The Wizard of Ladysmith: The Bizarre Case (and Mysterious Disappearance) of BC’s Infamous MDA Kingpin
Arthur James Williams was supposed to stand trial for manufacturing a huge amount of drugs. But instead authorities only found a wrecked airplane and no body. Then it really gets weird.
On the morning of August 16, 1977, a handful of police officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's (RCMP) Victoria drug squad, including at least one bomb expert and a locksmith, carefully made their way across a property on Westdowne Road, located just outside the small town of Ladysmith on Vancouver Island. The officers slowly encircled a barn at the back of the property, with their hands clenched tightly around their weapons and their eyes scanning incessantly for potential booby-traps.
As the officers reached the complex, they discovered that the building resembled more of a fortress of brick and cement, complete with gigantic staircases connected to the building by a drawbridge. Inside, they found numerous secret passageways which ultimately led to a hidden room. The room contained traces of an illicit drug, MDA. It was the final piece of evidence needed to arrest "The Wizard of Ladysmith" aka: Arthur James Williams.
The story goes that in an underground fortress on his Westdowne Road property in Ladysmith, known as "The Barn," Williams manufactured large quantities of the drug Methylenedioxyamphetamine, or MDA. Using a network of biker gangs, it's believed that Williams' product was distributed as far east as Winnipeg, and some have even suggested his product was sold internationally. In 1977, after years of monitoring Williams' activities, the Victoria drug squad arrested him on charges related to drug manufacturing and conspiracy. But Williams never made it to the courtroom.
On the evening of November 30, 1977, days before he was scheduled to stand trial, Williams took off in a small, single-engine Cessna bound for either Vancouver or Nanaimo. However, his plane never landed in either supposed destination.
After an official inquest, authorities claimed that Williams's plane crashed in the Strait of Georgia, a narrow, navigable body of water between British Columbia's mainland and Vancouver Island, killing him. However, the majority of the wreckage and Williams' body were never found. Almost 15 months later, Williams' estranged wife, Margaret Williams, also seemingly vanished without a trace, leaving authorities baffled.
Nearly 40 years later, the Williams investigation is still open despite a provincial inquiry into Art's death. Margaret's disappearance has never been publically solved.
According to Williams' death certificate, he was born in Portbury, England on December 31, 1924. His service records show he enlisted in the British army in 1943 at the age of 19. Williams was a small man, standing only 5-foot 5-inches and weighing 125 pounds at the time of his enlistment. In later years Williams packed on some muscle, most likely from his time in the military, but he'd always maintain his wiry frame.
Williams' military records show he fought with the 1st Battalion of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and the 5th Battalion of The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. He was wounded at least once while fighting in Europe and, from his service records, it appears he was popular amongst his superiors. Testimonials describe Williams as "extremely trustworthy", "reliant", "loyal", "responsible" and "hard-working." Williams was discharged from the British army in May of 1951 at the rank of Sergeant.
After leaving the army, Williams set his sights on Canada. He initially moved to Alberta where he met and married a woman by the name of Margaret McDonald. Around 1955 the couple moved to Vancouver Island, settling in the small town of Ladysmith. Ladysmith sits on the south-east side of Vancouver Island, approximately 25-kilometres south of Nanaimo and 90-kilometres north of Victoria, British Columbia's capital. Originally named Oyster Harbour, Ladysmith was primarily known for mining, logging and fishing.
Shortly after Art and Margaret settled in Ladysmith, Art became infatuated with archery. He became a proficient archer and even started his own archery business, which was later seized by the bank, likely prompting Williams' distrust of governments and institutions.
Nothing in Williams' service records indicates how or why he would be involved in a drug conspiracy, and it's unclear exactly how MDA got on his radar. MDA was first synthesized in Germany in 1910 and US military considered experimenting with a form of MDA to be used as a sort of truth serum during the 1950s. The drug became popular during the 60s, often associated with the counterculture movement of the time, and was often referred to as the "hug drug" or "Sally." MDA can be taken in pill form or in gel caps (it's believed Williams used gel caps to package the MDA he produced) and once ingested, the drug produces a highly stimulant and hallucinogenic state, even more so than its chemical cousin, MDMA.
During the early 1970s, Williams founded the BC Institute of Mycology, a body dedicated to the study of, and experimentation with, fungi and mushrooms. Williams was fascinated with the topic and spent thousands of dollars on equipment and chemicals for his research. By 1972, however, the US Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, now the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), had become suspicious of Williams' large orders of Isosafrole, a chemical used to manufacture illicit drugs. (It should be noted that an FOI request to the DEA showed that files pertaining to Williams have been destroyed, apparently in accordance with DEA protocol.)
The RCMP case files on the investigation into Williams are still closed to the public. Even through an Access to Information Request, the files are not available. The reason provided to VICE was that although Williams was declared dead by a provincial inquiry, the federal case is still open (Williams would be 92 if he is still alive). As a result, the case files will not be available until the year 2080.
However, the RCMP did supply one piece of weird evidence: at least one witness told the RCMP that Williams was heavily influenced by a science-fiction novel, The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester. The book was first published in 1952 and won the Hugo Award in 1953. The plot is complicated, but in essence it's a police procedural set in the 24th century where telepathy is common and a man commits murder in order to save his business. Any commonalities between the story and the case surrounding Williams seem very loose at best.
Luckily, there is a much more reliable and tangible source from the police investigation into Williams. During the time of Williams' disappearance, Derek Sidenius, a reporter for a local Victoria paper called The Times (now the Times Colonist), covered the case against Williams extensively. Sidenius wrote that throughout the early 1970s the RCMP's Victoria drug squad and local authorities conducted an extensive investigation into the activities of Williams and an associate, Dale Elliot. Elliot was a local mechanic suspected of having connections to biker gangs and their drug network. Using informants, bugs, and surveillance, the RCMP tirelessly monitored Williams and Elliot until the winter of 1973. After observing and bugging a suspected lab, on one of Elliot's properties in Chemainus, authorities decided to raid both the lab and Williams' residence.
During the raid, authorities caught Elliot with chemicals used to manufacture illicit drugs. As a result, both Williams and Elliot were put on trial for charges related to trafficking MDA, conspiring to traffic MDA, and possessing MDA. In the end, Elliot was found guilty of trafficking MDA and sentenced to ten years. On January 25, 1975, a judge acquitted Williams on all charges, and it appeared that he was in the clear.
The following year, 1976, was a busy one for Williams. For one, it appears that he had continued manufacturing large batches of MDA. In April of the same year, Elliot was acquitted by the British Columbia Court of Appeal after serving only 15 months of his sentence. The acquittal hinged on the grounds that the police had failed to properly describe the drug he was allegedly trafficking. As a result, Elliot and Williams were free to continue their operation.
In an article for Quest magazine a few years later, John Masters wrote an article titled "The Wizard of Ladysmith." In the article, Masters wrote, "[Williams] cranked up a production line that could turn out 22,000 capsules of MDA in 24 hours." This estimate seems plausible as reporters, including Sidenius, alleged that Williams and his associates were making drug transactions in the hundreds of thousands of dollars (one transaction with an informant was rumoured to be for $350,000, which amounts to almost $1.2 million today).
Not much is known about Williams' personal relationship with drugs. Rumours have it that during the 1960s, hippies travelling through Vancouver Island often stopped at his place, experimenting with MDA. Locals say that Williams often spent time down at the courthouse, coming to the defense of "hippies" who had been busted on drugs. The aforementioned article by Masters said Williams kept a notebook filled with egotistical and eccentric ramblings, encouraged by his own experimentation with MDA, but there's no concrete evidence to support this claim.
During the summer of 1976, Williams obtained his pilot's license after completing a training course. Soon after, Williams purchased two Cessna planes. One incident involving Williams' planes actually made international headlines. In April of 1977, Williams, with his former lawyer Donald Bohun, was flying from the Florida Keys to the Grand Cayman Islands when they were intercepted just outside Cuban airspace by two Soviet MiGs. Allegedly, Williams was told to wait for clearance to enter Cuban airspace from Havana officials, but either miscommunication, or a lapse of communication, caused an almost fatal incident.
The episode was recorded in several papers including The Bulletin from Bend, Oregon; "The Canadians said that on six occasions, one of the fighters swooped down ahead of the small craft and turned on its afterburners, dumping jet fuel and sparks over the front of the Cessna. He [Williams] said that on the sixth pass the Cessna was sucked into the vortex of the jet and went out of control." Williams told reporters afterwards that the chase continued until he turned the plane back towards Florida.
Bohun recalled to me that the entire incident "was fucking scary," and attributed Williams' alleged experience as a glider pilot during WW2 as the reason they made it out of the ordeal. Williams later signed an affidavit with the Canadian Department of External Affairs about the incident.
By 1977, Victoria's drug squad was once again right on the tail of Williams and Elliot. Using an informant, investigators surveyed various drug drops and transactions made by Williams, Elliot and another co-conspirator named Raymond Ridge. The police were also using phone taps to monitor activity, but by the summer of 1977 their court ordered taps were going to expire. It was time to close in.
During the early morning hours of August 16, 1977, authorities raided three different locations, including Williams's property on Westdowne Road. When police raided the duplex, Williams and his girlfriend Shirley Ferguson were sleeping. By this time Williams was estranged from his wife Margaret, yet she continued to live on the property in a separate dwelling. At least a couple of sources suggest that sometime during the raid, Williams cursed and threatened the police calling them "Nazi pigs" and yelling, "I'll sue you, I'll sue you!" Williams eventually calmed down and the police began their search. They turned up nothing in the duplex where Williams, Ferguson and her children slept. But then they turned their sights on a building in the back of the property, commonly referred to as "The Barn."
In the years leading up to Williams's 1975 acquittal, he was expanding a building in the back of his property. At a quick glance, it appeared that Williams was renovating the building to accommodate his new found passions for studying and researching fungi. But as the police circled the dwelling during the morning of August 16, 1977, they saw that the building was more like a fortress, designed to keep unwanted visitors out.
As the barn came into view, what the officers saw was staggering. On either end of the building were gigantic staircases connected to the building by a drawbridge. One staircase led to a tiny apartment, mainly used as sleeping quarters, while the other led to a larger room where Williams had his mycology lab.
Officers, including a bomb expert and locksmith, searched the tiny apartment and discovered a hidden passage behind the abnormally thick walls. From there, officers descended through tight corridors and found another hidden door disguised as a set of shelves. Once through the second door authorities discovered a ladder leading to a hatch. Sidenius wrote, "The bombmen swept the chamber and then carefully climbed up and raised the hatch. They entered a concrete-lined room about ten square feet high and seven feet high. They had found the MDA lab at last." In it, the police found traces of MDA along with gelatin capsules.
At the time, Dave Staples, head of the RCMP's Victoria drug squad, remarked to the press, "We always respected Williams as a wily adversary... He was hard to catch. It took a lot of man-hours, a good deal of imagination and a good deal of luck."
The preliminary hearing of the case against Williams ended sometime in early November. Before the trial could get fully underway, however, Williams vanished. All that was found of the supposed wreckage of Williams' plane was a seat, a life vest, a sun visor and a logbook. Some months later some said a wheel of the plane washed ashore near Campbell River.
But the mystery doesn't end there.
Almost 15 months later, Margaret Williams, Art's estranged wife, vanished without a trace from their home on Westdowne Road. According to various local newspaper outlets, when authorities searched the property they found more than $57,000 in cash buried around the home. Even stranger, the house had been untouched and most of Margaret's belongings remained intact. One of the investigators at the time, Ladysmith RCMP Sgt. Bob Udahl, told local reporters, "There is not an abundance of evidence to indicate one way or another whether Mrs. Williams left of her own volition, or otherwise."
Authorities were completely baffled by Margaret's disappearance. Sgt. Udahl told the press "We have absolutely no clues for starting a search..." Following Margaret's sudden disappearance, many began to speculate that maybe Art wasn't dead after all.
A family member, only identified as Williams' nephew, told the Nanaimo Daily Free Press, "I know there was an inquest after the crash and he was declared dead, but to this day I have never accepted that verdict... Now that his wife has vanished from the face of the earth, I am even more skeptical."
In August of 1979, just three months after Margaret's disappearance, the investigation had gone nowhere. The following year the property on Westdowne Road was put up for sale and bought by a couple from Nanaimo. Ken Heal, one of the buyers, attempted to turn what was left of the barn into a museum and even planned on using it to shoot a film based on Williams' life. But then the Heals began receiving threatening calls and when, shortly after, part of the barn was destroyed by arson the notion of the place becoming a side-show faded quickly.
So what happened to Art and Margaret? To this day, no one really knows, but that hasn't weaned public interest in what happened to the "The Wizard of Ladysmith".
To this day, Williams' niece, Joanne, still wonders what happened to her uncle and is fascinated by the wake of allegations and stories his legacy has left behind. And although there's no closure for Joanne, she makes a constant effort to keep her memories of Art alive: "Although it's been almost 40 years since my uncle's plane crashed in the [Strait of Georgia], there hasn't been a time that he's been very far from heart. Stories that have been relayed to me about my uncle are foreign as I wonder who this person is they're talking about. The man I knew and loved was clever, a prankster, with a good sense of humor; yet gave thoughtful, gentle, replies that tickled the imaginations of a child," she told VICE.
To this day, "The Wizard of Ladysmith" is not only talked about on the regular, but has become a local attraction. Those looking for answers on what happened to Williams can wander into the Ladysmith Archives and begin their own investigation into the case. Those who are really intrigued can drive south from Ladysmith, on Highway 1, to Westdowne Road where part of Williams' "barn" lies in decay at the back of the property.
Daryl Ashby, a Victoria resident who hopes to release a book on Williams' life, is still trying to piece together the mystery of what happened to Williams. When asked what he thought happened to Williams, Ashby said a member of the Canadian Coast Guard, who responded to Williams' crash, told him, "had he known how little material was going to be located at the time of the crash, he would not have wasted his time going out."
After Williams' disappearance, one of his neighbours, John MacNaughton, told the press when he heard Williams was released on bail he thought, "Well, goodbye, Art... That's the last you'll ever see of him. Letting him out on bail was the biggest mistake they ever made."
One of Williams' sisters also told the press, "Arthur always had an aura of mystery about him; once he even claimed he could fake his death. I guess a lot of people get carried away by that."
Williams' former lawyer, Bohun, laughed at the suggestion of Art crashing, "Art Williams, crash? He's a fucking ace pilot, he didn't crash."
Tyler Hooper is a writer and journalist based out of Victoria, BC. His work has been featured in publications such as The Vancouver Sun and Esprit de Corps. You can follow him on Twitter.