In the early 1990s, years before Col. Russell Williams was an accused double murderer, he was a young, eager lieutenant stationed at the Canadian Forces flying school in Portage la Prairie, Man. A rookie instructor in the old CT-134 Musketeers, Williams was an obvious standout, quiet but intense. “He was super,” says Greg McQuaid, a retired major who was chief flight instructor at the time. “I wrote the personnel evaluation reports that got him promoted to captain. He was smart, hard-working and skilled. He could be so focused that sometimes it was like he could look right through you.”
Like countless others who crossed paths with Col. Williams, McQuaid is now wondering whether his old friend’s trademark focus was a sign of something much more sinister. But like everyone else, he just can’t reconcile what police now believe: that Russ Williams, the man in charge of CFB Trenton, Canada’s largest and most important air base, was also a serial predator who raped and killed innocent women. “It just doesn’t compute,” McQuaid says. “He fit in well and was well-respected by everybody. I saw nothing that made me think he’d be capable of something like this.”
The next sexual assault on his charge sheet—Sept. 30—was much like the first. It, too, occurred in the same neighbourhood where Williams lived. The unnamed victim woke up to find a man in her home, and then cowered in horror as he stripped off her clothes, fastened her wrists to a chair, and pulled out his camera. Back at CFB Trenton two days later, a smiling Williams presented a $700 cheque to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the same charity where his wife, Mary Elizabeth Harriman, is the associate director.
PHOTO GALLERY: Col. Russell Williams, a timeline — The busy schedule of an accused killer
As the crimes piled up, Williams looked anything but guilty. On Nov. 25, the body of Cpl. Marie France Comeau was discovered in her Brighton, Ont., home—a homicide now linked to the colonel. That same day, the 46-year-old was jokingly handcuffed and thrown in “jail” as part of a United Way fundraiser (he was “charged” with “being too young to be a wing commander”). Last month, with television cameras rolling, Williams greeted Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk, who were in town to inspect Canada’s outbound contribution to relief efforts in Haiti. Eleven days later, 27-year-old Jessica Lloyd vanished from her home near Belleville, Ont., another murder now pinned on Williams.
Since his arrest on Feb. 7, Williams has made only one brief appearance in court, and has yet to offer any explanation for a turn of events that has not only shocked everyone at the Department of National Defence, but the entire country. How could a man with such an impeccable record—a 23-year officer whose resumé included a stint ferrying the prime minister in Canada’s fleet of Challenger jets—harbour such a heinous secret? Everyone who worked with Williams praised his leadership, loyalty and intelligence. Nobody had any inkling of a double life. “I just can’t believe he did it,” McQuaid says. “I’m hoping he didn’t, to tell you the truth.”
Here’s what we do know. Russell David Williams was born on March 7, 1963, and joined the Canadian Forces in 1987, a year after graduating from the University of Toronto with a degree in economics and political science. He earned his wings in 1990, was promoted to captain in 1992, and was later posted to the VIP patrol in Shearwater, N.S. Williams was promoted to major in 1999, and shortly after earning his lieutenant-colonel stripes in 2004, he was named commanding officer at the Forces’ ultra-classified Camp Mirage near Dubai—a posting that required a top-secret security clearance and an exhaustive examination of his family, friends and background. He passed.
Williams, like all air force officers, also underwent an annual performance review. “It looks at your challenges in the year, how you dealt with them, how you are able to lead, how you are able to manage, and your conduct,” says Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Marc Terreau, who met Williams twice over the past year. “In other words, your values, your ability to manage, and your ability to lead.” Again, Williams passed with flying colours, and in July 2009 he was rewarded with a coveted posting: the top man at CFB Trenton.
Col. Russell Williams to plead guilty—Accused killer and former base commander will plead guilty to all counts, says lawyer (October 7, 2010)
Colonel Williams’ wife, under attack—An accused killer’s spouse struggles to rebuild her shattered life (July 27, 2010)