The man Mary Elizabeth Harriman knew would hold her hand on walks. They went on vacations. And in what, for some, can be the ultimate test of a marriage, they golfed together.
That man is under arrest and scheduled to plead guilty Monday in a Belleville court to two murders, two sex assaults and a string of fetish break-ins.
She has to live with the unfathomable fact that the man she loved — Russell Williams, the former commander of CFB Trenton — was leading a double life. It raises the obvious question: How could she have had no clue? Quite easily, according to experts and a slim but consistent body of research on the wives of serial killers.
“People do not believe that you could have lived with a serial killer and had not known,” says Jack Levin, professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University, and author of Serial Killers and Sadistic Murders — Up Close and Personal. “That is true in many cases: the idea that the spouse, the wife, is totally ignorant of her husband’s killing spree.”
John Wayne Gacy’s wife would take weekend trips to visit family and return home to a terrible stench emanating from the basement. Gacy, who invited young men and boys to the suburban Chicago house, then killed and buried them in the basement, would say the sewer had backed up again and then go down to spread more lime on the bodies.
“She believed him,” says Levin. “Why shouldn’t she? I know we’re cynical, but how many wives are supposed to say, ‘John, what are you burying down there? Bodies?’
“I think it’s beyond the imagination of most human beings to think that the guy they’ve lived with for years is killing people, and more than one, and not doing it spontaneously but planning it out. It’s too extraordinary to be real for most people. It’s fiction. It might as well be in a novel.”
Judith Mawson was married to Gary Ridgway, a truck painter also known as the Green River Killer. Ridgway killed at least 48 women in Washington state, four of them while he was married to Mawson. As appears to have been the case with Harriman, she had no idea.
“He made me feel like a newlywed every day,” Mawson said in an interview with ABC News in April 2007. “He’d come home from work with a big smile.” Of her husband’s two lives, she said: “I loved the man I knew, and I hate the man that took him away.”
Pennie Morehead wrote a book about the case and Mawson’s relationship with Ridgway. “It turns out,” she told ABC News, “that our nation’s most prolific serial killer was also a terrific husband and friend and lover to his wife.”
In hindsight, Linda Yates realized there were clues that her husband, Robert Yates, might be up to something. For example, he smelled of cologne prior to what he claimed was a hunting trip. What he was really doing was killing prostitutes around Spokane, Wash.
Public perception of the families of serial killers is often unfair and judgmental. “When we think of victims, we think of the families of the victims who obviously suffer tremendous loss, but we almost never think of the family of the killer,” says Levin.
Mothers are often maligned for raising monsters. Wives are blamed for being either stupid or complicit.
But from all indications, Russell Williams was living completely separate lives. He was a competent base commander and loving husband — and also a serial killer with escalating tendencies and urges.
Harriman has not uttered a public word since her husband’s arrest. In a brief affidavit, filed in an ongoing civil suit launched by one of her husband’s victims, Harriman said the news of the criminal charges was “devastating to me.”
Unlike some serial killers, who were controlling and abusive to their spouses, Williams appeared the opposite and was far from a social misfit. Often the spouse is submissive and afraid of losing her husband. It doesn’t appear Harriman fits that billing either. Of the two, Harriman is the more outgoing.
The two wed in June 1991 in a ceremony in Winnipeg. They were a power couple, with no children, and, due to the nature of Williams’ job, spent periods of time apart.
Harriman, who at 52 is five years older than her husband, is the associate executive director of the Heart and Stroke Foundation in Ottawa. Following the arrest of her husband, she was described in a statement from her workplace as a “kind and compassionate individual” and a “long-serving, greatly admired and universally liked member of our team.”
After taking a leave, Harriman is back at work and appears to be living in the Ottawa home the couple purchased last year.
To many, the couple appeared very much normal and in love. There was never any outward indication of marital tension.
Harriman likely didn’t have a clue her husband was breaking into homes and stealing lingerie, that he was stalking women, and that he eventually graduated to sexually assaulting and killing them.
Williams was a regular jogger, which made it easy to slip out and do his misdeeds. He stole undergarments and other personal items in dozens of fetish break-ins. An avid photographer, he also took pictures of the sexual assault victims.
Some married serial killers have kept no-go spaces in their homes and on their property to store “trophies” — places where spouses were not allowed access.
Keeping secret a stash of underwear and photographs would not be as difficult as hiding a body. But Williams had a hiding spot — reportedly in the rafters of his locked Ottawa garage — and it appears he was quite meticulous about cataloguing the items he stole.
Glenn Woods, former RCMP director of behavioural sciences, says a “woman knows what’s going on in the house, but . . . I suspect there are probably parts of that house she wasn’t allowed to be in.”
When police slapped an additional 82 charges on Williams for fetish break and enters at 47 homes in Tweed and Ottawa, some victims were completely unaware their homes had been burglarized.
Also included in the charges were “attempt” break and enters that no one but Williams would know of, indicating he either kept a log discovered by police or he had a photographic memory and divulged all to investigators.
All this he kept from his wife, continuing to seem perfectly normal.
“You think the guy’s going to wear a sign?” says Vernon Quinsey, professor emeritus of psychology, biology and psychiatry at Queen’s University. “All these guys look normal. There aren’t such things as neanderthal slavering sex offenders. They don’t exist in nature.”
Among the many people left dumbfounded by Williams’ other life are his neighbours in the Ottawa suburbs. Some wonder how Harriman had no inkling of her husband’s crimes, but many are ex-military, and they know there are certain areas of a soldier’s life his wife would have no business snooping around in.
“My heart bleeds for her to think that this was going on and she didn’t know this,” says Shirley Fraser, who lived across the street from the couple’s house on Wilkie Dr. in the east Ottawa suburb of Orleans, where they lived for 15 years. “How does one get over something like that?”
They suspect Williams may have stashed photographs and underwear he is alleged to have stolen in what’s known in the air force as a “flyaway kit.”
“It’s a bag where they keep all the things they need to fly away in a hurry,” says retired Air Force Sgt. Robert Gagne, whose living room looks on to the old Williams-Harriman home. “So I guess she had no business going in there.”
Nobody on Wilkie Dr. knows if that’s what actually happened, but it seems the most likely scenario to them, and it has spread throughout the cluster of homes that they once jokingly referred to as CFB Orleans for the number of former military personnel living there.
This group of people who once called Williams and Harriman friends now question how much they ever knew the couple.
Fraser and George White, who lived two doors down from Williams, were desperate to get a message to Harriman in the days when Williams’ name was first in the headlines and a steady stream of reporters went from house to house looking for clues to explain the gruesome crimes he’s charged with.
They drafted a letter on behalf of their once-cloistered community. It was brief and to the point: should she need any support, or just a friend, they were there.
It was, in Fraser’s words, “to know that we are your neighbours and still your friends, to back you in whatever we can do.
“I’m sure she had her reasons for not responding,” she continues.
Monique Murdoch knew both Harriman and Williams as well as a neighbour could. She owns a cottage on Cozy Cove Lane in Tweed, right next door to the Williams-Harriman cottage. There was nothing in Williams’ behaviour that caused any alarm, she says.
“I was never afraid of him myself, and neither was my daughter and neither was my son. We weren’t afraid of this guy. We had no reason to be.”
The couple’s love seemed real, she says, and she believes that if Williams knew he was going to be arrested, “I think he would have done himself in … I think he loved his wife that much.”
While the two remain married, Williams and Harriman have split their assets. The cottage where they had planned to retire now belongs solely to him. She has the house in Ottawa.
Harriman is fighting to keep her life as private as possible. In the civil suit filed by one of her husband’s sex assault victims, Harriman is seeking a sealing order to prevent public disclosure.
“My reputation in the community is exemplary,” states her affidavit. “The publication of further particular details of my professional life, personal financial situation and legal affairs could have a significant negative impact upon me personally and professionally.”
After the crime-scene tape had come down, Harriman and a friend returned one day to the house on Cozy Cove Lane, presumably to assess the damage after a police search and to collect belongings.
There is sympathy there for Harriman. But where once there would have been greetings or waves, there were averted gazes. Such is the inescapable stigma.
“I saw her,” says one neighbour, who asked not to be named. “But I couldn’t find it in me to look her in the eye.”