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Ex-wife testifies against Bernardo

Was she the terrorized pawn of a sadistic killer, or his all-too-willing accomplice?

Either way, Karla Homolka is Canada's nightmare cover girl, haunting the nation with numbingly detailed testimony about her role in the horrific sex murders of two teenage girls.

For the past two weeks, in a soft voice rarely betraying emotion, the petite 25-year-old blonde has described her often-violent relationship with Paul Bernardo and told of watching as he strangled the two teenagers she had helped him kidnap and sexually abuse.

Often, the testimony has been chilling for its mix of evil and banality. After 15-year-old Kristen French was murdered in April 1992, Homolka recalled, "I went downstairs to blow-dry my hair because I didn't want to stay upstairs."

She and Bernardo then went to her parents' house for Easter dinner, and she gave him a card wishing Happy Easter "to the most wonderful man in the whole wide world."

On Thursday, Homolka completed her nine days of testifying as star witness for the prosecution. She is scheduled to return Tuesday for cross-examination by defense attorneys who are expected to challenge her claims that she herself was a victim of Bernardo, rather than an accomplice.

Homolka pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 1993 in connection with the killings and received a 12-year jail term in part for agreeing to testify against Bernardo. Homolka will be eligible for parole in 1997.

Being imprisoned "is really not punishment enough for what I've done," Homolka said.

Prison life, though difficult because she is isolated 23 hours a day, "is a lot better than living with Paul," she said. ". . . I've had a lot more freedom in prison than I ever had with him."

To ensure a fair trial for Bernardo, strict bans were imposed on coverage of Homolka's trial. These proceedings are the first to provide the public with a clear picture of her role in one of Canada's most sensational murder cases.

Homolka met Bernardo in 1987, when she was a 17-year-old high school student working part-time in a pet store and he was a 23-year-old university graduate headed for an accounting career.

They married on June 29, 1991, the same day fishermen discovered the cut-up body parts of 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy, who had been abducted two weeks earlier.

Prosecutor Ray Houlahan claimed Homolka was beaten into submission by Bernardo and blackmailed into helping him fulfill his fantasies of having "sex slaves."

According to Houlahan, Bernardo made videotapes showing Homolka drugging her 15-year-old sister, Tammy, in 1990 so that Bernardo could have sex with the unconscious girl. Shortly after the scene was filmed, Tammy died _ apparently choking on her own vomit.

This videotape was shown to the jurors, along with other videos showing the beatings and rapes of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French.

The key issue is whether the brutal treatment that Homolka suffered from Bernardo minimizes her responsibility for helping him abduct and abuse the two schoolgirls.

There were times during Kristen French's three-day ordeal when Bernardo was out of the house. But Homolka testified that she dared not free the girl or notify police because she feared Bernardo would kill her.

Kim Pate, executive director of a nationwide women's support group called the Elizabeth Fry Society, contends Homolka should not be held responsible for her actions.

"Karla was acting at the behest of a man who exerted power over her," Pate said.

But other women say the battering that Homolka repeatedly suffered was no excuse for inaction.

"When crimes are that heinous, and against a third party, personal responsibility has to come into play," said Rhonda Breitkreuz, who runs a shelter for battered women in Edmonton.

The court was shown several photographs Thursday of Homolka's bruised and battered body, taken more than a week after she walked out on Bernardo in January 1993.

Homolka divorced Bernardo in February 1994.