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He Was a Top Officer in the Military, and Also a Serial Killer

The story of Russell Williams, the air force colonel who shocked Canada, and how he was caught.

by Patrick Lejtenyi
Aug 2 2017, 5:42pm

This story is part of a monthly column looking back at some of Canada's most infamous crimes. You can read more here.

Seven years after it was filmed in a tiny room at Ottawa police headquarters, the Russell Williams interrogation video from Feb. 7, 2010 still packs a massive punch. It captures a vividly emotional and intellectual game of cat and mouse between a seasoned cop and a powerful, terrible man who is slowly realizing that his game is up, and there is no room to maneuver. You see the moment Williams realizes he's going to spend the rest of his life in jail.

In the hours-long video, Smyth gets Williams to confess to the murders of Marie-France Comeau, 38, of Brighton, ON, and Jessica Lloyd, 27, of Belleville. It isn't network-television dramatic—there's no shouting, no angry denials, no threats of beatings. As Smyth lays out the case against him, Williams is confronted with the fact that the cops know what he knows: that he committed the brutal abduction and murder of two women, and the vicious assaults on two others.

Upon its release, the video of the interplay between Williams, a colonel in the Royal Canadian Air Force and Det.-Sgt. Jim Smyth of the Ontario Provincial Police gripped viewers across the country and across the world. Not only for its content, but also because of who Williams was: he was the commander of the country's largest air base, a high-ranking officer respected by his peers. He'd flown VIPs, including the Queen of England, the Governor General of Canada and at least one prime minister. He was raised in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough in a comfortable home and eventually became a prefect at the exclusive Upper Canada College. He joined the RCAF shortly after graduating from the University of Toronto and for 23 years had been regarded as a model officer.

How was such a public figure able to live a double life for so long, especially considering he committed over 80 break-ins in the relatively same area of Ontario? Cops only turned their eyes on him following Jessica Lloyd's disappearance, and that was more thanks to police grunt work than any crack in his carefully maintained facade.

According to forensic psychologists contacted by VICE, Williams, for all his brutality and perversions, wasn't a psychopath. He's something scarier: a man with powerful sexual deviances coupled with a lack of empathy for his victims, but who was able to control his urges in order to avoid detection. Unlike psychopaths, who lack that self-control and are relatively easy for police to catch, Williams was able to exercise judgment and discretion when necessary.

"That's what makes a guy like that difficult to detect," said Liam Ennis, a forensic psychologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. "He's got the simmering cauldron that is his sexual deviance, but he's [also] got the good-working frontal lobe that allows him to hit the pause button."

There's no way to detect criminals like Williams, according to Ennis. You simply have to work backwards. "You certainly want to talk to sexual partners," says Ennis. "You would presume that for this type of serial predator he's got a lot of hostility towards women—maybe that's so obvious it's silly to say it—and he's got a clear sexual deviance streak in him. So you want to know from his past girlfriends and sexual partners, did you see any of this?"

Paraphilias like Williams' usually emerge in the teens and 20s, so Ennis and others believe that he has had the impulses which eventually drove him to murder for decades.

***

Williams' earliest known crime was committed in September 2007, when he first began breaking into the homes of his neighbours in Tweed, a town of 1,800 people about 50 kilometres north of Belleville, itself just west of Kingston straddling Highway 401 between Montreal and Toronto. The first victims were a family that lived just a few doors down from the cottage Williams owned with his wife on Cosy Cove Lane. The family was friendly with the childless Williamses, enough to have them over for dinner and to go fishing together on Stoco Lake.

Williams would repay their friendship by breaking into their house three times. According to the Toronto Star, on one occasion Williams took a photo of himself "lying naked on the bed, masturbating with a red panty believed to have belonged to his neighbour's [12-year-old] daughter. Fourteen of the photos he took that night show him 'with his penis protruding from (stolen) underwear,' [Crown attorney Robert] Morrison said."

This would become a pattern. Over two years, Williams would break into homes and steal, dress up and masturbate in the clothes of women and girls—some as young as nine years old. Morrison said he "would first photograph the bedroom of his victim, then the underwear in her dresser. He would then arrange the lingerie neatly on a bed or on the floor, before modeling them and ejaculating."

"Another ritual was to turn his back to the camera and peer back over a shoulder. There were also many close-ups of his penis, protruding from women's underwear," said Morrison.

Other times he would leave messages for the girls whose rooms he broke into: "Merci" he typed onto the computer of a pre-teen girl.

Police would eventually find thousands of photographs he'd taken. In some, he was posing as he modeled the underwear he'd stolen. In others, he'd be masturbating while lying on the beds of the rooms he'd broken into. "There were photos of him lying in beds surrounded by the stuffed toys and panties of little girls, or of him wearing negligees and camisoles. In all the photos, his expression was stern, as if on parade for inspection," wrote the Star.

Image via court files

Between September 2007 and November 2009, Williams would commit a total of 82 break-ins of 48 homes in the Tweed-Belleville region and Ottawa. The majority of the break-ins were undetected and thus, went unreported to police.

But some residents were talking about them, and were getting nervous. Things were especially tense in Tweed, a small community where, as local journalist Tim Durkin tells VICE, "everybody knows everybody. That's what was so strange about it."

Durkin, who was reporting for Belleville's CJBQ 800 AM at the time, says the break-ins were certainly on people's minds, but nobody knew where they would lead.

"The media had covered the break-ins but of course there was no connection to the leader of Canada's largest air base," he says. "At that point, it was just a series of break-ins."

Slowly, however, Williams was escalating. In July 2009, he hid outside a neighbour's house in Tweed waiting for a young woman to get into the shower. At around 1:30 AM, Williams stripped naked, broke into the home, made his way to the bedroom and stole some her underwear. In another instance, he waited outside a teenager's window for her to undress while he looked on, stripped naked, and masturbated.

By September, Williams told police that he needed more stimulation, more risk. And so, at around 1 AM on September 17, dressed all in black and with his face covered, Williams entered the home of a 21-year-old woman near Tweed as she slept. He woke her with a blow to her head, and quickly subdued her. He struck her several more times before he bound her hands and covered her face with a pillow case. The woman told investigators that Williams pulled aside her tank top, fondled her breasts and photographed her naked. Then he took some lingerie and a baby blanket and fled.

Less than two weeks later, on September 30, Williams struck again. The victim this time was a 46-year-old mother of three in Tweed. She was asleep on a couch in front of the TV when Williams broke in and began punching her and wrapping her in a blanket. He tied her up, blindfolded her, and kept her under his control for three-and-a-half hours.

Over the course of her confinement, Williams fondled her breasts, took photos, and at one point pulled out a knife and cut her clothes off. Eventually, after taking more photographs, he left. He went across the street to his cottage. That was the third and final time Williams broke into her home.

***

On November 16, 2009, Williams broke into the Brighton, Ontario, home of Cpl. Marie-France Comeau, a military flight attendant who worked at CFB Trenton. He told Smyth that he confirmed that she lived alone with her two cats, took some pictures of himself in her underwear, then left.

He returned eight days later. After hiding in her basement for half an hour, Williams attacked Comeau with a flashlight, knocked her out, bound her, covered her mouth with duct tape, took some photos and dragged her up to the bedroom. Then he set up a video camera and raped her repeatedly. As the Crown prosecutor described it, she continued to struggle against him, and begged him to leave and spare her life. He told her to shut up, put duct tape over her nose, and she suffocated to death.

Williams cleaned up and then drove to Ottawa for a meeting.

The murder of the 38-year-old Comeau must have temporarily satisfied something because Williams didn't strike again for nearly two months. On January 27, 2010, he drove past the Belleville home of 27-year-old Jessica Lloyd as she was working out on a treadmill. He told Smyth he thought she was "cute," and so broke into her home the following night as she slept. Again, he beat and bound her, put duct tape over her eyes, and set up the video and camera. He then raped her repeatedly for hours, pausing to take photos.

At around 8 PM, almost 20 hours after he first attacked her, he told her he would take her home. But as they were leaving, he struck her on the head and strangled her to death. He wrapped her body in a blanket and left it in the garage.

That was a Friday. Williams drove to the base that evening, flew the following day and spent the rest of the weekend at his home in Ottawa with his wife. He returned to Tweed the following Tuesday (February 2) and disposed of the body in a wooded area not far from his home sometime around midnight.

Lloyd's disappearance was certainly noticed. She was popular, and her family was well-known. Durkin, the radio reporter, described her as "the girl next door." He told VICE, "A lot of people were on edge and I think in particular people that either lived alone or didn't have anyone around. There was just a feeling of uneasiness that was in the air."

By then the Ontario Provincial Police were investigating and had found distinctive tire tracks and boot prints near Lloyd's home. On the evening of Thursday, February 4, they erected a roadblock on Highway 37, which connects Belleville and Tweed. Every motorist was stopped as cops tried to find a match. Among those stopped was Russell Williams. Luckily for them, Williams was driving his Pathfinder, not his BMW. Cops made a preliminary match, and invited Williams in for questioning that Sunday, February 7.

***

When Williams first walks into frame in the video of the interrogation room at Ottawa police HQ, he exudes the calm confidence of a man accustomed to being in charge. He chews gum as he chats with Det.-Sgt. Smyth like he doesn't have a care in the world but is eager to help. He's offered coffee and the opportunity to call a lawyer, and turns down both. They then go through his whereabouts that past week or so. Smyth sits back, not consulting notes, just offering small encouragements to Williams as he builds his story.

At one point early on, Williams, seemingly worried that his being questioned by police might embarrass both him and the Canadian Forces, asks Smyth if they will be discreet. Smyth says they'll certainly try to be.

They talk for over an hour, and piece by piece, question by question, the viewer can see that Smyth is quietly but methodically backing Williams into a corner.

Eventually, Smyth breaks it down for Williams: Investigators discovered tire tracks behind Jessica Lloyd's house that match the tires on his vehicle. A witness saw a vehicle behind Lloyd's house that is consistent with the description of his Pathfinder. And the wheelbase width of the tracks behind her house match those of the Pathfinder.

Smyth, still using the same calm, quiet tone, says, "The problem is, Russell, every time I walk out of this room, there's another issue that comes up. And it's not issues that point away from you. It's issues that point at you. And I want you to see what I mean."

Smyth pulls out photos of footwear impressions recovered outside Lloyd's house, and prefaces his next move by telling Williams that footwear impressions can be as unique as fingerprints. Then he pulls out a photocopy of the boot that Williams took off his foot earlier that day. "Now, I'm not an expert at footwear impressions," says Smyth, but "these are identical."

And that is the moment we see Russell Williams' world collapse. It takes a little while: Williams keeps nodding, looking at the photos, nodding, saying nothing. This goes on for some time as Smyth asks for an explanation.

"I don't know what to say," Williams mutters.

Then comes the kicker: Smyth lays out some documents in front of Williams and tells him search warrants are being executed at his homes in Ottawa and Tweed, and that his vehicle has been seized. "Your wife now knows what's going on," Smyth tells him.

As Smyth is going through this, adding that they expect a completed analysis of DNA found on Marie-France Comeau's body, that Williams' office is going to be searched, that his credibility is vanishing, that he doesn't think he's a psychopath and that the search for Jessica Lloyd's body will continue until they find her, Williams is coming to grips with the end of his life as he knows it. He can only continue nodding, picking up the photos, putting them down, sighing, crossing his arms, saying almost nothing. For over an hour and a half, Smyth is quietly, even gently, convincing Williams that it's all over, and that it's time for him to help them find Jessica.

The one constant that Williams displays throughout the interrogation is concern for his wife, and how he wants to minimize the impact of the investigation on her. And that's when he folds, and agrees to tell Smyth everything: where to find Jessica's body, how he broke into homes of his victims, what he did to them—the details are grisly and chilling, made even more so as Williams uses the same expressionless monotone as he reveals his crimes. He tells Smyth where to find the memory cards he used to record the photos and videos he made of his victims, including the sexual assaults. Smyth takes it all in, his demeanor as calm as ever.

At one point, Smyth asks Williams, "Why do you think these things happen?"

"I dunno," he answers.

"Have you spent much time thinking about that?" Smyth asks.

"Yeah. But I don't know the answers," Williams replies. "And I'm pretty sure the answers don't matter."

Lloyd's family speak to media after Williams' trial in Belleville, ON / The Canadian Press

In September 2010, Williams pled guilty to all charges against him and was sentenced to two life sentences. Describing herself as also a victim, his wife divorced him. The couple was sued by his victims and their survivors, and out of court settlements have been reached in all of them. He is currently serving his sentence in Port-Cartier, Quebec, about 850 kilometres north of Montreal.

***

Russell Williams was 46 when he murdered Marie-France Comeau and Jessica Lloyd.

Forensic psychologists who spoke to VICE say that's highly unusual, as most paraphilias—abnormal sexual desires involving dangerous or extreme conditions—manifest themselves much earlier, usually in the teens and 20s.

"People don't just wake up in the morning and think, You know what? I'm going to become a sexual sadist today, and I'm going to sexually assault and torture and murder a female colleague today," Mark Olver, a professor of psychology at the University of Saskatchewan, told VICE. "So the thing is, where on Earth does that come from?"

Olver suspects that the first break-in in September 2007 wasn't Williams' first experience of giving into his paraphilias. "The guy could have been stealing clothes from friends and acquaintances, shopping malls, from clotheslines. He could be having fantasies of bondage and so forth, he could have been aggressive with partners during sexual acts but flying under the radar. And over time, fantasy and maybe loosely consenting partners doesn't quite fit the bill and there's an escalation in severity," he said.

(Olver also pointed out that BDSM fantasies aren't in and of themselves indicators of paraphilia, but could certainly be healthy expressions of sexuality between consenting partners.)

According to Ennis, the forensic psychologist based at UofA, people like Williams "can manage their behaviour in ways that don't bring them to the attention of authorities. They can sit back and resist and wait for a more opportune time depending on the balance between the push of the drive and how good their impulse control is. And it looks like this guy's escalating—he gets more and more preoccupied with his deviant sexual fantasies. So the push becomes stronger than the impulse control. You see him getting sloppy."

In the seven years since his arrest, both the Canadian Armed Forces and the residents of the Tweed-Belleville region have been trying to put Russell Williams behind them. He's been dishonourably discharged from the Canadian military, stripped of his rank and his medals, uniforms, and commission scroll confirming his status as an officer in the RCAF were destroyed. The vehicle he used to abduct Jessica Lloyd was also crushed. He will, however, continue to receive a pension.

In Belleville, Tim Durkin told VICE that the community still reveres the military. And while the Williams case deeply shook it while it was unfolding, "people are trying to move on from it at the same time. For people connected directly to it, they'll never be able to move on. I think that the community will never be quite the same as it was before, but at the same time, I think people are pretty resilient and are able to overcome a lot."

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