female, it made no difference to Olson. Some he strangled, some he beat to death with a hammer, some he stabbed. With one he drove a screwdriver into the top of the head, with another a nail. Some he raped after he’d killed them.
The police considered Olson a thief and nuisance — not a killer. There was no “fear” in lower B.C. about Olson, because no one realized a monster was loose. In order to locate the bodies, the RCMP paid him (his wife) $100,000 — $10,000 per body with one “freebie.”
In our conversations, Olson claimed he didn’t know why he killed.
“I dunno, Peter, why I killed some, but let most of them go,” he once said. “It bothers me because I didn’t have to kill anyone — no kid ever turned me in.” That’s true. Checking his record, Olson averaged a rape, or sexual abuse of a young person every day. The RCMP were oblivious.
After pleading guilty, Olson wrote lengthy accounts for each of his 11 murders — some of them 50 pages long with minute details of how he persuaded victims into his car, with excruciating, graphic details of what he did to them. These documents are nauseating to read.
Yet Olson embargoed them to remain unread until his then year-old son, Stephen was 21: “I want these left for my son so he’ll better understand his dad.” Talk of being sick!
As well, Olson was stealing from stores and selling what he stole — and was never caught.
Profilers like to say that as kids, serial killers tend to be bed-wetters, arsonists, and tortured animals. None of these apply to Olson. I don’t know about bed-wetting, but he liked animals, did not run around setting fires, and was too small to be much of a bully — though he claimed to be a Golden Gloves boxer (which he wasn’t).
An oddity about Olson is that never, in his criminal career, was he ever convicted of a sexual crime.
Another oddity is that he was completely at home in a prison environment — not broken by the ordeal, not subdued, he was cheerful, enthusiastic, resourceful and functioned well. Perhaps that’s not so odd when one considers that about 50 of his 71 years of life were spent in prison. Until convicted of murder, he was never considered dangerous.
On occasion he could be surprisingly candid — like telling me: “Peter, I can never be released. If I was I’d kill again. Don’t know why, but I would. I’d of executed me if I was on the jury.”
At other times he’d adamantly insist that the death sentence was barbaric and no one deserved to die — “except goofs like that Bernardo guy, or Dahmer who was a cannibal.” (Jeffrey Dahmer was killed in prison in 1994 after he was convicted of murdering some 17 people in 1992).
Olson’s most recent psychological assessment indicated that he had neither remorse nor self-criticism. While he behaved himself in Ste-Anne-des-Plaines, the “probability of re-offending remains very high” if he was ever released. He was diagnosed as “anti-social with narcissistic disorders, psychopathic personality, sexual sadism and pedophilia.” And necrophilia.
I once asked Olson what he thought of the Hannibal Lecter of the novel Silence of the Lambs(itls). Olson was scornful: “Hannibal Lecter is fiction — I am real.”
In death, Clifford Olson’s soul will not now rest in peace, for he had no soul — only appetites.
He will not be missed.