As Russell Williams was settling in for the first night at his new home—a tiny, solitary cell in the depths of Kingston Penitentiary—his old home on Cosy Cove Lane was dark and empty, as it has been for months. Next door, a family still searching for answers finished their Thursday dinner. “We played cards at this table with him,” says Ron, sitting beside his wife, Monique. “We drank beer at this table with him. And if somebody asked me today: ‘Did I ever see anything?’ The answer would be ‘No, absolutely nothing.’ ”
Like so many others who once considered the ex-colonel a close friend, Ron and Monique still can’t fathom the two faces of their former neighbour: the Russ who was always welcome in their Tweed, Ont., kitchen—and who enjoyed a special bond with their two children—and the Russ who kicked off his vile crime spree inside this very same house. “When we look back, we feel so stupid,” Ron says, shaking his head. “You shouldn’t, but you do. You can’t help it.”
The former commander of Canada’s largest air force base pleaded guilty last week to 88 charges (dozens of break-ins targeting women’s lingerie, two home-invasion sexual assaults, and two first-degree murders), but his chilling transformation from respected officer to serial predator began right here, just a few steps from his infamous lakefront cottage. It was Sept. 9, 2007, and while the family next door was visiting a dying relative eight hours away, Williams strolled through their open front door and headed straight for the bedroom of Ron and Monique’s 12-year-old daughter.
Williams knew the girl well. She had taught him to play cribbage, poking fun at his early mistakes. She baked cupcakes for him and his wife, Mary-Elizabeth Harriman, and delivered them to their door. In Grade 7, she even chose Williams as the topic for a school project. “I had to ask him 15 questions, and one of them was: ‘If you could do anything else with your life, what would it be?’ ” recalls the girl, now a teenager, sitting at the table with her parents. “He said, ‘I don’t think I would want to do anything else.’ ”
“He lied,” her father says.
Williams spent nearly three hours inside the girl’s room, modelling multiple pairs of her underwear and photographing himself in the mirror. He also pocketed six items, the first pieces of what would become a massive collection of stolen bras, panties, bathing suits and other female clothing. Williams would return to her bedroom on two other occasions while the family was away; neither she nor her parents had any idea that someone had rifled through her dresser.
“He knew we were gone, and he took advantage of that,” Monique says. (To protect the identity of Williams’s underage victim, Maclean’s is not publishing her name or her parents’ surname). “We feel like we lost a friend, but I can’t forgive him,” Monique adds. “That was my baby he targeted.”
The scope of Williams’s depraved double life is now public knowledge, revealed in gruesome detail at his recent sentencing hearing. Among the many tragic details, Ron and Monique now know that his second murder victim, Jessica Lloyd, was alive in the cottage beside theirs for 15 hours, then strangled and left in the garage for another four days. “It broke my heart,” Ron says.
But despite finally knowing the full truth, Williams’s neighbours are still struggling, like so many others, to answer the one question that remains a mystery: why? What triggered their friend, on that September night three years ago, to sneak into their home and begin a downward spiral that would end, two homicides later, in a police interrogation room?
Looking back, the neighbours can’t help but remember some of the stress Williams was under in 2007, right before the break-ins started. Curio, his beloved cat of 18 years, was sick and had to be euthanized. Williams and Harriman were so upset that they asked the vet to administer the needle inside their Ottawa home so she could die in a familiar setting. “He had tears in his eyes telling us about the death of that cat,” Ron recalls.
Williams was also suffering from a sudden bout of chronic arthritis. He was popping prescription pills, but the constant pain was so fierce at times that he worried he might have to retire from the military. “We would play cards here, and he could not sit for more than half an hour,” Ron says. “He would get up and stand behind the chair, holding the chair.” (Williams did the same thing during his videotaped confession to police, leaning against a wall for long periods of time.)
But as they have done since the day Williams was arrested, the family next door is not jumping to conclusions. They aren’t the type to gossip, and although they’ve often wondered about Curio’s death and the pain medication, they have no idea what actually turned their friend into a sadistic killer. “We went through a really tough time with this for the simple reason that we don’t know the guy they’re talking about [in court],” Ron says. “That’s not the guy we knew.”
The guy they knew was funny and modest and in love with his wife. He was the guy who fished in their ice hut and talked music with their son and never bragged about his high-profile job, even though it included ferrying prime ministers and the Queen. In fact, Williams didn’t even tell his neighbours he was working as Her Majesty’s official pilot during her 2005 visit until after she left.
The guy they knew wore a Gilligan-style hat while meticulously weeding his beach. The guy they knew would belt out a loud “Oh baby!” as he laid down a winning cribbage hand—and then joke about how he wanted to glue the pegs in place and hang the winning board over his mantel. The guy they knew appeared genuinely horrified when he heard that two women in the neighbourhood had been sexually assaulted in their homes. “He said: ‘Mary-Elizabeth is very afraid and very upset about this,’ ” Monique recalls.
At the time, of course, she had no clue she was speaking to the culprit—or that his sick crimes would soon escalate to murder.
Even now, after Williams’s guilty plea, the depth of his deception is difficult to comprehend. This was the same man who took the neighbours’ kids tubing on the back of his boat. The same man who gave both children back-to-school gift cards from Old Navy. The same man who sat in his cottage, happily answering the girl’s questions for her Grade 7 project. When Curio got sick that summer, the kids gave Russ and Mary-Liz a wooden wall decoration that depicted a cat holding onto a bar. “Hang in there,” it said.
And then, just a few weeks later, Williams snuck into their house, knowing full well that they were visiting Monique’s gravely ill mother in Sudbury. His second break-in, on Sept. 28, was even more egregious: Monique’s mom had died, and her funeral was the very same day. When the family returned to Tweed—after Williams had stolen more underwear and posed for more pics—he dropped by to express his condolences. “Life went on,” Monique says. “He knew but we didn’t know, and he didn’t act any differently.”
At the time, Williams was posted to a desk job at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa, where he and his wife owned a home in the suburb of Orléans. But they spent as much time as they could at the cottage, a two-hour drive from the capital. During one visit in early 2008, they brought along their new black and white kitten, Rosebud, and introduced her to the girl next door.
On May 23, Williams broke into her bedroom for a third time.
Through it all, his demeanour never changed. In the winters, Williams kept his walkie-talkie on the same channel as his neighbours, radioing the hut to see if the fish were biting. He gave the girl a key to his cottage, and paid her $20 a day to cat-sit “Rosie” when he was away. And in early 2009, he approached Monique in her yard to ask her a question—en francais. “I’m learning to speak French,” he said. “Can we have a conversation?”
Monique, who is fluent in both official languages, was stunned. Williams explained that he was enrolled in an intensive, six-month French course (the final step before assuming the top job at CFB Trenton) and asked if he could practise whenever they were together. “Every time he came up to visit, he knew more and more,” she says. “I was amazed.”
Williams was sworn in as 8 Wing Commander on July 15, 2009, and moved full-time to the Tweed cottage, a 45-minute commute from the base. He and his wife connected on weekends, either on Cosy Cove or in Ottawa, where the couple was in the process of building a swank new townhouse in the trendy district of Westboro. That September, two women within walking distance of Williams’s cottage—including Laurie Massicotte, who lived just three doors down—were attacked by an intruder, stripped naked with a knife and repeatedly photographed. The home invasions were the talk of the street, and like everyone else, Williams seemed spooked.
Two months later, Marie-France Comeau, a corporal stationed at Williams’s base, was raped and killed in her Brighton, Ont., bedroom, an hour’s drive from Tweed. Two months after that, Jessica Lloyd vanished from her home in Belleville. As Williams later learned, a set of snowy tire tracks left on Lloyd’s property led police to his door.
“I came home from work and I see this yellow police tape,” Monique recalls. “My first thought was: Mary-Elizabeth is dead inside the house, because of what happened to Laurie.” In some ways, the truth was harder to stomach: her friend and neighbour had confessed to both murders and both assaults.
Weeks later, after an exhaustive search of Williams’s computer, detectives broke the news to Ron and Monique: Williams had been in their house three times and stolen numerous pieces of lingerie. But because the officers could not disclose details, Monique assumed the underwear was hers. It wasn’t until Oct. 7, when Williams’s lawyer announced that his client would plead guilty to all charges, that she and Ron learned the nauseating truth. “You just feel total rage,” he says. “It is one of the worst things that you can possibly hear as a mother or a father.”
Ron did not attend the sentencing hearing, fearful he would reach into the prisoner’s box. Monique did go, but stayed only long enough to see a few of the lurid photos taken inside her home. She left the courtroom in tears. “We never felt the need to lock our doors,” she says. “We do now.”
“We could not see, in any way, this man turning from the person we knew to the monster he became,” Ron adds. “He never showed that side to us, or anyone else. There is a special place in hell for people who commit such despicable and heinous crimes.”
Yet as much as they despise Williams for betraying their trust, Ron and Monique feel terrible for his wife. Harriman was also a dear friend, and despite the terror her husband unleashed, they want her to know she is still welcome in their house. “We respect Mary-Elizabeth’s privacy, and we want nothing but the best for her,” Ron says. “We are victims, but so is she. She has to live with this.”
A senior executive at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, Harriman has not spoken publicly since her husband’s arrest, and her continuing silence has raised some eyebrows. In the meantime, most Canadians only know two things about her: that she was paid $3,000, courtesy of taxpayers, after complaining that police scratched her floors while executing their search warrant. And that one of her husband’s sexual assault victims is suing her, claiming she “fraudulently” acquired Williams’s share in the Westboro townhouse six weeks after his arrest in a “secret” deal to shield his assets from potential lawsuits.
Harriman denies the allegation, insisting she paid “valuable consideration” for his stake and that “the purpose of the contract was for her financial security.” In a sworn affidavit, she also says she was “devastated” by the charges, and that she, too, is “a victim.”
Ron couldn’t agree more. “Her whole life has been ripped out from under her,” he says. “She is probably trying to understand like everybody else is trying to understand, and probably blaming herself in some way.”
Monique, who shared many laughs and many glasses of white wine with her old neighbour, says she understands why Harriman has shielded herself from the spotlight, especially with a lawsuit pending. She also understands (if the reports are accurate) why Mary-Liz might continue to visit her husband in prison. “When you love somebody like they loved each other—and I believe they did—you just can’t cut that out,” she says. “You can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist.”
Williams’s neighbours wish this entire nightmare didn’t exist. They wish they never had to tell their daughter that a man she trusted was not that man at all. They wish they noticed something—anything—that would have outed Williams before he had the chance to kill. But they also understand how fortunate they are. Their daughter is still alive. “I am just so thankful,” Ron says, “that it isn’t something else we’re sitting here discussing.”
Ironically enough, Ron and Monique renovated their daughter’s bedroom after the break-ins—long before they were told what Williams did. In a strange way, it gives them some comfort to know that the room captured in his photographs is no longer there.
They only hope that one day, they can say the same thing about the cottage next door.