The crimes gave investigators no reason to suspect a link. In Ottawa, a burglar was stealing lingerie in a middle-class neighbourhood, careful to break in when no one was home.
In Tweed, 200 kilometres west, two women were sexually assaulted by a man who took pictures but did not attempt penetration. In Brighton, south of Tweed, an air force flight attendant was badly beaten, raped and murdered.
The modi operandi could not have been more different. Police considered a link to the Tweed sexual assaults when Jessica Elizabeth Lloyd, 27, went missing in late January from her home near the village. But nothing could have prepared them for the suspect they finally caught.
Col. David Russell Williams — who this past week indicated through his lawyer that he intends to plead guilty on Oct. 18 to two murders, two sex assaults and a string of fetish break-ins — is a serial killer like none they have ever seen. “This guy is quite unusual,” says psychologist Vernon Quinsey, who spent 16 years assessing criminals at the Oak Ridge maximum security psychiatric hospital in Penetanguishene.
“We’re learning from this case,” adds an informed source, who requested anonymity. “We haven’t seen guys like this in the past and we don’t expect to see a lot of them in the future.”
Williams had a successful career and a long, apparently loving marriage, and didn’t embark on a life of crime until he began a series of fetish home burglaries in September 2007, at the age of 44. “It’s very unusual for a guy who’s got his act together like that … to all of a sudden start committing crimes at a late age,” says Quinsey, professor emeritus of psychology, biology and psychiatry at Queen’s University.
“The guys you typically see start earlier,” he adds. “Almost nobody starts a life of crime when they’re in their 40s.” Equally unusual was his escalation from panty fetish to sex assault to murder. Most serial killers assault and kill in tandem, right from the start. Williams seems a walking Jekyll and Hyde: by day, commander of CFB Trenton, the biggest air force base in Canada; by night, a sexual predator.
But Quinsey dismisses suggestions of a split personality, describing it as a popular but misused term, long associated with schizophrenics. And Williams is no schizophrenic. “The most common variety (of schizophrenic) that commits murder is completely disorganized,” Quinsey says. “They kill someone and wander off into the arms of the police.”
Williams was calculating. He planned his crimes. His primary residence was in Ottawa; his cottage was in Tweed. His regular jogs through his neighbourhoods were reconnaissance missions.
“When sex predators go out for a jog, they are always on the hunt — they’re looking for the opportunity,” says Glenn Woods, former director of the RCMP’s criminal profiling unit. “They spend a lot of time casing a place.”
Williams is what experts call a paraphilic — a sexual deviant. He stole lingerie and took pictures of the women he sexually assaulted, and of those he tied up, raped and murdered. He forced Lloyd to put on lingerie and pose for pictures before killing her.
Deviants like Williams, Quinsey says, get “turned on” by “hyper-dominance, sexual coercion and rape.” Those who eventually rape tend to exhibit anti-social behaviour early in their lives and have committed a variety of crimes. Clifford Olson, the British Columbian who pleaded guilty in 1982 to 11 murders, was known to police by the age of 10.
He was well on his way to a life of theft, armed robbery, fraud and sexual sadism by the time he served his first prison sentence at 17.
Ted Bundy, the American who killed more than 30 women during the 1970s, was a compulsive thief in high school. He was arrested twice as a juvenile, and some evidence suggests he committed his first murder in his teens.
Williams’ history is unblemished by comparison.
Quinsey says he might be ego-dystonic — someone who finds his own impulses distressing and unacceptable. He perhaps resorted to non-violent ways to satisfy his urges, with online porn or prostitutes. Experts interviewed by the Star wondered if he practised bondage with girlfriends or his wife.
Still, based on criminals with similar sexual deviances, Williams “should be lying, he should be cheating, he should let people down in relationships, he should be unreliable,” Quinsey says.
Instead, he was competent on the job and friendly with staff. He visited his secretary in hospital when she got sick, and helped with a fundraiser for the sick cousin of an employee. In his spare time he golfed, fished and played cribbage with friends and neighbours. Both Quinsey and Woods speculate that a sudden, significant event might have triggered Williams’ life of crime.
“We all have stressors that put pressure on us and we all have different ways of relieving it,” says Woods, who left the RCMP in 2007 and now runs a company that trains police forces on criminal profiling. “Some people go for a run, others have a glass of wine, and sexual predators go out and rape.”
Says Quinsey: “The only scenario I can think of is that this guy had these interests for a long time, but he was able to control them. And then something sets him off and he can’t control them any more.” During one of his sexual assaults, he reportedly told his victim he was attacking her “so I can move on with my life.”
What set him off?
Williams was born in England in 1963. His parents, Nonie and David Williams, soon moved to Canada, where his father, a metallurgist, took a job at Canada’s nuclear research lab in Chalk River. The couple had another son, Harvey, before their marriage fell apart.
When Russell was 7, Williams’ mother married Jerry Sovka, a nuclear scientist and neighbour. In the late ’70s, Sovka’s work took the family to South Korea. Williams began high school at Toronto’s Birchmount Collegiate, but finished at Upper Canada College.
A fellow boarder at the college remembers Williams being locked in his room by other students as a prank. The boarder, who asked not to be identified, says Williams got out by tying together bed sheets and climbing out the window.
At the University of Toronto, where he was known as a prankster, Williams graduated with a degree in politics and economics.
Williams surprised friends when he announced he wanted to become an air force pilot. The decision came on the heels of a difficult break-up with a girlfriend, and it would be a long time before he was known to have dated again. One close friend worried that Williams was living out a fantasy based on the movie Top Gun. “Now he’s going to be a jet fighter and win the girl back,” Jeff Farquhar said in an interview with the CBC.
One of Williams’ first postings in the military was in the early 1990s as a rookie flight instructor at the Canadian Forces flying school at Portage la Prairie, Man. He married Mary Elizabeth Harriman in 1991.
In 2001, Williams’ mother and stepfather divorced. His brother, a Bowmanville doctor, said in a press statement that the second divorce caused a deep rift between Williams, him and their mother, which they recently made efforts to repair.
Williams’ childhood doesn’t fit the pattern of parental abandonment or physical and sexual abuse found in the histories of some mass murderers. And none of the psychologists and criminal profilers interviewed by the Star consider his mother’s divorces a potential trigger of a life of crime. “Everybody gets divorced,” Quinsey scoffs.
Williams went from fetish burglaries to stalking to sexual assaults without penetration to rape and murder — all within two years.
“If he’s involved in 82 break-ins and stealing panties, he’s got to be feeling invulnerable and invincible,” says Woods. “So the (sexual) fantasy is driving the frequency of the break-ins and he’s feeling like he’s never going to get caught, so he escalates.” Says the informed source: “I think both those girls were killed to eliminate witnesses.”
The fact that Williams killed close to home doesn’t surprise Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University and author of the 2008 book Serial Killers and Sadistic Murders — Up Close and Personal.
“Most serial killers will have a comfort zone,” he says. “They just kill in one place.” What is unusual, Levin adds, is that Williams victimized people he knew, like the friends whose Tweed home he burglarized three times and the 38-year-old corporal he worked with, Marie-France Comeau, whom he raped and asphyxiated in her Brighton home.
“Many (serial killers) have a small circle of friends, neighbours and relatives who are off limits to their killing, and they divide the world into two camps: those individuals they know well and don’t hurt, and total strangers,” Levin says. By attacking people he knew, Williams risked being identified. He tried to clean his crime scenes — for example, he took with him the tape and restraints he used on his victims. But he was sloppy, too.
During the Comeau killing, he left a partial print of the tread of his footwear in her blood. When he abducted Lloyd, he left distinctive tire treads from his utility vehicle in the snow around her home — a mistake that led to his arrest.
“They begin to feel invincible,” Levin says. “He may have felt that he was beyond suspicion, that no one would think of him as a potential killer and he was getting away with murder.”
All agree on one thing: if Williams had not been caught, he would have killed again.