Leading psychiatric researchers are convinced there exists a type of person known as the psychopath, unemotional and sinister men and women who are different from the rest of us right down to the basic workings of their brains.

"Completely lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret," Dr. Robert Hare, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, writes in Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of The Psychopaths Among Us.

"Their acts result not from a deranged mind but from a cold, calculating rationality combined with a chilling inability to treat others as thinking, feeling human beings."

A psychopath, says Hare, is someone who has strongly exhibited most of the following characteristics: glibness and superficiality; egocentric and grandiose; lack of remorse or guilt; lack of empathy; deceitful and manipulative; shallow emotions; impulsive; poor behaviour controls; need for excitement; lack of responsibility; early behaviour problems; adult anti-social behaviour.

In her book, The Sociopath Next Door, Harvard Medical School psychologist Martha Stout uses the term sociopath to describe this same type of individual. "Sociopathy is the inability to process emotional experiences ... ," Stout writes. "People without a conscience experience emotions very differently from you and me, and they do not experience love at all, or any other kind of positive attachment to their fellow human beings. This deficit, which is hard even to ponder, reduces life to an endless game of attempted domination over other people."

The ultimate act of domination, Stout points out, is to take a life.

An ongoing debate is whether psychopathy, which means a "diseased mind," is brought about by nature or nurture, a faulty genetic endowment or a disturbed upbringing. Most likely, some children are simply born with psychopathic traits, Stout says. "A person's tendency to possess certain sociopathic characteristics is partially born in the blood, perhaps as much as 50 per cent."

Most psychopaths go through life cheating, deceiving, thieving and harming others, Hare says, but only a minority of them ever commit violent crimes and end up in jail. Psychopaths from violent, abusive backgrounds are much more likely to commit violent offences than those from stable homes. "A deprived and disturbed background, where violent behaviour is common, finds a willing pupil in the psychopath, for whom violence is not emotionally different from other forms of behaviour," Hare says.

The brains of psychopaths work differently than normal brains, Hare says. This was demonstrated in a study in which normal people and psychopaths were asked to look at words that flashed on a computer screen. Electrodes were hooked up to the scalps of each test subject to monitor their brainwaves. Some of the words that appeared were nonsense, such as rete; other words were neutral, such as paper; and others were emotionally loaded, such as death. When test subjects spotted a real word, they were asked to push a button.

Normal people responded more quickly to the emotional words than to the neutral words, and the emotional words also evoked a larger brain response in normal people. But this was not so in psychopaths. They responded to the emotional words as if they were neutral.

Hare infers that for psychopaths, emotional words and concepts don't elicit powerful feelings. Thus, the emotionally charged feelings that go through a normal person's mind and prevent him from doing something wrong would fail to ignite in a psychopath's brain.

As the father of modern research into psychopathy, Hervey Cleckley, noted in his 1941 book, The Mask of Sanity: "He (the psychopath) can learn to use ordinary words ... and will also learn to reproduce appropriately all the pantomime of feeling ... but the feeling itself does not come to pass ... . He can repeat the words and say glibly that he understands, and there is no way for him to realize he does not understand."

Normal people are stimulated by their emotional life, their meaningful ties to others, Stout writes. Psychopaths/sociopaths lack such a vibrant inner life so the pain of boredom can be almost constant, leading them to crave risky behaviour that will bring a momentary thrill, or to abuse alcohol and drugs. Up to 75 per cent of sociopaths are alcoholics.

The attack on Edmonton prostitute Rachel Quinney, where the killer removed her breasts and genitalia, is so extreme that it's difficult for normal people to comprehend such an act, but the nature of psychopathy likely provides insight. "Some psychopaths are capable of behaviour that normal people find not only horrific but baffling," Hare writes. "For example, they can torture and mutilate their victims with about the same sense of concern we feel when we carve a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner."

In jail, psychopaths will often take courses designed to deal with their anger and empathy issues, but such programs make no positive change in such people, says Hare, and can, in fact, help them become better con men.

"Most therapies do little more than provide psychopaths with new excuses and rationalizations. ... They are a rich source of facile excuses for the psychopaths' behaviour: 'I was an abused child.' Or, 'I never learned to get in touch with my feelings.' "

Harvard's Stout notes it's never easy to detect a sociopath, as they are skilful in their games of deceit. But Stout says the single best clue in identifying the modern sociopath is to look for what she calls the pity play. "The most reliable sign, the most universal behaviour of unscrupulous people is not directed, as one might imagine, at our fearfulness. It is, perversely, an appeal to our sympathy."
The evil employ the pity play so often, Stout argues, simply because it is so effective. "Good people will let pathetic individuals get by with murder, so to speak, and therefore any sociopath wishing to continue with his game, whatever it happens to be, should play repeatedly for none other than pity."

Edmonton is no stranger to heinous murders and shocking trials of national interest, with both the Punky Gustavson and Nina Courtepatte murder cases going through the courts in recent years. But the trial of 40-year-old Thomas George Svekla also made headlines across Canada, mainly because prostitutes had been disappearing in northern Alberta since 1988. Their mutilated and decomposing bodies turned up repeatedly in fields on the east edge of the city.

A special RCMP task force, Project Kare, was created to hunt for the killer or killers. Police started fingerprinting and photographing working prostitutes in case they, too, disappeared -- and they did. In June 2004, police announced they were looking for a serial killer. In May 2006, Project Kare arrested Svekla for the murder of Theresa Innes, who was both a girlfriend of Svekla's and a prostitute in the northern Alberta community of High Level. Svekla remains the only person charged in connection with the prostitute homicides.

After his arrest, RCMP investigators told Svekla he was suspected of killing as many as 12 prostitutes, their deaths linked together by police profilers. But he was only ever charged with the murder of one other woman, Edmonton prostitute Rachel Quinney. On June 3, Justice Sterling Sanderman acquitted Svekla in the Quinney case, while convicting him for the murder of Innes.

In the many months of court proceedings that led to Svekla's murder conviction, the notion of Svekla being Edmonton's serial killer was often discussed, most often by Svekla himself, who strongly denied the accusation, but appeared to relish the notoriety that came with his high-profile arrest and trial.

In the end, he was found guilty of one murder. Svekla committed the most common of homicides, the killing of a lover, and any theory of him being more than that kind of common killer can now only be based on suspicion and fancy, not proven fact. Yet what is now known about the murder of Theresa Innes remains deeply troubling. The homicide has a particularly gruesome quality that leads to questions about the true nature of such a man as Svekla.

What kind of a man can kill his girlfriend in cold blood, then carefully wrap up her body in what Justice Sanderman described as a "cocoon" of wire and plastic? What sort of man then stores his dead girlfriend for months, all the while carrying on with his outlaw lifestyle of drugs and sex with friends and strangers, then packs up the cocoon in a hockey bag, concocts a story that he is carrying compost worms, and travels with it many hundreds of kilometres, all to do who knows what with the body when he gets there?

In the summer and fall of 2006, before his court proceedings began, Svekla engaged in more than a dozen telephone interviews with Edmonton Journal reporters. He also answered questions posed to him in two lengthy letters.

In conversation, Svekla invariably came across as friendly and chatty. Even when his various crimes and misdeeds were put to him, he never got testy. Instead, he stuck to his main story, one he has been telling people his entire life -- that whatever he has done and whatever others say about him, he is as much a victim as anyone.

If one were to accept all that Svekla has to say about his various crimes of homicide, sexual assault of a child, assault and theft, one would have to conclude he is a most misunderstood and persecuted man.

His explanations, rationalizations and excuses are legion: that his accusers are malicious, crazy and wrongheaded, that he never did these evil things, or if he did do some of them, he really hurt no one, or if he did hurt someone, he really is very sorry and he is only such a botched individual because his parents, siblings, teachers, and girlfriends all mistreated him, so he had to resort to alcohol and cocaine to console himself.

In his talks and letters, Svekla liked to play with the notion that he had done many dark things in life, but when he was asked directly if he was a murderer, he always denied it. Nonetheless, he was willing to talk about the nature of that sort of person.

"Every killer is different," he wrote in a letter. "What I've learnt from the books and movies is that it is always a transition from being good to bad. I don't believe people are born that way."

'A very proud family'

Svekla's transition from innocent child to convicted killer is rooted in a childhood full of darkness, at least according to several accounts, including Svekla's own. His recollections always must be regarded with immense skepticism, as even his own lawyer, Robert Shaigec, has characterized Svekla as a weird and strange liar.

Justice Sanderman evidently agreed with Shaigec's assessment of Svekla, saying in his verdict that Svekla only told the truth when it suited him, and added: "He's generally full of braggadocio. He attempts to convince others of his outlaw lifestyle. He appears to be a needy attention-seeker who has a grossly inflated sense of his own self-importance."

The plain-spoken Sanderman -- who in his days as a defence lawyer had a reputation for being both highly effective and highly ethical -- went so far as to scoff at Svekla's claim of being an honest man. "What a bunch of crap," the judge said.

Nonetheless, tragic and destructive behaviour does indeed appear to run deep in the Svekla clan. Svekla's grandfather shot himself in the head in a granary, Svekla has said. His grandmother was once arrested for selling moonshine. His father's two other brothers died as a result of their chronic drinking. One other uncle, who ran a grow-op, killed himself by driving intoxicated into a train.

Tom Svekla was born in Vegreville in April 1968, the last of seven children. With six older sisters, he was the only son of George and Emily Svekla. "We are a very proud family," Tom Svekla said after his arrest in 2006. "They tried six times before they had a son. They wanted me to carry on the name Svekla. And look how I'm doing it."

Svekla's grandiose descriptions of his life start with his earliest memories. When he was three, he has said, he got lost on the family farm outside of Vegreville, only to be pushed home by a massive bull, an animal that hated all the other males on the farm, including Svekla's own father. "I was scared a little but not as much as my mom," Svekla said. "I always had some force looking after me all my life. That is why I think everyone that I may have or not harmed fears me."

As a child, Tom was coddled by his mother and allegedly terrorized by his father, both things leaving him lost. "I didn't know rules growing up," he wrote in a letter. "Just chaos and the fear of father, with no escape. Halloween my favourite time of year. It's only one day of the year, then all monsters gone."

In 2006, the police interviewed Svekla about his parents. "They're still fighting, you know," he said. "Been goin' on 50 years now."

Svekla spoke repeatedly about his father in his police interviews, which became evidence at his trial. He referred to his father as "big bad Ol' George Svekla," and alleged George was an abusive alcoholic. "Everybody's still afraid of him. I'm afraid of him. Even though he's old and weak."

In the 1970s, George Svekla took over the family farm outside of Vegreville, but lost it in 1975 as a result of his drinking, Tom told the police. "Poor management. He was left all alone. ... Just couldn't handle it."

For a time, the family rented the farm, then they moved to the town of Fort Saskatchewan, where things went from bad to worse, Svekla told the police.

"Those were really rough times. The beatings. ... I was just scared. ... I wanted to commit suicide when I was a kid."

A window into young Svekla's world comes from a court document, Emily Svekla's March 1980 petition for divorce from George. In her affidavit, Emily alleged her husband once threw chairs at her and kicked her in the back with steel-toed boots. As a result, in October 1979, she needed surgery. A few months later, Emily alleged that George again kicked her in the back, despite her recent operation.

She also claimed he severely beat his children, striking them with belt buckles, kicking them so hard they needed surgery, choking them and hitting them in the face until they were covered in blood.

In a statement that Emily made to the police after Tom's arrest and was presented as evidence at the trial, Emily said that George was an alcoholic, who quit boozing but turned to prescription medications. "He went from one addiction to another," she told the RCMP. "He would never admit he's an alcoholic but he was. All he had on his mind was drink, drink, drink. The hell with buying any groceries, the hell with buying anything else. The wife survived."

After she left George, Emily alleged that her five-foot eight-inch, 280-pound husband kept after her, harassing people at her work, harassing their mutual friends, to find out where she was now living. In her court papers, Emily said: "I am afraid for my own life and safety."

For his part, George Svekla has refused to talk about his family history. He was sent a draft copy of the parts of this story that deal with his past. His response was that the material should not be published. "It is inaccurate," he said.
He refused to comment on his wife's 1980 divorce affidavit. "My wife was not here so I can't speak about her."

Tom Svekla has said he has only one good memory of his father taking him to ice and dirt tracks where Tom raced motorized trikes. But even that was ruined, Svekla said, when his dad drank too much at the races and caused a scene. "It was embarrassing."

But Svekla said he forgives his father. "He did the best he could. He didn't have good parents. How was he to know what a good parent is to do?"

In the end, Emily Svekla didn't go through with her divorce of George. The couple had their 50th anniversary in 2006. Financial pressures pushed Emily back to George, Tom Svekla has said. She was working part-time at the Rivercrest nursing home in Fort Saskatchewan, making just $210 a month. George earned $12,000 a year working at the Esso fertilizer plant in Redwater. When George offered to go into treatment for his drinking, Emily agreed to return to him.
The two moved to an acreage outside of Fort Saskatchewan, but George went back to drinking, Svekla has said. "Mom, me and my little older sister Susan were trapped living in the country."

Tommy, the mommy's boy

For all the alleged brutality of George, some people feel Emily was far too easy and forgiving with Tom. His sister, Donna Parkinson, has said that their mother's focus on "Tommy" was a constant in his life. She dropped everything when he needed something, Donna testified. "That is probably the saddest thing."
Svekla told police his mom holds herself responsible for his crimes, mainly because she never took him away from George. "I seen a lot of abuse," Svekla told them. "She blames herself."

But Svekla also has complaints about his mom. As he told the RCMP, "She didn't have a lot of time for me because she worked. There was always house to clean, or dishes to do. So I was pretty much left on my own to learn and to develop by watchin' TV."

His mom, Svekla said, was also too protective. "My mom didn't allow me to grow," Svekla has said. "She wanted me to stay at home and protect her. 'Don't leave me,' you know. 'Don't do this, don't do that.' "

But she also spoiled him, even when he did bad things. "My mom, it doesn't matter what I do, she accepts me. You know, that's true love, unconditional. I could do anything, and she'd just say, 'Look Tom, it's all right. You know, God is with you. ... She still loves me no matter what. 'Cause she knows what I've been through. I'm the youngest and I had to see all of that."

His sisters disliked his mom's forgiving attitude towards him, Svekla has written. "Sisters were jealous that mom could not see that I could do any wrong."

Along with blaming his dad and mom for his problems, Svekla also has blamed his ex-girlfriends and his sisters. "They hurt me, too," he told a police interrogator about his sisters. "They rejected me. They didn't love me. They still don't love me and twist me up."

The interrogator asked Svekla if this is why he treats women the way he does.
"I want their love," Svekla replied. "I just really just want their love so bad. No matter what I do, they all leave me. That's the problem. Thirteen women, they all leave me. And I can't handle it."

J was his first major victim, but as she testified at his preliminary hearing, she quickly forgave Svekla. He blamed his attack on her on his boozing and drug use, and J accepted that. She was so taken with the seemingly friendly Svekla, she even dated him for a time.

Some who knew him during his teen years saw some good in him, including Lawrence Jigolyk, a retired farmer from Fort Saskatchewan. He was a father-like figure to Svekla. Jigolyk hired him to fix his combine and help out on the farm. "He was polite, well-mannered," Jigolyk says. "I don't think he ever swore."
Jigolyk was surprised by the murder charges. "I didn't see him as the local monster running around."

For all the turmoil at home, Svekla said he came to love life out on the acreage, doing things such as bombing around the countryside on his ATV. He was a big kid, he said, so he was able to hang out with an older, cooler crowd.

He and his buddies would head out to house parties and bush parties, but Svekla always craved less acceptable action. He started to steal and crash cars and brutalize others.

Once, the RCMP allege, Svekla got mad at a dog that had gotten into his garbage. He strangled the dog to death and dumped it on the highway to send a message to its owners.

When Svekla's father took early retirement, the family had to sell the acreage and move into Fort Saskatchewan. It was then, Svekla has claimed, he himself started to drink heavily, though he has an explanation for his overindulgence: "Over the loss of the freedom I had in the country."

He had to give up pets, garden, nature walks. "It's too hard to talk about what I had to give up by moving back to town."

Svekla graduated from Grade 12 at Sturgeon Composite in 1987. He soon had another close girlfriend, S. After a few years, their relationship ended, he said, because he was too close to his mother and he felt guilty leaving her out alone at home with George. But S testified at his trial their relationship ended in 1990 after he choked her in a parking lot, jamming his forearm across her throat until she could no longer breathe.

Mechanic, thief, 'wacko'

Svekla started to work on cars when he was 14. He was a good worker, he said, though he "didn't care for bosses in my way while I worked. I took my job serious and didn't want any distractions."

In April 1991, Svekla earned a journeyman's ticket as a mechanic. His father, he said, wasn't satisfied with his choice of profession. "He thought being a mechanic was worse thing in the world because I'll always be smelly with oil and gas. It's like being a garbage collector."

Svekla's work as a mechanic was a good fit with his second career as a thief. He stole gas and vehicles and made friends at a chop shop.

He ended up facing some charges, and went to rehab before his court date, but went for the wrong reasons: "I thought if I went to Henwood (a treatment centre) prior to my court appearance it would prevent me from going to jail. I went to treatment to meet women also."

He would have been caught more often for theft, but was able to outrun the police a few times when they gave chase.

"A lot of crime I did was to impress my friends. They benefited with the stolen parts for their vehicles."

He used the money to help fuel an ever-growing infatuation with drugs. In 1993, he was convicted of drinking and driving, property theft and assaulting a prostitute in downtown Edmonton in a bizarre incident. The woman, who is now off the streets, said Svekla came up behind her and grabbed her purse. She ran after him and jumped into the back of his pickup truck. He sped off around a corner. She flew out the back.

Tony Budzko began hanging out and partying with Svekla when they were both in their early 20s. "He seemed like a real nice guy at first," Budzko said.

But things quickly changed. One night at the Beverly Crest bar, Budzko said two attractive women in miniskirts were paying him attention. Svekla got jealous and punched him in the back of the head. Budzko threw him onto the floor and fought him.

But Budzko has it all wrong about the bar incident, Svekla has said. "He offended those two girls in the bar. One of them cuffed him in the back of the head."
Days after the scrap, Svekla visited Budzko with a case of beer under his arm and apologized, Budzko said. "He never explained that to me. When he drinks, he just can't control himself."

In the end, Budzko started to distance himself from Svekla. "He was just too wacko."

But Svekla said he has never considered himself a heavy drinker or an angry drunk. "I got drunk fast on two or three beer. I feel very sick the next day. My skin turns yellow ... I control my temper the same (when drinking) as I do when I'm sober."

The upwardly mobile man

Things changed for Svekla in 1995 after he met and started to date an Edmonton woman named M, an outgoing, ambitious and hard-working woman.

Svekla and M met at the Thunderdome bar. He was attracted to her big doe eyes and the fact she chased him. He also felt she would be someone who would take care of him.

M was attracted to him as well. "He is Mr. Showboat," she said in an interview. "He's not a nice man. He liked to be the life of the party, but he could flip on a dime. He would get violent really quickly."

At first, Svekla portrayed himself as an honest, caring man. "He looks really rough now, but he wasn't a bad-looking guy at the time," M said.

Indeed, photographs of Svekla from the mid-1990s show a pleasant-looking, clean-cut and seemingly mild fellow, hugging children, visiting relatives, socializing with M.

He told her he was working, though he was unemployed at the time and was getting by stealing, fixing up and selling cars.

M had just got out of a bad marriage when she met Svekla. She had two children, a daughter and a son, as well as two foster children. But M could see her new man had little patience with the kids.

She decided the two foster children had to move elsewhere. On the day they departed, M started to weep. Svekla was angry that she should be so upset.
"I don't think I want to live with some miserable little bitch," he complained.
"Tom, I'm upset because I've had these kids for two years," M replied.
Svekla pouted. "Well, suck it up and get it together."

M now realizes she should have fled from Svekla. Instead, she and Svekla decided to move away from Edmonton to a smaller Alberta town. Just before they left, Svekla became violent with M.

The couple was to hold a garage sale, but Svekla took off with a friend on a late-night bender, M recalled. The next morning, M asked the hungover Svekla to do his assigned job: putting up signs around town for the sale. He went to do it, but forgot the staple gun. When he came back for it, the couple fought. Svekla blamed M for not making sure he had the staple gun. He was still drunk from his bender, he raged, and she was forcing him to drive around drunk. He punched her and knocked out her front tooth.

Svekla's side of the story is that M was so angry he decided to restrain her by sitting on her. To get away, she bit down hard on his thumb. "That is how she almost lost her tooth," Svekla said. "I pulled hard, jerking her front tooth loose."
But Svekla was able to patch up things with M. The two left Edmonton together as planned. Svekla was happy to get out of the city. Later, he would say in court, "I moved up here to get away from my family that I grew up with ... ."

He credited M with helping him to separate himself from his mother.

In the small town, Svekla slowly worked his way into the middle class, becoming a husband, father, and a somewhat steady employee by the late 1990s. He got his licence and insurance so he could drive legally. He cut down on his drinking. For several years he worked at a gravel trenching company, earning a reported income of $38,000 in 1998 and of $37,000 in 1999. But his temper continued to haunt him. He got fired from one job after he argued with the owner's son and ripped the shirt off his back.

The married man

In 1998, M and Svekla had a son together. Svekla was proud to have a boy, boasting to M that it took his own parents seven tries before they finally had one. But he was an inattentive father, M said. One day he came into M's store. He picked up a small boy, thinking it was his child and started to kiss it. The child's real mom freaked out.

"What are you doing?" M asked her husband. "Your son is sleeping in the back. Can't you recognize your own kid?"

Svekla said the kid was all bundled up in winter clothes. "I was tired from work and made a mistake," he said. "The kid was in the baby stroller of ours."

In 1999, M got some distressing news, that police were investigating Svekla for sexual assault. One of M's foster children, a little girl, claimed that Svekla had abused her. The police paid a visit, but Svekla was never charged. His story was that the little girl had been previously abused and was very clingy, which made both him and M uncomfortable, and led M to return the children to Social Services.