The day I met a se­rial killer

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

In 1996, fu­ture Globe jour­nal­ist Jana G. Pruden un­wit­tingly told a fugi­tive mur­derer where he could find new vic­tims. It left her with a chill­ing les­son: The most dan­ger­ous peo­ple look just like any­one else

The day I met a se­rial killer, I was 21 years old, an art stu­dent liv­ing in Hal­i­fax. It was late on the af­ter­noon of Satur­day, June 1, 1996. I know that date for cer­tain be­cause he was ar­rested a few hours af­ter I met him and charged with three counts of first-de­gree mur­der.

I have seen him de­scribed as both a se­rial killer and a spree killer, and there are vary­ing def­i­ni­tions for both. You could cer­tainly call him a spree killer, since the mur­ders he com­mit­ted all hap­pened one af­ter an­other on a sin­gle night. I’ve al­ways thought of him as a se­rial killer, be­cause of how he tar­geted cer­tain vic­tims, and be­cause the mur­ders were so in­ten­tional and spe­cific. I call him a se­rial killer be­cause, by the time I met him, 12 days af­ter the mur­ders, he’d ac­quired a new gun and a knife and sev­eral car­tridges of am­mu­ni­tion. I call him a se­rial killer be­cause I’ve al­ways be­lieved that when he walked up to my friend Trina and me on the street in Hal­i­fax that day, he was look­ing for more vic­tims. We, un­wit­tingly, told him ex­actly where to find them.

Trina and I had been hang­ing my grad­u­a­tion show at the stu­dent gallery at the Nova Sco­tia Col­lege of Art and De­sign, near the wa­ter­front on Granville Street in Hal­i­fax. The show was a se­ries of pho­to­graphs that in­cluded a large num­ber of por­traits of drag queens and trans­gen­der peo­ple in Hal­i­fax, the fo­cus of my fi­nal term of work.

Some­times I pho­tographed my subjects as they got dressed or put on their make-up, record­ing their cap­ti­vat­ing process of trans­for­ma­tion and change. I pho­tographed them at clubs, per­form­ing, back­stage. I took glossy, gauzy, glam­orous stu­dio por­traits of them like they were Hol­ly­wood star­lets.

It was dif­fer­ent then, long be­fore the word trans en­tered the main­stream lex­i­con – ex­cept for the sweep­ing term, trans­ves­tite – and when the trans ex­pe­ri­ence was more of­ten con­tained to gay bars, or shut in­side pri­vate par­ties and homes. It had taken me months to earn the trust of those in the com­mu­nity in Hal­i­fax be­fore they were will­ing to be pho­tographed. Vi­o­lence and what was then called “gay bash­ing” were com­mon among those I met. Many had been vic­tim­ized be­fore.

Trina and I had just fin­ished hang­ing my pho­to­graphs in the wa­ter­front gallery and were sit­ting on a bench out­side when a man ap­proached us. He was about 30, clean cut and hand­some.

He was car­ry­ing a bag from a lo­cal tourist shop. Trina re­mem­bers that the USS Theodore Roo­sevelt was docked in Hal­i­fax at the time, and that we ini­tially thought he was a sailor, one of the many young men the mas­sive air­craft car­rier had spilled into the streets, look­ing for the diver­sions and plea­sures to be found on land.

He was nice and friendly. Trina had lit­tle tol­er­ance for strange men, but he was like­able enough that she didn’t tell him to get lost. In­stead, we all stood to­gether chat­ting in the sun, and af­ter he asked enough times for some­where “al­ter­na­tive” to go, we knew he was ask­ing us for a gay bar. There was a big drag show at one of the clubs that night. Many of the peo­ple I’d been pho­tograph­ing were go­ing, and we were, too. We told him about it, and promised that it would be a lot of fun.

The next time we saw him, it was his pic­ture star­ing out from the front page of a news­pa­per. We learned then that his name was Mar­cello Palma, and that he’d been ar­rested not long af­ter we spoke to him. Po­lice had al­ready been wait­ing for him at his ho­tel, and un­der­cover of­fi­cers were ap­par­ently al­ready watching him on the street. A cou­ple of the news sto­ries men­tioned the shop­ping bag he was car­ry­ing when he spoke to us.

His killing spree be­gan in Toronto on Vic­to­ria Day. He fought with his mis­tress, and lost his tem­per in the of­fice of his air con­di­tion­ing busi­ness. That night, he went to his par­ents’ house, and when he left he car­ried with him a knife and a hand gun with five ho llow-point bul­lets loaded in­side.

He pulled up to Brenda Ludgate first, lur­ing the 25-year-old in­side his red pickup truck with the prom­ise of $25, then shoot­ing her in the back of the head and leav­ing her body on the ground be­hind a ware­house in Park­dale. Then he picked up 19-year-old Shawn Kee­gan and 31-year-old Deanna Wilkin­son, both born men but re­ported at the time to have been sell­ing their bod­ies as women in the area around Home­wood Av­enue, a place bet­ter known in those days as “Tranny Al­ley” or “the Tranny Stroll.”

He killed them all in barely more than an hour. There was a storm that night, and the crack and pop of thun­der and the hol­i­day fire­works cov­ered the sound of gun­shots in the streets.

He stayed in Toronto for a week be­fore flee­ing to Mon­treal, then on to Hal­i­fax, where he bought a new Winch­ester ri­fle and am­mu­ni­tion and checked into two dif­fer­ent rooms at two dif­fer­ent Hal­i­fax ho­tels, both un­der his own name. He was on his way back to one of them when he was ar­rested. There had been a Canada-wide war­rant for his ar­rest, and po­lice had been warned he was con­sid­ered armed and dan­ger­ous. News sto­ries said he had been car­ry­ing eight firearm car­tridges and a knife, as well as a rosary he got from a priest in Mon­treal.

Af­ter his ar­rest, po­lice found among his pos­ses­sions a book called With­out Con­science: The Dis­turb­ing World of Psychopaths Among Us.

Of­fi­cers made sure he hadn’t killed any­body in Hal­i­fax be­fore Toronto de­tec­tives ac­com­pa­nied him back to On­tario to face his charges.

He was con­victed of three counts of first-de­gree mur­der in the spring of 2001 and sen­tenced to life in prison with no chance of pa­role for 25 years, which will be about three years from now. I found him men­tioned in a news story from last fall about a theatre pro­gram for prison in­mates. The story said Mr. Palma had the star­ring role in the pro­duc­tion.

In the years that fol­lowed our meet­ing, I be­came a news­pa­per re­porter, and came to spe­cial­ize in court and crime. I’ve met more killers, learned more about mur­der and mur­der­ers, about fraud­sters and sex of­fend­ers, about peo­ple who are able to mould and ma­nip­u­late the peo­ple around them.

I have had peo­ple swear to me, re­peat­edly and con­vinc­ingly, that they are in­no­cent, only to see ev­i­dence in court that proves un­doubt­edly that they aren’t. In other cases, I’m still not sure.

I have met and cov­ered both spree killers and se­rial killers since then, and have thought of­ten about the space be­tween their reg­u­lar lives and what lay be­neath.

I’ve thought of­ten about my brief meet­ing with Mar­cello Palma, even moreso re­cently be­cause of the un­fold­ing case of Bruce McArthur, cur­rently ac­cused of killing eight men in Toronto’s LGBTQ com­mu­nity. I think about the peo­ple who knew Mr. McArthur be­fore, now forced to grap­ple with the knowl­edge the per­son who had been to them a friend, a lover, a fa­ther, a gar­dener, a mall Santa, may have been also – or maybe in­stead – a mon­ster.

One of Mr. McArthur’s friends de­scribed him as the kind­est per­son they’d ever known; oth­ers were so sur­prised they couldn’t even com­pre­hend that it was al­legedly the same per­son.

“It was an ab­so­lute shock,” one friend told a re­porter. “If the con­cept is hid­ing in plain sight, he did it.”

Like ill­ness or in­jury, it’s eas­ier to un­der­stand evil if it shows on the out­side. How do you com­pre­hend that some­one could hold some­thing so bru­tal within them­selves, com­pletely hid­den and un­de­tected? How could some­one ca­pa­ble of such hor­ror ap­pear just like ev­ery­one else?

It’s tempt­ing to think you can see it or sense it some­how. But Mar­cello Palma showed me long ago that some­times you can’t.

Mr. Palma told his psy­chi­a­trist he had sex with peo­ple de­scribed then as “pros­ti­tutes, trans­ves­tites and ho­mo­sex­u­als,” and ad­mit­ted he thought about killing peo­ple, es­pe­cially “street peo­ple or ‘scum.’”

As al­legedly with Mr. McArthur, there were mo­ments his anger and vi­o­lence spilled forth. But ex­cept for those glimpses, what Mr. Palma was ca­pa­ble of re­mained largely un­seen. News sto­ries de­scribed his beau­ti­ful wife, his new baby daugh­ter, his tidy house.

“It freaks me out. He looks like a nice guy,” said one neigh­bour, speak­ing to a re­porter af­ter news that Mr. Palma was wanted in the three mur­ders.

“It’s a dread­ful thing,” said an­other. “They seemed to be such a nice fam­ily.”

Even af­ter Mr. Palma was ar­rested, his girl­friend con­tin­ued to sup­port him, seem­ingly un­able or un­will­ing to com­pre­hend that the al­le­ga­tions could be true. As she said in court, “I’ll al­ways love the per­son that I knew.”

At times, I’ve won­dered what would have hap­pened if Mr. Palma had not been ar­rested that night, if he had killed one of my friends af­ter I’d un­know­ingly sent him to the bar to find them. It’s a ques­tion with no an­swer, a whatif, dark and un­know­able.

When I think back to that meet­ing, I’m al­ways struck by how there was no feel­ing of dan­ger, no strange­ness, that I had no in­stinct to get away. I’ve al­ways re­mem­bered how nice he seemed, how much we liked him.

I re­mem­ber how we in­vited him to the show that night, and how as he walked away to­ward his ho­tel on the wa­ter­front, he smiled and told us he’d prob­a­bly see us there.

“Who could have known?” asked one of Mr. Palma’s neigh­bours, speak­ing to a re­porter af­ter news of his ar­rest. “We didn’t even know enough to be scared.”

It’s tempt­ing to think you can see it or sense it some­how. But Mar­cello Palma showed me long ago that some­times you can’t.

PHOTO IL­LUS­TRA­TION: THE GLOBE AND MAIL; SOURCE PHOTO: MOE DOIRON/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Mar­cello Palma was con­victed of killing three peo­ple in Toronto be­fore even­tu­ally mak­ing his way to Hal­i­fax, where he bought a ri­fle and am­mu­ni­tion be­fore be­ing ar­rested by po­lice in June, 1996.

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