As Russell Williams was settling in for the first night at his new home—a tiny, solitary cell in the depths of Kingston Penitentiary—his old home on Cosy Cove Lane was dark and empty, as it has been for months. Next door, a family still searching for answers finished their Thursday dinner. “We played cards at this table with him,” says Ron, sitting beside his wife, Monique. “We drank beer at this table with him. And if somebody asked me today: ‘Did I ever see anything?’ The answer would be ‘No, absolutely nothing.’ ”
Like so many others who once considered the ex-colonel a close friend, Ron and Monique still can’t fathom the two faces of their former neighbour: the Russ who was always welcome in their Tweed, Ont., kitchen—and who enjoyed a special bond with their two children—and the Russ who kicked off his vile crime spree inside this very same house. “When we look back, we feel so stupid,” Ron says, shaking his head. “You shouldn’t, but you do. You can’t help it.”
The former commander of Canada’s largest air force base pleaded guilty last week to 88 charges (dozens of break-ins targeting women’s lingerie, two home-invasion sexual assaults, and two first-degree murders), but his chilling transformation from respected officer to serial predator began right here, just a few steps from his infamous lakefront cottage. It was Sept. 9, 2007, and while the family next door was visiting a dying relative eight hours away, Williams strolled through their open front door and headed straight for the bedroom of Ron and Monique’s 12-year-old daughter.
Williams knew the girl well. She had taught him to play cribbage, poking fun at his early mistakes. She baked cupcakes for him and his wife, Mary-Elizabeth Harriman, and delivered them to their door. In Grade 7, she even chose Williams as the topic for a school project. “I had to ask him 15 questions, and one of them was: ‘If you could do anything else with your life, what would it be?’ ” recalls the girl, now a teenager, sitting at the table with her parents. “He said, ‘I don’t think I would want to do anything else.’ ”
“He lied,” her father says.
Williams spent nearly three hours inside the girl’s room, modelling multiple pairs of her underwear and photographing himself in the mirror. He also pocketed six items, the first pieces of what would become a massive collection of stolen bras, panties, bathing suits and other female clothing. Williams would return to her bedroom on two other occasions while the family was away; neither she nor her parents had any idea that someone had rifled through her dresser.
“He knew we were gone, and he took advantage of that,” Monique says. (To protect the identity of Williams’s underage victim, Maclean’s is not publishing her name or her parents’ surname). “We feel like we lost a friend, but I can’t forgive him,” Monique adds. “That was my baby he targeted.”
The scope of Williams’s depraved double life is now public knowledge, revealed in gruesome detail at his recent sentencing hearing. Among the many tragic details, Ron and Monique now know that his second murder victim, Jessica Lloyd, was alive in the cottage beside theirs for 15 hours, then strangled and left in the garage for another four days. “It broke my heart,” Ron says.
But despite finally knowing the full truth, Williams’s neighbours are still struggling, like so many others, to answer the one question that remains a mystery: why? What triggered their friend, on that September night three years ago, to sneak into their home and begin a downward spiral that would end, two homicides later, in a police interrogation room?
Looking back, the neighbours can’t help but remember some of the stress Williams was under in 2007, right before the break-ins started. Curio, his beloved cat of 18 years, was sick and had to be euthanized. Williams and Harriman were so upset that they asked the vet to administer the needle inside their Ottawa home so she could die in a familiar setting. “He had tears in his eyes telling us about the death of that cat,” Ron recalls.
Williams was also suffering from a sudden bout of chronic arthritis. He was popping prescription pills, but the constant pain was so fierce at times that he worried he might have to retire from the military. “We would play cards here, and he could not sit for more than half an hour,” Ron says. “He would get up and stand behind the chair, holding the chair.” (Williams did the same thing during his videotaped confession to police, leaning against a wall for long periods of time.)
But as they have done since the day Williams was arrested, the family next door is not jumping to conclusions. They aren’t the type to gossip, and although they’ve often wondered about Curio’s death and the pain medication, they have no idea what actually turned their friend into a sadistic killer. “We went through a really tough time with this for the simple reason that we don’t know the guy they’re talking about [in court],” Ron says. “That’s not the guy we knew.”
The guy they knew was funny and modest and in love with his wife. He was the guy who fished in their ice hut and talked music with their son and never bragged about his high-profile job, even though it included ferrying prime ministers and the Queen. In fact, Williams didn’t even tell his neighbours he was working as Her Majesty’s official pilot during her 2005 visit until after she left.
The guy they knew wore a Gilligan-style hat while meticulously weeding his beach. The guy they knew would belt out a loud “Oh baby!” as he laid down a winning cribbage hand—and then joke about how he wanted to glue the pegs in place and hang the winning board over his mantel. The guy they knew appeared genuinely horrified when he heard that two women in the neighbourhood had been sexually assaulted in their homes. “He said: ‘Mary-Elizabeth is very afraid and very upset about this,’ ” Monique recalls.
At the time, of course, she had no clue she was speaking to the culprit—or that his sick crimes would soon escalate to murder.
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