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Clifford Olson, Canadian serial killer, dies at 71

CLIFFORD OLSON CLIFFORD OLSON (Associated Press/file 1981)
By Paul Vitello
New York Times / October 12, 2011

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NEW YORK - Clifford Olson, one of Canada’s most notorious criminals, who was convicted of torturing and murdering 11 children, including five in the summer of 1981 while supposedly under surveillance by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, died in prison on Sept. 30 in Quebec. He was 71.

His death was confirmed by a spokesman for the Correctional Service of Canada, who said Mr. Olson died of natural causes after a brief illness at a hospital near the federal penitentiary in Ste.-Anne-des-Plaines, where he was serving a life sentence.

Mr. Olson’s arrest in August 1981, in what was then Canada’s worst serial murder case, led to the adoption of some of the nation’s first victims’ rights laws and became the focus of several political controversies.

The case also set off national soul-searching about the competence of the Mounties, Canada’s storied police agency, especially in handling missing-children cases. It revived the death penalty debate less than a decade after Parliament had abolished it in 1976. And it caused a public uproar after the authorities admitted paying Mr. Olson $100,000 to reveal the locations of his victims’ bodies.

Mr. Olson was convicted of killing eight girls and three boys, ages 9 to 18, in southwestern British Columbia from November 1980 to July 1981.

A career criminal who had spent most of his adult life serving prison sentences for burglary, theft, forgery, and armed robbery, Mr. Olson was also a sometime police informant whose understanding of law enforcement helped him elude capture even after the federal police began tracking him, said Ian Mulgrew, a columnist for The Vancouver Sun and author of a book about the case, “Final Payoff.’’

“He jumped from one jurisdiction to another’’ in selecting his victims, Mulgrew said, taking advantage of what he described as a lack of communication between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the municipal police departments whose jurisdictions overlap in British Columbia.

Once he was caught, the same law enforcement savvy helped Mr. Olson bargain for $100,000 in exchange for revealing the burial grounds. Prosecutors disclosed the bargain in 1982, after Mr. Olson had pleaded guilty to the murders. A civil court suit challenging the payment was rejected by British Columbia’s highest court in 1986, and the money went to Mr. Olson’s wife and son.

Clifford Robert Olson, born in Vancouver, British Columbia, was arrested 83 times from age 17 until his final arrest at age 41 in connection with the murders. Neither his mother nor his father, who worked as a milk truck driver, nor his two sisters and a brother ever “could explain why Olson was the way he was,’’ Mulgrew wrote in his book.

Indignation over what was widely seen as a botched investigation and a $100,000 deal with the devil led many of the parents of Mr. Olson’s victims to form a victims’ rights lobby that became instrumental in the adoption of federal crime-victim laws in the 1980s.

The new laws gave victims a voice in the criminal court process for the first time and added victims’ services units to the rosters of most of the nation’s police departments.

In the 30 years after the murder rampage, Mr. Olson had been a frequent subject of news reports, some of which he initiated by sending letters to victims’ families, or making phone calls to reporters.