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Russell Williams, then known as Russ Sovka, is shown in a 1982 high school yearbook photo.
Russell Williams, then known as Russ Sovka, is shown in a 1982 high school yearbook photo.

Colonel Russell Williams is a man no one really knew Add to ...

If there was ever a childhood to prepare someone for the transient existence of an Air Force colonel, Russell Williams lived it - a meandering journey that saw him twice change his last name, and took him from England to barren northeastern Ontario to Canada's most prestigious boys' school.

The former commander of Canada's largest air force base, who was charged by the Ontario Provincial Police this week with murdering two young women and attacking two others in their homes in the middle of the night, was a serious student and masterful trumpet player who gravitated very early on to disciplinary roles. In his final year at Toronto's Upper Canada College in 1982, his peers elected him as one of two prefects in his boarding house.

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He has been so many places and done so many things that he is a biographer's worst nightmare: Everyone knows of him, but very few know him. Friends and family who agreed to be interviewed for this story say that, while his past may be complex, it contains no hints about the crimes with which he was charged on Sunday night after a nine-hour police interrogation.

"I've spent my career doing things right, and avoiding things that were wrong. But here, I can't figure out what went wrong," said his stepfather, Jerry Sovka, a nuclear engineer who lives in Aix-en-Provence, France.

Born on March 7, 1963, in the Midlands region of England, young Russell was quickly uprooted for a new life in Chalk River, Ont.

The 800-person village, which is home to Canada's premier nuclear research laboratory, was hiring experts - including Russell's father David Williams, a metallurgist.

David and his wife, Nonie, had another son, Harvey.

The marriage soured and they divorced. But in the remote and frigid Upper Ottawa Valley, Ms. Williams found love again, and married Mr. Sovka, in 1970.

He got a new job with Ontario Hydro, which brought the couple to the Toronto area. They settled in a house near the Scarborough Bluffs, overlooking Lake Ontario. Russell delivered The Globe and Mail and learned piano.

But the home was merely a base: Mr. Sovka's nuclear expertise made him in demand around the globe, and by 1979, the family was in South Korea, where Mr. Sovka was overseeing another reactor project.

For Russell's final two years of high school, while his parents were in Asia, he boarded at UCC - where he went by the name Russ Sovka - and rubbed elbows with the scions of Canada's wealthiest and most prominent business families.

As a prefect, he reported to his house steward, Andrew Saxton, now a Conservative Member of Parliament for North Vancouver.

It's not yet clear when he reverted to the name Williams. Because of the name change, his former peers and UCC teachers contacted by The Globe hadn't yet realized that the uniformed man on the television newscasts was the same teenager who made sure all was quiet in Wedd's boarding house by 10 p.m.

But his appetite for structure and rigidity did not apply to his musical tastes. He played trumpet in the school band, and in the 1982 UCC yearbook, his graduation message was a Louis Armstrong quote: "If you have to ask what Jazz is, you'll never know."

He stood out in the row of gold trumpets in the band; his was the only silver one, said Tom Heintzman, a former class and band mate. "He was very musical," Mr. Heintzman said. "He was very quiet. He wasn't the type you would see out at parties."

His love of music extended into his adult years, and he has an extensive collection.

In the mid-1980s, he studied politics and economics at the University of Toronto's Scarborough satellite - a campus that was haunted by a series of unsolved rapes at that time.

A January, 1983, editorial in the campus newspaper, The Underground, stated: "Last Tuesday, a student was attacked in the parking lot, dragged into the valley and raped. This is the first reported attack ... Something will have to be done to alleviate fears, even if it does cost the College a lot of money."

There have been no suggestions from the Ontario Provincial Police that Col. Williams has been linked in any way to those attacks, but they have said that, given the allegations, they will be tracing his steps over the years.

(Serial killer Paul Bernardo, who was later convicted of killing three schoolgirls in the early 1990s, has admitted to raping at least a dozen women in Scarborough at that time.)

During his undergraduate years, Col. Williams first dabbled with flying. He took lessons at Toronto's Buttonville airport, and after graduating university in the late 1980s, joined the armed forces.

One of his first jobs in the military was instructing pilots in Portage la Prairie, Man. The small town was also where he married his wife, Mary Elizabeth Harriman.

His father, David Williams, is believed to be in the United States. His mother, who split up with Jerry Sovka about a decade ago, is a physiotherapist at a Toronto hospital. His brother, Harvey Williams, is a Bowmanville, Ont. medical doctor.

With a report from Sarah Boesveld

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