The fourth-floor personnel office at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus was a suitably staid place to work, so department manager June Hope could hardly expect what greeted her one morning when she arrived to unlock her door.
Everything - her desk, her computer and her chair - had vanished beneath a tangled mess of white paper that filled the room from floor to ceiling. Whoever had pulled this stunt had not only broken in the night before but spent hours crumpling computer paper until it formed the unwieldy mass that stood before her.
Just as Ms. Hope turned to announce her surprise to her co-workers, she heard a familiar sound. "Click."
Behind the camera was the department's latest part-time hire, a polite and proper young man with strawberry blond hair the women on staff had taken a real shine to.
"Russ, do you not have anything better to do with your evenings than sit there rummaging through blank paper and filling my room with it?" Ms. Hope asked.
"No," he replied.
In the late 1980s, Russell Williams was renowned for pulling off elaborate and clever practical jokes. Today, he is famous for something much more sinister. Although a decorated and high-ranking member of Canada's armed forces, he is charged with murder and confined to an Eastern Ontario jail cell. Two weeks ago he tried to commit suicide; now he is refusing to eat.
During his undergraduate years, the young man's pranks were the stuff of legend. He hid in dark closets so he could leap out and surprise unsuspecting roommates, and once woke at sunrise to slip a fertilized chicken egg into a friend's carton. Now, the 47-year-old air-force colonel is, according to police, a prime suspect in nearly 50 late-night break-ins from Belleville to Ottawa where, for more than three years, a cat burglar with an appetite for women's lingerie baffled investigators and dodged surveillance crews trying to catch him in the act. Windows were the primary point of entry, but on some occasions, the intruder picked the lock.
Col. Williams is charged with breaking into the homes of two women last September near his cottage in Tweed, a 30-minute drive north of Belleville. Police say the women were blindfolded, stripped and photographed in the nude.
He is also accused of creeping, more than a month later, into the home of a subordinate, Corporal Marie-France Comeau, an air force flight attendant who was beaten and wrapped in tape that covered her airways, suffocating her.
Finally, on the night of Jan. 28, a young woman named Jessica Lloyd went missing from her home on the highway between Col. Williams's cottage and his base. Her body was discovered in the brush not far from the cottage the same morning the colonel was charged with her murder and that of Cpl. Comeau.
The accusations shook the armed forces and the Canadian public. Col. Williams had been hand-picked and, in military parlance, "pipelined" into the upper echelons of the air force. He trained new pilots, flew the prime minister's plane and last summer was awarded command of 8-Wing Trenton, with 2,300 men and women the country's largest and busiest air-force base.
How is it possible that someone so polished and groomed for leadership could stand accused of such crimes?
An extensive examination of his early years involving interviews with dozens of former colleagues, friends and classmates as well as a review of court records, chronicles the evolution of a complicated and often contradictory young man known to wall off parts of his life, including a fractious and distant family. He was almost obsessively neat and orderly, but also at times, an irrepressible rascal.
Today his small group of old friends and acquaintances can't help but wonder about the gags, many of which involved infiltrating someone's private space. But back then there was no question: It was all just a joke.
Small town, big drama
Deep River, Ont., was a company town that sprang up in great secrecy in the 1940s along with the nearby laboratories of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. Visitors had to travel 200 kilometres northwest of Ottawa along a two-lane highway, pass through a checkpoint and dodge the occasional moose. The town was strategically situated next to Camp Petawawa, the army base that served as the first line of defence if anyone tried to attack what was then one of world's great nuclear secrets.