09/30/2011 05:52 EDT | Updated 11/30/2011 05:12 EST

Clifford Olson Death: Canada's Worst Villain


VANCOUVER - Clifford Olson sat in a bulletproof prisoner's box during an early release hearing near Vancouver 14 years ago, holding a collage he had fashioned out of photos from magazines, which were about the only thing he was allowed in his cell at the time.

"If you can sort of picture advertisements for infants and toddlers, what he did was he cut a series of those advertisements out and he Scotch-taped them together in pornographic poses," recalls Crown prosecutor Joe Bellows, who successfully argued to keep the serial killer in prison.

"On one of the days when he came into court and he sat in the prisoner's dock, he held them up over his head so that the family members could see them."

It was a twisted, cold-hearted gesture that sums up everything Canadians know, and hate, about Olson, who died of cancer Friday, at the age of 71 after spending the final 30 years of his life in prison.

He was a murderer, and of children, no less.

And he managed to torture and kill 11 victims before he was caught in the summer of 1981.

But there were murderers — even serial killers — before Olson and there have been others since. Yet none have reached quite the same status as Canada's most-reviled criminal.

What set Olson apart was his apparent lack of empathy and the joy he seemed to take in taunting his victims' families, the media and anyone else whose attention he could grab from inside the walls of his isolated prison cell.

And it is that image that will ensure the self-proclaimed "Beast of British Columbia" is remembered as someone who may have been truly evil. A monster. A villain in a country that isn't used to having villains.

"He says he became addicted to murder,'' forensic psychiatrist Stanley Semrau told that early release hearing in 1997.

"He showed no emotion in describing the acts. I found his descriptions to be quite nauseating, yet he was able to describe them in a light-hearted, pleasurable way."

It's also an image that ensured Olson was never far from controversy, beginning with the so-called "cash-for-bodies" deal that emerged after his conviction and continuing until as recently as last year, when news emerged that he was receiving an old-age pension.

Olson was born on New Year's Day in 1940 and grew up in a modest neighbourhood of Richmond, B.C. Olson's mother, Leona, worked at a fish cannery; Clifford Sr. delivered milk.

He found himself in trouble from an early age, dropping out of school after finishing Grade 8 and quickly becoming a bully, a thief, a fraudster and a prolific escape artist, spending much of the next quarter-century in and out of custody.

Olson was also accused of sexual assault several times, including against a teenage inmate while in prison, and young children when he was out, although he was never convicted.

He landed his first stint in jail at 17, when he was sentenced to nine months for breaking and entering. It was his first of 83 convictions.

He made enemies fast, too, earning a reputation as a jailhouse snitch, testifying against murderers and informing on inmates planning to smuggle drugs. For his efforts, he was once stabbed seven times.

Olson finished one of his many sentences on Sept. 7, 1980. The following month, 12-year-old Christine Weller became Olson's first victim after she disappeared while riding her bike in Surrey, B.C. Her body was found, strangled and stabbed, on Christmas Day.

By then, Olson and his girlfriend, Joan Hale, had moved into a townhouse complex in the Vancouver suburb of Coquitlam.

Joan gave birth to Olson's only child in April of 1981 and the couple married in May. All the while, Olson continued finding new victims, dumping their bodies in remote areas mostly in the Vancouver area.

Neighbours in their apartment building remember Olson as a creepy "candy man" who tried to befriend children by offering them small jobs. Indeed, he lured some of his victims that way, such as 16-year-old Sandra Wolfsteiner, who was hitchhiking when Olson picked her up and offered her work as a window cleaner.

The killing spree paralysed Vancouver and its suburbs with fear, as children disappeared who didn't fit the profile of troubled runaways.

On Aug. 12, 1981, weeks after police first identified Olson as a suspect, he was finally arrested on Vancouver Island after a surveillance team spotted him picking up two young hitchhikers.

His trial on 10 first-degree murder charges began Jan. 14, 1982, but it ended within days when Olson reversed his not-guilty plea. He admitted to 11 killings and was sentenced to life with no parole eligibility for 25 years.

The judge recommended he never get out.

Within days, news of the cash-for-bodies deal emerged. Police had agreed to pay give Olson's wife $100,000 in exchange for help finding his victims' remains.

Families of Olson's victims launched a long battle to recover the money, which was held in trust for Olson's wife and Clifford Jr., but the lawsuit was unsuccessful.

Olson was initially sent to Kingston Penitentiary's protective custody unit, housed alone in a special cell with an hour's exercise a day. He has changed prisons several times and was most recently serving his time in Quebec.

He sent graphic letters to some of the victims' families detailing his crimes, and routinely wrote and phoned government officials and reporters until his access was restricted.

In 1997, he requested early release under a provision commonly referred to as the "faint-hope" clause.

The four-day hearing featured Olson representing himself, making rambling, often incoherent speeches in which he claimed to be responsible for more than 100 other murders.

At one point, he asked the jury, "Do I look like some raving lunatic?" It took the jury just 15 minutes to dismiss Olson's application.

He surfaced again at parole hearings in 2006 and 2010, which featured equally bizarre claims, such as having advanced knowledge of the 9-11 attacks.

"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. If released, he will kill again.''

That assessment wasn't a surprise.

Everyone seems to agree that Olson was a psychopath, but in some ways it's an unsatisfying label that still does little to answer the question of why Olson took 11 young lives 30 years ago.

It's a question even Olson was unable — or at least unwilling — to answer.

"I want to know why Clifford Robert Olson did what he did," Olson told his '97 early release hearing.

"Nobody knows."