Colonel Williams: ‘Behind those eyes’ - Macleans.ca

Colonel Williams: ‘Behind those eyes’

How could the accused killer have time to commit those crimes? (PLUS: a photo gallery timeline)

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Behind those EyesJessica Lloyd was last heard from on Jan. 28, when she typed a late-night text message to a friend. The following morning, a Friday, Col. Russell Williams called in sick. At the time, a nasty flu bug was swirling around the headquarters building at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, so nobody had any reason to doubt his sniffles. Or suspect that he might be covering up a murder.

As far as his subordinates were concerned, their wing commander was recuperating at his waterfront bungalow in Tweed, Ont., an hour’s drive from the base. The colonel slept there alone on weeknights, and spent most weekends commuting to and from Ottawa, where he and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Harriman (Mary Liz, as everyone calls her), had just built a swank new townhouse. At some point on the weekend of Jan. 30, that’s where Williams headed.

Over the next 48 hours—while police in Belleville, Ont., ramped up their search for Jessica Lloyd—Williams remained in the capital with Mary Liz. He took Monday off, too, as part of a pre­-arranged leave. On Tuesday, after meeting with members of the Challenger squadron, the Ottawa-based unit that ferries prime ministers and other dignitaries around the country, the colonel climbed into his SUV and headed back to Tweed. Lloyd was still unaccounted for.

The next evening, Feb. 3, Williams and two of his officers drove to Toronto for a planning session with military colleagues. The boss sat in the back seat, poring over paperwork. “There was nothing abnormal about the car ride,” says Chief Warrant Officer Kevin West, who was behind the wheel that night. “We talked about regular business and what was going on at the base.” Nothing strange. Nothing suspicious. By then, the search for Jessica Lloyd was in its sixth day.

On day seven, Williams visited the salad bar for lunch. It was now Feb. 4, a Thursday, and he was sitting with a group of colleagues in a base cafeteria when he noticed Janet Wright standing near the cash register. The colonel waved her over and pulled out a chair. Wright knew Williams as well as anyone. In 2004, when he was in charge of Trenton’s 437 Squadron, she was his executive assistant. She kept his schedule, listened to stories about his beloved cats, and even visited the now-infamous Tweed cottage, just a few doors down from her sister’s place. “He was always very caring,” she says. “I went through a kidney transplant while he was there, and he visited me in the hospital. He couldn’t be kinder.” In July, when Williams was sworn in as wing commander, he made sure Wright was at the ceremony, sitting in the front row with Mary Liz.

The two enjoyed such a friendly relationship that a few months before that lunch, Wright felt comfortable asking him during a phone conversation what he thought of the gossip around his street. In September, two Tweed women had been sexually assaulted in their homes—both tied to a chair, stripped naked and photographed—and Williams’s next-door neighbour, Larry Jones, was fingered as the prime suspect. “I spoke with him at length about it,” she says of Williams. “He said, ‘Oh, it wouldn’t be Larry. Larry would never do something like that.’ He even indicated to me that Mary Elizabeth was also very upset about it.”

Those assaults seemed like a distant memory by Feb. 4, when Wright joined Williams in the cafeteria. No one else in Tweed had been attacked since September, and police had not yet revealed a link between the break-ins, Lloyd’s disappearance, and the unsolved murder of Marie-France Comeau, a corporal from the base who was killed at home in November. As Williams, 46, chewed his salad, nobody at the table mentioned the crimes.

Go to Photo Gallery: Col. Russell Williams, a timeline

A few hours later, he and his Nissan Pathfinder were pulled over by police, who were so desperate for a lead in the Lloyd case that they set up a roadblock on Highway 37, ostensibly to nab drunk drivers. Motorists didn’t know it, but the cops were flashing a light on their tires, comparing treads to a set of tracks left in the snow near Lloyd’s house on the night she vanished. The colonel’s wheels were a perfect match—and in an instant, his seemingly perfect life began to crumble. By Sunday night, after hours of interrogation by the Ontario Provincial Police, the senior man at Canada’s busiest air force base was in handcuffs, charged with both September assaults and two counts of murder in the first degree. According to numerous reports, it was Williams who led detectives to Lloyd’s lifeless body, dumped at the side of a dirt road.

When Janet Wright heard the news on Monday morning, her mind raced. She thought of their last meal together, and that earlier phone conversation about the attacks on his street. “I was telling him what the person had done—broke in, taken these women, tied them up and took pictures—and there I was, talking to the person who…”

What triggered such sexual violence remains a mystery. Why would a man in Williams’s boots, a senior military officer so smart and so respected, allegedly stoop to such evil? At this point, only one thing is clear: if police are right about Russell Williams, he is the ultimate Col. Jekyll and Col. Hyde. Not a single person he worked with during his seven-month stint as base commander had any clue they were taking orders from a possible serial predator. Even now, with the benefit of hindsight, the logistics of his supposed double life are difficult to fathom.

If police are right, this is a man who, after a 12-hour flight from the North Pole, drove home to Tweed, raped a neighbour, and returned to Belleville early the next morning to attend a meeting with—of all people—police officers, who had raised some money for a charity that supports wounded soldiers.

If police are right, this is a man who, in the early morning darkness of Sept. 30, broke into another home, sexually assaulted another woman, and a few hours later was back in uniform, grinning ear to ear as he awarded a service medal to a fellow airman.

If police are right, this is a man who, after murdering a corporal under his command, hammed it up for the camera during a “Jail and Bail” fundraiser—and who, after military police jokingly slapped him in handcuffs, refused to spend a few hours behind bars as part of the shtick because he “was too busy.”

And if police are right, this is a man who killed 27-year-old Jessica Lloyd, then spent the next week as focused as ever on his high-pressure posting. Even on Feb. 5, the day after police pulled him over, he seemed like a leader in full control. “He was perfectly fine,” says Lt.-Col. Sean Lewis, the last person to see him in uniform. “It was 6:30 p.m., I walked into his office and I said: ‘See you Monday, sir.’ He said: ‘See you Monday, Sean.’ He was exactly as he’s always been for the past seven months. There was no stress, and there was no inkling at all that in the next 48 hours he was going to be where he was going to be.”

Kevin West first shook hands with Russ Williams in early July 2009, a few days before the colonel officially took control of CFB Trenton. Even before that initial hello, West had a pretty good idea who he was dealing with. “I did the standard thing that we all do when we’re posted somewhere: find out who my new boss is,” West told Maclean’s. “I looked up his biography.”

Go to Photo Gallery: Col. Russell Williams, a timeline

Like everyone, he was thoroughly impressed. His new commander was an economics graduate from the University of Toronto, a standout pilot with two decades of experience, and a star officer who earned rave reviews at every stop on his 22-year career. In late 2008, after an exhaustive examination of his file, an air force selection board recommended Williams for the top job at Canada’s busiest air force base—a clear endorsement of his talent, his ethics, and his potential to one day be a general. “Everybody is searching their memories to think if something stood out, but really he was just a hard-working, dedicated, intelligent guy,” says Lt.-Gen. Angus Watt, the country’s top air force officer until his retirement a few months ago. “Russ was always very calm, very cool and very collected.”

West agrees—and few people spent more time with Williams than he did. As Trenton’s chief warrant officer, West was the colonel’s right-hand man, a trusted adviser attached at the hip. Like a political aide, West often found himself in a car with Williams, briefing him on who he was about to meet. “He was one of the most professional and best bosses I have ever worked for, and I’ve been in uniform for 25 years,” he says. “Our professional relationship as a command team was exemplary. We had the same vision.” Outside of work, they went to each other’s homes for dinner. Their spouses hit it off. “After an incident like this happens, you go back and say: ‘Is there something I missed? Were there indications?’ But I never heard a derogatory comment come from him, not even: ‘Oh my, she’s a pretty looking lady.’ ”

That July was a hectic month for Williams. Not only was he taking Trenton’s reins at a time of unprecedented activity—supply missions to Afghanistan, preparations for Olympic surveillance, and billions of dollars worth of base construction—but he was busy selling his home in the Ottawa suburb of Orléans, where he and Harriman, an associate executive director at the Heart and Stroke Foundation, had lived for more than a decade. Their neighbours were sad to see them go. “We have a patio in the front, and we sit out there for coffee at night,” says Theresa Gagné, who lives across the street. “They used to come join us. We’d talk about everything and nothing.”

Williams was an avid jogger, even in scorching temperatures, sipping a bottle of Gatorade in between strides. He golfed with his wife, threw her a 50th birthday party, and held her hand when they walked down the driveway. A year ago, when their cat, Curio, passed away, Williams adopted a new kitten. She is black and white and her name is Rosebud. Her photo was his BlackBerry screensaver.

“He was completely empathetic and sympathetic, and genuinely cared about everyone,” says Lewis, who, as the base’s engineering officer, worked down the hall from Williams. “There are sometimes accidents on base—guys falling off ladders, that sort of stuff—and he always said, ‘Just tell me the guy is okay.’ That was his first question.” Williams signed every email with the same two words: “Take care.”

“I remember telling people every day how great he was,” says Julia MacEwen, his executive assistant until the day of his arrest. “I was pregnant, and he was very supportive. I had to take some time off because I was having back problems and hip problems and I was having trouble walking. He never made me feel like I was letting anybody down.” For Christmas, Williams gave MacEwen crystal candle holders. “If he showed up at my door I would have let him in,” she says now. “If he’d offered me a drive home, I would have got in the car with him.”

On Sept. 14, Williams boarded a CC-130 Hercules for a 13-hour journey to Canadian Forces Station Alert, a military outpost in the far reaches of the Arctic. The mission was part necessity, part public relations. The base sends two such planes to the outpost twice a year, loaded with fuel and supplies, but for this journey, Williams invited the mayor of Quinte West, Ont., John Williams (no relation).

Not long after takeoff, the plane’s heater conked out, sending everyone scrambling for extra layers—except Williams, who wordlessly made due with a thin jacket over his flight suit. “This guy was functioning on a higher level,” says Lewis, who was also on-board. “You say to yourself, ‘Well, that’s why he is the wing commander. He can tough it out.” Lewis was equally impressed the next morning when, after only a few hours of sleep, he stumbled out of his bunk to find Williams up and raring to work. “He had a different sort of metabolism, and you just assumed it wasn’t nefarious in any way,” Lewis says. “He was somebody who could consistently find energy. He never physically showed that he was tired—ever.”

Go to Photo Gallery: Col. Russell Williams, a timeline

After returning from Alert in the late afternoon of Sept. 16, Williams drove back to Tweed. Police now allege that he waited until after midnight, broke into the house of a young mother on a nearby street, tied her up and sexually assaulted her before taking snapshots of her naked body. By 8:30 that morning, he was back in Belleville, schmoozing with police at a downtown Ramada Inn. It was a conference for the Criminal Intelligence Service Ontario, an umbrella group of organized crime investigators, and the officers wanted to give the base a donation to Soldier On, a program that supports wounded troops. Williams happily accepted their cheque. “He was the same as he was every day,” says West, who accompanied him that morning. “If he actually did do all these things, to be able to not change is baffling to me.”

Williams then returned to the base to watch Kevin Fast, a Lutheran pastor from Cobourg, Ont., pull a 416,299-lb. C-7 Globemaster airplane across the tarmac, breaking a Guinness World Record. Williams was instrumental in attracting the event to the base; it was a chance to showcase the recently acquired C-7, Canada’s first. “It’s good for us. It’s good for the air force and it’s good for the local community,” Williams told the assembled reporters. “It’s a very nice fit.”

Next on the colonel’s schedule was a morale-boosting visit to the base’s engineering shop, where Williams spent a couple of more hours chatting with the troops, changing a tire, doing a bit of spot welding and tinkering with some weapons. His day ended with a barbecue back at headquarters. “What kind of person has the ability to do all that in a pressed period of time?” Lewis asks. “The way he was able to compartmentalize things in his brain was just truly an amazing—and sad—thing.”

The ensuing few days were just as hectic. On Sept. 18, barely 24 hours after the attack, Williams attended a press conference with the owner of the Belleville Bulls junior hockey team, which was dedicating its season “to the heroes that form the 8 Wing family.” He met with Defence Minister Peter MacKay—twice—and was on the tarmac to salute the Sept. 20 arrival of Pte. Jonathan Couturier, the 131st Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan. If Williams was in town, he made sure to attend every repatriation ceremony, standing near sobbing relatives as coffin after coffin went from his runway to the Highway of Heroes. “It affects everyone,” West says of the flag-draped caskets. “And he was just as sombre and affected as everybody else.”

On Sept. 23, a Wednesday, the colonel hit the first ball at the wing commander’s annual golf tournament, held at the Roundel Glen course adjacent to the base. With everyone watching—and with that sexual assault just days old—he stuck his tee shot on the edge of the green, just 15 feet from the hole. “We talked about golf, we talked about his cottage in Tweed,” says Paul Ferguson, a local radio DJ who played in his foursome that day. “He said his wife and him didn’t have kids, they just had cats.” Williams was pleasant and talkative. When Ferguson sank yet another long putt on the 14th, the colonel gushed. “You have made an inordinate number of those today,” he said.

A week after that tournament, Sept. 30, Williams allegedly broke into the home of another woman, this one just a few steps from his front door on Cosy Cove Lane. The attack, police say, was a repeat of the first: the horrified victim was stripped, tied to a chair, assaulted and photographed. And again, Williams was back on base that same morning, this time for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. He also presented a $700 cheque to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, his wife’s charity.

Investigators still had no reason to consider him a suspect. Rather, they were zeroing in on another local man: Larry Jones, Williams’s next-door neighbour. In late October, when Jones returned from a partridge-hunting trip and found police cars in his driveway, he assumed he’d been broken into. “No, Larry, it’s way worse than that,” one officer told him. It was only when he was in the back of a cruiser, en route to an OPP detachment, that police told him he was a suspect. They asked him about thong underwear, bras and a baby blanket—some of the items missing from the victims’ homes.

On Oct. 29, as police searched Jones’s home, Williams was shaking hands with Gen. Rick Hillier, the former chief of the defence staff. He was at CFB Trenton signing new copies of his book, A Soldier First.

Go to Photo Gallery: Col. Russell Williams, a timeline

Amid his numerous responsibilities—and alleged crimes—Williams also found the time to stay current in a cockpit. In order to maintain his air force wings, the colonel had to fly at least once a month, so in between briefings and meetings, he climbed into an Airbus A-310 and barrelled down the runway.

The Airbuses belonged to Trenton’s 437 Squadron, the same unit Williams commanded back when Janet Wright was his assistant. It is the squadron’s job to ferry prime ministers on their international jaunts, and deliver Afghanistan-bound supplies to Canada’s secret base in the Middle East, Camp Mirage (a facility that Williams also once commanded, from December 2005 to June 2006). It is also the squadron that employed Cpl. Marie-France Comeau, a 38-year-old Quebec woman who worked as a steward aboard the Airbus missions.

The daughter of a Canadian Forces medic and granddaughter of a decorated Spitfire pilot who served in the Second World War, Comeau loved the adventure of her job. In mid-November, when Stephen Harper visited India, she was working his flight to Mumbai. Neither the military nor the police will reveal when Williams logged his hours in the Airbus—or whether the crew ever included Comeau. But this much is certain: shortly before 1 p.m. on Nov. 25, her boyfriend, a fellow soldier, went to her home in Brighton, Ont., a short drive from the base. Comeau had missed a shift, and he was understandably concerned. Inside, he found her dead body.

Ironically enough, police visited Williams that very morning—but it was all part of a charity gag. During the “Jail and Bail” fundraiser, military police descended on the headquarters building and handcuffed senior staff, who were then tossed in a cell until guards raised enough bail money. All the proceeds went to the United Way. “It was a great event,” says Lewis, who is pictured in the base newspaper—hands cuffed behind his back—standing beside a smiling Russell Williams.

What the photo doesn’t show, however, is that Williams refused to step inside the cell. He posed with the handcuffs, but declined to spend even a few minutes behind bars. “He said he was too busy,” Lewis says. “He didn’t show any queasiness or anything. He just said he didn’t want to go to the jail.” If investigators are correct, Williams knew that Comeau’s corpse was inside her house, waiting to be discovered.

“The only conversation we would have had about Cpl. Comeau was purely that she was a military member, and that it was a shame that we lost one of ours,” West says. “But nothing further than that. I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been racking my brain, and there is nothing that would lead me to ever think of the incidents that have happened.”

On Dec. 1, while Comeau’s family finalized funeral arrangements, Santa Claus stopped by the colonel’s office, collecting for a local food bank.

The earthquake struck Haiti on the afternoon of Jan. 12, and in a matter of hours, CFB Trenton was ground zero for Canada’s relief efforts. The Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), a specialized unit that provides food, water and medicine, was deployed within days, and since then, Operation Hestia has dispatched a constant rotation of aircraft and supplies. The people at Trenton could not be working any harder—including, until his arrest, Russell Williams.

Go to Photo Gallery: Col. Russell Williams, a timeline

As busy as he was, the colonel continued to display the calm and control that earned him the admiration of his subordinates. Even under such strain—from obvious sources and otherwise—he remained quick with a compliment, never micromanaged, and not once seemed irritated or exhausted. “My son sustained a fairly significant eye injury around the time of the earthquake, and Williams was very pointed in keeping up with his progress,” says Lt.-Col. David Alexander, another one of his advisers. “He very much demonstrated—whether it was valid or not—what I would consider very appropriate empathy for the situation our family was going through. But I don’t know. I look at a picture of him now and I just wonder what was going on behind those eyes.”

He is not alone. Everyone who earns a living inside Trenton’s “bubble”—the headquarters’ hallway, sealed on either end by locked doors—is still struggling with the idea that Williams the colonel could be Williams the killer. What clues did we miss? What was he really like in the days after Lloyd vanished? How could we be so fooled? “The joke is that one day, the people who worked directly for him for 60 hours a week are going to become a case study into how we couldn’t recognize this,” Lewis says. “The group of us are still beating ourselves up because we spent the most time with this guy. Every single day.”

They have reached one conclusion: it’s Mr. Williams now, not Col. Williams. His once-loyal subordinates understand that the charges have not been tested in court, and that he remains an innocent man unless proven guilty. But in their eyes, he is no longer the officer that inspired such awe. He has stained the uniform, and cast a suspicious shadow over every man who wears it. “The military didn’t create this monster; he was an aberration,” Alexander says. “He betrayed so many fundamentals of our institution, and that sense of betrayal is very real. I feel absolutely horrible for his wife. 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 for no fault of her own.”

Harriman is staying with friends while police comb through her Ottawa townhouse, and could not be reached for comment. She did, however, contact Kevin West in the days after her husband’s reported confession. “I’d rather not get into that because that’s personal to her,” he says. “All I know is she is being taken care of.”

Go to Photo Gallery: Col. Russell Williams, a timeline