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See No Evil

WRITER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST, SOLIPSIST, FALLIBILIST

TORONTO LIFE MAGAZINE

SEE NO EVIL

 June, 1999

The trial of Stephen Williams turns on whether he watched the infamous Bernardo videotapes. Its outcome will determine whether journalists can protect their sources

by Robert Fulford

Stephen Williams who this year stands at the center of a major freedom of the press case, is nobody's idea of a model of defendant. Invisible Darkness, his 1996 book about the crimes of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, contains a photograph from which the author looks out on the world with an angry scowl, like a Puritan theologian giving a ferocious sermon or a prince confronting a fractious mob of peasants. He conveys an arrogance that implies a lifetime of journalistic and literary accomplishment.

When he talks, even a sympathetic listener's mind fills with cliches. At Bistro 990, his favourite watering hole for many years, his conversation during one recent lunchtime made him sound curiously displaced in time, a 1950s version of a heroic he-man writer, maybe a war correspondent who's been through hell and now grudgingly tells folks back home what it was really like. He made me think of all the wanna­be Hemingways, the two­fisted drinkers who spill their most brilliant ideas in vodka-fueled talk. God help me, as I listened to him I even began thinking about people who talk the talk but don't walk the walk (as Williams might say.)

His case is a serious matter, which no one should take lightly but he has a way of making it seem trivial by piling on the melodrama. After being interviewed by the Ontario Provincial Police, he wrote, "I now know what it was like for the average German citizen to be interrogated by the Stasi."

His situation is hardly that bad, but it's not pleasant, either. It springs from the videotapes that Bernardo and Homolka made for their pleasure while they raped Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. The tapes were introduced in evidence at Bernardo's murder trial, but they were considered such a grave insult to the memory of the dead victims that their use was severely circumscribed. Only jurors, lawyers, the judge and court officials were allowed to see them; the rest of the people in the courtroom, including reporters, heard the sound track but saw nothing. On May 29, 1995, Mr. Justice Patrick LeSage, responding to the wishes of the girls' families as wen as a general sense of horror and shame, issued an order forbidding anyone else to view the tapes, ever, unless authorized by the court. It is this ruling that Stephen Williams is accused of violating. His alleged crime is disobeying a court order, punishable by fine or imprisonment or both.

Williams is intelligent and articulate, but he doesn't easily make friends. He didn't make a lot of them among the other writers who were covering the Bernardo trial in 1995, and he knows that as well as anyone. Dealing with any ten randomly selected people, he says,he will usually alienate at least five. The effect is especially marked when he deals with journalists. "1 don't take the media as seriously as they take themselves, and 1 can't keep my opinions to myself. Put me in with ninety people from the media and I haven't a prayer."

He has a way of asserting unearned superiority to everyone around him.People who meet him respond first by wondering who he can possibly be; when they find out, they decide they don't like him. His principal lawyer, Alan Young, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, says, "I find him to be an amusing individual - which I know is not what everyone says about him." A recent piece in the National Post claimed that people on both sides of the case consider him a blowhard.

At age fifty, his record as a writer is spotty. He wrote a few articles for “Weekend Magazine” in the 1970s and a few more for “Toronto Life” when Tom Hedley was editor about twenty years ago. (Hedley, still a friend, helped edit Invisible Darkness.) He's done publicity work, edited at the publishing house Clarke, Irwin and written advertising copy for J. Walter Thompson. In recent years he and Marsha Boulton, with whom he lives on a farm near Mount Forest, north of Guelph, have written some Heritage Minutes for the Bronfman Foundation; he's also helped research her books of historical vignettes, such as Just a Minute: Glimpses of Our Great Canadian Heritage. But Invisible Darkness is by a long way his most ambitious project, as well as the cause of his current grief.

"Sometimes you get what you wish for and you wish you hadn't wished for it," he said over lunch. "I wanted to write a book on an interesting case. And I wanted to get back into professional writing." As the details of Homolka's role became known, he realized that this story deserved close attention. "When I saw the woman in the background of the case, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. These extreme cases throw the institutions of society into relief. A case like this stops time so that you can See how things are working."

The key to his success with the book, and one source of his current trouble with the law, is something called Crown disclosure. Before a criminal case begins, the Crown prosecutors and the police must disclose to the defense virtually every fact they have gathered, whether they consider it significant or not. The Crown disclosure contains, for instance, a record of every interview the police conducted. For a minor crime the Crown disclosure may run 150 to 200 pages. In the Bernardo case it grew eventually into a small library: more than fifty thick volumes of papers, including records of hundreds of police interviews and hundreds of summaries from police officers of what they would say in court if called to testify (one officer's summary ran the length of a novel).There were also about seventy hours of videotaped interviews with Homolka,as well as the letters, postcards and diaries that she wrote, items of clothing the police seized, medical records, all the photos the killers had saved - even the Mickey Mouse hats that Bernardo and Homolka bought on vacation at Disneyland.

The Crown disclosure is like a vast underground river of information flowing beneath the case, much of it worthless, some of it interesting and indicative. Only a little of it bubbles to the surface during the trial. Williams acknowledges that he has seen the Crown disclosure, though he won't say who showed it to him. journalists rarely see it, because lawyers as a rule keep it secret. But no one breaks a law by seeing it, Williams and his lawyer insist. "The Crown disclosure," Williams argues, "is public property."

He used it well. He claims that Invisible Darkness contains not one word of fiction, "not even the parts where I put words and thoughts into Karla's mouth and mind, not even when I talk about the pimple on Leslie Mahaffy's face." The police transcribed all the Homolka interviews, so Williams was able to study the words while listening to her tone and mood. "1 reviewed these tapes and transcripts dozens of times. The interviewers were constantly asking Karla what she was thinking at this or that particular moment, or what, if anything, she said to Kristen French while they were alone, or what she said to Leslie Mahaffy, or what she thought about when she and her husband were raping Mahaffy.”

Williams found more data in police interviews with the families and friends of the killers and their victims, and he interviewed prosecutors, police, psychiatrists and defence lawyers. Some of the people he talked to were among the forty (not counting jurors and court clerks and guards) who legally saw the forbidden tapes; they may well have passed on to him details that they absorbed from that experience.

At Bernardo's trial, the Crown presented Homolka as a brutalized and terrorized victim, forced by Bernardo to help him commit his monstrous crimes; she was allowed to plead guilty to much lesser charges and receive a moderate sentence. Williams developed a view of Homolka as "a full and willing accomplice, nobody's battered wife, perhaps even the mastermind, at the very least a motivating force and a managing partner in all of the heinous crimes." He produced, as he says, a "searing indictment of the deals made by the government, police and prosecutors with Ms.Homolka."

He spent more than three years on Invisible Darkness and ended up with a book that is structured with precision and care. The prose is less successful: it pants a little, and the reader may not share the author's breathlessness ­ "Detective Irwin could almost 'feel' his mounting excitement. The time for a proactive approach was nigh." Williams tends to grab the first metaphors that come to mind, as when he describes Bernardo's effect on women: "They all agreed he was a silver-tongued devil. Basically, he managed to talk the pants off most of them." But the writing isn't flagrantly bad, just leaden, and it doesn't keep a reader from seeing how nimbly Williams has managed a complicated as well as terrible story.

Read for the first time this year, Invisible Darkness seems better than the reviews suggested in the autumn of 1996. But if the book doesn't have the reputation it deserves, Williams is at least partly to blame. Long before he finished the research, he was already making it clear to everyone that this wasn't going to be one of those instant books that Canadian newspaper reporters routinely chum out.

(click here to read the last half...)
 

Contact for Stephen Williams:
stephenwms@sympatico.ca
 

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