Colonel Williams’ wife, under attack

An accused killer’s spouse struggles to rebuild her shattered life


 

Jim Rankin/Toronto Star/ Jerome Lessard/QMI Agency

On July 15, 2009, an hour before Col. Russell Williams was sworn in as the new boss of CFB Trenton, a two-seater jet skidded off the air base runway and smashed through a fence.

The plane, a 1950s-era Canadian Forces Silver Star, was being delivered to a private buyer in the U.S. when something went wrong during takeoff, forcing the pilot to abort.

For a few minutes, at least, the crash threatened to spoil Williams’s big day: his official change-of-command parade. But as emergency crews raced to the plane, they found a scene that could have been much worse. The pilot was conscious and alert, and the jet, resting on its belly, was still intact. So shortly after one o’clock, with the pilot safely in hospital, the festivities went ahead as planned.

GO TO LIVE BLOG from inside Col. Russell Williams’ hearing, day 2

If the accident was an omen for the unthinkable things to come, only Williams could have known that at the time. In the eyes of everyone else gathered at his swearing-in ceremony—including his wife of 18 years, Mary-Elizabeth Harriman—the colonel deserved what he was about to receive: the reins of Canada’s largest and most strategically important air base, a vital hub that does everything from search-and-rescue operations to welcoming home the flag-draped caskets returning from Afghanistan.

Harriman, a senior official at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, sat smiling in the front row that Wednesday afternoon as her husband, dressed in his crisp air force blues, accepted the commander’s pennant from his predecessor, Col. Mike Hood. In his speech, Williams thanked the friends who had come to celebrate his prestigious posting. He thanked Hood, now a brigadier general, for his “outstanding leadership” over the previous two years. And he thanked his wife, a woman who had watched him go from rookie officer to the prime minister’s personal pilot to the senior man at 8 Wing, an assignment that almost surely would have ended with a promotion to general.

Following military tradition, Hood, the outgoing commander, presented Harriman with a bouquet of flowers. “She was very excited about Russ’s new job,” says one air force employee, who spoke to Harriman that day. “They were very much in love.”

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If detectives are correct, by the time Harriman was handed those flowers, her husband had already broken into 33 different homes—including one house six separate times—and stolen hundreds of women’s undergarments, including bras, panties and even bathing suits. And in the coming months, with his wife oblivious to his perverted double life, Williams would allegedly graduate from lingerie burglar to serial predator. Now locked in a solitary cell, awaiting his next court date, the former air force star is accused of sexually assaulting two women and killing two others: Marie-France Comeau, a 38-year-old corporal stationed at his base, and Jessica Lloyd, 27, a Belleville, Ont., woman whose body was dumped at the side of a dirt road.

Comeau was buried at Ottawa’s National Military Cemetery on Dec. 4, 2009. In the days after her funeral, while police hunted for a killer, the colonel and his wife attended a number of Christmas parties at CFB Trenton, including four in one night. Lloyd vanished on Jan. 28, a Thursday. Williams and Harriman were together at their Ottawa home that weekend, his last as a free man.

It is impossible to fathom how hellish the past six months have been for Mary-Elizabeth Harriman. The person she shared her life with for two decades is not the person she thought he was. But one thing is absolutely clear: the woman who knew Russ Williams better than anybody—and who was betrayed in a way that defies description—is desperate to salvage what’s left of her privacy, her impeccable reputation, and a future that nobody could have foreseen.

Despite being named in hundreds of news articles about her husband, the 52-year-old has not once spoken publicly about his case. In June, four months after Williams’s arrest, Harriman did file a sworn affidavit in a Belleville court—“The revelation of these charges has been devastating to me,” she wrote—but only because she was forced to say something. One of Williams’s alleged assault victims is now suing Harriman, claiming that she “fraudulently” acquired her husband’s share of their $700,000 Ottawa townhouse six weeks after his arrest in a “secret” deal to shield his assets from potential lawsuits. Harriman denies the allegation, insisting that she paid “valuable consideration” for Williams’s stake in the home, and that “the timing of the transfer was not unusual given the crisis facing the marriage.”

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As part of her defence, Harriman is asking the judge to seal all the evidence she plans to present, including personal financial statements and details about her career. In a written briefing filed in advance of a July 27 hearing, her lawyer, Mary Jane Binks, goes so far as to suggest that Harriman deserves the same privacy protections as the women her husband is accused of attacking. “Although the defendant Harriman is not a criminal complainant against the defendant Williams,” Binks says, “she is nevertheless a victim.”

Few would disagree with that statement. By all accounts, Mary-Elizabeth Harriman is a remarkable and inspiring woman—talented, loyal, passionate about her job, and forever humble. While her now-infamous partner was climbing the chain of Canada’s military, she was working hard to improve the health of average Canadians. On top of her responsibilities as associate executive director of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada (where she earns a six-figure salary), Harriman has served on a long list of national and international committees that have tackled everything from chronic disease prevention to end-of-life care issues. Twice, she has been recognized in the House of Commons.

“The best way to describe Mary-Elizabeth Harriman is that she’s just one of the kindest people I’ve ever met,” says William G. Tholl, who was CEO of the foundation from 1995 until 2001. “People have an extraordinarily high regard for what she’s done. But high-profile? That’s not Mary-Elizabeth. She doesn’t seek that life.”

In January, just days before police caught up with Russ Williams, the Heart and Stroke Foundation celebrated the 11th anniversary of its “Health Check” program, the little red and white label that appears on everything from cereal boxes to frozen food, confirming that the product meets the nutrient recommendations in Canada’s Food Guide. The initiative has been a monumental success, and is now a staple on grocery store shelves across the country. Among those who helped transform that idea into reality was Mary-Elizabeth Harriman.

Tragically, though, the average Canadian only recognizes her name for one reason: she is his wife. She is that woman who had no idea that her husband, now an accused double murderer, was allegedly stealing drawerfuls of underwear and hiding them inside their home. She is that woman who will be talked about for years to come by people she has never met, each one wondering the same question: how did she not know?

“Mary-Elizabeth is a wonderful lady and she doesn’t deserve this,” says George White, a friend and former neighbour in the Ottawa suburb of Orléans who was among those invited to Williams’s change-of-command ceremony. “She is an innocent victim.”

Even some of the women whose homes were allegedly targeted by Col. Williams feel horrible for his wife. “I don’t know how he could have kept all this stuff hidden, but he did,” says Patty Mitchelmore, whose Ottawa house was broken into in August 2008. “Her life is destroyed.”

Mary-Elizabeth Harriman (Mary-Liz, as her friends call her) was born on Nov. 15, 1957, and raised in Madsen, Ont., a mining town northwest of Thunder Bay. Even before she laid eyes on Russell Williams, hers was a military family. Frederick Harriman, her father, was a decorated Second World War veteran who served with the storied North Shore Regiment, the New Brunswick army unit that stormed Juno Beach on D-Day.

When he returned to Canada after five years overseas, Frederick earned a geology degree from the University of New Brunswick and took a job in Rouyn-Noranda, Que. It was there he met Irene Lavigne, who worked as a stenographer for the same mining company. They married on May 2, 1953.

Frederick spent the bulk of his career in northern Ontario, as chief geologist for Madsen Red Lake Gold Mines Ltd. His daughter, a pretty girl with short hair and large circular glasses, was an honours student at Red Lake District High School, where, even back then, she displayed a passion for healthy living. In her graduating yearbook, Harriman listed “fattening foods” as her pet peeve and a “career in food sciences” as her ambition. (Her favourite saying was: “ . . . but what can you do.”)

Mary-Liz grew up as an only child. Her parents did have a son, Peter John, but he died as an infant.

After high school, Harriman attended the University of Guelph, where she graduated in 1980 with a bachelor of applied science, specializing in human nutrition. Between 1986 and 1989, she pursued a master’s degree in adult education at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. By then, the Madsen gold mine had shut its doors and the population of her hometown was dwindling. Her mom and dad had joined the exodus, selling the family home and retiring to a red-brick bungalow in the Ottawa Valley community of Beachburg.

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It wasn’t long before Fred and Irene would be introduced to their future son-in-law.

Harriman met her would-be husband in the late-1980s, around the time Williams, still a lieutenant, was finishing his basic flying course at CFB Moose Jaw, Sask. A natural in the cockpit, he was later assigned, in the spring of 1990, to an instructor’s post at CFB Portage la Prairie, where he trained new recruits in the old single-engine Musketeers. Harriman was with him in Manitoba.

“She is just a sweetheart of a lady,” says Daryl Ford, a friend and retired captain who lived in the same townhouse complex, and who hitched a ride to work with Williams every morning. “Of anybody you knew, they totally had their act together. They were a successful, nice couple, the kind of people you would leave to watch your house. That’s why it’s so absolutely devastating to everybody. How do you go from that to this?”

Like so many others who considered Williams a close friend, Ford can’t reconcile the man he knew with the man police arrested. “My wife and I were blown away when this story broke, and we felt so sorry for Mary-Liz,” he says. “If you were to cut a mould of the perfect person—successful, had his stuff together financially, and just everything in life—it was Russ.”

On June 1, 1991, a Saturday, Williams and Harriman exchanged vows at a civil ceremony in Winnipeg. She was 33. He was 28. “It was a very small wedding, about 20 people,” recalls Yves Gosselin, another former pilot who was among Williams’s circle of friends during their stint at Portage la Prairie. “They were both very happy. He was always smiling.”

After the wedding, Gosselin remembers asking Williams whether he planned to have a family. “I wanted to have kids, but he said: ‘I don’t want to have kids,’ ” Gosselin recalls. “He said they didn’t want to put a kid in the kind of world that we were living in.”

Williams and Harriman left Manitoba in 1992 for a posting in Nova Scotia, but three years later they were on the move again, this time to Ottawa. They purchased a corner-lot home in the suburb of Orléans, and would live there for more than a decade—a rarity for a military family.

Williams and Harriman gardened together. They golfed. If they went for a walk, it was always hand in hand. And whenever she returned from a business trip, her husband would meet the taxi in the driveway, give her a peck on the cheek, and carry her luggage into the house. They had a cat named Curio. When it died of old age, they adopted Rosebud, a black and white kitten.

“They were a well-respected and nice couple in our neighbourhood, and we felt very lucky to have them with us,” said Shirley Fraser, who lived across the street. “I wish I could wake up and say this was just a bad dream.”

When they first moved to the area, Williams was flying Challenger jets at the 412 (Transport) Squadron, the unit that ferries VIPs, including prime ministers, across the country. He would go on to become the Queen’s personal pilot during her 2005 royal visit to Saskatchewan and Alberta, spend six months commanding Canada’s secret outpost in the Middle East (Camp Mirage), and advise the Department of National Defence on millions of dollars worth of military aircraft purchases. Yet his wife’s resumé—though not as glamorous as a photo op with the Queen—is equally impressive.

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Modest, unassuming and universally respected by her peers, Harriman’s long list of accomplishments includes helping to create the Canadian Stroke Strategy, an initiative that aims to build a nationwide approach to prevention, treatment and rehabilitation. She helped organize the first-ever International Conference on Women, Heart Disease and Stroke. And while on loan to the Health Charities Council of Canada, she helped author a briefing for the historic Romanow commission on the future of health care.

“She is about as dedicated and capable a person as you could ever meet, and she always understates her own abilities and overstates the abilities of others,” says Mike Savage, a former board member at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and now the Liberal MP for Dartmouth-Cole Harbour. “She has a great sense of humour—in a dry, quiet way—and whenever things would get tense in any of the work that we did, she was calm, imperturbable, and managed situations to cause the least amount of stress for other people.
“She is a really good person,” he continues. “My heart goes out to her.”

In September 2000, Harriman lost her mother to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Four years later, on Canada Day, her dad passed away at the age of 84. They are buried in the same plot at a cemetery in Fort-Coulonge, the small Quebec community where they married.

Two months after her father’s death, in August 2004, Harriman and Williams purchased what would later become a crime scene: 62 Cosy Cove Lane, a $178,000 waterfront cottage in the village of Tweed, Ont. By then, Williams had been promoted to lieutenant-colonel and was the commanding officer of Trenton’s 437 (Transport) Squadron, the unit that chauffeurs prime ministers on international jaunts and delivers supplies to Canadian troops overseas. He spent his weeks in Tweed, commuting to the base an hour each way, while Harriman remained at their home in Orléans.

After work, Williams would often put on a bathing suit and clean the beach in his Tweed backyard, making sure his wife had a nice place to swim. During most summer weekends, Harriman joined him there, as did a steady flow of close friends and co-workers. The mailbox had both their names written on it—Williams and Harriman. Inside the cottage, Frederick’s war medals were framed and mounted, a gift from Russ to Mary-Liz.

According to police, the burglaries began on Sept. 9, 2007, when Williams walked through the unlocked front door of the cottage directly beside his. Three weeks later, he apparently did it again. By the time he and Harriman celebrated her 50th birthday that November, Williams had allegedly committed five break and enters and pocketed the first items in what would become a massive collection of women’s lingerie.

The rest of his charge sheet paints a stomach-churning portrait of a methodical, obsessed intruder who targeted dozens of homes within walking distance of either his Orléans house or the Tweed cottage. The most heinous of his alleged crimes—two home invasion sexual assaults and two murders—all occurred after he took command of Trenton, at a time when he and his wife were once again living apart during the week.

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Still, despite not seeing each other for days at a time, nothing about the couple offered any clue of what was to come. “She is just a wonderful lady—a wonderful lady,” says one member of 8 Wing, who asked not to be named. “I am used to meeting senior officers’ wives and calling them ‘ma’am.’ That’s the normal protocol. Well, when she introduced herself, I said: ‘Good evening, ma’am.’ She said: ‘Okay, stop. Let’s try this again. Hi, I’m Mary-Elizabeth.’ I said: ‘Hi Mary-Elizabeth.’ She said: ‘That’s better.’ ”

On June 3, 2009, a few weeks before Williams took the Trenton reins, Mike Savage stood up in the House of Commons to praise some of the “great health advocates” who have fought hard for anti-tobacco legislation. Among those he acknowledged was his old colleague, Mary-Elizabeth Harriman. The day before—and the day after—her husband allegedly broke into the same Orléans home and added to his stock of stolen panties.

The chain of events leading up to Williams’s arrest is now common knowledge. On Thursday, Feb. 4—desperate for a lead in the disappearance of Jessica Lloyd—police set up a RIDE-style canvas on Highway 37 in Belleville. Officers were instructed to look at everyone’s tires, hoping to match a unique set of treads left near Lloyd’s home on the night she vanished. Col. Williams and his Nissan Pathfinder were among those pulled over.

By Sunday evening, he was sitting in a police interrogation room, reportedly confessing to the long list of crimes now typed on his charge sheet.

That same night, Feb. 7, Harriman was alone at the couple’s swank new townhouse in the trendy Westboro district of Ottawa. After months of delays (and after selling their long-time home in Orléans), the construction was finally finished. They moved in just a few days before Christmas—a month after Comeau was killed, and a month before Lloyd went missing. They had been there barely a month (and Williams mostly on weekends) when cops came looking for the stolen lingerie.

Even before police announced the sexual assault and murder charges at a Monday morning press conference, Harriman went into hiding, shielded and comforted by an inner circle of fiercely loyal friends and colleagues. One of those women, a classmate from her high school days in Red Lake, flew from Calgary to be by her side.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation issued a statement of “complete support” for its associate executive director, describing Harriman as “a kind and compassionate individual” and a “long-serving, greatly admired and universally liked member of our team.” At the headquarters building of CFB Trenton, many of Williams’s stunned subordinates immediately thought of Mary-Liz. “I feel absolutely horrible for his wife,” said Lt.-Col. David Alexander, who worked down the hall from Williams. “She is not as much of a victim as Marie-France Comeau or Jessica Lloyd or the women attacked in the Tweed area, but her life has been changed and altered through no fault of her own.”

But now, a judge is being asked to decide whether Harriman did do something wrong. On March 22, six weeks after her world was shattered, she made a deal with her incarcerated husband. He took the notorious Tweed cottage; she took the Ottawa townhouse, paying him $62,000 in cash and assuming the remainder of the mortgage. Williams’s first alleged assault victim—a 21-year-old woman who was blindfolded, stripped naked, and photographed while her baby daughter slept in another room—now claims in a lawsuit that the “suspicious” real estate deal was a “fraudulent conveyance” aimed at thwarting her pursuit of damages. The victim’s lawyer, Michael Pretsell, declined to comment.

In defence documents, Harriman says “her reputation in the community is exemplary” and “at no time was there any intention whatsoever to fraudulently defeat” the victim’s claim. “The revelation of the criminal charges against the defendant Williams and the defendant Harriman’s identity as his wife has been devastating to her,” her lawyer wrote. “In addition to the obvious emotional devastation to her, the defendant Harriman’s previously anticipated future and financial security had become jeopardized.”

Harriman and her lawyer did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls seeking comment. Maclean’s also contacted dozens of Harriman’s friends, relatives, colleagues and associates, but very few agreed to be interviewed. They respect her so much, and feel such sympathy for what she has endured, that they figure it’s best to keep quiet. A spokeswoman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation also declined to speak, answering every question with a “no comment.”

Is Harriman still visiting her husband in prison? Does Williams phone the house? Does a part of her still cling to the hope that he might actually be innocent, and that the police have made a terrible mistake? Has he apologized to her?

For now—and perhaps forever—Harriman is not saying.

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What is obvious, though, is that she is determined to regain some semblance of a normal life. She has moved back into the Westboro townhouse that was once surrounded by yellow police tape and television news trucks. She has returned to her office in downtown Ottawa, where colleagues have been nothing but supportive (and where she was served with the lawsuit). And in June, after her 19th wedding anniversary passed with her husband in prison, Harriman helped usher in the first-ever Canadian Stroke Congress, a major conference of the leading experts in stroke prevention, treatment and recovery. Not surprisingly, her photo did not appear in the program alongside other members of the organizing committee.

Michael Gennis, who lives in the townhouse next to hers, spoke to Harriman when she returned home, long after all the camera crews left. “I said to her: ‘I’m sorry for what you’re going through,’ ” he recalls. Harriman’s response, however unnecessary, is yet another testament to her character. “She just apologized for having put the neighbourhood through all the scrutiny.


 

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