Surviving Colonel Williams

EXCLUSIVE: Laurie Massicotte describes the hours of hell she endured at his hands


 

Jerome Lessard/QMI Agency /Donald Weber/VII Network/ Alex tavshunsky/CP

Laurie Massicotte watches the same two television programs before bed: Law & Order at 11 p.m., and Without a Trace at midnight. On that Tuesday evening last September, she followed her typical routine, curling up on the living room couch with an apple, the remote control, and one of her daughters’ old Barbie blankets. Within 15 minutes, she was fast asleep. “It was a busy day,” she says now, one year later. “I spent most of it cleaning: bringing in pots from the yard, rearranging furniture in the basement. I was exhausted.”

When she woke up in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Massicotte remembers two specific things: hearing the theme song for the final credits of Without a Trace, and being smothered under her blanket as someone on the other side delivered punch after punch to her face. In those first few seconds, the 46-year-old was so disoriented and so short of breath that she assumed the house was on fire, and that thick smoke had filled her eyes and lungs. She soon realized the terrifying truth. “Shhh,” said the intruder, in between blows to the head. “I need you to be quiet.”

What transpired over the next 3½ hours was pure terror. Home alone, Massicotte was blindfolded, shackled, stripped naked with the sharp edge of a knife, and forced to pose for dozens of unthinkable photographs before the stranger in her house finally fled. Every time he ordered her to sit this way or lean that way, his threat was the same: “Don’t make me make you.”

“I thought he was going to kill me at any given moment,” she says. “It was just like a horror movie, and I didn’t know what was going to happen in the next scene.” The scene five months later was almost as sickening. In February, two detectives from the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) visited Massicotte’s home in Tweed, a small eastern Ontario town just north of Belleville. “It’s all over,” one of them told her. “We’ve caught the person who did this to you, and he has confessed.”

Three doors away, Massicotte could see yellow police tape wrapped around the property. The man who lived there—Col. Russell Williams, the 46-year-old commander of Canadian Forces Base Trenton—was already locked in a jail cell, his alleged double life finally revealed. “I couldn’t comprehend any of it,” she says. “I was in total shock.”

An elite officer with a spotless record—a gifted pilot who escorted prime ministers and the Queen, and was hand-picked by military brass to lead Canada’s largest and busiest air force base—was suddenly an accused predator. His charge sheet paints a chilling portrait of a meticulous, relentless stalker who, despite the heavy demands of his high-profile job, found ample time to feed his perversion. If police are correct, the disgraced colonel committed dozens of burglaries, stole hundreds of pieces of lingerie, attacked two women inside their homes—one of them Laurie Massicotte—and murdered two others: Marie-France Comeau, a 38-year-old corporal stationed at his base, and Jessica Lloyd, 27.

Williams has waived his right to a preliminary hearing and will be back in court Oct. 7, when lawyers are expected to discuss the timing of his eventual trial. Massicotte hopes to be in the gallery that day. “It’s going to be difficult, but I want to have the strength to be able to do it,” she says. “I know he can’t do anything to me now.”

In the meantime, Massicotte has found the strength to do something else she has long dreaded: show her face, reveal her name, and tell her story. Until now, in a series of exclusive interviews with Maclean’s, the mother of three has never spoken publicly about the hell she endured that morning—or the nightmare she has lived ever since. “I need to be able to do this in order to move on with my life,” she tells Maclean’s, sitting in a restaurant not far from her home. “I’ve been trapped for so long, and now finally I can tell the truth. I hope people can appreciate the truth, even Russ Williams.”

Like so many victims of sexual assault, Massicotte’s ordeal did not end on Sept. 30, 2009, when the stranger in her living room snapped his last photo and climbed out a window. She has spent countless hours in therapy, grappled with survivor’s guilt, and assumed, in those early days, that everyone in town was a suspect. She despises Williams, prays that he spends the rest of his life behind bars, and hopes to sue him in civil court. Yet for reasons that even she can’t explain, Massicotte says she has found it in her heart to somehow forgive him. “I can’t put it into words. It’s between me and him. He let me live.”

In fact, Massicotte saves her harshest words for the police, convinced that the cops could have done more to stop her attacker before he climbed through her window. Hours after her assault, an OPP investigator told her what is now a well-known fact. “He said: ‘Laurie, we have a confession to make,’ ” she recalls. “ ‘Apparently, 12 days ago this same situation happened to a girl just down the road from you. We’re really sorry we didn’t get it out to the public, but I can tell you right now we’re putting out a release and it will be on tomorrow’s news.’ ”

For Laurie Massicotte, the OPP “safety alert” came a day too late.

Col. Williams and his wife, Mary-Elizabeth Harriman, purchased their Tweed cottage in the summer of 2004. The following year, in December 2005, Williams was given the top job at Camp Mirage, the Canadian military’s secret forward logistics base in the Middle East. Deployed for six months, he missed the annual neighbourhood Christmas party. Laurie Massicotte was there, chatting with fellow residents of Cosy Cove Lane, a picturesque strip of waterfront homes overlooking Stoco Lake. A friend introduced her to Harriman. “I talked to her for a minute,” she recalls. “She said her husband was overseas.” Other than that, Massicotte doesn’t remember having any contact with the couple three doors down. “I never knew him,” she says.

Unlike most on Cosy Cove, Williams and Harriman were not permanent fixtures; the cottage was a part-time getaway, not a full-time home. But after he returned from Mirage in the summer of 2006 and was reassigned to National Defence headquarters, Williams and his wife spent as much time as they could in Tweed, an easy two-hour drive from their house in the Ottawa suburb of Orléans.

It wasn’t long before the bizarre break-ins began.

In the fall of 2007, three properties within walking distance of Williams’s cottage were burglarized, including the house directly next door—twice. By 2008, the pace intensified. In March, two different homes were broken into on the same Friday night. A week later, Williams allegedly struck again, this time sneaking into a home on nearby Charles Court that would become his favourite target. According to authorities, he would return to that same address eight more times.

In most cases, the Tweed victims had no idea that a man was even in their house. The culprit was so professional—and usually stole only a small amount of items—that the bulk of his crimes went unnoticed at the time.

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Back in Orléans, a late-night prowler was also at work—but the heists were bolder and bigger. One home was hit three times. Six were hit twice, typically on back-to-back days. One woman who lived on the same street as Williams and Harriman came home to find her underwear drawer—and her daughter’s—completely empty. She immediately phoned 911.

On Halloween day 2008, police in Ottawa were concerned enough to issue a news release about the “peculiar” underwear break-ins, warning the public “to be vigilant and ensure that they secure their home at all times.” Nothing changed. By the summer of 2009, when Williams was sworn in as wing commander of CFB Trenton, he had allegedly committed four dozen home invasions in Tweed and Ottawa, each time adding to his twisted collection of stolen bras, panties, bathing suits and dresses.

Despite the pressure and the long hours, the Trenton job offered Williams even more freedom to pursue his dark fetish. On weekdays, his wife remained in Ottawa, where she works as a senior executive at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. He stayed alone at the cottage, commuting the half-hour to work every morning along Highway 37, the rural road that connects Tweed to the air base. The couple would meet on weekends, either in the city or at the cottage. During his first two months as Trenton’s top man, Williams allegedly got away with 10 more home invasions, including a seventh, eighth and ninth visit to that favourite location on Charles Court. Like all the others, nobody was hurt. The thief was in and out, and left with exactly what he came for.

But for reasons that remain unexplained, the rash of break-ins was about to take a sudden violent turn. On Sept. 16, 2009, a Wednesday, the colonel arrived home from a two-day visit to Nunavut. Early the next morning, according to police, he snuck into a house just a short walk from his, where a 21-year-old woman was alone with her newborn daughter. She was immediately tied up, blindfolded, sexually assaulted, and warned that if she didn’t co-operate, she and her baby would die. The intruder took repeated photos of the woman’s naked body before fleeing the scene.

Astonishingly, authorities now claim that Williams returned to that same house two more times in the days after the assault, searching for keepsakes.

The victim, whose name is protected by a publication ban, is now suing Williams—and his wife—for $2.45 million for the “harsh, vindictive, malicious, horrific and reprehensible” assault. At the heart of her lawsuit is a claim that Harriman “fraudulently” acquired her husband’s share of their Ottawa home six weeks after his arrest in a “secret” deal to shield his assets. Harriman denies the allegation, saying in court documents that she was “devastated” by the arrest and that she, too, is “a victim.” (Last week, Williams hired his own lawyer to defend the lawsuit, which is separate from his criminal case.)

Although the civil case has since triggered hundreds of headlines, the assault itself received no attention at the time. The victim rented the house, had only lived in the area for a brief time, and moved away right after the attack. Most neighbours didn’t even hear about it—and the provincial police chose to keep it that way. Local residents, including Laurie Massicotte, were never warned that a potential predator was on the loose.

Days later, she was under that white and purple Barbie blanket, gasping for air.

Massicotte has lived on Cosy Cove Lane for more than a decade, moving there in 1999 with her husband and three daughters from a previous marriage. Once an accountant at a manufacturing company in Belleville, she stopped working to become a homemaker. “I would never raise my kids anywhere else,” she says of her now-infamous neighbourhood. “It was so safe.”

On the morning of her attack, Massicotte was living alone. She and her husband separated a few years ago, and her daughters, now finished high school, moved back in with their father. Col. Williams, who could see Massicotte’s front door from his, would have known who lived there.

Like the first victim, Massicotte never laid eyes on her assailant. As he punched her in the head, and then wrenched his arm around her neck, he made sure the blanket stayed over her face. “He said: ‘There are others in the house and I want you to keep quiet,’ ” Massicotte tells Maclean’s. “ ‘You are being cleaned out, and it’s my job to control you.’ ”

The man peppered her with questions: Does anyone else live here? Who showed up last night? What’s your name? For what seemed like 20 minutes, he refused to loosen his grip on her throat, squeezing so hard that she peed herself. “They can take whatever they want,” she pleaded, assuming the robbery ruse was true. “Please just let me live.”

Eventually, the man let go—but only so he could tie her up. After making sure the blanket was still shielding her face, the burglar grabbed a nearby body pillow (which was covered in Winnie the Pooh characters) and sliced off two pieces of material. He used one shred as a blindfold, reaching under the blanket to wrap it around her eyes. He used the other to shackle her wrists behind her back.

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“Are you looking at me?” he barked at one point.

“Oh God, no,” she answered.

“You don’t want to see me,” he said.

At first, Massicotte believed that a gang of thieves was really inside her house. The man kept leaving to “check on the others,” and when she later worked up the nerve to ask for a cigarette, he refused, insisting that “they” wouldn’t approve. Over and over, Massicotte asked why he was doing this. His response was always the same: It has to be done.

Looking back, she is convinced that the intruder was conflicted, as if part of him didn’t want to be there. “He knew it was wrong,” she says. “I know he struggled with it.”

He called her Laurie. He never swore. He told her she was a “nice lady” with a “nice house,” and apologized for hitting her so many times. He even agreed to fetch her two aspirins from the medicine cabinet. (But he would not go so far as to fill her mug with water, clearly fearful of leaving a fingerprint. Instead, he escorted his hostage to the bathroom and—with her hands still tied behind her back—made her turn on the tap.)

After being led back to the couch, Massicotte’s wrists were throbbing. She asked the man to consider tying her hands in front of her body instead of behind, but he said no, once again blaming it on “the others.”

He had another idea.

The intruder walked to a bedroom and returned with another pillowcase. Still unable to see a thing, Massicotte listened as he used a knife or a pair of scissors to transform the sheet into a straightjacket of sorts. When he finished, he reached for the knot around her wrists. “Be still,” he said. “Because I don’t want to cut you—or me.” He then slipped his homemade harness over Massicotte’s head. Her hands were now free, but her arms were cinched to her torso, like someone in the clutches of a bear hug. She could feel the man’s fingers fiddling with her blond hair.

“Would it be alright if I took a picture of you?” he asked.

Suddenly, Massicotte was as confused as she was petrified. As far as she knew, this was still a robbery. “Why do you need a picture?” she asked.

“So that you know we have pictures of you,” he answered.

Moments later, she could hear the click of a digital camera. After a few shots, the man spoke again. “He said: ‘I just want to get one picture with your top pulled up,’ ” she recalls. “So he pulls up my top and takes a picture of me in my bra and my harness. He took three or four, just standing right in front of me.” When the flashes stopped, Massicotte felt a hand reaching underneath her bra. “Please don’t do this,” she begged. He stopped, but only briefly. “He said: ‘You have nice breasts.’ I said: ‘No, I don’t, please don’t do this.’ And again he pulled his hand out right away.”

The next thing Massicotte remembers was the tip of a knife at her neck—and a single slice cutting open her T-shirt and her bra. “He starts roaming around me, taking pictures from all different angles,” she says. “And then he takes the knife and holds it to my pajama bottoms.” Terrified of the blade, she frantically pulled her pants down before the man had a chance to cut them off.

Naked and humiliated, Massicotte struggled to cover herself as best she could, the camera clicking yet again. When he ordered her to put one leg on the couch, she tried in vain to change his mind. “I’m just shaking, saying I can’t, and he’s saying: ‘Yes you can.’ It took him a long time to pry my hands away, but he did it. He finally just said: ‘I need you to move your hands. Don’t make me do it.’ ”

His last demand was the scariest. “He said: ‘The others are just about done, and there is one more thing I need you to do,’ ” Massicotte says, tears in her eyes. “ ‘I need you to get up on your hands and knees, bend over, and put your head on the headrest of the couch.’ All that was going through my mind was: as soon as I bend over, gun in the back of the head.”

She pleaded with him to stop, but it was no use. “I was shaking like a leaf,” she says. “I even told him: ‘You’re going to shoot me in the back of the head.’ He said: ‘Laurie, I told you I don’t have a gun. I am not going to kill you. You are doing good, stay calm, it’s almost over.’ ”

For once, the intruder was telling the truth. After one last snapshot, he covered her up with the Barbie blanket and promised her he was going to leave—as soon as he wiped down the coffee mug that he used to feed her those aspirins. Still convinced she was about to die, Massicotte tried to be helpful, suggesting that he also clean the pill bottle. “Good thinking,” he answered.

And then he vanished.

Later that morning, as police cruisers surrounded Massicotte’s house, Williams walked out of his cottage and headed to work. On his way to the car, he asked one of the neighbours what all the commotion was about.

For Massicotte, the next few months were indescribable. She installed an alarm system and bought a German shepherd, but she was livid at the OPP for not warning the neighbourhood after the first assault. She also found herself at the centre of incessant rumours, the kind that tend to swirl in tiny towns like Tweed. Everyone knew she was the victim, but the facts quickly got lost in the frenzy. Some people said she had been brutally raped. Others questioned her sanity, saying the cops didn’t believe a word she said.

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In the meantime, Massicotte became obsessed with solving the case herself—and in her eyes, everyone was a suspect. “It didn’t matter who it was,” she says. “Good people. Bad people. I was running out onto the street attacking hydro workers. ‘What the hell are you doing here?! Were you the one?!’ It wasn’t pretty.”

A few weeks after the attack, Massicotte went so far as to tell detectives that she suddenly recognized the voice in her living room: Larry Jones, another neighbour. Investigators later searched his house for clues, but came up empty—a further blow to her already frosty relationship with police. (Massicotte and Jones have since reconciled. “I never had a beef with Larry,” she says.)

Some days, Massicotte spent hours just staring out her window, praying for a clue. “You’ve lost your purpose,” she says. “Your world is upside down. You can’t sleep at night. You have nightmares. You keep going over everything, asking yourself if there is something you could have done to prevent this.” While she racked her brain, her alleged attacker struck again.

In November, police say Williams broke into a home in nearby Brighton, Ont., and killed Cpl. Marie-France Comeau. Days later, he wrote a personal letter to her grieving family, expressing his “sincere condolences.” (A few days after that, when a subordinate emailed the colonel to say Comeau’s military funeral was conducted “with the utmost professionalism,” Williams wrote back: “I’m pleased to hear that the service went as well as could be expected, given the very sad circumstances.”)

Jessica Lloyd was next. She was last heard from on the evening of Jan. 28, when she texted a friend from her home on Highway 37, the same road Williams took to work. A week later, during a roadside check of every car driving along Highway 37, an officer noticed that Williams’s tires matched a unique set of treads left near Lloyd’s home on the night she disappeared. Interrogated for hours, Williams reportedly confessed to everything.

The day the charges were announced, Massicotte listened to the police press conference on the radio. Two counts of first-degree murder. Two counts of sexual assault. Three months later, after investigators combed through Williams’s belongings, he was charged with 82 more counts linked to the lingerie break-ins. That’s when Massicotte learned another horrifying truth: in the days before she was tied up, Williams allegedly broke into her house two other times.

“Staying in my home now, it’s not easy,” she says. “But it would be worse if I left, if I ran from it.”

On Sept. 30, Laurie Massicotte will mark a gruelling anniversary. Over the past 12 months she has battled every possible emotion, from fear to betrayal to guilt. Even now, as she shares her story for the first time, she is careful not to disrespect the other families. “I would never want to offend the Lloyds or the Comeaus by speaking about my experience,” she says. “How can those people listen to this when their daughter is dead?”

But Massicotte is a victim, too, and she says she can’t begin to heal until her story is told. She is not looking for fame or pity. If she wanted the spotlight, she could have grabbed it a long time ago, when the reporters first invaded Cosy Cove. “Getting my story out now is my way of finally facing it, regardless of what other people want to tell me about what I should be doing,” Massicotte says. “So many people want me to shut up. The Crown doesn’t want me to say a word, and the police, of course, don’t want me to go on and on about their mistakes. They have not apologized. They don’t care.”

Col. Williams has not apologized, either. He hasn’t said a single word since his arrest, and despite previous reports about a plea bargain, all signs are pointing to a long, drawn-out trial. Yet Massicotte insists that she does forgive him. “Deep down inside, I will never forget,” she says. “But forgiveness is how I am going to move on. That is the only way.”

It is difficult to imagine how someone in Massicotte’s shoes can forgive her attacker, but not the police—who may or may not have done anything wrong. So many months later, even she can’t find the right words to explain it. “It is so hard to describe,” she says. “Nobody will understand, but it doesn’t really matter. As long as I understand.”

Maybe she felt pity for the man in her living room, sensing his sickness. Or maybe she is just grateful to be alive, knowing that two other women suffered a far worse fate. “There are no coincidences in this life,” Massicotte says. “And he let me live.”

Today, Massicotte is trying her best to focus on the future, not the past. She is a deeply spiritual woman, and believes in the old adage that God only gives people what they can handle. And as much as she wants to find a lawyer who can help her sue Williams—and perhaps the OPP—she is more anxious to prove to herself, and others, that her world wasn’t completely destroyed that morning. “Even my best friends, they don’t want to talk about it because they don’t know how to talk about it,” she says. “People look at me now like I’m this freak, and I want to tell them that I’m okay with everything. I don’t want people to walk on eggshells anymore.”

She wants something else, too. “I just hope when this is all over and done with, the township buys that cottage and tears it down,” she says. “I don’t think it should remain as a reminder of what happened there.”

And what happened three doors down.

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