September 28, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Clifford Olson – Canadian serial killer

5 min read
Clifford Olson was a notorious Canadian serial killer and yet has slipped into obscurity compared to some American mass murderers as Tony McMahon reports
Clifford Olson serial killer

The United States and United Kingdom have seen their fair share of serial killers. But Canada, that peaceful and calm country, is also capable of producing the occasional serial killer. For example, Clifford Olson (1940-2011) who murdered eleven children and youths in the early 1980s. This was the murderous decade that gave us Jeffrey Dahmer, Aileen Wuornos, and Samuel Little in the U.S. and Dennis Nilsen in the U.K. Maybe being Canadian means Olson is less well known than these monsters.

So, let’s bring his heinous crimes into the spotlight.

The early years of a Canadian serial killer

Olson was born in Vancouver on New Year’s Day in 1940. At school, he was regarded as a schoolyard bully who threw his weight around. From the age of ten, he developed the profile of a petty criminal with a lengthy record of burglaries, robberies, and fraud. Olson also portrayed many of the classic character traits of a psychopath: manipulative, mercurial, and devoid of conscience. He was never properly profiled, nor deemed to be a severe risk to other people.

Growing up, he was regarded as a smooth and compelling talker among his peer group. This talent would be deployed to groom his victims into submission. As a teenager he took up amateur boxing, using his newfound fighting skills to settle scores with childhood enemies.

Already a face in the newspapers by 1965

His first stint behind bars was aged 17 in 1957. Olson would go on to chalk up an estimated one hundred convictions for crimes that covered violent acts of theft to sexual assault. And incredibly, he’d already made the front pages of the Canadian newspapers in 1965 after an audacious prison escape with another offender.

A far less portly Olson with a 1960s quiff stared out menacingly from the front pages as police endeavoured to hunt him down. He was eventually tracked to a meat packing plant where he’d gone for a shower. Ominously, while there, he stole a boning knife.

The 1980-1981 murders

The winter of 1980 saw the discovery of the mutilated body of 12-year-old Christine Weller. Other young people soon went missing. Vancouver police realised they had a serial killer in the community. From January 1980 until August 1982, Olson killed, raped, and abused an undisclosed number of young people – mainly female but also male.

Olson, who by then was married with a child, would eventually be implicated in eleven murders though there were possibly more. He spoke of twenty bodies to be found. Though it should be noted that serial killers, realising a life sentence is a 100% certainty, opt for maximising their murderous credentials by upping the number of killings.

So, Olson may have been lying. His mendacity and boastfulness had been lifetime character traits.

Surviving an Olson attack

Some survived a brush with Olson. A fourteen-year-old referred to as Tim was returning from a friend’s house on his own in February, 1980 when Olson sat next to him on the back seat of a bus. He told Tim that he owned a private plane and fostered lots of kids. Having won his confidence, the serial killer then took Tim to a swanky downtown hotel for a meal pretending he was something of a local celebrity.

They ended up taking a ferry to central Vancouver and at this point, Tim decided to phone a family friend and notify them about his whereabouts. He then got into an argument about not wanting to go home quite yet. Olson grabbed the phone and told the family friend that Tim was just fine and would return the next day.

The family friend then rang police to pick up Tim when the ferry docked – but this never happened. At the Delta Airport Inn, Tim was sexually assaulted by Olson.

Fortunately, a friend of Tim’s mother spotted him with Olson on the following day and removed the dazed child from the serial killer. Despite a police interview and being shown sketches of Olson, Tim was never asked to look at mug shots and although he was told there would be an identity parade to attend that would include Olson – the invitation never arrived.

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Olson pleads guilty and demands money

Olson was arrested on August 12, 1981. The following year, he pleaded guilty and was handed down eleven life sentences for each of his victims. But what outraged many people was a bargain he struck with law enforcement. In return for payment of (Canadian) $100,000 to his wife and son, Olson offered to show police where all the bodies were buried.

Parents of eight of the children were so horrified by this arrangement with the provincial authorities that they sued for the money as compensation. One member of parliament said that giving in to Olson’s financial demand “set up a kind of criminal entrepreneurship as a substitute for police investigation”.

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Reaction of the Canadian public to Olson

Olson’s crimes removed the veneer of liberality one associates with Canada. Predictably, there were calls for the death penalty to be implemented. As one incensed letter writer expressed it: “We could have reinstated the death penalty. In cold blood we could have hired an official to hang Olson by the neck. Our actions would have been as brutal and senseless as Olson’s.”

The last people to be executed in Canada were in 1962. Unlike the United States, the country resisted a return to using the death penalty in the 1970s and 1980s and it was definitively abolished in 1999. As the clamour to hang Olson grew, journalist Paul McKeague warned Canadians off the death penalty in The Windsor Star on May 7, 1987:

“It’s not easy belonging to the minority of Canadians who oppose capital punishment…instead of living obscurely in prison, murderers like Olson will become heroes if capital punishment is reinstated…Clifford Olson, of course, will disagree with me. An adept executioner himself, he is not offended by capital punishment. In 1984 he wrote to newspapers saying he wanted to be executed by lethal injection, rather than spend the rest of his days in prison”.

Olson died in prison in 2011. There was never any hint of contrition but plenty of anger. From his cell, the Canadian serial killer wrote letters to the parents of his victims goading them with details of what he had done. Olson also mailed pornography to Canadian members of parliament.

Cancer finally felled Olson on September 30, 2011 bringing to an end the appalling life of the self-proclaimed “Beast of British Columbia”.

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