Before Mindhunter, Before Robert Pickton, Before the Discovery of the Highway of Tears, There Was Clifford Olson. Written by Jesse Donaldson.
The trial of Clifford Robert Olson was over just as quickly as it had begun.
On January 14th, 1982, three days after entering a Not Guilty plea on 10 counts of First Degree Murder, the self-proclaimed “Beast of British Columbia” had changed his mind. Gone was the cocky swagger with which Olson – then BC’s most notorious serial killer — had entered the courtroom only days before, a copy of the Annotated Criminal Code under one arm. Gone was the smile, the attitude that had motivated him to turn to the mothers of two of his young victims and mouth the words ‘F*ck you’. Head down, dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief (many assumed, for effect), he pleaded Guilty to all 10 counts – 3 boys and 7 girls, all between the ages of 9 and 16, all drugged, raped, and murdered over a 9-month stretch in 1980 and 1981. He even threw in one more (a “freebie”, as he amusedly put it), the 1981 murder of 16-year-old Sandra Wolfsteiner. The jury deliberated for less than half an hour before Justice Harry McKay handed down 11 consecutive life sentences. There was no trial. No cross-examination. No witnesses were called, and no details were given before the courtroom full of shocked spectators. The 50 pages of description that Olson had written about the murders were sealed from public view.
And just like that, he was transported to Kingston Penitentiary, where he would spend most of his remaining years in solitary confinement, abusing the legal system, attempting escape, and mailing lurid descriptions of his crimes to the families of his victims. For those families, there would be no closure. In fact, Olson’s conviction was just the beginning. Immediately after the trial, it was revealed that the RCMP had paid the serial murderer $100,000 in exchange for the locations of all 11 bodies — $30,000 for the first four, and $10,000 for each one thereafter.
Put mildly, the optics weren’t good.
Amidst the firestorm that followed, Attorney General Allan Williams resigned rather than seek reelection. Victims of Violence, an advocacy group started by Gary and Sharon Rosenfeldt, (parents of Olson victim Darryl Johnsrude), battled the police department all the way to the Supreme Court in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to recover the money. But what became lost in the recriminations that followed was the fact that, prior to Olson’s deal, the RCMP had no case. In fact, they hadn’t even connected all 11 murders together. Only two police officers – Corporals Les Forsythe and Fred Maile with the RCMP Serious Crimes Unit — had even thought to put Olson under surveillance (and that surveillance was so spotty that he managed to kill four more victims while it was underway).
In fairness, the study of serial killers was still relatively new in the late 70s and early 80s; Agent John E. Douglas (the real-life author of Mindhunter, and basis for its lead character Holden Ford) had just begun his exploration of the phenomenon in the U.S, and in laid-back British Columbia, such a thing was completely unheard of. Beyond that, only 3 bodies had been found. Olson’s methods made matters even more difficult. He made a point of selecting youths who could be counted as runaways — often kids from broken homes. He drugged his victims and drove them out of town, usually to secluded areas. He killed in different ways – sometimes with a hammer, sometimes with a knife, sometimes using rocks or a nearby creek.
And his victims were both male and female. Even with all that said, it’s astounding that his behaviour wasn’t noticed sooner.
“Normally people like Olson come out of the blue like the Yorkshire Ripper did,” noted psychiatrist Guy Richmond, in a January 1982 interview with the Vancouver Sun. “But ever since 1957 Olson has been under professional surveillance and no one has spotted the degree of violence of which he’s capable.”
Richmond was accurate in his assessment; Olson’s criminal career spanned decades. But it wouldn’t be until 1980 that he graduated to murder.