The old cottage on Stoco Lake, deserted for more than three years now, is a lot like the man who once lived there. On the surface, it appears absolutely perfect. Prime waterfront lot. Spectacular view. Paradise. Even the street sign is charming: Cosy Cove Lane.
But behind that front door, deep within, are the remnants of a repulsive predator—a stalker so vile, so notorious, that strangers still drive to tiny Tweed, Ont., to see his property with their own eyes. “It doesn’t happen as much anymore,” says Ron Murdoch, who lives next door with his wife, Monique. “The only time it happens now is when something comes up in the newspaper.”
The Murdochs are bracing for another spike in traffic.
From his solitary prison cell in rural Quebec, serial killer and ex-colonel Russell Williams has sold his infamous cottage for $165,000, a key step forward in negotiations aimed at settling numerous multi-million-dollar lawsuits filed against the disgraced air force officer and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Harriman. Maclean’s has learned that each plaintiff (including the family of Jessica Lloyd, who was held captive and brutally tortured inside Williams’s white bungalow) endorsed the sale in advance. The deal officially closed Tuesday afternoon.
The new owners, ironically enough, are the old next-door neighbours—a family who knew Williams (or thought they knew him) as well as anyone. A close friend for years, Williams fished in the Murdochs’ ice hut, played cribbage at their kitchen table and shared a close bond with both their children. The former colonel was so comfortable inside their home that in September 2007, he selected Ron and Monique’s daughter as his very first victim—sneaking into her bedroom when the family was safely out of town and pocketing six pairs of her underwear. She was 12 years old at the time.
Over the next two years, Williams would commit dozens more break-ins (including two more at the house next door) and meticulously photograph himself modeling hundreds of pieces of stolen lingerie. By January 2010—while in command of CFB Trenton, the country’s largest and busiest air force base—his perversions had escalated from fetish burglaries to sexual assault to the sadistic murders of two women: Marie-France Comeau, a 37-year-old corporal stationed at his base; and Lloyd, 27, kidnapped from her Belleville home, held hostage for hours, and strangled inside a stranger’s cottage.
The Murdochs were asleep in their bedroom, just steps from Williams’s driveway, when he and Lloyd pulled in early that morning, duct tape covering her eyes. Williams promised his hostage she would live as long as she obeyed his orders, and Lloyd complied in every possible way. At one point, she wept while his video camera rolled. “I don’t want to die, please,” she pleaded. “If I die will you make sure my mom knows that I love her?”
Williams—who found time to check his BlackBerry and email subordinates during the final hours of Lloyd’s life—dumped her corpse in his garage and left her there for four agonizing days, while family and friends desperately tried to find her. “I have felt guilty,” Ron says now. “I have. I think: ‘Geez, we should have heard something.’ For the first two years, Monique would not allow us to open the curtain in the bedroom because it faces that house.”
Despite their close connection to one of Canada’s most despised killers, the Murdochs have done their best to avoid the spotlight. When the yellow police tape went up, they shied away from the countless cameras that invaded the neighbourhood, waiting instead for the facts to emerge in court. But things are different now, and they understand that. The Murdochs have propelled themselves into the public eye, and they realize many people (anonymous and not) will criticize their decision to purchase such a haunted home. How can you live in that cottage when you know what happened inside? It should be destroyed, not enjoyed.
“We know we’ll get a lot of that,” Ron says. “I know what happened there, but you try not to let your mind go that way. To us, a house is a house. It’s wood and brick.”
Contacted by Maclean’s, the Murdochs agreed to explain their side of the story, hoping one group of people in particular—those terrorized, like them, by Russell Williams—will understand their motivation. They want to help his primary victims, if possible, to settle their lingering lawsuits. They want to revitalize the property, a long-abandoned eyesore. And more than anything, they want to ensure Lloyd’s devastated family receives the dignity they deserve. “We’ll never be able to forget what happened there, even if we rebuild another house on that lot,” says Ron, 58, who has spent his life constructing and renovating homes. “It’s part of the history of that lot. We’ll never be able to forget that, and we shouldn’t; she lost her life there. But respect will always be given. There will be no cameras in there. There will be no big splash.”
“It will not become a public spectacle,” adds Monique, 51. “That’s not what this is about. This is what the victims want. They want closure. They want the end of these court cases.”
Williams and Harriman bought the picturesque property for $178,000 in the summer of 2004, six years before the shocking arrest. The Murdochs moved to the street the year before, in 2003. If 62 Cosy Cove Lane had been for sale back then, they would have pounced on it. “The lot is gorgeous,” Ron says now. “I love that lot and I always have. One of the first times I met Williams I said to him: ‘You bought the property I wanted.’ ”
In March 2010, six weeks after Williams confessed to his depraved double life, his wife transferred full ownership of the property to him, part of a controversial “domestic contract” that has dogged the couple ever since. She paid Williams $62,000 in cash and assumed his share of the mortgage on their newly built Ottawa townhouse, worth $700,000; he kept the cottage. Six weeks later, the couple was served with the first of numerous lawsuits that would, so many months later, trigger Tuesday’s real-estate deal.
Williams’s first sexual assault victim, whose identity is protected by a court-ordered publication ban, filed a $2.45-million claim for the “harsh, vindictive, malicious, horrific and reprehensible” assault she endured in the early morning hours of Sept. 17, 2009, when Williams tied her up and and repeatedly photographed her naked body—all while her newborn daughter slept nearby. But “Jane Doe” also sued Harriman, a senior executive at the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada, claiming she “fraudulently” acquired her husband’s share of their Ottawa home in a “secret” deal to shield his assets from potential litigation.
Laurie Massicotte was next. A neighbour three doors down from Williams (and two doors down from the Murdochs), she was asleep on her living room couch when the colonel pounded her with a flashlight and stripped her naked with a knife. Like Jane Doe, Massicotte listed Harriman in her $7-million claim, alleging a “fraudulent transfer.” (Massicotte is suing the province, too, claiming the Ontario Provincial Police failed, among other things, to warn the community when Jane Doe was attacked less than two weeks before she was targeted.)
Roxanne Lloyd, Jessica’s mother, and Andy Lloyd, her brother, were the last to sue, claiming, among so much else, that the property transfer was “clearly suspicious.” The Lloyds’s $4-million statement of claim, launched almost two years to the day after Jessica vanished, paints a heartbreaking portrait of what they have endured. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Nightmares. Suicidal thoughts. Substance dependency. “The murder of Jessica Lloyd by the Defendant Williams was one of the most highly publicized criminal cases in Canadian history,” it reads. “As a result, the Plaintiffs have been repeatedly exposed to reminders of the assault and gruesome death of Jessica.” (The family of Cpl. Comeau, Williams’s other murder victim, is not suing.)
Harriman, who has filed for divorce, denies any wrongdoing, insisting in court documents she “had absolutely no intention whatsoever” of committing fraud and that learning the truth about her husband “has been devastating.” June 1 will be their 22nd wedding anniversary. To date, Williams has filed just one statement of defence—against Massicotte. He asked a judge to throw out the suit and order her to cover his legal bills.
Behind closed doors, however, negotiations have continued in each case. Earlier this year, those talks reached the point where lawyers asked the Murdochs if they were still interested in buying the property, as all sides were anxious to avoid the inevitable attention of a public real-estate listing. “I’ve lost more sleep in the last month since we’ve started discussing this than I ever have,” Ron says. “In fact, two or three times I’ve woken up and thought: ‘I need to call our lawyer in the morning and just tell him to forget it because no matter whether we renovate or rebuild, some people will not understand.”
What to do with such a stigmatized property is a sensitive question. In St. Catharines, Ont., construction crews famously ripped down and replaced the pink house where Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka terrorized their teenage victims, but the new home (with a different address) remains a destination for curious gawkers, even all these years later. In most cases, though, a home’s gruesome history doesn’t necessarily warrant a wrecking ball. Earlier this month, a Toronto couple spent $900,000 on a luxury house where a man was beaten to death two years ago. As their realtor said, “they’re not the superstitious type.”
Even the homes once owned by Williams’s murder victims now belong to someone else. In Brighton, Ont., a couple paid $220,000 in May 2010 for the Raglan Street house where Cpl. Comeau was viciously assaulted and asphyxiated. On Belleville’s Highway 37, a new swing set sits on the rural property where Jessica Lloyd was abducted under the cover of darkness. Her mother sold the property last March for $160,000.
When his former neighbour was first convicted, Ron was among those hoping that the whole cottage would be razed. The neighbour on the other side, Larry Jones, has lobbied for the same thing, going so far as to say that if the township tore it down he would buy the vacant land. But three years later, the Murdochs have slowly changed their minds. They have seen the outside of that cottage every single day, and have endured so many different emotions. Grief. Anger. Guilt. Gratitude. That could have been their daughter, after all. “We’ve shed tears over Jessica,” Ron says. “Even now, talking about her upsets me.”
“Time has helped us heal, and we wish the same for others,” adds Monique (who, on paper at least, is the sole owner of the cottage.) “It’s just a house. The house didn’t do it; the person did it. And the person who did it is in jail—and that’s where he should be.”
The Murdochs aren’t exactly sure what to do next. They may end up ripping the whole place down and starting from scratch. Or they may completely gut the interior, rebuilding each room so they look nothing like the day Jessica died. “In my mind,” Ron says, “I am changing something bad into something good.”
Whatever they do, one thing is certain: it will be done as discreetly as possible. Although they felt bad about it, the Murdochs even kept the pending deal a secret from their other neighbours, careful not to scuttle the sale. When asked to pose for a photograph, they declined. “It isn’t about us,” Ron says. “That’s the one thing I want the victims to know: there will be no exploitation. We’re bound to have people drive by the lake and gawk and point, but we will do everything we possibly can to not make this house an issue—everything we possibly can.”