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BEST MAN AT BERNARDO'S WEDDING SUES PAPER FOR REWARD, CLAIMS HIS INFORMATION LED POLICE TO ARREST OF SEX KILLER

The man who was best man at the wedding of convicted sex killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, is now in a court fighting to gain recognition as the best person to claim almost $400,000 in reward money posted for information leading to Bernardo's arrest.

In May, 1992, as police sought to discover who was behind the sex slayings of Niagara-area teen-agers Kristen French, 15, and Leslie Mahaffy, 14, Van Smirnis contacted police to say he believed the killer was his best friend, Bernardo.

Smirnis was the first person to come forward with a tip after the Toronto Sun newspaper posted the reward for information leading to the arrest. When Smirnis applied for the reward after Bernardo's capture and conviction, he was refused.

Smirnis is now suing the Sun in Ontario Court, General Division, for the money.

"I led police directly" to Bernardo, Smirnis testified during a court hearing that ended Wednesday. "I helped police get into the house, I brought witnesses to the police, and I gave them the truth to the best of my abilities."

Smirnis' lawyer, Malte Van Arep, said the tip led police to interview Bernardo, but they were so charmed by his personality that he was written off as a serious suspect.

When Ms. Homolka revealed their crimes to police, Smirnis was brought back as a potential witness. After a 10-hour interview, which included details of Bernardo's history of violence toward women, Smirnis' information was used by police to gain a warrant to search Bernardo's home in St. Catharines.

Smirnis, however, was not called to testify at Bernardo's trial in 1995 for the French-Mahaffy murders.

Staff Sergeant Steve MacLeod of the Peel Regional Police Department, a lead investigator in case, said Smirnis' information "provided nothing that assisted us in making the arrest."

Smirnis' history of involvement in Bernardo's U.S.-Canada cigarette smuggling enterprise and other factors hampered his credibility, MacLeod added. In the end, he continued, it wasn't until Ms. Homolka came forward that police had enough solid evidence to act.

"Karla had all the history of the rapes and murders. Van had none of them," he testified.

Ms. Homolka left Bernardo after he beat her with a flashlight. Afterwards, when she met with police, she revealed not only the story of the kidnappings, sexual torture and murder of the two teens, but also Bernardo's earlier series of rapes in the Toronto neighborhood of Scarborough.

Sun lawyer Clifford Lax said Smirnis did not deserve the reward because "the operative word is information, not suspicion. He did not have any direct evidence."

Niagara Regional Police Superintendent Vince Bevan, who headed a task force on the murders, said, "He provided background information; it was interesting, but it was not material."

A decision in the case is expected in late November.

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