Thursday, April 29, 1999

Christie Blatchford

p. A9.

The very psychiatrists he loathed will battle to convict or save Marcello Palma

Trial begins for man charged with murder of 3 hookers

Marcello Palma is one pretty boy.

He is an odd mix of beefy and delicate. His hands are large and strong, the nails just a shade too long. On his face, little sideburns fight for attention with dimpled, fleshy cheeks. His eyes are long-lashed and nearly girlish. His head is grand, with a broad expanse of brow. He looks at once outrageously masculine and curiously prim.

The question about Mr. Palma is not did he do it — in his language, "pop" three prostitutes in downtown Toronto in a one-hour explosion of violence on the night of the Victoria Day holiday in 1996 — but rather why. Is he criminally responsible for shooting the three as prosecutor Christine McGoey will maintain, or was he, as his lawyer Eddie Greenspan will argue, a sick puppy who was so severely depressed and in such a "dissociative state" that he was, essentially, of his nut?

At Toronto's main courthouse yesterday, the proceedings began with an agreed statement of facts being read into evidence, which means that the police have the right man in Mr. Palma and that the prosecutor can prove it.

What will happen next — at an unspecified date in the future, because one of the key defence witnesses is ill — is a hearing before Mr. Justice David Watt to determine whether Mr. Palma was insane at the time of the killings and is therefore not guilty, which is how he has pleaded.

Cut to the bone, this means what the court is in for is duelling psychiatrists, the prosecutors' experts, with the former claiming that Mr. Palma is basically a narcissist who knew very well what he was doing, and that it was wrong, and the latter holding that he was anything but.

It promises to be an interesting battle, and it is not a little ironic that the court will be relying on psychiatric testimony, because, as it turn out, these experts, like others in different fields, apparently make better Monday-morning quarterbacks than they do predictors of human behaviour.

Mr. Palma would appear a prime example.

He had been in therapy for almost five years before he went on his shooting spree, and was giving so many disturbing signals — he was a gun freak with, in the vernacular, a hard-on against street people and prostitutes, an overpowering sex drive and a massive rage — that when his therapist was interviewed by Toronto homicide detectives afterwards, he allegedly told them he had seen Mr. Palma just six days before the shootings and that he thought that "Marcello would shoot it out like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and that he was extremely dangerous."

In fact, according to the notes made by Dr. Lawrence Ballon, which were made an exhibit yesterday, more than a year before Mr. Palma shot Brenda Ludgate, a 25-year-old working girl, Shawn Keegan, a 19-year-old transvestite hooker, and Thomas (Deanna) Wilkinson, a 31-year-old transsexual prostitute — all within four kilometers downtown, all at close range, and all in little more than an hour — Mr. Palma was feeling murderous.

On Aug. 22, 1995, Dr. Ballon wrote that Mr. Palma was "feeling very angry. Has vague homicidal fantasies. Wants to kill a street person to 'get rid of scum'. No one would miss him." On Nov. 28 of the same year, the psychiatrist wrote of his sessions with Mr. Palma, "More fantasies about killing a street person. "The world would be better off without bums.' Feeling desperate but savouring his fantasies. Makes vague threats towards me, has passing thoughts of killing me, too. Does not appear to be a serious threat."

Just three months before the shootings, after a Feb. 20, 1996, session, Dr. Ballon wrote that Mr. Palma was "very angry. Has more homicidal fantasies. 'I'll feel better if I kill somebody.' Wants to kill scum.' Not tremendously depressed, not psychotic."

What is clear from Dr. Ballon's brief notes is that at the very least, Mr. Palma was a deeply troubled man who fantasized about sex all day long, intensely disliked the prostitutes he frequently saw and described them as "so low, scum," and who was also an avid gun collector who, three long years before the shootings, was "buying more and more guns, maybe even a shotgun."

It also appears that Mr. Palma, who is now 33, was basically at war with himself.

On the one hand, he was the son of a hardworking immigrant Roman Catholic parents, the father of a baby girl he adored and husband to beautiful Rosa, and a rising young businessman with his own air-conditioning firm, Palma Mechanicals. He had a desperate need to succeed.

On the other hand, Mr. Palma had a secret life involving visits to prostitutes, after which he would be consumed with guilt and self-loathing, was usually filled with fury both general and specific (he told Dr. Ballon he would like to burn down one customer's restaurant and as far back as 1992, he was so angry at a client who wouldn't pay him he said he wanted to "kill" the man), and looked to guns to make him feel powerful.

Indeed, alarmingly, as Mr. Palma was increasingly spinning out of control on Dr. Ballon's couch, he was also able to acquire a veritable arsenal of weapons — most of it quite legally, according to evidence heard yesterday.

In 1993, he obtained a firearms acquisition certificate for six restricted weapons, including the Sturm Ruger .357 revolver with which he slaughtered the three prostitutes. (How he got the special police-only-issue, hollow point ammunition for the gun is another matter; Supreme Expanding Talon ammunition was legally available to the public in Canada for only one year, this before Mr. Palma got his firearms certificate.) Mr. Palma was a member of the gun club and though he usually kept his guns in the proper locked cabinets at his home in west-end Toronto, he sometimes carried one with him.

His marriage to Rosa, a bank employee, was in difficulty before its first year was done. In October of 1991, after discovering he had a girlfriend, she briefly moved out; the month before his rampage, with a new girlfriend, Mr. Palma himself moved out. In the interim, there was a brief period when Rosa was pregnant and Mr. Palma was content ( he had grand plans, grandiose ones according to Dr. Ballon, for his as-yet unborn daughter), but soon after the little girl was born in March, 1995, Mr. Palma appeared to become jealous of his wife's attachment to the child, and grew more verbally abusive to Rosa.

Mr. Palma's own "writings," as the scribblings of accused persons are invariably described, give few clues about his true mental state at the time of his killing spree. Indeed, it appears they could lend credence to either of the expert hypotheses expected to be tendered about him.

Mr. Palma was arrested on a wharf in Halifax on June 1, 12 days after the shootings. In two hotel rooms he had occupied there, police search warrants turned up a loaded rifle he had bought in Montreal two days earlier, six live rounds of ammunition, a series of books (including children's titles and a book about psychopaths called Without Conscience) and notes he had apparently made on the train he took from Montreal to Halifax.

In the notes, he appeared alternately remorseful and somewhat willing to accept responsibility for what he' done ("God forgive me" and "Please dearest God, forgive me") and keen to blame everyone and everything else.

Even as he appeared to sing Rosa's praises ("What a darling woman. How loving, and faithful, and persistent"), he was cruel, writing that "the only time dare I say … that we made beautiful love was during the conception" of their daughter, and marvelling at his own fine conduct during her pregnancy. "I couldn't believe how I was … pampering, loving, and all the attention in the world." He rued his own lot. "I owe, I owe, and off to work I go … da, da, daah, off to work I go," he wrote.

He wondered if maybe his "lineage" was at fault, "because of my grandfather." He had kind words for his older brother Frank, but reminded him "It seemed I had to carry the banner" and managed to slag Frank's ex-wife as "the slut that she was."

Certainly, Mr. Palma appeared to feel sorriest for himself. "The family man," he wrote. "With a successful business. So everyone thought. With a beautiful wife, and daughter. And even a Volvo. All we need was a golden retriever."

On the last page of his notes, he wrote furiously, "Going to shrinks for help. All it was (was) a big business. Especially Dr. Ballon. After all those long years, not giving a dam (sic)! …! Sorry our session is over now. But I kept coming back. For more of the same nothing."

In the end, Marcello Palma reserved his harshest words for his psychiatrist, for one of those from whose ranks may yet come his saviours, the experts whose testimony may spare him from three convictions for first-degree murder and send him instead to a mental institution. How sharper than a serpent's tooth is an ungrateful patient.

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Created: March 28, 2000
Last modified: January 31, 2001
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