Years before Col. Russell Williams was an accused double murderer, he was a rookie instructor at the Canadian Forces flying school in Portage la Prairie, Man. He was such a standout in the cockpit that his boss, Major Greg McQuaid, selected him for the farewell flight of “Musket Gold,” a now-defunct air force demonstration team that peaked in the 1970s. “I handpicked him because of his skill,” McQuaid told Maclean’s. “I knew he would do a good job. I liked the guy, he was sharp, and he had all the characteristics of a good military officer and a good pilot.”
It was 1992, and the four-man team spent two months training for the big finale, practicing turns and formations in their bright yellow, single-engine TC-134s. Musket Gold’s last hurrah was captured on VHS video, and it was Russ Williams, then a young lieutenant, who edited the footage, added some background music, and gave it to his fellow flyers as a keepsake. When McQuaid first heard about the shocking charges against his old friend—two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of sexual assault—he immediately thought of that old VHS tape. “He showed no indication that he could do something like this—zero, absolutely none,” he says. “He fit in well and got along well with everybody, and was respected by everybody.”
Like so many others, McQuaid simply can’t fathom how the Russ Williams he knew—the one sporting such a wide smile in this footage—could be capable of the heinous crimes for which he is now charged. Nothing about his personality offered any hints of a dark side, he says. “He was one of my shinier guys. He was so focused that sometimes it was like he could look right through you, but still normal in every way.”
There is, of course, nothing normal about the case of Col. Williams. On Sunday morning, he was commander of 8 Wing Trenton, the largest and most important airbase in the country. By Sunday night, he was in handcuffs, an accused serial predator charged with the sexual assault of two women and the first-degree murder of two others: Marie-France Comeau, a corporal who worked at Williams’ base, and Jessica Lloyd, a 27-year-old who vanished last month. In the words of General Walter Natynczyk, Canada’s top soldier, the news of his arrest was “a body blow” that left him “winded.”
Natynczyk was at CFB Trenton today, hoping to prop up sagging morale. Williams’ photograph, which once adorned the entrance of just about every building, has been taken down. Now in a jail cell, the disgraced colonel has also been stripped of his command. “We have an individual here who is alleged to have done something that is terrible,” Natynczyk told reporters. “We have to move forward here. At the same time, we have to recognize that all the victims need support, especially we think of Marie-France Comeau, and we think of Jessica Lloyd.”
Natynczyk said several airmen had approached him throughout the day with concerns about wearing their uniforms in public, for fear of a backlash in the community. “I said, ‘Stop that! We can’t go back. We go forward, and we are proud, proud to wear our uniform!’ So a few minutes ago I went to Tim Hortons, as did this command group, and sure enough someone from Trenton came up and said, ‘I put this into perspective. You guys are great.’ And I just said thanks.”
Natynczyk said he wasn’t aware of any past complaints against Williams, and wouldn’t comment on whether police were investigating any cold cases in the Trenton area. “At the same time we’ll do an administrative review to see, ‘what did we miss?’ Did we miss anything here?’ And it’s a difficult situation, one that I certainly have not faced.”
Natynczyk said he’d met Williams on several occasions, most notably during the repatriation ceremonies of those killed in combat. “I didn’t really know him before that time. I’ve met him on a number of occasions here, and also we came here just three weeks ago, the minister and I wanted to come here to show out great support for the members of 8 Wing, because we knew they had been working 24/7, as they had been for Afghanistan, and they had an increased tempo for the operations in Haiti.”
Lieutenant-General André Deschamps, Chief of Air Staff, said Williams has access to a military liaison officer and the base’s chaplain service while incarcerated. “We are providing administrative support as we would any member who is in that situation,” he said. “From a military perspective we are doing our due diligence for the member as we would for anybody else in that circumstance.”
Up until Sunday, Williams was a rising star in the Department of National Defence, an intelligent, no-nonsense air force officer who seemed destined for a promotion to general. At 46, he was already in charge of the country’s most critical airbase, a sprawling facility that supports not only the mission in Afghanistan, but relief efforts in Haiti and surveillance operations for the Vancouver Olympics. Williams held a top-secret security clearance, directed thousands of employees, and, by all accounts, flourished under the pressure.
Glenn Rainbird, a retired businessman, is CFB Trenton’s honourary colonel, a symbolic liaison of sorts between the base and the surrounding community of Quinte West. Since last July, he met with Williams at least twice a month, sometimes over a pint of beer. “Just like everyone else, my first reaction to the charges was disbelief,” he told Maclean’s. “How could this possibly be true? We all do that soul-searching, but I can honestly say there was never anything that stuck out to me that would cause me to expect a blemish on this man’s record.”
On paper, at least, his record was impeccable. Born in 1963, he earned a degree in economics and political science from the University of Toronto, but as he explained to Rainbird during one of their many conversations, his real dream was to fly. So in 1987, Williams enlisted in the air force and pursued his wings, which he earned three years later. He was promoted to captain during his stint at the flying school, and later won a spot piloting the military’s CC144 Challenger jets, which are used for coastal patrols, and, most famously, to ferry high-profile dignitaries such as the prime minister and the governor-general.
In the mid-1990s, while posted at the 412 (Transport) Squadron in Ottawa, Williams and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Harriman, built a two-storey home in the suburb of Orléans. “He was a very straightforward guy, very, very nice,” says Shirley White, who lived two doors down. “He and his wife were the perfect couple. I just about dropped on the floor when I heard about the charges. For me, it was like saying the Pope did something like this.” Harriman, a director at the Heart and Stroke Foundation, would always deliver a box of cookies to her neighbours at Christmas. “She must be just completely devastated,” White says. “I still don’t believe it’s him that did this. I support him 100 per cent. In my own heart, I believe they might have made a mistake, but let’s face it, how often do the police make this sort of mistake?”
While living in Orléans, Williams continued to climb the Canadian Forces ladder. In 1999 he was promoted to major and posted to a desk job in the department of Military Careers; he also pursued a masters degree in Defence Studies from Royal Military College. In June 2004, after earning his lieutenant-colonel stripes, he made his first stop at CFB Trenton, as commanding officer of 437 (Transport) Squadron, the Airbus unit that delivers troops and supplies to and from Kandahar. That same summer, Williams and his wife purchased a $178,000 lakefront cottage in the nearby town of Tweed, Ont.—the same property that is now surrounded by police tape and being scoured by forensic investigators. The white bungalow sits on Cosy Cove Lane. According to friends, Williams called it “Cozy Love.”
By December 2005, Williams was on the move again, this time for a six-month tour at the military’s ultra-classified logistics base near Dubai, known as Camp Mirage. When he returned to Canada in June 2006, he was posted back to Ottawa, where he became a key player in the multi-million-dollar purchase of Trenton’s new fleet of CF-130J Hercules transports and giant CC-117 Globemaster strategic-lift aircraft. “This was a shining star,” says Major-General (ret.) Marc Terreau, who up until recently was the honourary colonel of Trenton’s 429 Squadron.
“He was on his way up. He would have had to prove himself as a wing commander, and then his name would have been in the basket of those with a potential to be selected as a general.”
That chance to be a wing commander came last year, when, after being promoted to a full colonel, Williams spent six months studying French in Gatineau, Que. In July, with a strong command of both official languages, he was handed the reins of the most strategically important airbase: CFB Trenton. Thousands of people gathered for his swearing-in ceremony. “These are exciting times for the air force,” he said that day. “I am confident that the team here is up to the task and I look forward to getting right into that work.” But according to police, when he wasn’t busy at work, Williams was busy preying on innocent women.
When he first accepted the top job at Trenton, Williams and his wife sold their home in Orléans. He moved to the Tweed cottage, commuting 45 minutes to work every morning, while she stayed in Ottawa to oversee the construction of their new $700,000 townhouse in the trendy Westboro Village. In other words, Williams spent many nights alone.
In September, his neighbourhood was rocked by two sexual assaults. In both cases, the victims were asleep in their homes when an intruder broke in, tied them to a chair, sexually assaulted them, and snapped photographs of their naked bodies. Police were still searching for a suspect when Comeau’s body, strangled to death, was discovered in her Brighton, Ont., home on Nov. 25. Two months later, Lloyd vanished from her home near Belleville. At the time, investigators had no idea the crimes were connected—let alone that the accused perpetrator was a high-ranking military man.
Exactly how Col. Williams landed on police radar is still unclear, but according to numerous reports, his tires were his undoing. Desperate for a lead in Lloyd’s disappearance, officers spent all of last Thursday evening and Friday morning stopping every motorist on Highway 37, a windy road near her home. When police pulled over Williams’ Nissan Pathfinder, they reportedly noticed that his tires resembled the unique treads left in the snow near Lloyd’s house. By Sunday, Williams agreed to an interview with the Ontario Provincial Police, where, according to reports, he confessed to the crimes and led detectives to Lloyd’s lifeless body, which was dumped near a dirt road a few kilometers from the colonel’s cottage.
“It’s very hard to believe,” says Rainbird, who has spent the past few days on the base, giving pep talks to staff who are still shocked by the news. “Williams was a quieter type, but an individual with well-above-average intelligence and capabilities. He had the ability to process data very well, to sort priorities, and to focus on the important things.” He is not gregarious or loud, Rainbird says, but well respected by his underlings. “Everyone seemed to enjoy working with him. They all appreciated his style of management and command and got along well with him.”
The mayor of Quinte West, John Williams (no relation) worked closely with the colonel since he arrived in July. “I spoke or emailed with him at least once a week,” he says. “Never had occasion to suspect anything. We’re all in shock and disbelief. I don’t think anybody had any idea. Obviously, it was just right out of left field for us.”
In hindsight, though, the mayor says some things are beginning to make sense. “He was a tough guy to get to know,” Williams says. “He didn’t do a lot of kibitzing. There wasn’t a lot of small talk, and it was very tough to carry on a conversation. I’ll be honest with you, he was almost distant.”
His next court appearance is scheduled for Feb. 18. The last of his alleged victims, Jessica Lloyd, will be buried on Saturday.
— WITH CATHY GULLI, KATE LUNAU, JESSICA ALLEN, JONATHAN MCKINNELL AND CLAIRE WARD