Written by Jesse Donaldson
Before Mindhunter, Before Robert Pickton, Before the Discovery of the Highway of Tears, There Was Clifford Olson
Born in St Paul’s Hospital in 1940, Clifford Olson began his criminal career at a young age.
By the time he was in Grade Two, he was regularly stealing from a blind street vendor. Around the same time, he put a small child in an abandoned stove and lit a fire. Following his first arrest at the age of 17, he spent all but 4 years of his adult life in prison, racking up a total of 90 convictions, for offences ranging from armed robbery to break-and-enter, to
He escaped from prison a total of 7 times, and by age 21, the Corrections system had classified him as “highly unstable”, and “not a hopeful prospect for rehabilitation”. Western media often romanticizes the serial killers they portray, presenting them as cunning and calculated, but in truth, Olson was neither of these things. He had no ability to plan. No guile. No real emotions, and the barest sense of right and wrong. He went strictly on impulse, driven only by his own immediate need for emotional gratification. He wasn’t even a particularly good criminal. His exploits as a con-man are neither charming nor particularly clever; they’re notable mostly for their audacity, and for the regularity with which he was caught.
“He seemed to enjoy the challenge of quietly screwing the system,” writes journalist Peter Worthington, in his biography of the killer. “He seemed pathologically incapable of comprehending the consequences of his actions – or even caring. Status of the moment meant more to him than his own long-range benefit. And he gained what prestige he had among older inmates by his willingness to play the clown, lead the guards on, and make a nuisance of himself. Some regarded him as a simple-minded buffoon.”
Yet, by 1980, after 23 years in and out of prison, Olson was a free man. And he chose to celebrate by taking his crimes to a new level. He’d met his future wife, Joan Hale, in February of the same year, and in his later recollections, it was a fight between the two of them that led to his first murder – that of 12-year-old Christine Weller. His MO was always the same; cruise up in his van and tell local children and teenagers he was a contractor looking for workers. Pick up whoever seemed willing, preferring them as young as possible. Then, render them unconscious with a combination of drugs and alcohol. Then, rape and murder.
He operated for a total of nine months, in and around BC, and during that time, he was hardly careful. He once showed up to the hospital to pick up his wife with bloodstains on his shirt, after murdering 13-year-old Colleen Daignault. On at least three occasions, he got his vehicle stuck at the scene of the crime, and had to call a tow truck — sometimes mere metres from the partially-hidden bodies of his victims. He once brought up one of his murders at a party, a situation that became so uncomfortable that the hosts, Ron and Tina Joyce, refused to allow him into their home ever again. He had 11 prescriptions for sleeping pills (his preferred method of drugging victims was to combine them with alcohol) over a period of 4 months. In the estimation of his ex-wife Hale, there’s even a good chance he confessed one of the murders to his parents.
By July of 1981, he had stepped up his pace, killing at least 6 children and teenagers in the span of a month. But by that time, he’d attracted the attention of Corporals Maile and Forsyth of the RCMP’s Serious Crimes Unit. The RCMP began tailing Olson, and Maile even made contact under the pretense of hiring him as a police informant. Unfortunately, the surveillance was so spotty, Olson managed to kill 4 more times while it was underway. He was finally arrested on Vancouver Island on August 12, 1981, after the surveillance team saw him pick up 2 female hitchhikers (in an interview with Worthington, Olson later remarked: “Of course I intended to kill ’em. I had no idea I was being followed. If I hadn’t been stopped, those girls would now be dead.”). Mounties got their big break when the name of one of his victims, Judy Kozma, was found in a notebook in his possession. Maile and Forsyth suspected they’d found their man. Olson’s interrogation went on for days, with rotating teams of police officers, sometimes for as long as 13 hours. But the evidence was hardly enough to convict. Then, in August of 1981, he agreed to an unprecedented deal with the RCMP: $100,000 – $30,000 for information on the first four bodies, and $10,000 for each additional victim. Over the remainder of the summer, he led investigators on a macabre tour of his burial sites, gleefully providing information, and even offering to pose for photographs. By the time he sat inside a courtroom in January of 1982, the deal had long since been done.
When details reached the press, condemnation was universal. Conservative MP Gordon Taylor brought forward a Private Member’s Bill to reinstate the death penalty for Olson alone. But even though he spent the rest of his life in solitary confinement, Olson still managed to wreak all kinds of havoc. He collected a pension until the government changed the laws regarding convicted felons. He sent letters to his victims’ families until the Corrections Service began screening his mail. He applied for parole at every opportunity. He attempted escape. He lied about involvement with other murders. He even threatened to write and publish his memoirs. Mercifully, in 2010, while incarcerated at Kingston Penitentiary, Clifford Olson died of cancer. Public relief was overwhelming, and for the families of his victims, it provided, at long last, the opportunity for both healing and closure.
Victims of Violence, the advocacy group started by Gary and Sharon Rosenfeldt, still exists today.