POLITICS
09/21/2011 05:14 EDT | Updated 11/21/2011 05:12 EST

As Clifford Olson Nears Death, An Un-Canadian Consensus Emerges: Good Riddance

CP
VANCOUVER - Canadians aren't known for lashing out in public, but the news Wednesday about Clifford Olson — riddled with cancer and days away from death, the families of his victims say — prompted many to make an exception.

Confronted with an unbridled stream of vitriol, the Globe and Mail was forced to block most of the public commentary on its website — a fitting illustration of how Canada feels about its most notorious criminal.

"A good-news story," wrote one reader. "His final judgment will be in a higher court," said another.

A third added, simply: "He doesn't matter anymore."

Olson, whose deadly rampage in 1981 terrified a country and introduced generations of Canadians to the depths human evil can plumb, has been moved to a hospital in Quebec with just days to live, said Sharon Rosenfeldt, the mother of one of his victims.

The national consensus: Good riddance.

Easily outstripping schoolgirl killer Paul Bernardo and serial killer Robert Pickton as the most despised killer in modern Canadian history, Olson has been serving a life sentence for a vicious string of killings that galvanized the Vancouver area in 1980 and 1981.

But he managed to never stray far from the fragile Canadian psyche, making headlines first in 1997 when he applied for early parole, then again a decade later after serving 25 years of a life sentence for the savage murders of 11 young people.

"Mr. Olson presents a high risk and a psychopathic risk," National Parole Board panel member Jacques Letendre said at Olson's parole hearing in 2006.

"He is a sexual sadist and a narcissist,'' said Letendre. "If released, he will kill again.''

Dubbed "The Beast of British Columbia" at the peak of his notoriety, Olson pleaded guilty to 11 counts of first-degree murder — but only after he'd agreed to lead police to the bodies of his victims in exchange for a $100,000 payment to his family.

The case — and in particular the blood-money payoff, which many Canadians found an unbearable concession to a cold-blooded killer — sparked a storm of controversy that engulfed senior B.C. justice authorities.

Because his sudden guilty plea aborted the trial after just three days, much of the evidence surrounding the murders and the police investigation was never disclosed.

Clifford Robert Olson lived far more of his life inside prison than out, graduating from teenage juvenile delinquent to burglar, bully, rapist, child abuser and, eventually, cold-blooded serial killer.

He was born Jan. 1, 1940, in Vancouver, not far from the Pacific National Exhibition fairgrounds, to parents Clifford Sr. and Leona, who moved the family — including two brothers and a sister — to suburban Richmond, B.C.

He soon developed a reputation as a con artist, thief and bully.

"If there were 200 kids out on a field and a police car arrived, we knew who they were coming for," Bob Simpson, principal of the junior high school that Olson attended, once said.

He wasn't out of high school long before he landed in jail, sentenced at age 17 to nine months for burglary. As quickly as he showed a proclivity for being behind bars, however, he showed himself no less adept at getting out, staging a half-dozen breakouts over his lifetime.

Olson was in and out of prison for most of the 1960s and 1970s. He would be released on parole or mandatory supervision, only to be yanked back a few days or weeks later, having violated the terms of his parole or earned a fresh charge.

In prison, he was a well-known snitch who feared those he couldn't bully or manipulate.

"He was protected against the protected," said Herb Reynett, last warden of the B.C. Penitentiary. "He was always a bit of a bragger. He liked to tell everyone how good he was. He was a little guy (five-foot-seven) trying to be big."

Olson's victims, killed over an eight-month period between Nov. 17, 1980 and July 30, 1981, were boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 17.

Although many teens run away from home, these didn't fit the profile of troubled youth. They disappeared without a trace, freezing Vancouver and its suburbs in terror. Police were under pressure to solve the disappearances.

Olson, a suspect for weeks, was finally arrested Aug. 12, 1981, on Vancouver Island after a surveillance team spotted him picking up two young hitchhikers.

He eventually faced 10 first-degree murder counts as his trial began in January 1982. But it had barely begun when he reversed his not guilty plea, admitted to 11 killings and was sentenced to life with no parole eligibility for 25 years.

The judge recommended he never get out.

Relief at his conviction barely had a chance to set in before news emerged of the notorious "cash-for-bodies" deal that saw Olson plead guilty and help police locate the remains of his victims in exchange for a $100,000 payment to his wife.

B.C. Attorney General Allan Williams came under fire for the agreement with Olson. He initially denied it, then defended the scheme as the best way to put the case to rest and ensure the killer was taken off the streets.

Calls for an independent inquiry into the case were ignored and police kept a lid on their evidence, even though officers met with Olson hours before one of the killings.

Families of Olson's victims began a long, ultimately unsuccessful battle to recover the money held in trust for his wife and infant son, Clifford Jr.

Olson was initially sent to Kingston Penitentiary's protective custody unit, housed alone in a special cell with an hour's exercise a day. But he refused to go away.

He peppered government officials and the media with letters and telephone calls until his access was restricted.

In 1992, a search turned up a handcuff key hidden in Olson's rectum when he was taken for a hospital examination. Soon after he was transferred to the special handling unit at Prince Albert, and still later to a prison near Montreal.

Olson was for the most part out of the public's mind until 1997, when he opted to take advantage of the so-called "Faint Hope" clause, a section of the Criminal Code that allows serious offenders to seek parole after 15 years.

After a bizarre four-day hearing in Surrey, B.C., in which Olson represented himself and made fantastic claims about knowing where more bodies were buried, the jury took just 15 minutes to dismiss his application.

As the jury foreman said Olson's application had been denied, the courtroom erupted into cheers, tears and hugs among spectators and families of victims. Soon, multiple murderers were banned from seeking early parole.

He applied again in 2006, this time after having served the required 25 years. This time, the parole board deliberated for half an hour before turning him out.

Largely silenced by a gag order imposed by Correctional Service of Canada, Olson was making headlines again in 2010, this time with the revelation that he'd been collecting Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement payments since turning 65 in 2005.

Again, he left his mark on the justice system: the governing Conservatives imposed a new law last year that suspended benefit payments to inmates until after they're released.

The news of Olson's illness is something Raymond King, 69, has been waiting for since his 15-year-old son Raymond Jr. was abducted and murdered in 1981.

It's been really difficult for us to heal with him interfering in our lives over and over and over again when ever he chose," King said in an interview Wednesday.

"It will close some doors. At least he'll be out of our face."