"It’s hard to believe this is happening"

Court hears Russell Williams’s confession—and the pain of his victims
Michael Friscolanti and Cathy Gulli

Russell Williams knew he was caught. The depth of his twisted double life had finally been exposed.

It was Feb. 7, 2010, a Sunday evening, and the colonel had already been sitting in a police interrogation room for more than three hours when Det.-Sgt. Jim Smyth of the Ontario Provincial Police showed him two pieces of paper. One was a boot print left near the home of Jessica Lloyd, a Belleville woman who had vanished nine days earlier. The other was a photocopy of the bottom of a shoe Williams wore to the police station that morning.

“These are identical,” Smyth told him.

The colonel stared at the prints on the table in front of him, but didn’t utter a word. “You and I both know that you were at Jessica Lloyd’s house,” Smyth continued. “And I need to know why.” Williams, still silent, pulled the two papers closer to his eyes.

“Well,” he said, after another long pause. “I don’t know what to say.”

“You need to explain it,” Smyth answered.

For the next few minutes, his mind racing, Williams clung to the hope that he would somehow walk out of that interrogation room a free man. But Smyth, a renowned expert in his trade, had his target cornered. He told Williams that the tires on his Nissan Pathfinder matched tracks left in the snow near Lloyd’s house on the night she disappeared. He told him that the police had search warrants, and were already scouring his new home in the Ottawa neighbourhood of Westboro. And he told him—repeatedly—what Williams now realized: “It’s over.”

At 6:25 p.m., with the cameras in the room still rolling, Smyth could see that Williams was wavering. “What’s the issue you’re struggling with?” he asked. Wearing jeans and a striped blue golf shirt, Williams took a deep breath, rubbed the left side of his face, and crossed his arms.

“It’s hard to believe this is happening,” he said.

“Why is that?” Smyth asked.

The commander of CFB Trenton, the country’s largest and busiest air base, took another deep breath. “It’s just hard to believe.”

Finally, a few minutes after 7 o’clock, Williams told the detective he had “two immediate concerns”: how his situation will affect the Canadian Forces, and how it will affect his partner of 18 years, Mary-Elizabeth Harriman. “I’m struggling with how upset my wife is right now,” he said. “I’m concerned that they’re tearing apart my wife’s brand new house.”

It would be another 30 minutes, however, before Williams finally gave in and admitted the truth. “I want to minimize the impact on my wife,” he repeated.

“So do I,” Smyth answered.

“So how do we do that?”

“You start by telling the truth.”

The colonel paused again. “OK.”

Over the next six hours—in the same calm, concise voice that made him such a respected commander in the Canadian air force—Williams walked Smyth through each of his heinous crimes: dozens of break-ins targeting female lingerie, two home-invasion sexual assaults, and the violent rapes and murders of Jessica Lloyd and Marie-France Comeau, a corporal from CFB Trenton who was killed in November 2009, two months before Lloyd. At one point in the conversation, Smyth asked Williams the question that, to this day, remains a mystery: “Why do you think these things happened?”

“I don’t know,” Williams said.

“Have you spent much time thinking about that?”

“Yeah, but I don’t know the answers. And I’m pretty sure the answers don’t matter.”

Portions of the confession were played in court Wednesday morning during Williams’ historic sentencing hearing—part of another grueling day of evidence that included heart-wrenching victim-impact statements from Jessica Lloyd’s grieving friends and relatives. One of those friends went so far as to interrupt her statement to demand that Williams raise his head and look her in the eyes. He did.

“Strictly because of who Russell Williams was—an important figure in the Canadian military—this case has drawn so much attention that our grieving process is constantly interrupted,” said Jessica’s older brother, Andy, holding back tears. “I am a very proud supporter of the Canadian Armed Forces. I believe that the men and women that serve our country are heroes, and deserve to be led by a responsible and morally sound individual, not someone who could commit such horrible crimes.”

Jessica’s late father served 25 years as a naval officer before his death from cancer. “He was a proud Canadian and a very proud member of the military,” Andy Lloyd said. “He would be mortified that any member of the armed forces, let alone someone of such high ranking and importance, could commit such terrible crimes against his daughter. I feel for military personnel on an individual basis, knowing how much they must have been dishonoured and misled by their commanding officer.”

In yet another stunning revelation, court also heard Wednesday that Williams—a remorseless serial predator who lied and connived until the moment he knew he was caught—actually sat down in that interrogation room Sunday night and wrote notes of “apology” to his victims. Scribbled on sheets of paper, it is hard to imagine words more hollow.

“You won’t believe me, I know,” he wrote to Lloyd’s mother, Roxanne. “But I am sorry for having taken your daughter from you. Jessica was a beautiful, gentle young woman, as you know. I know she loved you very much—she told me so, again and again.”

He also penned a note to his wife. “Dearest Mary Elizabeth,” it reads. “I love you, Sweet [illegible]. I am so very sorry for having hurt you like this. I know you’ll take good care of Sweet Rosie [the couple’s cat]. I love you, Russ.”

Williams was a rising star in the Canadian air force, an elite officer who piloted prime ministers and the Queen, and whose Trenton posting almost certainly would have ended with a promotion to general. To everyone in uniform, he was the quintessential military man, an intelligent, even-keeled leader who inspired respect and signed every email with the same two words: “Take care.”

But over the past few days, a courtroom in Belleville, Ont., has heard what police have long known: that Williams’ was the ultimate Col. Jekyll and Col. Hyde. By day, he was in charge of 3,000 people at the country’s most strategically important air force base, a facility that supports the war in Afghanistan and welcomes home every flag-draped casket. By night, he was a relentless sexual deviant who stalked his victims, obsessively catalogued his crimes, and grew more dangerous over time.

It all began in September 2007, when Williams started breaking into homes in search of women’s lingerie. He targeted properties in Tweed, Ont., where he and his wife owned a waterfront cottage, and in the Ottawa suburb of Orléans, where the couple lived for more than a decade until moving to the new townhouse in Westboro.

The pattern of each break-in was always the same. He photographed the bedroom, then the underwear drawer, then himself wearing the underwear. Once back home, he would meticulously photograph each individual item, storing the shots in a “complex” collection of well-hidden folders on the very same computer he shared with his wife.

With each new heist, Williams 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.”

When Williams took command of Trenton in the summer of 2009, he moved full-time to Tweed, a 30-minute drive from the base. Harriman remained in Ottawa, where she works as associate executive director of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. They connected on weekends.

On July 11, just four days before being sworn in as 8 Wing boss, 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.”

A few weeks later, the elite officer would graduate to sexual assault, targeting two women who lived within walking distance of his cottage. 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.

On Nov. 23, a Monday night, Williams climbed through the basement window of Comeau’s Brighton, Ont., bungalow. He beat her with a flashlight, knocked her unconscious, and raped her repeatedly while videotaping the entire attack. Comeau fought back, but Williams overpowered her each time, ignoring her pleas to live. “I don’t deserve to die,” she said at one point, her mouth muzzled with duct tape. “I’ve been good all my life.”

Williams put another piece of tape over her nose and recorded her final breaths. Then he washed her sheets with bleach, walked out the back door, and drove straight to Ottawa—a three-and-a-half hour journey—for a morning meeting with fellow officers. He had dinner that night with his wife, and after kissing her goodbye, drove back to Tweed. Comeau’s body was still in her home, waiting to be discovered.

Williams spotted his next murder victim, Jessica Lloyd, while droving home from the base along Highway 37, the rural road where she lived. She was running on the treadmill near her basement window, getting in shape for an upcoming trip to Cuba. The following night, Jan. 28, Williams broke in, made sure she lived alone, and then waited in his car—parked near a tree line on the edge of her property—until she returned.

Lloyd was bound, raped, and ordered to model her lingerie. Williams promised his terrified victim that she would live as long as she obeyed his commands, so she complied with every order. When he walked her to his car and drove her to Tweed, she didn’t fight back—desperate not to upset him. The colonel called in sick that Friday morning (and told his subordinate not to tell his wife if she happened to phone the office) and then spent the rest of the day torturing and videotaping his captive. He then struck her over the head and strangled her to death with a rope.

Williams left her body in his garage for four days. When he finally returned—after a one-day flight to California, and a weekend with Harriman in Ottawa—Williams dumped her corpse near the side of a dirt road.

She would be his last victim.

Police found tire tracks on Lloyd’s property, and on Feb. 4, they set up a RIDE-style check along Highway 37, looking for a potential match. Williams’ Nissan Pathfinder was among the first vehicles through—and his treads were identical. That Sunday, while the colonel was back in Ottawa with his wife, Det.-Sgt. Smyth phoned him and asked if they chat. Williams came to the station right away.

He was chatty and polite. He even told Smyth that he was glad to see the police working so vigorously to find Jessica Lloyd. When the officer read him his rights, Williams said he didn’t need a lawyer and was willing to answer any question.

But as the footage reveals, Williams was clearly nervous. He chomped on a piece of gum, and nodded his head constantly as Smyth explained the status of their investigation. At one point, the officer asked Williams what police might discover if they conducted a thorough background check of his life. Williams grinned. “It would be very boring,” he said.

Four hours later, Williams began a startling confession that would lead to this week’s guilty plea—and an automatic sentence of life behind bars with no chance of parole for 25 years. Early the next morning, he led detectives to Lloyd’s lifeless body.

“I can tell you that she did not suspect the end was coming,” he wrote in his note to Jessica’s mother. “Jessica was happy because she believed she was going home.”

Of all the evidence presented so far, few pieces are more shocking than those letters Williams printed in the hours after his confession. They are so clinical and so insulting that it’s hard to believe they were written by a human being.

“I am sorry for having taken your daughter, Marie-France, from you,” he wrote to Comeau’s father. “I know you won’t be able to believe me, but it is true. Marie-France has been deeply missed by all that knew her.”

To his first sexual assault victim, he wrote two sentences: “I apologize for having traumatized you the way I did. No doubt you’ll rest a bit easier now that I’ve been caught.” His second sexual assault victim, Laurie Massicotte—who lives just three doors down from his cottage—received more of a pep talk than an apology. “I really hope that the discussion we had has helped you turn your life around a bit,” Williams wrote. “You look like a bright woman, who could do much better for herself. I do hope that you find a way to succeed.”

On Wednesday afternoon—after enduring two-and-a-half days of gruesome evidence—Williams’ victims finally had their chance to speak. When the time came, however, most chose to say nothing. The Comeau family did not submit a victim-impact statement, and neither did Massicotte or the first sex assault victim (whose name is protected by a publication ban). But Lloyd’s friends and relatives—six in all—lined up for the chance to face the man sitting in the prisoner’s box.

One friend—angry, indignant and fearless—stared straight at Williams and professed her absolute hatred of him. “I despise Russell Williams. How dare he? His selfishness has changed who I am,” she seethed. “I hope that man loses everything. I hate him.”

“This year I didn’t want to have a 28th birthday, because Jessica didn’t get to celebrate hers,” said another friend. “Christmas was one of Jessica’s favorite times of year; this year I will prefer to sleep through it. I hate Russell Williams. I will never forgive him. People say forgiveness heals all wounds. I guess my wounds will bleed until the day I die.”

When it was Andy Lloyd’s turn, Justice Robert Scott offered his personal condolences, and congratulated his for having the bravery to act as the family spokesman throughout their ordeal. “I was looking forward to being an uncle almost as much as I was looking forward to being a father,” he said. “That won’t happen now. No big brother should have to go through what I went through.”

It was Andy Lloyd who, in the days after his sister vanished, was on the news, imploring people to come forward if they had any clues. “What did Williams think seeing me on every major media outlet?” he asked. “I can’t help but think he laughed at me, thinking: ‘She’s in my garage.’”

Roxanne Lloyd was the last to take the stand. “I am Jessica’s mother,” she said. “I loved her from the moment I realized I was pregnant…I will continue to love her for the rest of my years on Earth, and even after I die.” She described the anguish she felt knowing that she’d never see, hug or hear her daughter again. She’d never go shopping or traveling with her. She’d never hear that her daughter had fallen in love. Or was getting married. Or was going to be a mother herself. Even after Jessica’s body was recovered, Roxanne did not fully believe it. “I prayed some big mistake had been made,” she said. “But when I saw her in that casket I knew my hopes and dreams were over.