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Families of Paul Bernardo's victims demand killer's return to maximum security

A lawyer representing the families of two teenage girls murdered by Paul Bernardo has sent a letter to the head of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) demanding that the serial rapist and killer be returned to a maximum-security prison.

"We urge you to restore public confidence in the correctional system and the administration of justice by rescinding the transfer order," Timothy Danson, counsel for the families of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, wrote in a letter sent to CSC commissioner Anne Kelly on Friday.

"He is Canada's most notorious and dangerous serial killer who must face the full consequences of his sadistic and cowardly acts."

Bernardo was transferred last week from the maximum security Millhaven Institution in Ontario to La Macaza Institution in Quebec, a medium security facility about 200 kilometres northwest of Montreal. Danson argued in his letter that it "would appear that CSC is trying to assist Mr. Bernardo with his parole eligibility by cascading him through the system."

He wrote that reversing the transfer would spare his clients the hardship of travelling to La Macaza for an upcoming parole hearing.

Convicted killer and serial rapist Paul Bernardo in a courtroom sketch from 2018.
Paul Bernardo is shown in this courtroom sketch made during Ontario court proceedings via video link in Napanee, Ont., on October 5, 2018. (Greg Banning/The Canadian Press)

Danson told CBC News his clients are infuriated by what he called a "complete absence of transparency" from CSC. He said the time may soon come for politicians to get involved.

"I think we've got unanimity in Parliament — how often does that happen? — where everyone considers this shocking and outrageous," he said.

"This is a democracy, and the public officials have a right to weigh in on this. And a failure to do so would be an abdication of responsibility."

The French and Mahaffy families join a long list of victims' families who have accused the CSC of stonewalling them by releasing scraps of information about prisoner transfers — often just hours before or after they happen.

For more than a decade, the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime has been caling on CSC to do a better job of informing victims' families of transfer decisions.

Two teenaged girls in school photos.
Kristen French was 15 and Leslie Mahaffy was 14 when Paul Bernardo savagely kidnapped, tortured and killed them. (Handout/The Canadian Press)

Danson's letter, released to CBC News on Friday, blasted CSC for failing to inform his clients until the very day of the transfer, on May 29. Danson called that "troubling" and noted the transfer happened just two weeks before the anniversary of Mahaffy's abduction and murder.

"Does anyone at CSC appreciate the devastating grief experienced by the Mahaffy family at this time of year?" he wrote in the letter.

"While the timing could not have been worse, to [implement] such a transfer without any explanation, under the cloak of protecting privacy rights of the person who sadistically and brutally sexually tortured their daughters before murdering them, is beyond comprehension."

His letter calls on CSC to reveal who made the transfer decision and exactly what time Bernardo left Millhaven Institution for La Macaza.

A building surrounded by a chain link fence.
The La Macaza Institution is located about 200 kilometres northwest of Montreal in the Laurentian Mountains. (Pascal Robidas/Radio-Canada)

CSC responded to CBC in a statement late Friday, confirming that victims were informed of Bernardo's transfer around 9 a.m. that same morning.

It said the safety and security of staff conducting the transfer was a factor in the decision not to notify victims earlier, since Bernardo's location at Millhaven Institution was publicly known.

It explained the decision to transfer Bernardo by pointing to a change in his security classification. CSC said it regrets "any pain or concern this transfer caused" for victims and families.

"In the case at hand, it was deemed that the offender could be safely managed in a medium security institution," said CSC's statement. "The fact that an offender is in medium security does not mean they are being 'fast-tracked' through the federal system."

A former high-ranking corrections official defended the transfer as normal for a prisoner who has spent about 30 years in maximum security — and warned against calls to tear up laws and policies over a single inflammatory case.

Mary Campbell, who retired in 2013 as director general of corrections and criminal justice at Public Safety Canada, said it's "unrealistic" to expect families to influence decisions about transfers, except in cases where their safety is at risk. She said CSC lacks the resources to inform every family about every transfer.

"Unfortunately, there are some spokespeople who will immediately inflame the situation and then of course put the transfer in jeopardy, which is not doing the offender any good at all," she said.

"Then you just get into the realm of public outrage."

'Absolutely nothing has changed'

Judy Crocker understands that outrage. She said that when she heard about Bernardo's transfer, it felt like she was reliving her own pain.

"I immediately went back to what happened to us, and thinking absolutely nothing has changed," she said.

Her daughter Julie Crocker was murdered by her estranged husband Christopher Little in 2007. Two years later, Little was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder for killing Julie and another woman, Paula Menendez.

Little served time at the maximum-security Kingston Penitentiary. With the facility set to close, Crocker said, she assumed her daughter's killer would be sent to another maximum-security prison. Instead, he was transferred to the medium-security Bath Institution.

"I remember, when I found out, the anger and disappointment that we all felt," said Crocker.

WATCH: Paul Bernardo's transfer greeted with outrage

Canada’s prison service is now reviewing its decision to move notorious serial killer and rapist Paul Bernardo from a maximum-security prison to a medium security facility. The transfer has sparked outrage across Canada’s political landscape. Bernardo is serving a life sentence for the murders of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy in the early 1990s.

The decision was effective May 18, 2012. Crocker said the call from CSC alerting her to the transfer came days after that.

"What I would have liked is that we would have had some input," she said. "Why shouldn't we as victims be able to go to somebody and say why we think he should be still in maximum security?

"He murdered two women, deprived them of a life, and he should be locked up, like Bernardo. They should never see the light of day."

Although Campbell acknowledged that Bernardo will have "a bit more freedom of movement" in medium security, she said his new address is hardly a pleasant place. But for the CSC, she added, security classification is not about different degrees of punishment.

"The punishment is the sentence. The philosophy is you go to prison as punishment, not for punishment," she said.

"We're not in the business of making things worse. We actually did that back in the 1800s. We had all sorts of methods to really make things unpleasant, but like other western democracies, we've moved away from that."

'The entire system is imbalanced'

In 2012, in response to complaints from numerous families over the same issue, the federal victims of crime ombudsman recommended that CSC contact victim service units before making decisions on transfers.

The ombudsman's report said CSC subsequently agreed to review its policies with an eye to strengthening its "ability to benefit from information provided by registered victims as part of its decision-making processes."

But the complaints kept coming. In 2019, a new ombudsman sent another letter calling on the CSC to "gather and consider victim information from the outset" and saying that victim services officers should "proactively communicate and collect victims' input" before a transfer decision is made.

The current ombudsman, Benjamin Roebuck, said CSC's policy is to provide advance warning to victims' families only when an offender is transferred to a minimum-security institution.

CSC said in a media statement that its policy is to notify crime victims and victims' families of transfers from maximum to medium security "on the day the offender was placed or transferred or as soon as possible afterwards."

"This approach takes privacy into consideration, as well as other considerations around operations," the statement said.

Roebuck said he's seen no indication that the CSC is willing to change that policy.

"We'd like to see, in all cases of transfers, that victims in advance are provided the opportunity to share their concerns, to talk about their safety and have those things considered in the transfer decision itself," he said.

But Campbell defended the CSC's policy on transfers from maximum to medium.

"The focus is, does the victim have any safety concerns? That is the crux of it," she said. "And in a case where the offender is still going to be behind bars and barbed wire, sure, if you have safety concerns, let us know.

"But to require [advance notification] for every single transfer is really pointless. I don't see it helping anyone."

Campbell said that prisoners, like all Canadians, have privacy rights. But Roebuck said the corrections system strikes the wrong balance between victims' rights and prisoners' privacy rights.

"The entire system is imbalanced … the victims are the ones who are most directly affected, who continue to suffer from the consequences," he said.

"We have a long way to go."

'A fait accompli'

In a media statement, CSC said it informed all of Bernardo's registered victims verbally and in writing. It said it provided all the information they were entitled to under the law, including the location of Bernardo's new prison, its security level and a summary of the reasons for his transfer, as well as Bernardo's correctional plan progress report. 

Danson called that account "misleading and disingenuous," given the tight timelines involved.

"When they did reach out, with absolutely minimal information, it is likely that Paul Bernardo was already in transit," Danson said.

Danson said CSC's letter to the families dated May 29 provides only the vaguest explanation for the transfer by citing "the inmate's reassessed security requirements."

CSC said Kelly "spoke directly with one of the victims" to answer questions and provided contact information for further discussions. It did not name the victim.

A man in a tie sits in a prison van.
Paul Bernardo arrives at the provincial courthouse in Toronto on Nov. 3, 1995. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

In response to CBC's questions about the ombudsman's recommendations, CSC insisted it has improved its information-sharing with victims about prisoner transfers. It said staff review victim impact statements and consult with victim services, and "are required to include victim concerns in the overall assessment they complete prior to the decisions."

Roebuck said victims need to know a transfer is happening in advance in order to present their statements and concerns.

Danson said the short notice gives victims no opportunity to push back. He said he thinks that's what the CSC wants.

"If they had reached me a few hours earlier, what difference would it have made?" he asked. "It was still a fait accompli.

"If they gave us a truly advance notice, like a couple of days or even the day before, there may have been a pushback, and they didn't want that. So they clearly planned this. They must have anticipated the controversy."