Lee Burgess, one of four Ontario prosecutors working the Russell Williams case, warned the judge that the evidence to come was “extremely disturbing.” But no words—not his, nor anybody else’s—would ever be enough to brace someone for the gruesome timeline he was about to reveal.
It began with photos. Dozens and dozens of them. Williams squeezed into a pair of Tweety Bird underwear snatched from a little girl’s bedroom. Williams standing in a forest, modelling his latest batch of stolen lingerie. Williams lying on a neighbour’s bed, masturbating beside a large stuffed animal. Williams with a pair of underwear wrapped around his head—like the balaclava he would later don during the brutal murders of two innocent women.
Williams wearing his blue air force uniform, his pants pulled down to expose the bright pink panties hidden underneath.
Frame after frame, hour after hour, the pattern was exactly the same. Williams would stake out houses “where attractive young women lived,” photograph their bedrooms, then their underwear drawers, and then himself. In every shot, he has the same blank stare on his face, as if posing for yet another grip-and-grin for the base newspaper.
With each new heist, the colonel grew more confident—and more daring. During one late-night robbery, he walked away with 87 pieces of lingerie; during another, the stash was double that. Before leaving one girl’s bedroom, he took the time to type a note on her computer: “Merci.”
On July 11, 2009, just four days before being sworn in as commander of CFB Trenton, Williams stood in a neighbour’s backyard and stared through an open window. It was dark, after midnight, and when the woman inside climbed into a shower, Williams pounced. He stripped naked, headed for the bedroom, and fled the scene with a single black thong. “Very tempting to take her panties/bra from bathroom,” Williams later wrote on his computer. “Decided it would be entirely obvious that someone was in the house while she was in the shower—took panties from panty drawer instead.”
Williams would later confess to detectives that as he stood in that woman’s backyard (his clothes lying on the ground beside him) his predatory drive was “escalating.” He wanted, as he put it, “to take more risks,” because posing in stolen bras and skirts was no longer enough to feed his ever-darkening fantasies.
A few weeks later—while still occupying the top job at the country’s largest and most important air base—Williams would graduate to sexual assault, targeting two women who lived within walking distance of his cottage in Tweed, Ont. Both were tied up, blindfolded, stripped, posed and photographed. And after both attacks, Williams was back at his office early the next morning, sporting the same wide grin and the same can-do attitude that motivated so many of his subordinates.
The colonel was not just leading an elaborate double life; he was using his high rank to stake out his victims. In the fall of 2009, during a visit overseas, he met a flight attendant stationed at his base: Marie-France Comeau. They had a brief conversation, and the 37-year-old corporal happened to mention that she lived alone. Like everyone else, she had no idea that her esteemed commander was a sexual predator.
Back at his desk, Williams accessed her personal file, looked up her address, and snuck into her house. And with his video camera rolling, he spent hours raping and torturing the corporal, ignoring her pleas to stop. “I don’t want to die,” she told Williams. “I don’t want to die.”
His next murder, the one that would finally lead to his arrest, was equally revolting. He waited outside until Jessica Lloyd turned out the lights, and then snuck in through a kitchen window. Armed again with his video camera, Williams tied Lloyd to her bed, raped her, and drove her back to his cottage, keeping her eyes covered in duct tape the entire trip. Lloyd was so desperate to live that she followed every order, and apologized profusely if she didn’t comply fast enough. “If I die,” she told him at one point, “will you please make sure my mom knows that I love her.”
As Burgess outlined the facts in open court, stopping at times to choke back his own tears, Williams hunched over in his chair, rarely lifting his eyes from the ground. Even now, with a full account of his depraved crimes finally exposed, the facts still seem utterly unbelievable. A standout officer with an impeccable reputation—a man who ferried prime ministers and the Queen, and seemed destined for a promotion to general—was actually a sexual deviant of the worst kind.
He was happily married for 18 years. He loved to golf and fish and fly airplanes. And he signed every email with the same two words: “Take care.” How could that very same man be capable of such unthinkable evil?
“Leading a double life is very, very typical,” says Louis B. Schlesinger, a forensic psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “It’s the rule rather than the exception. Most people believe that they can detect deviance and dangerousness by looking at or talking to someone, that they can detect character and deception. They can’t. Most people believe that the guy who would have committed these crimes is dirty, no teeth, pus coming out of his eyes, all indices that would suggest danger—and it’s not true. But people want to believe that because it gives them a sense of security.”
After his arrest, an Ontario Provincial Police investigator asked Williams the question that everyone wants answered: why? Not even Williams was exactly sure. He told the officer that he’d had a fetish for women’s underwear as far back as his 20s, but never acted on it until a few years ago. “Mr. Williams said it was odd,” Burgess told the court. “But he wasn’t sure what triggered this behaviour.”
One thing is absolutely certain: Williams turned his fantasy into reality for the first time on Sept. 9, 2007.
He was stationed at National Defence headquarters back then, and was living with his wife, Mary-Elizabeth Harriman, at their two-storey home in the Ottawa suburb of Orléans. But on that particular weekend, he was visiting the couple’s Tweed cottage, a two-hour drive from the capital. He knew his next-door neighbours were out of town—and that they rarely locked their door—so he let himself in.
Williams spent the next three hours inside the bedroom of a 12-year-old girl, trying on her underwear, and photographing his every move. He returned to the house two more times.
Williams was close friends with the neighbours. He and his wife went there for dinner and played cribbage with the girl’s parents. They had no idea he had broken into their house until after he was arrested—and after police discovered the massive photo folder on his computer. The girl’s mother was in court this week for Williams’s guilty plea, and watched in horror from the gallery as photos of her daughter’s bedroom flashed on the screen. She left in tears.
Though clearly depraved, Williams was obsessively organized. Each break-in was a treasured memory, and he carefully catalogued each photo in a series of well-hidden folders on the very same computer he shared with his wife. He made sure to take an individual shot of every single item he stole, and then a group shot. The panties and bras were folded so neatly that the pictures could easily be mistaken for a storefront display.
Early on, Williams focused only on the neighbourhood surrounding his cottage. He targeted the home of 11-year-old twins, took close-up photos of girls’ trophies and plaques, and used his daily jogs as reconnaissance missions. But it wasn’t long before he started robbing properties in Orléans, too, including one house where three young girls lived, aged 9, 11 and 13. Williams photographed their bedrooms and stole 20 items of clothing, and later downloaded his photos to a file he called “mystery little girl.”
Most of his victims had no idea that a man had been in their house. Williams was careful to conceal his tracks, and even though he was almost caught in the act on more than one occasion, his face was never seen. In fact, it’s now clear that the risk of being caught was a big part of what drove him to strike again.
He started leaving notes for some of his victims. He ejaculated on a dresser, leaving DNA behind. He even saved screenshots of police reports warning the public about some of his break-ins—an obvious point of pride. Twice, his collection of stolen goods became so overwhelming that he had to burn them. (And in typical Williams fashion, he made sure to log the date each item was discarded.)
In the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2009, while most people were still revelling in New Year’s Eve celebrations, Williams snuck into a house just around the corner from his Ottawa home. The owners were out of town, and Williams went straight for a bedroom belonging to their 15-year-old daughter. He stole 68 pieces of clothing, and later labelled the photographs “HNY” (Happy New Year). The very next night, Williams went back to the house and took a picture of himself using a makeup brush on his penis. As one prosecutor said: “There is nothing in the evidence to suggest the makeup brush was stolen. It was left in her room to use again.”
Later that month, Williams began an intensive, six-month French language training course, his final step before a promotion to colonel and his posting to CFB Trenton. But tragically, his rapid rise through the military ranks coincided with a violent turn in his criminal life. While Williams the colonel was being rewarded for his talents and his hard work, Williams the predator was growing far more dangerous.
On June 16, 2009, DND officially announced that Williams would take over as 8 Wing commander, effective the following month. Three days later, Williams broke into another Ottawa home and walked away with 186 pieces of clothing, including bathing suits, dresses and slips. A few weeks after he officially took command of the base, Williams hid in another Tweed backyard, stalking a 14-year-old girl who lived there. While there, as he recounted in his notes, he took off all of his clothes and began to masturbate. The girl’s father arrived home first.
A detective later asked Williams what he planned to do if the girl’s dad had not foiled his plan. He refused to answer the question.
The answer, though, is self-evident. Two weeks after stripping in that yard, Williams broke into another home a short walk from his cottage and sexually assaulted the woman inside. As her newborn baby slept in a nearby room, the terrified woman was tied up, blindfolded, fondled, and photographed in various stages of undress. (Williams had spotted her while out boating, and thought she was “cute.”) In the days after the attack, Williams returned to the house two more times and stole another 30 pieces of lingerie, 15 each time.
For Williams, the assault was thrilling. He was in full control, and was anxious to feel that rush again. His second attack, 13 days after the first, targeted the home just three doors from his. The owner, Laurie Massicotte, had fallen asleep on her couch and awoke to a man punching her in the face. Like the first victim, she was tied up and blindfolded with a pillowcase, and ordered to pose for a series of degrading photographs.
The next morning, as police cruisers surrounded her house, Williams asked another neighbour what all the commotion was about. Then he headed to work, where he awarded a service medal to a fellow airman and met with engineering officials to discuss ongoing construction projects at the base.
Of all the “extremely disturbing” evidence revealed this week in Courtroom 303, nothing was more appalling than the detailed descriptions of Williams’s two most serious crimes: the murders of Marie-France Comeau and Jessica Lloyd.
A week before Williams killed Comeau, he drove to nearby Brighton, Ont., where she lived, and parked his silver SUV almost a kilometre away from her home. Clearly, he was careful not to be seen. It was Nov. 16, 2009, and he left the vehicle on the side of the road, near a wooded area, and then walked the rest of the way. Because Williams was snooping into Comeau’s work schedule, he knew full well that she was away on an overseas trip. He wanted to confirm what she had told him: that she lived alone.
Like he’d done so many times before, Williams broke into the two-bedroom house through a basement window, headed to the master bedroom, and found her lingerie. He played with the garments and tried several of them on. He stayed for more than 90 minutes.
A week later, on the night of Nov. 23, he drove away from the Trenton base, turned off his BlackBerry, and headed back toward Comeau’s again. Again, he parked near the woods, but this time he was carrying a green military duffle bag containing rope, duct tape, a red metal flashlight, and his cameras, including a video camera.
He snuck in through the same basement window, and for the next half-hour hid near the furnace, waiting for Comeau to go to bed. However, Comeau came down to the basement first, looking for one of her two cats—who was staring straight at Williams. When she saw the intruder, she screamed: “Bastard!” The colonel struck her several times on the head with his red flashlight.
They struggled for a few moments, but Williams managed to tie Comeau’s arms, fasten her to a metal support post, and cover her mouth and eyes with duct tape. Always anxious to photograph his handiwork, Williams took out his camera and snapped away. And then he began his meticulous preparations.
He put the screen back in the basement window. He found a key to the front door, placed it in the lock and broke it off, ensuring that nobody else could get inside the house. He then went upstairs to Comeau’s bedroom and hung a thick maroon blanket on the window over her bed—using knives as pegs.
Williams eventually returned to the basement to bring Comeau upstairs, but again, she fought back. Police later found blood splattered and smudged near the stairway, and a large dent in the drywall. Williams, though, won the fight; as Comeau lay on the stairs, naked and unconscious, he took more photos.
After carrying her to the bedroom, Williams placed her on the bed and covered her head with a burgundy towel, securing it in place with duct tape. The tape covered her entire head and face, leaving only a small breathing hole near her nose.
Over the next two hours, Williams raped Comeau repeatedly, photographing and videotaping every heinous act and utterance. The details of this footage are grotesque, with Williams forcing Comeau into humiliating positions, and violating her again and again. While the footage reveals the despicable nature of Williams’s crime, it also shows the relentless and desperate fight in Comeau—her courageous effort to survive the man in the black balaclava.
Weak as she was—Comeau could barely sit up or keep her head from flopping from side to side—the corporal still tried to free her hands from the green rope. Through the towel and duct tape, Comeau pleaded: “Get out, get out, I want you to leave, I want you to leave.” When Williams did leave the bedroom for a moment, Comeau fled to the bathroom. When he found her there, she tried to fight him off, but Williams knocked her down again and brought her back to the bed. Now shaking and sobbing, she begged him to leave her alone. “I don’t deserve to die,” she pleaded.
Comeau promised that if he let her live, she wouldn’t tell anyone about what had happened. “Have a heart, please,” Comeau begged Williams. “I’ve been really good. I want to live.” Williams leaned over his victim, who was now huddled naked on the floor near her bedroom dresser, and put a strip of duct tape around her nostrils. With the camera rolling, he waited for Comeau to take her final breath. It was 3:30 a.m.
Before he left, Williams took more photos of Comeau’s dead body. He removed the duct tape and towel from her head, and washed her bedroom sheets with bleach. He then put her battered body on the bed, covered her with a duvet, and walked out the back patio door. He couldn’t stay any longer; he had a morning meeting scheduled in Ottawa.
Two months later, as police continued to hunt for Comeau’s killer, Williams laid eyes on his next victim. It was Jan. 27, 2010, and he was driving home from work along Highway 37, the rural highway that connects Tweed to Belleville, when he noticed Jessica Elizabeth Lloyd running on a treadmill inside her home. She was getting in shape for an upcoming vacation to Cuba.
The next night, Jan. 28, Lloyd visited a friend. When she returned home, she texted him to say that she was safe and going to bed. It was 10:36 p.m.
Williams, meanwhile, had parked his Pathfinder 153 m from Lloyd’s house, and walked along the edge of a snow-covered field to her backyard. He stood there and stared for a while, and then, after the lights went out, he entered the home through the back patio door. He went straight to Lloyd’s bedroom, where she was sleeping. He stood over the bed, and just as he was about to strike her, Lloyd woke up. He forced her onto her stomach, covered her eyes with duct tape, and tied up her hands. Immediately, Williams began documenting his attack with photographs, the first of which show Lloyd in the hallway wearing the tank top and track pants she’d gone to bed in, and the last of which show her dead on the floor in his Tweed cottage. In the interim, the still images and video footage show Lloyd strapped to her bed, Williams raping her repeatedly, and even forcing her to pose in her lingerie. Throughout the attack, the 27-year-old is compliant—even apologetic at times, such as when she stumbles on her way to the bed because her eyes are taped shut.
The most heart-wrenching of her apologies occurred in the morning after she’d been driven to Williams’s cottage. While in a bedroom, a naked Lloyd began having a seizure, which she said was due to stress. She asked Williams if he would rush her to a hospital. Instead, Williams rubbed her shoulders and buttocks, and told her not to “make it worse” for herself, and to “hang in there, baby.” Her convulsions continued, her speech became slurred, and she vomited. Lloyd began crying, saying, “I don’t want to die. I should have told you this last night. I never thought—I’m sorry.”
All the while, Williams was fixated on getting more footage, adjusting the video camera so that Lloyd was always in clear view. Eventually, he helped her get dressed, but by then she had bitten her tongue. A portion of the video ends with her crying. Williams later told police that at that point, he let his victim sleep for an hour, during which time he took more photos of her. When she awoke, he raped and tortured her again. And again.
By 5:45 p.m.—18 hours after he first broke into Lloyd’s house—Williams dressed her in her own blue jeans and Roots sweatshirt, though her eyes remained taped. He fed her fruit. At one point later, Lloyd got up to walk around. More than once, Williams assured her that he was going to set her free.
At some time before 8:00 p.m., he struck her on the head with his flashlight, and then used a rope to strangle her. After taking a few more photos of her corpse, Williams carried it to the garage, and then drove to Trenton. He did not return to the cottage for another four days, leaving Lloyd’s body in the garage the entire time.
When he finally returned to Tweed on Tuesday, Feb. 2, he gathered the body, wrapped it in a blanket, bound it with duct tape, and dumped it near the side of a dirt road.
Over the next week, as family, friends, and police scoured the area for any signs of Jessica Lloyd, Williams downloaded his videos and photographs, just as he’d done so many times before. One picture later seized by police shows Williams looking at his computer screen with two open browsers. One browser is open to a news article about Lloyd’s disappearance. The other is playing the home video depicting her rape and torture.
The punishment is not up for debate. Williams has pleaded guilty to 88 offences, including two charges of first-degree murder, and the mandatory sentence for just one homicide is life behind bars with no chance of parole for 25 years. Williams will be 72 by then.
The only real purpose, then, of this week’s sentencing hearing is to create a public record of the facts, including victim impact statements, just in case the National Parole Board does decide to hear his appeal in 2035. Or in the words of Andy Lloyd, Jessica’s older brother: “I want him to know how much he has hurt everybody. It was a terrible, terrible thing.”
As for that lingering question—why?—Lloyd knows that he may never receive an answer. “It goes through our heads,” he says. “Why that particular house? Why that road? Why that time? Why that night? Everything is why, and only he knows that.”
Even the experts who have spent their lives studying serial killers are at a loss to explain how a man with such credentials and such respect could turn out to be such a monster. “What’s interesting about Williams is, he’s utterly unique,” says Peter Hoaken, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Western Ontario. “He doesn’t correspond to any of the models that forensic psychologists have developed over the years.”
Simply put, most serial killers live on the fringes of society. They are typically people who have trouble holding jobs or keeping friends—not high-ranking officers who mingle with dignitaries. “Not many homicide offenders have met the Queen,” says Elliott Leyton, author of Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer. “That’s everything that every other serial killer is not.”
“Serial killers are masters of impression management,” adds Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Boston’s Northeastern University. “They usually look more innocent than an innocent man. That’s part of the secret of their success.”
Brad Booth, director of the sexual behaviours unit at the St. Lawrence Valley Correctional and Treatment Centre in Brockville, Ont., believes Williams may have suffered from sexual sadism: feeling aroused at the pain or humiliation of others. As more details emerge in court, “it’s becoming increasingly apparent he was an individual with a very high number of paraphilias,” or abnormal, recurrent sexual urges and fantasies, Booth says. Paraphilias can be anything from voyeurism (peeping in neighbours’ windows) to fetishism (feeling aroused by undergarments). These types of urges are actually “fairly common in the population,” Booth notes. The question is whether the individual is willing to act on them, and to what extent.
For reasons that even Williams himself may not fully understand, he was suddenly willing to act. And if police had not stopped him when they did, his grand act—a double life that almost defies description—would have certainly continued.
“Det.-Sgt. Smyth asked Mr. Williams whether he would have continued to commit criminal offences if he had not been caught by police,” Burgess, the Crown attorney, told the court during his two-day reading of the facts. “Mr. Williams responded that that was a difficult question to answer, but that he hoped not. He admitted that he likely would have continued breaking into people’s homes, but hoped that he would not have attacked anybody else.”