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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thoughts of Some Eastern Ontario Women in their Twenties and Thirties on Russ Williams and his Victims

When Jessica Lloyd went missing in January, her family was frantic. Within a couple days, radio stations throughout Southeastern Ontario were helping to spread the word--help find Jessica Lloyd, call if you have tips. There was even a Facebook group, run by Lloyd's brother.

The radio station I like to listen to while I work announced updates before and after every commercial break, with people calling in to show their support for the Lloyds. The Facebook group quickly ballooned to thousands of members. Lloyd was popular, but more than that, the mysterious disappearance of an adult woman from a tight-knit community in the dead of winter sent shock waves across the region.

And then, just over a week later, everything happened at once. The police followed a tip, found Lloyd's body, matched some tire tracks to Colonel Russell Williams, base commander at CFB Trenton, and before we knew it Williams was under investigation for over a hundred charges, including murder, sexual assault, break-and-enter, and theft.

If Lloyd's disappearance shocked the region, it was nothing compared to Williams's arrest. We froze in disbelief for a few days. Here was a well-respected military commander, who had passed all sorts of psychological testing to get to his position--and he was a deranged rapist and murderer? Even his wife had no idea. His neighbours in Ottawa were incredibly unsettled, especially when police searches turned up hundreds of stolen women's undergarments.

It was something of a triple-whammy, especially for military towns with their United Empire Loyalist heritage. This was no Robert Pickton, way out there on the west coast, slowly picking off street prostitutes, or Paul Barnardo (with whom WIlliams went to school) and Karla Homolka with their vaguely foreign-sounding names. Williams was a well-respected military officer, operating right here in our own backyard, targeting women who were themselves integrated into the community--popular Jessica Lloyd, Canadian Forces member Corporal Marie-France Comeau.

Now, as Williams stands trial and more information about his crimes is revealed, shock is reverberating once more across the area. "So this is what it's like to be in the presence of pure evil," the Whig-Standard comments, before summarizing the "shocking and grotesque display of evidence" of Williams's "lurid and freakish conduct." In emphasizing how lucky Ottawa residents are to have avoided the fate of Jessica Lloyd, the Citizen describes the images:

So there was this tall, lock-jawed figure, wearing a dainty orange bra, or a black bikini, or stuffed into “Tweety” bird underwear — all stolen, all photographed, all stored — hundreds and hundreds of items, in his computer or in caches at home.

Repeatedly, the court was shown photographs of his erect penis, or various angles of the decorated airman engaged in masturbation — all images he carefully recorded with dates, times, places.

Williams eventually began leaving notes to his young victims--after photographing one twelve-year-old Orleans girl's ID, he typed "merci" into her laptop.


In the fall of 2009, Williams admits to breaking into two women's homes and tying them up, blindfolding them (he punched one in the head while she slept), and then terrorizing and sexually assaulting them.

In December 2010, Williams broke into the home of Comeau, a military flight attendant on CFB Trenton he had encountered professionally a few times. It was not the first time he had been in her house; on a previous occasion he had photographed her lingerie and sex toys. This time, however, Comeau was home, and preparing for bed. When she went downstairs to look for her cat, Williams hit her over the head with a flashlight and tied her to a post in the basement. He took pictures of her, naked and unconscious, before raping her repeatedly for two hours.

At one point, Comeau asked if Williams was going to kill her. "Have a heart, please," she begged. "I've been really good. I want to live."

Williams covered her mouth and nose with duct tape. After she suffocated to death, he washed her sheets and covered her body with a duvet before fleeing.

One evening in January 2010, Lloyd called a friend to let him know she'd arrived home safely. From outside her house, Williams watched as she prepared for bed. Eventually he broke in, physically subdued Lloyd, and repeatedly sexually assaulted her. Quick-witted, Lloyd faked an epileptic seizure, begging to be taken to hospital for treatment. Instead, Williams moved her to his house in Tweed.

When it became clear that Williams didn't plan on letting her live, Lloyd pleaded, "If I die, would you make sure my mom knows that I love her?" Shortly afterward, Williams strangled Lloyd, put her body in SUV and dumped it at the side of a road.


The details of Williams's crimes are disturbing and horrific, but I haven't been able to keep myself from following this story obsessively. Even as my stomach turns and my blood chills, I feel like I have to know every extent of his depravity.

A number of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way. When I posted on Facebook about my state of transfixed horror, several people, all single women in their twenties and thirties, many living alone--much like Lloyd and Comeau--in and around the Kingston area, commented that they felt the same way. A few others mentioned it to me personally later, as though they didn't want Facebook knowing that this was an issue that worried them.

Probably the most salient reason for our obsession is the question: why? Why did he do the things he did? Why did he find those things exciting? Why did he target the women he chose? This is tied both into a great fear on our part and a genuine, confused, morbid curiosity. By his own admission, Williams became attracted to the idea of stealing women's underwear when he was in his twenties, but it took him twenty years to act on it. But what did that have to do with his violence, his need for control? Why did he like to masturbate sitting among little girls' stuffed animals, and leave them notes afterwards? Why did he keep such an organized log of his activities, accompanied by so much photographic evidence? One friend thinks he knew what he was doing was fucked up, and secretly wanted to get caught. Another friend thinks he believed himself to be invincible, and kept the records and photos either for his own pride, or to leave behind as a legacy. Some people think that if we as a society treated deviant sexual desires like pedophilia or the desire to steal underwear as mental illnesses rather than lasting stigmas, maybe he would have gotten psychological help rather than letting his desires fester until they sought a violent release. Others think that he was simply abusing his position of power, his actions increasing in violence as he continued to avoid suspicion.

I don't know the answer, and I'm not entirely sure I want to know. The Whig-Standard claims that in court,
Every time there was a picture of himself on the courtroom screen wearing children's underwear, or lying naked on a child's bed, Williams would tilt his head and sneak a peak -- perhaps one last jolly before the twisted pilot and "shining, rising star" of the Canadian military goes off to spend the rest of his life in prison.

The Citizen, meanwhile, observes that he "seemed a broken figure, sunken into himself. He spent most of the day bent over, staring at the floor, giving away nothing."

Col. Russell Williams told a packed courthouse here he was "indescribably ashamed" by what he had done and deeply regretted his crimes.
"Your honour I stand before, your honour, indescribably ashamed," Williams told the courtroom after being handed two life sentences for the murders of Jessica Lloyd and Marie-France Comeau.

"I will spend the rest of my life regretting most of all that I have ended two vibrant, innocent and cherished lives," he said. "I know the crimes I have committed have traumatized many people, he said, noting rape victims Jane Doe and Laurie Massicotte have "suffered terribly" as well.

"My family, your honour, has been irreparably harmed," he added. "Most will find it impossible to accept but the fact is I very deeply regret what I have done."

Williams emphasizes the effect this is having upon his family. He admitted to police earlier that he only confessed so that his wife's life would be easier.

Lee Burgess, Crown attorney, suggested a different tack on which Williams can hang his shame, saying in his closing comments that "No doubt, your honour, he laughed at us as he lived the life of a community leader by day and the life of a serial criminal by night."

Stephen Harper comes from a similar perspective, claiming that Williams's actions were a betrayal of members of the Canadian Forces.
"This is just a horrific event," Harper said while in St. John's on Thursday. "Our thoughts go out to all the members of the Canadian Forces who knew the commander and who have been very badly wounded and betrayed by all of this. Obviously, this in no way reflects on the forces."

Harper said the Department of National Defence would attempt to strip Williams of benefits he would have received for serving in the military.

"Defence Minister Peter MacKay has made clear the forces will undertake all necessary actions to ensure that all sanctions possible and all benefits possible can be withdrawn from the former commander but this is a terrible and unique case," said Harper.

"The Canadian Forces are the victim here, as are the direct victims of these terrible events."

Certainly some members of the Canadian Forces feel betrayed. The Whig-Standard, main newspaper in the perpetual military town that is Kingston, put out today a small editorial defending their reasoning behind publishing some of the gruesome details of Williams's crimes (because people need to know, and also because "where bloggers …[add] static and confusion to the debate, it has never been more important for professional news organizations to carefully frame the public record," which is ironic because (a) I have never put much faith in the professionalism or integrity of the Whig-Standard, (b) "carefully framing the public record" is clearly euphemism for spin and/or privileged bias, and ( c) you can frame the public record just fine without actually mentioning the graphic details). It also contains this explanation, which suggests there have been complaints:
For example, we understand running pictures of Williams in his Air Force uniform on the front page has, and does, offend current and past members of the Canadian Forces. We continue to run them because his uniform is germane to the story.

Williams was not a new recruit, he was one of the Forces [sic] most trusted men. Trust, and the betrayal of that trust, is something the Forces will undoubtedly wrestle as they seek ways to improve psychological testing in their promotion protocols.

While all this is very true, it hasn't escaped my notice that it's men who are putting all of this emphasis on Williams violating the trust put in him by the community, the military--abusing his position of power. Being a man in power did give Williams an edge in his criminal activities--mainly by giving him resources like an SUV, a digital camera, and houses in three different cities and towns, by placing him completely above suspicion for more than two years of criminal activities, and by allowing him to learn classified information about Corporal Comeau.

But being sexually assaulted by a stranger or relative stranger is essentially the same no matter his standing in the community. Acquaintance rape has a lot more of those dynamics--"He's my boss, I can't turn him in"--"But I thought we were friends?"--etc. But when someone breaks into your house, hits you over the head, and starts raping you, you don't really care who the crap he is. You mostly care that YOU are being hurt and violated. A friend of mine was chased down the street the other night by a homeless man waving his penis at her. For her it would essentially have been the same experience even if it had been, say, the mayor chasing her (except the mayor would be unlikely to do such a thing in public).

My friends and I aren't obsessively reading about this case so we can think, "Oh, wow, look at him abusing his position of power. What a betrayal of the Canadian Forces." Of course this matters--how did he get by all the psychological testing, for instance--but it's not the most salient bit for us. We read about his crimes, and we imagine ourselves as Jessica Lloyd, as Marie-France Comeau. We look outside our windows wondering if there is someone there watching us, we curse the fact that a single 20- or 30-something woman living alone, even a popular, well-known one, can so easily become a target.

We fear, we curse the patriarchy, we fear some more.

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