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Russell Williams leaves court in Belleville, Ont., on Oct. 21, 2010, to begin serving two life sentences for murder. (Nathan Denette/Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Russell Williams leaves court in Belleville, Ont., on Oct. 21, 2010, to begin serving two life sentences for murder. (Nathan Denette/Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Russell Williams: A murderer with a soft side Add to ...

In his new, hot-off-the-presses book about the deviant sex killer Russ Williams, The Globe and Mail’s Tim Appleby concludes, with backup from the few people who knew Mr. Williams well and some sharp observations of his own, that the former air force colonel is not a psychopath.

“He is not even close to being one,” Appleby writes.

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(We regularly call one another by our last names and I can’t bring myself to use the usual honorific.)

“Williams was not that kind of murderer at all,” Appleby says. The rising military star “had feelings, emotions, attachments of all kinds: he cared about his wife, he cared about the military; he was devoted to his cats, and he also appears to have a moral compass …”

Appleby’s not talking out of his rear. He has interviewed many people of importance in Mr. Williams’s life, including several who had the courage, given the lengths to which some have gone to put as much distance as possible between them and the former colonel, to speak on the record.

As one of them, Jeff Farquhar, a former roommate at the University of Toronto who remained a lifelong friend, told Appleby, the bewilderment in his voice evident even on the page, “He [Mr. Williams]had a conscience, he always had a conscience.”

Though no one can ever know for sure, my hunch is this is probably true – Appleby marshals a convincing case – and the thesis certainly makes for a compelling book.

But as anyone who knows the paper’s famously rumpled crime reporter even a little would know, believing this – that there was and is something human, broken but still recognizably human, about Mr. Williams – is probably the only way that such a tender man as Appleby could have written about such sordid and soul-destroying material.

For months, one of the nicest and most decent people I know had to immerse himself in Russ Williams’s secret world.

As with a few other colleagues at the paper, I’d hear from Appleby occasionally, as he came up for air, miserable from his reading and interviews and desperate for a hint of normalcy. You could practically hear his always wild hair standing on end.

I also sat right beside him in Belleville last fall for the several days of Mr. Williams’s guilty pleas and sentencing, and saw how affected he was by the grim evidence recited in that courtroom. Other reporters were troubled too, but for many of them, youngsters, it was their first exposure to such sordid stuff; Appleby is a veteran, presumed to be hard-boiled, and on one level he is that.

And I don’t mean that his book, A New Kind of Monster, is the product of some rosy view of humanity; it’s not, rather the result of hard work and exclusive and lengthy interviews with key people in and astute observers of Mr. Williams’s life.

It’s just that I can’t imagine Appleby, lovely as he is, could have written a book about a guy who was just an ordinary garden-variety psychopath.

The curious kindness he discovered in Mr. Williams – to those in the military, particularly subordinates; to Mr. Farquhar, who saw Mr. Williams angry only once, when he didn’t call to tell him that his mother had died; to Curio and Rosebud, his two cats; even, weirdly, to one of the two women he sexually assaulted, Laurie Massicotte, for whom he got some aspirin for the headache she developed from the blows he’d rained down on her to subdue her – is Appleby’s most startling find and the most persuasive.

There’s news in the book too, notably that Mr. Williams had child porn on his computer and that his quick agreement to plead guilty was entirely dependent on that being kept quiet.

“The most closely guarded secret of the Russ Williams story is the fact that along with the tsunami of evidence of unspeakable crimes that police found on his home computer, there was also child pornography,” Appleby writes. “And that was the one offence to which he refused to plead guilty.”

Appleby’s theory is that Mr. Williams is deeply ashamed of who he was, which would render him a rare beast among his fellows, and that this is why, though he could admit to rape, torture, murder, astonishing underwear-and-lingerie thefts in which he masturbated compulsively – and the obsessive videotaping and photography of all of the above – he couldn’t acknowledge he liked child porn.

Mr. Williams’s grotesque cruelty, particularly to the two bright young women he killed, Marie-France Comeau and Jessica Lloyd (he watched Ms. Comeau die, with video camera still rolling, and as Ms. Lloyd lay on the floor of his cottage, blood pooling around her head, he took three more photographs), is already well established.

What’s much more interesting, and more bearable to read, are the signs of goodness, the hints of the ferocious internal struggle that must have been going on within the former colonel.

A retired air force sergeant named Lucy Critch, who worked under his command for more than a year, told Appleby: “He was funny, he liked to laugh and was beloved by everyone in the squadron, definitely someone often described as a nice guy.”

Of all the scary things about Russ Williams, that’s surely the scariest.

cblatchford@globeandmail.com

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