In 2010, Colonel Russell Williams was chosen news maker of the year in Canada.
The year had started so well for this decorated colonel. He was a rising star in the ranks of the air force that managed Canada’s largest military airfield. As a pilot, he had flown Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, the prime minister and many VIP guests in military airplanes.
But the year 2010 ended very badly for Williams – his uniform was seized and burned by the military in an effort to erase any trace of him amongst their ranks. And this is also the year he confessed and pleaded guilty to charges of rape and murder.
From July 2009 until his arrest in February 2010, Russell Williams commanded Canadian Forces Base Trenton, one of the busiest Canadian airbases. He was relieved of his functions as base commander in February 2010 and formally charged with two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of forcible confinement, and two counts of breaking and entering with sexual assault. Another 82 charges related to breaking and entering were subsequently added. Or as I would call it: Collecting Artifacts.
Williams was sentenced to two life sentences for first-degree murder, two 10-year sentences for other sexual assaults, two 10-year sentences for forcible confinement and 82 one-year sentences for burglary (collecting artifacts). All the sentences were to be served concurrently at Kingston Penitentiary. The ‘’faint hope’’ clause of the Canadian criminal code does not apply to him, meaning he will never be a free man again.
Kingston Pen closed its doors in September 2013. It was the most famous prison in Canada, not only because of its infamous and notorious prisoners – Paul Bernardo, Clifford Olson, Hamed Shafia, Helmuth Buxbaum and Russell Williams, but also due to the fact that writer Charles Dickens, who toured the prison in 1842, had called it “an admirable gaol.’’
But the prison’s reputation was mostly built on the role its inmates played in building the city. They laboured to build a quarry in the village of Portsmouth and that quarry was made famous by writer Merilyn Simonds in her novel The Convict Lover. The inmates learned trades while at Kingston, and even the coffin Sir John A. Macdonald was displayed in when he died in 1891, was made at the prison’s wood shop.
Inmate Russell Williams was transferred from Kingston Pen to Port Cartier prison in Quebec a few months before its closure. And Paul Bernardo was moved from Kingston to Millhaven penitentiary in Ontario. I hear that the inmates at Millhaven are quite pleased to enjoy the new privilege of hearing trains blowing their whistles from afar. So much for small pleasures.
Coincidentally, these two infamous criminals whose paths had crossed at Kingston Pen, had also met when they were young men studying at the University of Toronto in the 1980s.
Some say they were ‘pals’ and partied together but they both deny it. Paul Bernardo’s father stated that his son does not even remember Russell Williams/Sovka. They studied economics at the Military Trail campus and graduated in 1987. Some would love to think that there was a crime spree rivalry between the two, but that is absolutely unfounded.
Even though Bernardo and Williams had both lived in Scarborough, Ontario and attended the same university, their fate reunited them only much later when Williams ended up at Kingston Pen.
While Paul Bernardo was a busy bee becoming the Scarborough Rapist, Russell Williams kept himself occupied modeling his life to the ‘Top Gun’ movies he had watched in awe so many times. Like the hero of the story, he had decided to become a pilot. By all accounts, he worked relentlessly and diligently to achieve his goal.
At that time, there was nothing to indicate that Russell Williams was a troubled and troublesome soul. But Bernardo was already in full-fledge criminal mode. They also approached love very differently. A violent sadist, Paul could not have any normal relationship with a woman. He then met Karla Homolka and the rest is history.
But Williams, after a painful breakup, appeared to have finally met the love of his life, Mary Elizabeth Harriman, a senior executive for a medical Foundation. They were married for 18 years and had a solid and loving relationship. She became his ultimate victim, but much later, when she discovered her “perfect” husband’s secret activities.
David Russell Williams was born on March 7, 1963 and it is not until the age of 44 that he started his criminal behavior. He admitted having had fantasies of stealing women’s underwear in his 20s or 30s but his first break-in didn’t occur until 2007. That is when he started his strange ‘collection of artifacts’.
In fact, some American researchers led by Janet Warren, a professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia, have included Williams in a study into why certain prolific sex offenders keep ‘’artifacts’’ of their victims even if it represents a huge risk to hold on to that type of evidence.
They found that these collections are more than just fetishes. They give the perpetrators a sense of power over the victims and they may be ‘’central’’ to why they commit the crimes.
“The methods used to capture, document, and preserve these experiences differ among offenders, however each reveals his wish to create a collection of victims allowing both a reverie of remembrance and proof that he is capable of taking any victim he chooses, any way he likes,” the researchers wrote in an article for the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior.
They have studied the most prolific sex offenders from the past 40 years, including Williams.
They dubbed Williams ‘’the cinematographer’’ because he films his crimes, poses his victims and participates in the scenario he created. He wants to shoot the ‘’perfect porno.’’
Before becoming violent, Williams started slowly by peeping through windows, breaking into homes and stealing lingerie, and then photographing himself dressed in it.
It escalated to his first victim, a 20-year old girl that he sexually assaulted. He ‘collected’ her bras and panties, bed sheet and baby blanket. He proceeded to break into her home again to steal more lingerie, her driver’s license and other ‘artifacts’.
He broke into the home of a 47-year-old neighbour, and tied her up. He then forced her to undress and pose for photos. It was not the first time he had broken into her house to take photographs and steal some of her personal effects.
The first woman he murdered was a 37-year-old corporal in the air force. She was beaten, tied up, raped and strangled in her own home. He videotaped and photographed the crime after adjusting the lighting for a better shoot.
The last woman he murdered was 27. He bound and raped her and recorded her in various poses wearing lingerie. He brought her to his cottage in the country afterward to continue his assault before the final kill.
The researchers wrote that ‘’Filming these crimes allowed Williams to capture his fetishistic behaviour, cross-dressing and sexual sadism, but it also captured his conflicted gender identity.’’
“The turbulence of these opposing experiences of gender identity escalated into murder, and perhaps that is the core sexual fantasy that Williams sought to capture and resolve.’’
Many killers keep trophies or artifacts as reminders of their exploits. As a way to relive the moments of total control they crave for in their arguably powerless lives.
Some keep objects but others keep journals. They have a strong urge to write the stories of their crimes to relive the surge of pleasure they had experienced. It is a powerful desire to control the materials and to prolong the powerlessness of the victims and enhance their control of the situation.
“It is our impression,” the researchers wrote, “that the collection serves to weld together an experience of self that is of paramount importance to the offender and possibly constitutes the most fundamental motivation for their crimes.”
Sadly, the researchers said, “no treatment exists” to render such offenders harmless, meaning their “rapid identification and apprehension” is key.
Having said that, we are still left wondering why a successful man like Colonel Russell Williams felt so powerless. Why was he looking for a sense of power when his life seemed drenched with honor and rewards?
He was a highly respected man. By all accounts, he had a great relationship with his loving and very smart wife who was not emasculating him in any way. They had decided against having children because ‘he did not want to bring children into this world’. That should be a clue. What was it about this world that he found unfit for children? He knew firsthand about the EVIL LURKING.
His upbringing had not been smooth sailing but by no means tragic. He had a stepfather and from all evidence, did not have a deep connection with him. But he nevertheless, took his side when his mother divorced him and cut ties with her over it.
His heart had been broken by a young lady he really cared about and her rejection drove him to become a hero-pilot à la Tom Cruise in Top Gun. His marriage to Harriman was described as harmonious but she was older than him and kind of homely. Was she the safe respite he craved after feeling undeserving of the one his heart truly desired? Or was it a convenient match to harbor his gender identify issues?
It was divulged that at the time of his crime spree, Williams was taking a cocktail of prescription drugs for an excruciating bout of chronic joint pain he was suffering from, and that he feared, could end his career as a pilot. It marked the crucial moment when he crossed the line from fantasy to obsession and started acting out his sexual deviancy by collecting artifacts and wearing them, and then by detaining women to take photos which led to the rapes and ultimately the murders of two of them.
Was it the effect of the meds? We’ve heard of several cases of people becoming psychotic, oversexed, angry and compulsive after taking these types of medications. Something was not right. Maybe he was having a hard time fighting his demons and was trying to find ways to numb them. Instead, they somehow became enhanced and he no longer resisted them.
Williams’ best friend was shocked when he found out about his crimes. They were extremely close, and as an educated professional and seemingly sincere man, he had not seen any cold feelings or cruelty emanating from his best bud Russell. Williams and his wife had a cat called Cleo and when it died not long before the crime spree, he was utterly devastated. So he was as flabbergasted as Harriman when they found out that Russell was moonlighting as a psycho rapist and killer.
Even respected psychiatrists where shaking their heads. Several of them as well as crime reporter Timothy Appleby from the Globe and Mail, do not consider Russell a psychopath. He demonstrated genuine consideration to his friends and colleagues and according to them, was capable of feeling shame for his actions. One of the victims he did not rape but rather blindfolded and photographed; she told him she had a migraine and he gave her Tylenol and patted her on the head. She said that she felt he had a conscience.
Not one of Bernardo’s victims ever made such a statement.
Before his crime spree, Williams was already suffering from full-blown obsessive-compulsive behavior. You can see it in the way he catalogued all his ‘artifacts’ with precise attention to detail. He had impeccable computer records and boxes and bags of lingerie neatly folded and classified.
He had child pornography on his computer but refused to plead guilty to possessing child porn even if he was willing to admit to all his other crimes. He was too ashamed and remained adamant against admitting any sexual attraction towards juveniles.
Appleby concluded that William is a ‘’paraphiliac’’ or sexual deviant with sexual obsessions that somehow took over his life.
When the police brought in Williams for interrogation after having accumulated overwhelming evidence against him, he confessed mostly to protect his wife and the military. Sgt Detective Jim Smyth used the Reid technique on him and was hailed as a hero for it, but I frankly did not see this typical routine as brilliant. Instead, what I saw in the interrogation videos, was Russell Williams spilling the beans the minute he found out they would search his house. Right away, he expressed concern for the pain his wife would suffer and for the damage the searches would cause to their new home she loved so much. He also knew they were going to find his ‘artifacts’ so he could not maintain the charade anyway.
At trial, Russell pleaded guilty to expedite the process. He wanted to avoid prolonging his wife’s agony and minimize the scandal for the air force. The minute he was in jail, he tried to kill himself by swallowing a cardboard roll of toilet paper. He left a message on the wall written in mustard to the effect that his feelings were too much to bear and his affairs were in order. They intervened just in time to save his life, even though he had jammed the door lock with paper.
When asked by detectives why he committed the crimes, he genuinely did not seem to know the answer. He was driven by deep dark obsessions.
His wife divorced him in order to hold on to her share of their assets. She was highly criticized by the public for suing the police department to get compensation for damages done to her house during the searches, even though it is an accepted legal practice. Williams is being sued by his victims and his wife was named in the suit. She wanted the divorce proceedings sealed but the judge ruled against her.
Some have been plain cruel to Harriman and they maintain that she had to know what her husband was up to on his nightly jogs equipped with a camera. But by all accounts, this woman had no clue her husband was a criminal. She only knew the stand-up guy she married.
According to Paul Bernardo’s father who was visiting his son regularly at Kingston Pen, Miss Harriman was a frequent visitor at the prison. She stuck by Russell as he did with his son. He describes her as a bright and classy lady. To Harriman, he never was a monster but her officer and gentleman. It must be very difficult for her to this day to absorb this twisted reality.
Williams’ collection of ‘artifacts’, as described by the researchers, might be an indication of the type of deep compulsion he suffered from. And until they find the key to this mystery, the only treatment is his incarceration.
If Williams was to cooperate with researchers looking into the root causes of collecting artifacts as a form of empowerment in cases of sexual deviancy, it would not redeem his crimes or bring back his innocent victims, but, like an antidote, it could lead to some unorthodox form of healing in an otherwise sick and wasted life.
I am convinced that like the rest of us, the doctors would jump at the opportunity to ask him, ‘Colonel Russell Williams where have you been?’
UPDATE: Click here to read the latest about a lawsuit against Williams and Harriman.