Few people who lived in B.C. in the summer of 1981 could have forgotten the chill of terror that ran through the Lower Mainland when police began investigating what turned out to be a series of murders by Clifford Olson.
Arguably still the most hated and despised man in Canada, Olson gained his place in national criminal history by drugging, killing and disposing of 11 young people—and because he negotiated a $100,000 payment for his family in exchange for helping RCMP locate the missing bodies of victims.
W. Leslie Holmes’ Where Shadows Linger (Heritage $28.95)—written with Bruce L. Northorp, the man who nabbed Olson—provides insight to the case from the point of view of the RCMP, and shows how, to use the appropriate title of this book, shadows still linger over the RCMP, the victims’ families and friends, and members of the police force who were involved.
Where Shadows Linger is not neutral; Holmes, a former Vancouver police officer, is extremely sympathetic to Northorp and the police standpoint. Holmes goes out of his way to portray Northorp as a caring and committed officer, someone with a long and honourable career in the RCMP that resulted in several commendations and the Order of Canada.
He also emphasizes several times that once a task force was brought together under Northorp, Olson was in custody within 12 days, then charged with murder six days after that.
To further support the RCMP, Where Shadows Linger notes that some investigative tools such as the use of DNA and profiling have only come into effect since the Olson case. While Holmes probes some of the failings and weaknesses of the RCMP system and structure—as they were then and as some of them remain today—he suggests it’s time to let go of any lingering shame and regret.
There is still much to be read between the lines in this book.
For one thing, there’s little human insight into individuals. Maybe because of that, in the end its lengthy and detailed exposition of what was going on in the RCMP—with its staff shortages, lack of coordination, interpersonal communication breakdowns and disruptive transfers—tends to come across as somewhat superficial.
The book brings out very little new information on what evidence the RCMP had against Olson. Because he eventually changed his plea in court to guilty, the police file on the case remains confidential.
Acknowledged here though is that some things undoubtedly “fell between the cracks”, and possible leads and bits of information were not followed up as they should have been.
As a highly-practiced con-man, Olson the petty thief and known snitch managed to out-manoeuvre the police in the battle of wits, and forced them to show their hand and arrest him before they wanted to.
Olson’s well-honed instinct for survival allowed him to recognize he still had, and could keep, the upper hand. This gave him the opening to come up with the idea of an agreement to buy his evidence.
Obviously still sensitive to the hostility and criticism that was generated by the controversial ‘deal’ made with Olson—and eager not to reawaken grief—Holmes is careful not to re-victimize the families in print. I take no issue with that. They have suffered more than enough because of Olson and his callous activities over the years.
This partially explains why Where Shadows Linger provides less information on evidence than might be hoped. In the process, however, it becomes an overly sanitized account of how the police managed to bring together the case—that was really several different and separate murder and missing-persons investigations—to put a stop to the killings.
How satisfactory the conclusion of the case was depends on one’s own particular point of view regarding the means and constraints in play.
One of those constraints was that the police could not gamble with the public’s lives. So, once Olson was firmly at the centre of suspicion and the final surveillance was belatedly begun, they could not allow him to pick up young people and take them off unobserved and unprotected into secluded locations, usually under the guise of a false job offer.
When it appeared as if Olson might remain free to kill again, the police stepped in and arrested him before they were fully confident they had enough evidence to convict him of murder. Their decision to do so was no doubt partially influenced by the fact they could have come down harder on him for some previous offences.
Nobody will ever know whether the arrest of Olson saved another potential victim’s life or not, just as nobody will ever know for sure whether the police could have eventually solved the case without having purchased Olson’s active assistance. Judging from this book and by other writings on Olson, this lack of closure must be a huge source of satisfaction to this twisted serial killer as he serves out his 11 life sentences.
Holmes asks towards the end of his book, “Will this account bring to an end any conjecture about the RCMP investigation of the Olson murders?”
Based on the information seen here, I wish I could honestly say it might—but I doubt it.
Shadows still linger. 1-895811-92-9
[Quentin Dodd / BCBW 2000]