The wife of serial killer Russell Williams has lost a pivotal court battle with one of her husband’s sexual assault victims—a ruling that could force Mary Elizabeth Harriman to testify, for the first time, about her marriage to the notorious ex-colonel.
Laurie Massicotte, who was ambushed in her living room and held captive at knifepoint just weeks before Williams committed his first murder, has won the right to amend a lawsuit she first filed in 2011 against the disgraced military officer and his long-time spouse. With the approval of an Ontario judge, Massicotte’s statement of claim now includes an explosive accusation that no one—not detectives, not prosecutors, not any other victim—has ever made: that Harriman “was aware” of her husband’s “illicit conduct” but “did not report that conduct to the police.”
In a ruling released this week, Superior Court Justice Martin James said Massicotte should be allowed to explore the possibility that Williams’s wife knew about his sadistic double life yet chose to remain silent. “While the suggestion that Ms. Harriman was aware of Williams’s conduct may seem outrageous and far-fetched, the plaintiffs are entitled to endeavour to prove these allegations as a basis for an award of punitive damages,” James wrote in his seven-page decision, dated April 28. “The proposed amendments are relevant.”
Lawyers for Harriman, a senior executive at the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada, have previously argued that there is “no evidence whatsoever to support” such a “frivolous” and “vexatious” claim. “The allegations made are solely to embarrass Ms. Harriman and cast her in a bad light,” Jonathan Richardson, one of her lawyers, said at a February court hearing in Kingston. “These are highly inflammatory, prejudicial allegations that have made their way into the public eye in an attempt to diminish Ms. Harriman.” (Contacted by Maclean’s, Richardson said he and his co-counsel, Mary Jane Binks, will “be meeting with Ms. Harriman on Monday to discuss a possible appeal of this decision.”)
The former commander of CFB Trenton, Canada’s largest and busiest air force base, Williams confessed four years ago to a vile crime spree that shocked the country: two horrific murders, two home-invasion sexual assaults, and dozens of fetish burglaries targeting women’s lingerie. His criminal proceedings were swift (just eight months after his arrest, Williams pleaded guilty to 88 charges and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years), but the ensuing civil lawsuits have unfolded at a much slower pace. If anything, this latest ruling will likely drag out the process even longer.
At the heart of the dispute is a “domestic contract” the couple signed in March 2010, six weeks after Williams, now 51, admitted to his depraved, late-night crime spree. Harriman paid her husband $62,000 in cash and assumed the remaining mortgage on their $700,000 Ottawa townhouse, while he took sole possession of their lakefront cottage in Tweed, Ont., purchased a few years earlier for $178,000 (and located just three doors down from Massicotte’s house). Although Williams is the primary defendant in Massicotte’s $7-million lawsuit, Harriman is accused of participating in a “fraudulent conveyance” aimed at protecting her partner’s assets from potential litigation.
Two other multi-million-dollar lawsuits—one filed by “Jane Doe,” Williams’s first sexual assault victim; the other by the family of Jessica Lloyd, who was abducted from her Belleville home and strangled inside the cottage—contain identical allegations: that the post-arrest land transfer, “clearly suspicious” and carried out in “secret,” should be reversed. (As Maclean’s reported last May, Williams has since sold the cottage for $165,000, with the proceeds being held in trust pending the outcome of each lawsuit.)
In court documents, Harriman denies the property transfer was fraudulent, saying she had “absolutely no intention whatsoever” of shielding assets and that the deal was signed solely to ensure her “financial security.” She also says she was “devastated” to learn the truth about her husband, and that she, too, is a “victim.” None of the three original statements of claim accused Harriman of knowing about her husband’s crimes; her alleged wrongdoing was always limited to the domestic contract, and the question of whether the property transfer should be declared void so Williams’s victims can pursue his half of the Ottawa home.
But that position suddenly changed last December, when Massicotte’s Toronto lawyer, Philip Healey, filed a motion to amend her 2011 lawsuit—and to allege something far more sinister than a fraudulent land transfer: that Harriman knew her husband was a serial predator, concealed the truth from authorities, and “gained financially from this illicit conduct” by acquiring Williams’s assets after he was captured.
Harriman opposed the amendment request, arguing that the court materials filed to date “introduce no evidence whatsoever of the scandalous allegations now being made.” Massicotte issued her original statement of claim more than two years ago, her lawyers noted, but only now is she accusing Harriman of having prior knowledge of her husband’s offences. If the amendment is allowed, they argued, it should be promptly struck from the claim as “frivolous, vexatious, and an abuse of process.”
For Justice James, the issue hinged on a critical question of law: what happens if a land transfer is declared fraudulent? Is reversing the deal the only remedy under the Fraudulent Conveyances Act, or can a plaintiff also claim punitive damages—damages stemming from an act “so malicious and outrageous” that it warrants a punishment all its own?
“In my view the question to be determined is whether punitive damages are available in an action to set aside a fraudulent conveyance since this is the only claim made against Harriman,” the judge wrote. “If punitive damages can be awarded in claims based on the [Fraudulent Conveyances Act], it seems to me that it ought to be open to the plaintiffs to amend their claims as proposed. The allegations contained in the proposed amendments provide context for the punitive damages claim initially made in the original version of the statement of claim. The proposed pleadings set up the ability to ask relevant questions at examinations for discovery.”
Citing numerous other fraudulent transfer cases in which plaintiffs were awarded punitive relief, Justice James said Massicotte’s new pleadings are “relevant” and should be allowed to proceed. “I accept the plaintiffs’ submissions that the proposed amendments … do not constitute a new cause of action but rather should be seen as elaborating upon, and extending, a theory of liability based on the same factual nexus pleaded in the original version of the statement of claim,” he wrote. “Relevant pleadings are generally immune to arguments that they are frivolous, vexatious or scandalous.”
Still, Justice James did note that while Massicotte should be free to explore Harriman’s relationship with Williams, she does “risk the consequences that may flow from having made serious allegations that are ultimately unproven.” A plaintiff who fails to substantiate such stunning claims is typically ordered to pay the opposing side’s legal costs.
Healey, Massicotte’s lawyer, said he is “happy” Justice James has allowed him to further examine what Harriman may—or may not—have known about her husband’s activities. “It means that we are entitled to pursue that through the course of the case, including discovery and any steps that we want to take from now on with respect to that issue,” Healey says. “It’s clearly been identified as part of the case, so we’re happy with that.”
Unless Harriman appeals the ruling (or reaches an out-of-court settlement), she will be compelled to testify, under oath, about the life she shared with one of Canada’s most infamous serial killers. Her first appearance would occur behind closed doors, during the lawsuit’s discovery phase; if the case ever reached trial, Harriman would be on the witness stand, answering questions in open court.
Now 56, Harriman has never spoken publicly about her husband or his crimes, and, fair or not, her silence has fuelled much speculation about their marriage—and how anyone in her position could be so oblivious. When police searched the couple’s Ottawa home after Williams’s arrest, they found a pillowcase in the garage and multiple computer boxes in the basement, all stuffed with stolen women’s clothing. A bag beside their bed contained a black skullcap. At the Tweed cottage 200 km away, investigators found yet another duffel bag filled with hundreds more pieces of lingerie.
But as consumed as Williams was with chronicling his crimes and collecting his perverse trophies, the evidence disclosed at his 2010 sentencing hearing suggests he was equally careful about keeping his alter ego a secret from his spouse. As prosecutors said, he made sure to bury his crime-scene photos and videos in a “deeply nested and complex series of subfolders” on their computer “so that his wife would never discover the evidence of his criminal activities.” He also told Harriman he took all those late-night walks to stretch out his sore back.
In the end, Williams broke down and confessed for the sole sake of his wife. Grilled for hours by the Ontario Provincial Police on Feb. 7, 2010—and told that officers were currently searching his Ottawa residence—the killer colonel finally buckled. “I’m struggling with how upset my wife is right now,” Williams told Det.-Sgt. Jim Smyth, taking a deep breath. “I’m concerned that they’re tearing apart my wife’s brand new house.”
“I want to, um, minimize the impact on my wife,” he continued, a few minutes later. “My interest is in making my wife’s life a little easier.”
After he confessed, Williams wrote a note to his “Dearest Mary Elizabeth,” expressing his affection and regret. “I am so very sorry for having hurt you like this,” he wrote. “I love you, Russ.”
Harriman, who still lives in the same Ottawa home, initiated divorce proceedings after Williams pleaded guilty, but more than three years later they remain husband and wife. She originally asked for a publication ban on portions of the divorce file, including her financial and medical records, on the grounds that the inevitable “media feeding frenzy” could jeopardize her fragile mental health and maybe even her position at the Heart & Stroke Foundation. But in January 2012, the Court of Appeal for Ontario ruled against Harriman, concluding that her desire for privacy doesn’t trump the public’s right to open and accessible court proceedings.
Still, the province’s highest court was clearly sympathetic, describing Harriman as “indeed yet another victim of Williams’s depravity.” She “was shocked and devastated by the charges laid against her husband,” the ruling stated. “Through the revelations that followed the laying of the charges, [Harriman] learned that her husband, to whom she had been married for many years and who she believed to be a highly respected, successful and loving man, was in reality a sexual predator and cold-blooded serial murderer.”
Ironically enough, Harriman’s efforts to keep her divorce private actually revealed the most details yet about what she endured after Williams was caught—including “emotional shock and chronic stress” and “symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder.” A letter from her psychiatrist, disclosed as part of the court case, said Harriman lost 25 lb. in the year after her husband’s arrest and may not have endured if it wasn’t for her gratifying job and supportive friends and colleagues. “When not extremely busy in the workplace, she has found herself preoccupied with the victims of her husband, and their relatives,” her psychiatrist wrote. She “is a private individual and she does need calm, peace and quiet in order to continue functioning normally. She currently feels that she has no privacy left.”
The divorce proceedings also confirmed, for the first time, that Harriman followed her doctor’s advice and left the country on vacation during Williams’s high-profile sentencing hearing. It also revealed—to the shock of many—that Harriman continued to visit her disgraced husband in prison after his guilty plea, with the most recent confirmed visit occurring in March 2011.
Whether that was Harriman’s final trip, or whether the couple continues to communicate, is not known.
Unlike the other two lawsuits, Laurie Massicotte’s claim also seeks damages from the Ontario government for the alleged negligence of the provincial police. She says the OPP should have warned her Tweed neighbourhood after “Jane Doe” was attacked in her home on Sept. 17, 2009, less than two weeks before Massicotte was ambushed. “The police carried out their investigation in a manner which placed the value of the criminal investigation above their duty to protect the plaintiff by allowing women to be vulnerable to further sexual assaults,” her claim reads. “They did this by choosing not to warn potential victims like Ms. Massicotte.”
Her claim also criticizes authorities for leaving her partially naked and bound during the early hours of their investigation, for referring to her as “crazy” over the police radio, and treating her “with disbelief.” In her most damning allegation, Massicotte, now 49, also accuses the OPP of initially excluding her neighbour as a potential suspect “due to his position as the colonel in charge of CFB Trenton.” (Massicotte’s three adult daughters are also named as plaintiffs, demanding damages for the “loss of guidance, care and companionship from their mother.” They “are afraid to attend” their mom’s home, the lawsuit alleges, and “have been humiliated by the release of information of their mothers [sic] injury and assault.”)
Ontario says Massicotte’s claims against the province should be dismissed. In a statement of defence filed in 2012, the government acknowledges “the extremely distressing experience that Ms. Massicotte endured as one of Williams’s victims” but insists the investigation was “thorough and reasonable” and that the OPP “acted at all times honestly, in good faith and in accordance with their public duties as police officers.”
Williams himself also filed a statement of defence against Massicotte, his only one in any of the lawsuits. Despite admitting that he assaulted her, the ex-commander says she is not entitled to financial damages—and that she should have to pay his legal costs incurred on the file.
Along with the Harriman-related amendments, Massicotte also asked Justice James to approve another change to her statement of claim: that Section 30 of the Pension Act, which protects a person’s pension from court-awarded damages, is unconstitutional. (Under current law, Williams’s victims have no right to demand his military pension, reported to be $60,000 a year.) The judge, however, denied that request. “Adding a Charter argument would complicate and lengthen this proceeding and constitute an impediment to the timely and efficient disposition of the issues as currently framed,” James ruled.
His decision does not prohibit victims from pursuing Williams’s military pension as part of a future Charter challenge. Healey also said he is considering appealing that portion of the ruling. “We believe that Ms. Massicotte should be entitled to full compensation for the losses and damages that she suffered, and the pension should be part of that,” he says.
As for the costs of the motion, Harriman was ordered to pay Massicotte $3,000 in legal fees. Depending on how the case unfolds, it may not be her last payment.