The secret life of Colonel Russell Williams

If police are correct, he was a cold-blooded planner who in hours could transform from commander to monster


 

Colonel Russell WilliamsIn the early 1990s, years before Col. Russell Williams was an accused double murderer, he was a young, eager lieutenant stationed at the Canadian Forces flying school in Portage la Prairie, Man. A rookie instructor in the old CT-134 Musketeers, Williams was an obvious standout, quiet but intense. “He was super,” says Greg McQuaid, a retired major who was chief flight instructor at the time. “I wrote the personnel evaluation reports that got him promoted to captain. He was smart, hard-working and skilled. He could be so focused that sometimes it was like he could look right through you.”

Like countless others who crossed paths with Col. Williams, McQuaid is now wondering whether his old friend’s trademark focus was a sign of something much more sinister. But like everyone else, he just can’t reconcile what police now believe: that Russ Williams, the man in charge of CFB Trenton, Canada’s largest and most important air base, was also a serial predator who raped and killed innocent women. “It just doesn’t compute,” McQuaid says. “He fit in well and was well-respected by everybody. I saw nothing that made me think he’d be capable of something like this.”

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

The next sexual assault on his charge sheet—Sept. 30—was much like the first. It, too, occurred in the same neighbourhood where Williams lived. The unnamed victim woke up to find a man in her home, and then cowered in horror as he stripped off her clothes, fastened her wrists to a chair, and pulled out his camera. Back at CFB Trenton two days later, a smiling Williams presented a $700 cheque to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the same charity where his wife, Mary Elizabeth Harriman, is the associate director.

PHOTO GALLERY: Col. Russell Williams, a timeline — The busy schedule of an accused killer

As the crimes piled up, Williams looked anything but guilty. On Nov. 25, the body of Cpl. Marie France Comeau was discovered in her Brighton, Ont., home—a homicide now linked to the colonel. That same day, the 46-year-old was jokingly handcuffed and thrown in “jail” as part of a United Way fundraiser (he was “charged” with “being too young to be a wing commander”). Last month, with television cameras rolling, Williams greeted Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk, who were in town to inspect Canada’s outbound contribution to relief efforts in Haiti. Eleven days later, 27-year-old Jessica Lloyd vanished from her home near Belleville, Ont., another murder now pinned on Williams.

Since his arrest on Feb. 7, Williams has made only one brief appearance in court, and has yet to offer any explanation for a turn of events that has not only shocked everyone at the Department of National Defence, but the entire country. How could a man with such an impeccable record—a 23-year officer whose resumé included a stint ferrying the prime minister in Canada’s fleet of Challenger jets—harbour such a heinous secret? Everyone who worked with Williams praised his leadership, loyalty and intelligence. Nobody had any inkling of a double life. “I just can’t believe he did it,” McQuaid says. “I’m hoping he didn’t, to tell you the truth.”

Here’s what we do know. Russell David Williams was born on March 7, 1963, and joined the Canadian Forces in 1987, a year after graduating from the University of Toronto with a degree in economics and political science. He earned his wings in 1990, was promoted to captain in 1992, and was later posted to the VIP patrol in Shearwater, N.S. Williams was promoted to major in 1999, and shortly after earning his lieutenant-colonel stripes in 2004, he was named commanding officer at the Forces’ ultra-classified Camp Mirage near Dubai—a posting that required a top-secret security clearance and an exhaustive examination of his family, friends and background. He passed.

Williams, like all air force officers, also underwent an annual performance review. “It looks at your challenges in the year, how you dealt with them, how you are able to lead, how you are able to manage, and your conduct,” says Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Marc Terreau, who met Williams twice over the past year. “In other words, your values, your ability to manage, and your ability to lead.” Again, Williams passed with flying colours, and in July 2009 he was rewarded with a coveted posting: the top man at CFB Trenton.

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The move meant he and his wife would have to sell their two-storey home in the Orléans area of Ottawa, and split their days between the lakefront home in Tweed, a 45-minute drive from Trenton, and a new, $700,000 townhouse in the trendy Ottawa enclave of Westboro Village. “They were the perfect couple,” says Shirley White, who lived two doors down from the couple in Orléans. When Williams was sworn in as the base commander, Shirley’s husband, George, was invited to the ceremony.

Today, roughly a dozen ice fishing huts are visible from Williams’s back porch. Until news of his arrest, ice fishing and a 315-foot Canadian flag scarf knitted by Tweed women in honour of the Olympics were the town’s winter obsession. Williams and his wife were drawn to the town of 5,600 because of the view and affordable lakefront property. In 2004, the couple paid $178,000 for a light-grey bungalow and a piece of land on Cosy Cove Lane, a tree-lined dirt road hugging the lake about five kilometres outside of town.

Williams and his wife were sporadic weekenders on Cosy Cove. When they were around, though, Williams’s wife, Mary Elizabeth, was the more outgoing of the two, while Williams himself seemed to come and go at odd hours. “I’d never heard of the guy before the news,” said Lawrence Ramsay, owner of the local pub. “I’d never seen him before in my life.” He didn’t own a snowblower or a lawn tractor. “He did everything the old-fashioned way,” said Larry Jones, his next-door neighbour.

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Over the last five years Jones had minimal contact with his neighbour. A retired surveyor with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources, Jones found Williams to be friendly but quiet, only speaking when spoken to. Williams came over once for a party, and Jones would sometimes plow Williams’s driveway when Mary Elizabeth asked. Late last October, Jones returned home to find several police cars outside his house. “Did I get broken into?” Larry asked. “No, Larry, it’s way worse than that,” replied a police officer.

Throughout October, police had been looking for a suspect in the two cases of home invasions in the area, in which the female victims were tied up and sexually assaulted. The first victim, a woman from the Toronto area who had moved to Tweed barely a month before the Sept. 17 attack, lived on Charles Road, accessible from Cosy Cove Lane through a wooded path.

The next victim, who was attacked in the early morning hours of Sept. 30, lived even closer, a few doors down from Jones. This woman fingered Jones to the police, who—still unaware of Williams’s alleged involvement—came armed with a search warrant for Jones’s house. They were looking for several pairs of panties, some La Senza brand brassieres and a baby blanket–evidence from the first victim, the mother of a baby who was reportedly in the house at the time of the assault. “The cops told me that [the second victim] recognized my voice in the room with her,” Jones said. “I said she was either lying or she was badly mistaken because I wasn’t there.”

The police hauled away Jones’s hunting knife, boots, camera and two old computers destined for the landfill. He volunteered to do “anything to clear my name,” and provided DNA, fingerprints and a polygraph. “I had nothing to hide. After that, the cop says, ‘Larry, go home, put your feet up, and have a cold beer. You’re clear 100 per cent.’ ” Still, because no arrests were made, he continued to live under a cloud. His wife, Bonnie, the treasurer of a neighbouring municipality, received a phone call one day shortly after police visited their house. “What’s it like to live with a murderer?” asked the female caller, according to Jones.

The second victim, who lives down the street, has said little. Earlier this week, she drove through a phalanx of TV trucks, past a police checkpoint and onto her property, a bungalow less than a 30-second walk from the home of the man who allegedly assaulted her. “Thank you,” she said, when a reporter expressed sympathy for her ordeal. She then dragged out a large “No Trespassing” sign, placed it beside her front door, and went inside.

It was just before 1 p.m. on Nov. 25 when a man stopped by the Brighton, Ont., home of his girlfriend, Cpl. Marie-France Comeau. Comeau, who worked out of nearby CFB Trenton as a flight attendant, had just returned a few days earlier from India, where she’d accompanied Stephen Harper on a working trip. But when Comeau missed a subsequent shift, her boyfriend decided to stop by to check up on her.

Comeau’s neighbour, Terry Alexander, was greeting a plumber coming by for repairs when he saw Comeau’s boyfriend suddenly come charging out of house across the street. He was “crying his heart out,” recalls Alexander. “Did you see any strange people or strange cars around here?” He shouted. “She’s lying dead inside.”

Two days later, police confirmed Comeau’s death as a homicide. Investigators from the Northumberland OPP spent the next few weeks tearing apart her red-brick home, stripping the floors down to the concrete below and ripping out the cabinets in the kitchen. Meantime, rumours and gossip were spreading throughout the small town, just west of Belleville, about just what had happened inside the Comeau home.

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At the time of her murder, Comeau had been living in the Raglan Street house for just a year, and few people knew the 12-year veteran of the military. Comeau “didn’t socialize at all,” says Alexander. Another neighbour says he “never saw her,” adding that Comeau’s rudimentary English was likely to blame for her anonymity.

But while Comeau, 37, may not have been close with her neighbours, she remained so with ex-boyfriend Alain Plante, even after their breakup. Comeau and Plante, a basic-training instructor, spent more than four years together. During that time, Comeau had come to act as a step-mother to Etienne, Plante’s son from a previous relationship. In a post on Facebook, the younger Plante called Comeau “the best step-mother that could possibly have set foot in our lives.” “You left us too early,” Etienne added. “Your Prince Charming will be waiting for you for the rest of his life.”

On Dec. 4, Comeau was buried at the National Military Cemetery in Ottawa. For her alleged killer, it was business as usual. As December blended into January, he attended a press conference for the Olympic torch relay, issued his Christmas message to the base, and was honoured with the Canadian Forces Decoration first clasp, an award that recognizes military members with 22 years of “faithful service.” On Jan. 17, the defence minister and the chief of the defence staff stopped by for their tour of CFB Trenton, where they watched troops load relief supplies bound for Haiti.

Jan. 28 was a cold Thursday night in eastern Ontario; no snow, but the temperature dipped down to -16.5° C. Jessica Elizabeth Lloyd, a 27-year-old brunette with bright green eyes and a wide smile, was at her home, a red-brick bungalow with a rusty mailbox at the end of a gravel driveway. She lived alone, on a desolate drag of rural Highway 37—near the eerily named Thrasher Road—between Belleville and Tweed. But Lloyd was not a solitary person—she was outgoing, popular, and close with her family and friends, whom she talked to daily. So it wasn’t necessarily unusual that at 10:36 p.m., Lloyd sent a friend a text message, the contents of which are unknown to the public. What happened next, however, is beyond strange. For Lloyd’s only sibling Andy, there’s only one word to describe it: “Hell.”

On Friday morning, Lloyd didn’t show up to work at Tri-Board Student Transportation Services in nearby Napanee, where she coordinated school bus schedules for the area. Two hours after she was supposed to have started her shift, the office contacted her family. Andy, who lives in Belleville, and their mother, Roxanne McGarvey, immediately knew something terrible had happened. (Lloyd’s father died in 1996.) “It drew a red flag so quick,” Andy said. “That’s not like her.”

Loved ones rushed to her house to see what was wrong. They found her purse, wallet, identification and glasses inside, and her car in the driveway. But Lloyd was nowhere to be seen. Investigators haven’t confirmed that there were signs of forcible entry into the house, but one person who helped in the ensuing search for Lloyd told media that there were footprints outside her bedroom window.

Within 24 hours, the Belleville police were notified of her disappearance, and extensive ground and aerial searches unfolded over the weekend. Member of the tactical team, ATV unit and auxiliary police unit scoured the area around Lloyd’s house, along with officers from the neighbouring Stirling-Rawdon police department, and the CFB Trenton military base. Cops and 150 volunteers canvassed residences collecting tips.

Meanwhile, Lloyd’s family, friends and hundreds of people from the surrounding communities met at a Belleville Tim Hortons to hand out missing person posters, which included her physical description (five foot five, 125 lb.). Early versions reportedly featured the name of an unofficial suspect, rumoured to have been Lloyd’s ex-boyfriend; it was removed from the poster at the urging of police.

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Days went by, and there was no news. Police revisited her house looking for clues. They issued warnings to area residents to be extra vigilant, suggesting that women who live alone change their daily routines, “secure” their homes, and surround themselves with trusted people. News outlets in Ottawa began reporting on the case, and Facebook pages were created to spread the word about Lloyd’s disappearance. Her family’s optimism began to wither: “We’re just taking it day by day,” said Andy within a week. “I just hope she comes back healthy and safe.”

Then, on Thursday, Feb. 4, exactly one week after Lloyd was last heard from, the OPP put up a road block on Highway 37. From 7 p.m. that night until Friday at 6 a.m., investigators stopped every vehicle travelling in either direction and asked pointed questions that would lead them to Lloyd. At some point, the officers reportedly pulled over Col. Williams—and, according to some reports, noticed that his tire treads resembled the tracks left behind at the other crime scenes. By Sunday, Williams agreed to sit down and chat with a behavioural sciences expert from the Ontario Provincial Police. What he said is still a mystery, but one thing is certain: he was arrested later that day.

The next morning, Feb. 8, officers found Lloyd’s lifeless body dumped near a dirt road not far from Tweed. Investigators won’t say how she died, how they came to find her—or whether Williams led them to the corpse.

How Williams ended up here—locked in a jail cell, his reputation in ruins—is anybody’s guess. The facts have only begun to surface, and scientists who spend their careers trying to understand how a person who seems so “normal” can actually be so evil have reached only one unequivocal conclusion: no sex offender is exactly the same. Theories abound, but that’s all they are. Theories.

Criminologist Eric Hickey is familiar with the shock that invariably accompanies the arrest of a pillar of the community for the sort of heinous crimes Williams has been charged with. “People say, ‘He’s such a nice man. He’s such an important person; he couldn’t have done this.’ ” But the professor of criminology at California State University knows the profile of serial killers better than most, having assembled an extensive database on the demography of the crime. And if it turns out Williams is found guilty, Hickey says, he’ll represent “the perfect storm of killers.”

Hickey’s research reveals that 88 per cent of serial killers are male and 85 per cent are Caucasian. The average age when they claim their first victim is 28.5 years. The majority (62 per cent) of the killers target strangers exclusively and 71 per cent operate in a specific location or area, a “comfort zone.”

Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University, agrees: “I can think of mass murderers in the armed forces but can’t think of a serial killer.” Serial killers have an excessive need for power, usually because they’ve grown up feeling powerless, says Levin. “He gains a sense of importance by torturing and then killing his victims.” Often, serial killers who torture also collect “souvenirs” or “trophies” commemorating the crime—photographs, jewellery, underwear, even body parts.

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A diagnosis as a primary psychopath may help explain how someone would be able to keep such crimes under wraps for so long, Hickey says. It’s a pathology that allows someone to fit in wherever he goes, to be able to repress his anti-social tendency and to function at a high level of social skills. “So he can carry on with his life and no one would ever suspect because of his education, his intelligence and his position,” Hickey says.

The incidence of psychopaths in the military is no higher than in the general population, where it’s pegged around one per cent. But just like any other profession that offers authority it can be ripe for abuse, says Levin, because people trust them, and because they are seen as heroic figures. “Many times the crime of rape isn’t reported,” he says.

Police are still investigating that possibility. In the meantime, Williams has another court date scheduled for later this month. And the last of his alleged victims, Jessica Lloyd, will be laid to rest on Feb. 13.


 

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