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Partners in Sex Crimes: When Women Help Their Husbands Rape and Murder

Sep 30 2015 5:15 PM
Partners in Sex Crimes: When Women Help Their Husbands Rape and Murder

Photo by Darren Muir via Stocksy

Women who kill with their husbands are often given lighter sentencing, but that doesn't necessarily mean their crimes are less brutal.

In the early 1990s, when serial killer and sex criminal Karla Homolka received a mere 12-year prison sentence for the kidnapping, torture, rape, and murder of three teenage girls (including her own younger sister), her plea to guilt of manslaughter was instantly dubbed "the deal with the devil." Homolka became one of the most hated young blondes in North America; she and her husband, Paul Bernardo, who also participated, came to be known as the "Ken and Barbie killers."

In exchange for detailed statements about the sexual assaults and murders, Homolka's lawyers convinced the Canadian Crown Council to grant her partial immunity. Since the couple's engagement, Bernardo had been under police scrutiny for serial rapes in the Scarborough area of Ontario, Canada, where he once lived (he later admitted to all 14 reported assaults). Eventually, the newlyweds' relationship tension came to a head when Bernardo beat Homolka in the back of the skull so severely that it caused a contrecoup injury, which is when the brain hits the inside of the skull on the opposite side of the external impact. She split to her parents' house where they took her to the emergency room. She claimed this was not the first time Bernardo had beat her. She later pressed charges, and he was arrested.

Read More: Japan's 'Black Widow' Arrested After Poisoning Her Eighth Male Victim

Homolka and her defense team alleged that Bernardo was in control of the brutality, while she was mentally and physically abused into submission in some form of Battered Wife Syndrome. Playing off Homolka's clean record, "normal, middle class upbringing," good looks, and solid job as a veterinary assistant, her defense lawyers secured a plea deal with the Crown Council. Done. However, investigators later uncovered a huge collection of videotapes of the couple's sexual escapades, assaults, and rapes in their home. It was then that lawyers realized that Homolka was very actively involved in the torturous sex crimes: The tapes show Homolka suffocating her sister with halothane as Bernardo anally and vaginally raped her, as well as Homolka sexually assaulting and physically torturing all three victims herself. As horrifying as this evidence was, though, it came too late: Images of Holmolka penetrating her victims with wine bottles and having sex with them would not change the plea bargain, or her relatively short sentence.

According to Peter Vronsky's book Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters, the historical lack of interest in and understanding of female offenses has affected the way women are charged. Culture is less likely to accept that a woman could kill multiple victims—and if she would, it's more believable that she might do it with poison, to people she already knew. Vronsky divides female serial killers into three categories: alpha females (women who commit violence in self-defense, to protect themselves or others from harm), beta females (women provoked by emotions like jealousy or hatred in an impulsive manner), and omega females (women who use sexuality or friendship to trick their victims but remain emotionally detached and kill coldly, for personal material gain).

"Women serial killers seem to border on comic or titillating for many of us," Vronsky writes. "Violence is still almost universally associated with the male and the masculine. It was thought to be implicit to the male physique, a function of testosterone. Men commit violence; women and children suffer from it."

We know this is a double standard just as much as any other, though statistics prove women are generally not serial killers. According to Vronsky, during the years from 1800 to 1995, only 16% of 400 convicted serials were female. Furthermore, he added that women are not as preemptive with extreme violence and often commit "expressive violence": "an uncontrollable release of bottled-up rage or fear, often as a result of long-term abuse at the hands of males." A study by Patricia Pearson on female violence stated that, "By the 1980s, it was no longer a badge of honor to make a fist and wave it; it was more prestigious to weep in a therapist's office. Therefore women couldn't want to do something so antisocial and frankly offensive as crime. Women were not to be held as men's equals in villainy, they were to be shown as men's victims."

Violence is still almost universally associated with the male and the masculine. Men commit violence; women and children suffer from it.

In the case of couples who commit crimes together, the majority are teams of men and women and "highly organized. Even the most notorious female murder clans, like the Charles Manson family, had a male leader at the top. "The male is typically the aggressor and the female serial killer the compliant partner in their crimes of violence, often acting as the lure for unsuspecting victims," wrote R. Barri Flowers in Serial Killer Couples: Bonded by Sexual Depravity, Abduction, and Murder. "However, the female serial killer is often just as heartless and brutal in the participation of the serial killings."

"Until most recently, female accomplices were almost exclusively treated as battered victims of their male partners," Vronsky noted. "Sentencing has often reflected this perception." Homolka is one of the most infamous female serial killers to have benefited from this logic; Charlene Williams Gallego is another.

Williams and her common-law husband Gerald Gallego murdered ten young adults after using them as sex slaves during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Williams would lure the random victims from mall parking lots by offering them marijuana from her van; once inside, Gallego would hold them at gun point, tie them up, and order Williams to drive to a remote area, where he would make her wait in the van while he raped, abused, and then killed the victims. Williams alleged that she never sexually assaulted or killed any of the victims herself, saying that Gallego was in total control of the operation and of her. The pair were eventually busted at a credit union in Omaha after trying to squeeze money from Williams' parents. In exchange for her testimony against Gallego, Williams struck a plea deal of 16 years and 18 months in a Nevada jail. During trial, in true psychopath form, Gallego represented himself and cross-examined his former wife and accomplice.

The female serial killer is often just as heartless and brutal in the participation of the serial killings.

Like Homolka, Williams came from a normal, middle-class family in Sacramento, California, and she fell hard for Gallego despite his abusive, selfish tendencies and controlling nature. Both Homolka and Williams described rough, wild, kinky sex with their partners; they gladly played the submissive and tolerated the fact that their husbands openly raped and sodomized them and other women. (In the case of Gallego, his own daughter as well as her friend.) Neither Homolka or Williams had a past of sexual abuse or incest, whereas Gallego was beaten brutally as a child by his career criminal parents, and Bernardo watched his father repeatedly sexually abuse his sister from the age of 9. (His father would peep into her window at night in his pajamas, a learned behavior Bernardo would repeat over and over with his own potential victims.) Indeed, a 2002 FBI study that interviewed incarcerated female killers about their couple crimes concluded that "these men and their behaviors do not reflect the more extreme end of the continuum of behavior associated with 'wife batterers.' Although some men who batter their wives may also be sexual sadists, it is our impression that the majority of them are not."

Homolka and Williams have both been out of prison for year; Homolka was released in 2005, Williams in 1997. As of 2013, Williams is back in Sacramento doing "charity work." Homolka tried to live in Montreal, but once the press found her, she split for the French Caribbean. Both have remarried (Homolka to her former lawyer's cousin; she now has three kids) and changed their names to avoid public scrutiny. Oddly enough, they have both participated in public interviews since being released: Williams with Sacramento CBS Local and Homolka with CBC Canada (only two hours after leaving prison) and later, with Paula Todd.

I am a woman, and it's very rare for a women to do those kinds of things.

"She's been depicted [by the public] as this brilliant, genius evil," Todd told Global News in 2012, days after she had spent an hour interviewing Homolka. "I didn't meet a genius. I have no idea how dangerous she is...it was surreal. She just appeared to be a rushed, stressed, overly-thin mom."

I spent hours combing through all the documentaries, court transcripts, interviews, TV movies, books, and psychoanalysis reports on Homolka and Williams, trying to decipher how guilty these women were and how much of their behavior was truly the result of coercion of a "compliant victim." Why would they do it? Why did Homolka offer her younger sister's virginity as a Christmas gift to Bernardo and provide the sleeping pills and halothane to drug her during the rape? Why did Williams speed down I-80 as her husband sodomized two victims in the back seat behind her?

In that 2002 FBI study of 20 former wives of sexual sadists (seven who participated in the murders themselves) 75% of the women said they became involved in the sex crimes "for love and desire to please the man." Only after the caring, gentle love and showering of gifts tapered off did that love turn to fear.

According to Dr. Helen Fisher (who studies the brain in love), bliss-triggering attraction associated with altered brain chemistry has an effect on the lover. Serotonin decreases as dopamine and norepinephrine increase; after about six to 18 months into the relationship, these levels go back to normal. (Usually about the time that verbal and physical abuse is slowly brought into the relationship as a norm.) The FBI study concluded: "When asked why they remained in the relationship, only three of the twenty women attributed it to love; eight said they were either naive or stupid and hoped they partner's behavior would improve; one for financial dependency and one for emotional dependency."

In the French Canada CBS interview Homolka did two hours after being released from prison, the host asks her if reporters followed her to the studio; word was they were camped outside the detention center. She smiles, looks off camera to her handler, and replies that they did.

"Do you understand why people are so interested in you?"

"Yes and no," Homolka responded in French. "Yes, because I've done terrible things, that's for sure. And I am a woman, and it's very rare for a women to do those kinds of things. No, because there are a lot of people who get out of jail every day who have also done terrible things."

She takes her time with the language, her eyelids heavy and half-closed. "But I think I understand more than I don't understand."

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