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2 murders, 2 assaults, 500 stolen items of women's underwear: Canadian pilot becomes suspect

TORONTO (AP) — As Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip waved to the crowd after a 2005 visit, a tall, fit officer stood next to them. He saluted the royal couple, and flew them home to Britain.

Now that same elite Canadian pilot, Colonel Russell Williams, stands charged with the murder of two women, the sexual assault of two others and 82 break-ins, during which he often stole women's panties.

The charges have shocked a country, hurt soldiers' morale and prompted fears that the commander of Canada's most high-profile military base and the man who once flew Canadian prime ministers could be a serial killer.

"It's unprecedented. I've never ever heard of anybody, particularly at that level, being charged with something like that. It's unheard of," said retired Major Greg McQuaid, who wrote reports that got Williams promoted early. "It just doesn't equate."

Williams worked under McQuaid as a flight instructor at a Canadian Forces flying school in Manitoba from 1990 to 1992. He seemed to have it all, McQuaid said: He was educated, smart, had money and was apparently in a stable marriage.

He was quiet and diligent, McQuaid said, but stood out for his intensity.

"I remember he had a very focused stare or look, and I was just reminded of that when this happened and they showed the photos of him and I said, there's that look. I remember that look. It was like he's looking through you at the back of your head," McQuaid said.

The picture of Williams with the Queen in 2005 appeared on the front page of the official newspaper of Canadian Forces Base Trenton, the largest air force base in Canada, which Williams took command of four years later. The base is where the bodies of soldiers who die in Afghanistan are flown for ceremonies.

Williams was photographed in January with Defense Minister Peter MacKay and Canada's top general during an inspection of a Canadian aircraft on its way to support relief efforts in Haiti. He is alleged to have killed his second victim just over a week later.

Williams, 47, is charged with the first-degree murder of Jessica Lloyd, 27, whose body was found in February, and Marie Comeau, a 38-year-old corporal under his command who was found dead in her home in November. Both women were asphyxiated.

He is also charged with forcible confinement, breaking and entering and sexual assault after two other women were attacked during separate home invasions in the Tweed, Ontario area in September 2009.

One of the women, a 21-year-old single mother, alleges in a US$2.4 million lawsuit that she was tied up, blindfolded, stripped and held captive for more than two hours while he forced her into sexual acts. She also alleges Williams photographed her.

Authorities said Williams came to the attention of investigators during a police roadblock on Feb. 4, six days after Lloyd was deemed missing. The tire tracks from his vehicle allegedly matched the ones they were looking for. Police arrested and charged Williams on Feb. 7.

Maj. Gen. Yvan Blondin, Williams' direct commander, said Williams was considered a "shining bright star." The Canadian military has declined further comment.

According to Williams's profile, which has since been taken down from the defense department's Web site, Williams is a keen photographer, fisherman, musician and runner.

Williams was born in England and immigrated to Canada as a young boy after his father David Williams, a metallurgist, took a job with Canada's top nuclear research laboratory in Chalk River, Ontario, a town of 5,000.

His mother, Christine, filed for divorce after David reportedly had an affair with the wife of his friend and sailing partner Jerry Sovka. Just four months after the divorce, Christine married Sovka. She changed her first name to her middle name, Nonie, and moved Russell and his younger brother Harvey to Toronto.

Russell's mother divorced Sovka years later. Williams' brother Harvey released a statement to the media in February, saying the relationship between he and his mother and Russell was broken off in 2001 because of the second divorce. He said he and his mother reached out to Russell two years ago but only had minimal contact since then.

Nonie Sovka works as a physiotherapist at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Science Centre, but a message on her voicemail says she's away until further notice. Property managers at David Williams' upscale condo in Wrightsville Beach said the phone is disconnected.

Russell Williams attended Toronto's Birchmount Collegiate High School and the prestigious Upper Canada College for his final two years of high school. Sandy Zarb, a classmate at Birchmount, remembers Williams for his failed attempts at humor around girls.

"I don't think he held the girls' attention for a long period of time," Zarb said. "He was not very interesting."

Tony Callahan played in the Birchmount school band with Williams, who played trumpet. Callahan said Williams didn't have many friends and thought he was better than other people.

"He just thought he was special," Callahan said. "He was condescending. If you weren't of his caliber he would let you know with the way he would shoot a look at you."

Innes van Nostrand, who attended UCC with Williams for two years in the early 1980s, remembers him as reserved.

"He was a shy, diligent and hardworking guy who was known as a good musician. He participated in things but was just fairly quiet and low-key," van Nostrand said.

After high school Williams attended the University of Toronto, where roommates remembered him for his practical jokes. The Globe and Mail reported he often hid in a roommate's closet, for as long as a half hour, before jumping out and scaring them.

Williams is now charged with breaking into 47 homes 82 times, beginning in 2007, including one home nine times. Most homes were burglarized repeatedly on the same street.

Angela McCanny, whose Ottawa home was broken into on back-to-back days in 2008, told The Associated Press that all the women's underwear was stolen.

"Every single piece in the house. He was really thorough," McCanny said. McCanny said her family was shocked to learn who was arrested for it.

Among the break-in charges are allegations Williams broke into Comeau's home days before he is accused of killing her. Another alleges that Williams twice returned to the home of one of his victims to steal items after he allegedly sexually assaulted her.

Most of the homes were in Ottawa, where Williams has a house with his wife, and in the Tweed, Ontario, area, where Williams lived while he worked in Trenton.

Monique Murdoch, who lived next door to Williams in Tweed, had her home broken into three times, but said she still doesn't know what was taken. Police have declined to provide details. Many in Tweed didn't even know their homes were broken into.

The Ottawa Citizen cited police sources as saying police seized 500 women's undergarments from Williams' Ottawa home.

"The whole thing is just so bizarre," Murdoch told The AP. "I never feared him whatsoever. I was alone with him countless times the last 2 1/2 years, so was my daughter, so was my son. He never showed any signs of this double life."

Quinte West mayor John Williams regularly met with Russell Williams after he was named base commander. He described Williams as focused and distant but well-respected.

"You don't normally hear of somebody in that kind of position doing anything like that," he said.

Dr. Stephen Raffle, a California forensic psychiatrist, said it's not uncommon for people to be able to set aside their personal issues and work professionally at a high level. Raffle calls Williams' alleged behavior compulsive.

"It sounds like he's very methodical and that's probably part of his training as a colonel," Raffle said.

Williams, a 23-year military veteran, is suspended with full pay. Williams has never been in combat but has been stationed across Canada and internationally, including a stint in 2006 as the commanding officer for Camp Mirage, the secretive Canadian Forces base widely reported to be near Dubai. Investigators are looking into other areas where he has been posted.

The Globe and Mail, and local newspaper the Kingston Whig Standard, reported last month that Williams had attempted suicide in early April by jamming a cardboard toilet tissue tube down his throat. Williams' lawyer declined to comment.

Williams' wife, Mary-Elizabeth Harriman, has taken a leave from her position in Ottawa as associate executive director at the Heart and Stroke Foundation. Michael Gennis, who lives next door to Williams' Ottawa home, said she's devastated and won't discuss the case.

"It looks like she's had the life sucked out of her," Gennis told The AP. "You go into her house and there are pictures of her and her husband all over the place, so it's sad. I feel badly for her."


Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York and Associated Press Writer Kevin Maurer in Wrightsville Beach, N.C. in contributed to this report.