The allure of the accused (Chatelaine, Jan 1995)



The allure of the accused
Posner, Michael. Chatelaine. (English edition). Toronto: Jan 1995. Vol. 68, Iss. 1; pg. 46
Copyright Rogers Publishing Limited Jan 1995

A MIDSUMMER MORNING IN ST. CATHARINES, ONT. Outside the gray - walled courthouse, a gaggle of reporters and cameramen wait for Canada's most notorious alleged murderer. Paul Bernardo is accused in the sex killings of teenagers Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French -- Leslie's dismembered body, encased in concrete, was found in a reservoir, and Kristen was found dead by a country road two weeks after she disappeared on her way home from school. Bernardo also faces a separate trial on dozens of charges of sexual assault in the Toronto area between 1987 and 1992. This day, he is to appear for yet another in a series of pretrial hearings. The media keep a vigil for footage -- of black - robed lawyers, of the victims' families, of Bernardo himself, escorted from the police van in shackles.

Upstairs, in the gloomy corridor outside Courtroom 10, Lori Brown waits too. She sits alone, her eyes downcast, a solitary finger winding through her long, dyed blond hair. From a distance, she passingly resembles Karla Homolka, Bernardo's ex - wife, who is now serving 12 years in prison for manslaughter in the French - Mahaffy murders. A shorter heavier version of Karla, with puffy cheeks and half - closed eyes. Twenty - seven years old, unemployed, engaged to a divorced man almost 20 years her senior, Lori Brown is here for a reason most people find utterly unfathomable: she may be in love with Paul Bernardo.

It began on the evening of Bernardo's arrest in February 1993. Lori had been watching TV with her mother, Pat, at her parents' home in nearby Beamsville. The shocking murders, and the intense manhunt that followed, had consumed the entire region. That night, Lori and Pat drove into town. Finding themselves in the Port Dalhousie district, the Browns chanced upon the little pink house on Bayview Drive where Bernardo and Homolka had been living for more than a year. They were not alone. Hundreds of other onlookers had been drawn by morbid curiosity.

Still, it was not until the next day, when Lori Brown first saw pictures of Paul Bernardo, that some unknown circuit in her brain was triggered. "Oh my God," she thought, "he's good looking. Are you sure this is the right person you have?" -- as if there were some connection between how one looked and one's propensity to commit murder. Almost immediately, Lori started cutting articles and photographs from the newspapers. "Pretty soon," she says, "I had quite the collection."

In recent years, the bizarre but undeniable attraction that some women feel for murderers, rapists and other violent criminals has been well documented. During his trial, Ted Bundy, the handsome college student who had tortured, raped and murdered at least 31 women and girls across the U.S., met Carole Boone. She married him and gave birth to a son before Bundy was executed in 1989. John Wayne Gacy, executed last May for the deaths of 33 Chicago - area youths, received letters from dozens of women during the more than 14 years he spent on death row.

Women have loved, idolized and occasionally married other serial killers, including New Yorker David (Son of Sam) Berkowitz (six murders in the mid - 1970s), the Los Angeles Hillside stranglers, cousins Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono (up to 10 murders in the late 1970s), even Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee loner who dismembered and cannibalized some of his 17 victims.

Closer to home, Colin Thatcher -- serving a 25 - year sentence in an Edmonton penitentiary for the 1983 murder of his ex - wife -- was married in 1994 to Bev Shaw, a widow with four children. Some years earlier, divorcee Liza Dikih married Helmuth Buxbaum, the former nursing home operator serving a 25 - year term for hiring killers to murder his wife, Hanna, in 1984. In 1989, Toronto graphic designer Hailey Otis claimed to have fallen in love with convicted rapist Frederick Merrill, then serving 18 years in jail. "It's hard to explain why I feel the way I do," Otis told a Toronto newspaper at the time. "I feel he has never had a friend who can understand him...a real true friend, and I think I could be that friend."

Lori Brown sits in Courtroom 10, a finger still spinning lazy circles in her hair. "When Paul comes in, he'll either be wearing a blue or green suit," she predicts. "He just has the two." Lori has been attending Bernardo's hearings for months, sometimes in the company of her fiance of two years, Peter Kooger, a welder in his mid - 40s with whom she shares a two - bedroom apartment in St. Catharines. Until recently, both had been living on welfare and unemployment insurance; Kooger eventually found work. He declined to be interviewed, but among the more puzzling aspects of this affair is his apparent endorsement of Lori's fixation with another man.

Sometimes," says Lori, "I complain to Peter, 'I don't really have time to write to Paul." And Peter will go, 'Paul's really counting on you, you know."

And so she writes. In fact, Lori spends hours every week drafting long letters to Bernardo, and keeps a framed 8 - by - 10 - inch photograph of him in her apartment -- she had it specially blown up. She sends the letters and believes he reads them, but won't say whether he has ever written back. She has tried to visit him in jail in nearby Thorold; prison officials say she has been there but will not confirm that she has actually visited Bernardo. Lori does claim to speak regularly to Bernardo's parents and his brother, David, although the family could not be reached and Bernardo's lawyers did not return calls. She says all her efforts are to keep Bernardo's spirits up, to let him know he's not alone. But the long delay in bringing his first - degree murder case to trial is beginning to rankle. "Paul would be happy to get this done and over with," she says. "It's not doing him any good. He's getting a little tired of all of this. He wants to know what's going to happen to him. A year and a half he's been sitting in jail."

It is hard, on first reading, to know what exactly to make of Lori Brown. The second reading is not much easier. Apart from her obsession with Bernardo, her life has been in most respects conventional. The youngest of five children, she grew up on her parents' cherry farm outside Beamsville. Like many country girls, she learned to bake and sew and was active in 4 - H clubs. She still enters pies and other baked goods in county fairs each year, often winning.

Although she hated school, and says she spent most of her time chasing boys, Lori eventually graduated from Beamsville high school. Since then, she says, she has worked at several service jobs, including stints as a waitress at a truck stop and at a Tim Hortons doughnut shop. She swims and does aerobics at the YMCA. She attends the Word of Life Church regularly. She spends hours each week volunteering at the city mission for the homeless, serving meals, cleaning up. She dotes on her older sister's children -- three nieces. She has traveled to Nashville several times -- it was there that she met Peter Kooger -- and to England and Scotland.

The raw elements of her life, in short, are not so dissimilar from those of many people, right down to her interest in the monarchy. For a long time, she "followed the Royal family around and collected everything I could." Now, she finds the Charles - Diana rift boring. "I'm with Paul now," she says. "Forget the Royal family."

Of course, Lori Brown isn't with Paul -- not remotely -- except in the fantasy universe that she has constructed. In her otherwise ordinary existence, it is only the Bernardo romance -- the illusion of being with Paul, succoring him, or just talking about him -- that seems to energize her, give her focus.

Whether or not Bernardo actually is a murderer and rapist does not seem to matter to Lori. Convicted or acquitted, he will still be her friend. It's as if her moral center of gravity had been neutralized, allowing her to free - float in that same fantasy realm where guilt and innocence ultimately have no meaning. "Somebody's responsible for these actions, and it's not all Paul," she says. "Responsible for hurting him as a child and making him the person he is. He didn't get that way by himself." She does not identify the source of that abuse.

It does no good to point out to Lori that if you follow such logic, everyone is blameless, everyone a victim, so society might as well abolish the justice system. The French and Mahaffy families, among many others, would vehemently disagree. Lori recognizes their pain, but is somehow able to close the moral shutter.

Indeed, bizarre though it sounds, Bernardo is not the first criminal, convicted or alleged, to whom she has been drawn. Six years ago, she took a brief interest in the rapist Frederick Merrill, after he escaped from Toronto's Don Jail. "And there was another guy," she recalls. "A nice - looking guy like Paul, with blond hair. He had done something near St. Catharines. He had raped a girl." She delivers this in a matter - of - fact tone, as if she were talking about wallpaper. With Merrill and the other man, her interest was casual, a matter of saving newspaper clippings. "I was never involved as I am with Paul," she explains. Her eyes are still half - closed, but there's a trace of a smile. "Paul's good looking."

Lori knows that her attachment to Bernardo and her appearances to talk about it on CTV's The Shirley Show and Fox's A Current Affair have made her an object of derision. "At first, it bothered me," she concedes. "Now, I don't care what people think. I do what I want to do. Everyone needsa friend."

Once, a visiting girlfriend spotted her framed photograph of Bernardo and snapped, "He should be dead."

Lookit," Lori replied. "You don't know that, and I don't know that, so let's just drop it."

With parents and siblings, who strenuously object to her fixation with Bernardo, the subject is simply closed. "We don't talk about it," says her mother, Pat. "It's a terrible thing. We've told her, 'Don't come here and talk about this guy.' I hope it's just a phase that will pass."

With her family, Lori keeps quiet. "If they say, 'Paul was in court today,' I'll say, 'That's nice.' I don't say I was there." And her parents, it seems, don't ask. This, of course, is avoidance -- a refusal by both parties to deal with a conflict head - on. Is this the programming that taught Lori Brown how to avoid the horrible reality of the French - Mahaffy murders?

Women with low self - esteem are often attracted to notorious crime figures," explains Dr. Peter Collins, a forensic psychiatrist at Toronto's Clarke Institute of Psychiatry and a consultant to both the RCMP and the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force. Dr. Collins has never met Lori Brown, can't comment on her case -- and won't. What he will say is that for some of these women, reflected fame is part of their attraction to a murderer. "It represents fame and power -- the power of killing. People tend to have an attraction to the macabre. There's something sexy about evil." A common subset of the genre, Dr. Collins notes, consists of women who want to protect or save, convinced that the killer is really innocent.

Whatever the origins of these attractions, popular culture only fosters them. "It's obvious these women are responding to messages about power and celebrity," notes Elliott Leyton, a professor of anthropology at Memorial University in St. John's, Nfld., and author of Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer. "In the distorted reality that is built into the modern experience, these killers are often presented to the public as caricatures of manly virtue." With a killer who is behind bars, Leyton adds, "a young, confused misguided woman can have a brush with -- and a sexually safe relationship with -- what she thinks is real masculinity, real virility."

So what drives Lori Brown? Is it her shot at 15 minutes in celebrity's klieg light, a nurturing gene gone haywire, or the powerful magnet of virtual sex? A tentative answer is perhaps all three.

Lori insists she is not engaged in a publicity stunt. If she were, she says, "I could call up any number [of reporters] and say what I know about the family. One day, Mr. Bernardo [Paul's father] opened right up, told me all kinds of personal things. But I don't talk about them. That's why the Bernardos trust me." But if she does not court the media, neither does she shrink from them. She has appeared on two syndicated television shows, freely given many interviews to the press, and it was she herself who suggested posing for Chatelaine on the front steps of the Bernardo house on Bayview Drive.

The nurturing analysis, however, also seems to fit. The protective -- some would say maternal -- impulse is a strong feature of Lori's character. At the city mission, she has spent much of her volunteer time working with one particular homeless woman, whom she calls "my daughter." When she contemplates the future, Lori says: "I'd like to have 12 kids, but that isn't going to happen. I wouldn't mind doing what I'm doing, working at the mission, and getting paid for it. But what I'd really love is to work at the airport and give directions to people coming off the planes. You'd meet so many people from different countries." As for Bernardo, Lori insists that he, too, has been hurt, remains vulnerable and needs comforting.

As the accused is finally led into the court - room, Lori whispers, "I'd like to give him a hug. Oh, how I wish. The boy needs a hug. He needs a lot of attention." A mop of dark blond hair falls over Bernardo's forehead. "His bangs are getting in his eyes again," Lori notices. "He needs a haircut. I'll have to tell him that."

The hug, the repeated references to his good looks -- indeed, the entire theme of Bernardo as needy and of Lori as provider -- may be only a sublimation of her sexual desires. It's a subject she is not anxious to discuss, but has clearly considered -- despite her engagement to Kooger. She has even pondered what a life with Bernardo might be like. "I don't know if I'll ever marry Paul. And I wouldn't just jump into it. If my husband were in jail, I wouldn't have much of a life, would I? I'd have to raise kids on my own, do everything on my own. All I could do would be to go see him, have conjugal visits. I've thought about it, but I've put it in the back of my mind. I can't have two husbands. But Paul is more my age. I could be in love with him. He's a very attractive person."

The Bernardo hearing has been adjourned -- yet again. (The trial is expected to finally get under way later this year.) Now, Lori takes the elevator to the ground floor and walks outside to the rear of the courthouse, hoping to catch a final glimpse of Paul. Suddenly, a garage door opens and a police van wheels from the bowels of the building, taking the celebrity prisoner back to the Niagara Regional Detention Center in Thorold.

Open the door and let him out," she says, her voice breaking as it rises. Then, she sighs, "That'll never happen." There is something slightly theatrical in this whole gesture; perhaps she thinks this is how women should behave in this situation, as if an alleged murderer were just another rock star.

She watches the van drive away and lifts her hand. "Bye - bye, Paulie. See you later."