On July 15, 2009, an hour before Col. Russell Williams was sworn in as the new boss of CFB Trenton, a two-seater jet skidded off the air base runway and smashed through a fence.
The plane, a 1950s-era Canadian Forces Silver Star, was being delivered to a private buyer in the U.S. when something went wrong during takeoff, forcing the pilot to abort.
For a few minutes, at least, the crash threatened to spoil Williams’s big day: his official change-of-command parade. But as emergency crews raced to the plane, they found a scene that could have been much worse. The pilot was conscious and alert, and the jet, resting on its belly, was still intact. So shortly after one o’clock, with the pilot safely in hospital, the festivities went ahead as planned.
If the accident was an omen for the unthinkable things to come, only Williams could have known that at the time. In the eyes of everyone else gathered at his swearing-in ceremony—including his wife of 18 years, Mary-Elizabeth Harriman—the colonel deserved what he was about to receive: the reins of Canada’s largest and most strategically important air base, a vital hub that does everything from search-and-rescue operations to welcoming home the flag-draped caskets returning from Afghanistan.
Harriman, a senior official at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, sat smiling in the front row that Wednesday afternoon as her husband, dressed in his crisp air force blues, accepted the commander’s pennant from his predecessor, Col. Mike Hood. In his speech, Williams thanked the friends who had come to celebrate his prestigious posting. He thanked Hood, now a brigadier general, for his “outstanding leadership” over the previous two years. And he thanked his wife, a woman who had watched him go from rookie officer to the prime minister’s personal pilot to the senior man at 8 Wing, an assignment that almost surely would have ended with a promotion to general.
Following military tradition, Hood, the outgoing commander, presented Harriman with a bouquet of flowers. “She was very excited about Russ’s new job,” says one air force employee, who spoke to Harriman that day. “They were very much in love.”
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If detectives are correct, by the time Harriman was handed those flowers, her husband had already broken into 33 different homes—including one house six separate times—and stolen hundreds of women’s undergarments, including bras, panties and even bathing suits. And in the coming months, with his wife oblivious to his perverted double life, Williams would allegedly graduate from lingerie burglar to serial predator. Now locked in a solitary cell, awaiting his next court date, the former air force star is accused of sexually assaulting two women and killing two others: Marie-France Comeau, a 38-year-old corporal stationed at his base, and Jessica Lloyd, 27, a Belleville, Ont., woman whose body was dumped at the side of a dirt road.
Comeau was buried at Ottawa’s National Military Cemetery on Dec. 4, 2009. In the days after her funeral, while police hunted for a killer, the colonel and his wife attended a number of Christmas parties at CFB Trenton, including four in one night. Lloyd vanished on Jan. 28, a Thursday. Williams and Harriman were together at their Ottawa home that weekend, his last as a free man.