The Horrific Death Of Tammy Homolka, The First Victim Of The ‘Ken And Barbie Killers’

Published March 16, 2023
Updated November 8, 2023

In December 1990, Tammy Homolka died after being drugged and raped by her own sister Karla and her sister’s fiancé Paul Bernardo, the murderous couple who’d go on to kill at least two more girls.

Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions and/or images of violent, disturbing, or otherwise potentially distressing events.

Tammy Homolka

Jim Rankin/Toronto Star via Getty ImagesTammy Homolka was just 15 years old when she was killed by her sister and her sister’s boyfriend.

In the 1990s, Canadians were horrified to learn of the “Ken and Barbie killers,” a murderous married couple named Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. The blond, attractive duo had raped and killed three young girls between 1990 and 1992, including Karla’s teenage sister, Tammy Homolka.

In fact, Tammy was the first victim in their crime spree. In December 1990, Bernado demanded to have Karla’s 15-year-old sister as a “gift.” The two drugged her, raped her, and covered up her death when she choked on her own vomit.

So, who was Tammy Homolka? What happened to her in December 1990? And how did the Ken and Barbie killers finally get caught?

Tammy Homolka’s Peaceful Early Years

Born on January 1, 1975, Tammy Homolka had a perfectly normal childhood. She grew up in Ontario, Canada with her two older sisters, Karla and Lori, and attended Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School, where she enjoyed playing soccer and running on the track and field team.

By the time she was 15, Tammy’s eldest sister Karla had started going out with a man Paul Bernardo. The two had what appeared to be a magnetic, cosmic kind of attraction. But their relationship was hardly a fairytale.

Bernardo, though outwardly charming, was known to the police as the Scarborough Rapist. For 13 months between 1987 and 1988, he attacked 11 women across Scarborough. Investigation Discovery reports that he revealed his devious deeds to Karla, who indulged and encouraged him.

Karla Homolka

Tony Bock/Toronto Star via Getty ImagesKarla Homolka as a teenager. She met Paul Bernardo when she was 17 and he was 23.

But as his relationship with Karla intensified, Bernardo’s eye turned to Tammy Homolka. He allegedly complained that Karla hadn’t been a virgin when she met him, and sometimes made her say: “My name is Tammy. I’m 15 years old. I’m your virgin, and I want to marry you” according to UPI.

Before long, the fantasy wasn’t enough for Bernardo. Karla later testified that her fiancé decided that he “wanted to have sex with Tammy,” and he “decided the only way he could have sex with her was to drug her.”

The Murder Of Tammy Homolka

At trial, Karla Homolka claimed that she was “totally against the idea” but agreed to let Paul Bernardo have sex with Tammy Homolka after he wore her down with threats and violence. Though some have reported that Karla gave Tammy to Bernardo as a “gift,” Karla insisted that it was all Paul’s idea.

Karla Homolka And Paul Bernardo

TwitterKarla Homolka and Paul Bernardo in front of a Christmas tree, with a photo of Tammy Homolka’ over Karla’s shoulder.

She testified that he chose Dec. 23, 1990, as the day of the attack. “He said ‘This is the day I want to do this. It would be a great Christmas present for me,'” Karla said, according to UPI. “I cried and begged him not to do it. He said ‘No, we’re doing it.’ And that was it.”

After the family Christmas party, Karla and Bernardo slipped Valium into Tammy’s eggnog and rum. When Tammy passed out, Bernardo raped her while recording the assault with his video camera. Karla then placed a cloth soaked with Halothane, an anesthetic she’d stolen from the animal hospital where she worked, over her sister’s mouth.

And when Bernardo demanded that Karla have sex with her sister, she did.

But their plan took a deadly turn when Tammy Homolka started to vomit and choke. Though Karla and Bernardo panicked and called 911, according to Investigation Discovery, they were too late. Tammy Homolka died on Dec. 24, 1990, just days before she would have turned 16.

“I couldn’t believe it was true,” Karla later testified. “I was totally devastated. I blamed myself for not being strong enough to tell him no.”

Their crime spree might have ended there, but doctors chalked up Tammy’s death to an accident stemming from alcohol poisoning. Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka were free to kill again — and they did.

The Rise And Fall Of The ‘Ken And Barbie Killers’

After killing Tammy Homolka, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka lay low for about six months. In June 1991, they abducted their second victim: 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy. Bernardo kidnapped the girl, brought her home, and raped her for hours as Karla watched.

One of them — Karla and Bernardo later accused the other — choked Mahaffy to death. Then, the murderous couple chopped up her corpse, buried her in cement, and tossed her body in Ontario’s Lake Gibson. Mahaffy’s remains were discovered just a few days later, on June 29, the same day that Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka got married.

Ken And Barbie Killers

PostmediaPaul Bernardo and Karla Homolka on their wedding day. By then, they’d killed two young girls.

Photos of the happy couple on their wedding day offer no clues about their horrific activities. Neither do they reveal that Bernardo’s abuse of Karla had gotten worse. According to UPI, Karla testified that Bernardo was mentally and physically abusive, and that he even made her sleep on the floor.

Despite this, the so-called Ken and Barbie killers killed together once more. On April 16, 1992, Karla lured 15-year-old Kristen French toward her car under the guise of needing directions, and Bernardo grabbed the girl from behind. They took her home and raped, beat, and killed her.

By then, Paul Bernardo had given Karla ample reasons to leave him. He’d killed her sister, Tammy Homolka, abused her, and made her into a murderer. Karla finally left in January 1993, when her husband beat her so badly that she moved in with relatives.

Karla told them everything — and they told the police. Karla admitted to the murders and said that Bernardo had made her help him.

“If I didn’t turn the water tab off completely, he’d hit me,” Karla said, according to the Daily Mail. “If I didn’t say the right thing, he’d hit me. He’d hold knives to my throat, he told me I better watch my back. He said, ‘Always watch your back with me.’ He was physically and verbally abusive to me.”

Karla Homolka At Trial

Peter Power/Toronto Star via Getty ImagesKarla Homolka at her trial. She was later sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Paul Bernardo was sentenced to life in prison; Karla Homolka was sentenced to 12 years because of her cooperation. In 2005, she left prison after serving her sentence and, according to Investigation Discovery, is now married with three children.

Her parents have said little to the press about how one of their daughters killed the other (their third daughter, Lori, later changed her name). But in 2005, after Karla Homolka’s release, her father suggested that he wouldn’t be waiting outside of the prison to greet her.

After reading about the gruesome murder of Tammy Homolka at the hands of her sister and her sister’s boyfriend, look through these other shocking crimes that were committed on and around Christmas. Or, discover the stories of some of history’s most ruthless female serial killers.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.