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Colonel Russell Williams: The making of a mystery man

The young trumpet player in Birchview Collegiate's 1978-79 yearbook. His mother told the neighbours she didn't think the school in Scarborough was good enough for her son.

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."

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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.

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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

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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.

After the Second World War, Deep River's population exploded with the arrival of a wave of scientists hand-picked to split atoms and develop new ways to generate electricity. After a hard day in the lab, many could be found in tiny white boats that dotted the Ottawa River. Among the sailors were Dave Williams, a British metallurgist, and Jerry Sovka, an Alberta farm boy turned nuclear visionary, who competed together in a two-man racing dinghy known as an International 14.

Outgoing and a charmer, Mr. Williams sang in the glee club and acted in a community theatre group, drawing praise for his "sense of comic timing" from The North Renfrew Times. Mr. Sovka, a round-faced graduate of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was a fierce competitor and a leading scorer for the Deep River Neutrons, a basketball team.

Mr. Williams and his wife, Christine, also British and an avid tennis player, had two children, Russell and young brother Harvey. They lived a block and a half from Jerry and Lynn Sovka and their kids.

"The Sovkas and Williams ... were good friends," recalls another former Deep River sailor. "They were together, both families, a fair bit."

The two couples epitomized the "high-energy, high-performance people" - as a former colleague describes them - who made Deep River unique. With a population of just 5,000, it supported more than 60 clubs and teams, and residents boasted that theirs was the only small-town stop on the national ballet's circuit.

There was a downside. Inflated minds begat inflated egos, and the town developed a class system. A former resident once told Canadian Geographic magazine that she was shocked when asked by her little boy one day what a PhD was. A woman had come up and asked him, "Is your father a PhD?" and when he couldn't answer, said: "Well, be off with you then. My children only play with other PhDs."





At other times, social conventions were relaxed, extremely relaxed. On the hexagonal dance floor at the Deep River Yacht and Tennis Club, for example, the moves could get racy. "The Brits brought ... a freer kind of [culture]" one former scientist says. "If you went to a dance, you didn't just dance with your wife. You danced with three or four other partners."

And things could go too far. "One or two dances with one person - that would be one thing. But if you're having half a dozen, you're having a little bit too much fun with … someone else's wife."

The sexual tension wasn't limited to the dance floor. Young people housed in AECL's dormitories as late as the 1970s have a website where, as well as their current whereabouts, they list their old "hotel romance partners."

Many marriages blossomed, but others succumbed to temptation, and on Oct. 31, 1969, Christine Williams filed for divorce. This was several years before the age of "no fault," and Ontario judges demanded a reason for dissolving a union. Mrs. Williams cited "adultery" - court documents show her husband was having an affair with Lynn Sovka - and within months, she'd sold him her share of the house and moved to Scarborough, then a Toronto suburb.

But she didn't leave alone. Not only did she have custody of the boys, on June 2, 1970, a little more than four months after her divorce was final, she married - Jerry Sovka. After sharing a boat, the sailing partners had ended up with each other's wives - news that "swept the town like wildfire," another ex-sailor recalls.

Lynn Sovka's relationship with Dave Williams fizzled, but Christine and Jerry would be together nearly 30 years.

As for Russell, at the tender age of 7, he had a new home and new name. His mother changed hers completely, making her middle name her first to become Nonie Sovka.







'Thought he was better'

At some schools, he would have been labelled a band geek, but fortunately for Russ Sovka, music carried a lot of weight at Birchmount Collegiate Institute. Led by a colourful and highly respected teacher named Christopher Kitts, the band travelled widely, performing for ball fans at New York's Shea Stadium and flying to Germany to win a competition in Frankfurt.

In his first year of high school, the young trumpet player leapfrogged to the senior band, but made it clear that he had no time for fooling around. The future practical joker developed a reputation as a snob - a label that would stick into his adulthood.

"I know he kind of thought of himself as being better than other people. That was part of the reason why I didn't care for him," says Tony Callahan, a percussionist who rose to the senior band with him. "There was just an air about him, the way he talked... It was almost the way he would roll his eyes at you if you said something. He was condescending."

Not everyone shared that opinion. Every day after band practice, young Russ would walk home with his girlfriend, a flute player who lived a few blocks from him (now a Toronto-area teacher, she declined to be interviewed).

Despite his musical success, Russell's mother let it be known to neighbours that she didn't think highly of Birchmount. Half of the school's families were affluent, most living near the Scarborough Bluffs overlooking Lake Ontario, but other students came with rougher edges. For every high-achieving disciple of Mr. Kitts, there was another kid who spent most of the day in the school's smoking area.

Jerry and Nonie Sovka had entrenched themselves in Toronto's sailing scene, as members of the upscale Boulevard Club, and Russ and Harvey were constantly on the move. Their mother, elegantly dressed with her hair in a bun, "made sure they did the right activities," a former neighbour says. "I remember them taking tennis lessons. ... She had them doing stuff all the time."





As Russell reached Grade 11, the Birchmount problem was solved when the family left for South Korea, where his stepfather had been hired to oversee the construction of a nuclear plant in Pusan. The boys attended a school for expatriate children, but Russell later described the year abroad as "not a happy experience." He was teased by Korean kids and called a Yankee, and he told a roommate in university he was disgusted at how Korean men spit at Caucasian women. ("I found that hard to believe," the roommate now says.) The few reminders of Asia that he brought back included a love of baseball, a kimono he used as a housecoat and an Aiwa stereo that he cherished.

Back in Toronto, his parents decided to send him and brother Harvey to boarding school, choosing one that would have appealed to his more serious sensibilities - Upper Canada College, which has honed young minds from Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and grocery magnate Galen Weston Jr. to jailed media tycoon Conrad Black.

Although the family had no ties with the elite school for boys, which is expensive and has high standards for enrolment, a family member says Mr. Sovka's impressive CV helped to "persuade" administrators of the children's potential. Russell was assigned a corner room in Wedd's House, one of UCC's dorms, but didn't exactly fit in.

"At a boarding school, a lot of guys like to goof around and have some fun," says his former roommate, speaking on condition he not be named. "He was always serious and didn't really get into the banter, joking and friendship aspect of it all."





It was very difficult to have just a basic conversation with him. … I can't even recall him having a single person he spent a lot of time with. Russell Williams's former roommate




The two boys had little in common: Russ liked playing his trumpet and studying, while the roommate was into girls. Russ listened to the same Diana Ross song over and over, irritating someone with a taste for The Clash and Talking Heads. He also folded his laundry fastidiously, while across the room, junk piled up. The only time they were forced to be together, the nightly study hour, was spent in silence.

Their differences were superficial and surmountable, but Russ refused to open up. "My parents had just gotten divorced … so theoretically we had something in common," the roommate explains. "I don't think it was something that he even raised with me."

He contends that Russ "lacked any social skills whatsoever. It was very difficult to have just a basic conversation with him. … I can't even recall him having a single person he spent a lot of time with."

All the former UCC bandmates, teachers and staff who agreed to discuss Russell Williams agreed that they could think of no one close to him. The future military man didn't join the cadet corps.

In his final year, he served as a prefect, a position often decided by student vote. But UCC alumni recall that he was selected by the staff, and moved to a floor reserved for students in Grades 9 and 10, to keep the youngsters in check.

UCC has an active alumni network that maintains a password-protected, online database that "old boys" can use to keep track of each other. There is no contact information for Russ. He is listed as "lost."





Sudden transformation

If the first few weeks were any indication, Russ Sovka was destined to experience the same isolation as a student at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus.

He was assigned to live with five other students in unit C8, a townhouse in a sea of brown brick residence buildings. Before his roommates had a chance even to figure out where their classes were, he announced who was buying meals that week, who was scheduled to do the cooking and how they would rotate through the jobs he had assigned each of them.

"I thought, 'This is one dude that I'm going to keep my distance from,' just because he was a little bossy," recalls Jeff Farquhar, who was among those on the duty roster.

He was so orderly, focused and authoritative - keeping his own room spotless and persuading his roommates to wear slippers - that nicknames came fast and furious: Drill Sergeant, Sergeant Major and Mother Goose.

It got so bad that Mr. Farquhar, destined to become a close friend, says he teased him about being obsessive compulsive. "I don't know if he was diagnosed, but I know damn well, without being a doctor, that if he's not, I don't know who could be."

Then something changed. For some reason, Russ lightened up a bit. Armed with his trumpet, he gathered a dozen students and, outfitted with garbage-can lids and drum sticks, they paraded around campus blasting the Beatles' Yellow Submarine. He regularly unleashed his high-pitched laugh - a half-gasp, half-eruption that some of his roommates can imitate to this day.

He still abstained from partying, studied with the discipline of a monk and folded his laundry with intense precision, but he lost a bit of the edge that had turned people off.

That wasn't all. Within weeks, Russ Sovka went back to calling himself Russ Williams. No one asked why, and he offered no explanation.

He also started to expand his repertoire of pranks and became known for what one friend called his "off-the-wall sense of humour."





When one roommate kept coming home late, he gathered the others to watch as he disassembled the lock on their front door and adjusted it to work with the key to their laundry room. "How did he know how to work the tumblers on the lock?" Mr. Farquhar asks. "There were four of us staring at the tumblers, watching him do it. And we were asking questions like, 'How's this going to work?' and 'Are you sure?'"

He was. The nighthawk had to spend part of the night sleeping on the front lawn.

For some pranks, he was a traditionalist - Saran-wrapping the toilet bowl or trapping a roommate in his room with a girl by jamming pennies into the doorframe to stop the knob from turning. But he could also innovate, convincing another roommate that he had shattered Mr. Farquhar's mirror when in fact the cracks had been drawn with a prank pen and were easily erased.

The hits just kept coming. When one of his friends prepared a vodka mix in a wineskin for a long bus trip, he replaced the booze with water and vinegar. If a can of Coke were neglected, before long he was pouring in soya sauce.

But all that was fairly tame compared with the gag he pulled repeatedly in his last year as an undergrad.

"He'd go into my room, stand in the closet and later I'd come in and start studying at my desk, and he could be there for maybe half an hour, and then push open the closet door and scare the hell out of me," Mr. Farquhar says.

"I'd be on the ceiling and he'd be laughing his head off."

In fact, he burst out of his roommates' closets so frequently that they started pulling the same prank on him. Finally, they adopted a Waltons routine: To ensure that no one was still lurking in the shadows, they all climbed into bed and, mimicking the famed TV family, calling out "good night" to each other.





As for money, he accounted for every penny, literally. Upon returning from the local sports bar, he would pull out a clipboard and write down how much he had spent on chicken wings and two (never more) bottles of Labatt 50.






They also closed ranks when tragedy struck. One roommate lost a teenage sister to bone cancer, and Russell was among those who routinely trekked out to the family's home near Stirling, Ont., to offer condolences and support.

If this seemed odd, it was only because his own family didn't seem to be a factor in his life. Some of his friends vaguely remember his stepfather worked on reactors in Korea, but that was it. Once they brought up his parents' divorce but never made that mistake again. "I do recall the topic being painful," one roommate says. "He didn't really want to talk about it."

When the Christmas exodus rolled around, Russ usually stayed put. The same was true for summer vacation, and despite what his friends expected of a UCC alumnus, he picked up part-time jobs - at the library, alongside the ladies in the personnel office and in the athletics department.

As for money, he accounted for every penny, literally. Upon returning from the local sports bar, he would pull out a clipboard and write down how much he had spent on chicken wings and two (never more) bottles of Labatt 50. "He had his whole life with him in residence," Mr. Farquhar says.

By the time he had his degree in politics and economics, his stepfather had become chief engineer of another big project - the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope perched atop a dormant volcano. His biological father, meanwhile, had remarried and was living in Schenectady, N.Y., corporate headquarters of General Electric, where he worked.

His roommates remember no parental visits, and Mr. Farquhar says the one trip his friend made to Hawaii "flabbergasted" him simply because Russ so rarely left campus and never spent that much money.

It was unclear whether family relations were strained, his detachment was a product of his independence or some of both. "The only thing that stuck out is that he seemed a bit lonely …," one roommate says. "He rarely, if at all, talked about his family."

But there was a plus to being on campus so much. During one of the early breaks, when everyone else was back in their hometowns, his roommates recall that he met a young woman who would be his girlfriend until his final year.





What made him cry

The juxtaposition was striking. He hovered around 6 feet, with a wiry build from all his squash, tennis and jogging. She was a student from Japan, more than a foot shorter.

But in her company the "Drill Sergeant" seemed to be drained of his authority, the roommates say. He was a different person with her around.

"She ran him like a whipped horse. It was always her way or the highway, and he was always trying to acquiesce," Mr. Farquhar says. "And she always wanted to hit the books harder and didn't have a lot of time left over for Russ. That's what I always remember him saying. … There was always an argument of finding time to do things together."

The girl rarely spent the night at their place, the roommates say, and Russ often came home late, clearly disappointed that he was alone. Still, he was deeply offended when one day a roommate came to her townhouse to collect him and yelled up the stairs: "Come on, Russ. Get your pants on."

"You never saw them touch each other physically in public," another roommate recalls.

Then, when they were in fourth year, the girlfriend decided the relationship was over, crushing Russ and prompting him to withdraw completely. He would return from class, lock himself in his room with his treasured stereo and Bjorn Borg poster, and not emerge until the next day. It was the only time one friend ever heard him cry.

He campaigned to win her back but failed. A dozen long-stemmed roses were sent back, and when he began to appear just as her lectures were ending, she tracked down Mr. Farquhar and said: "Make him stop."





I used to joke about it behind his back: 'Oh shit, he thinks this is going to win [his ex-girlfriend]back. He's going to show up in his F14.'




Today the former girlfriend declines to comment on the relationship or how Russell reacted to the breakup: "All I can say is, whatever my experience was, I don't think it will be of any use."

But Mr. Farquhar recalls the fallout period as "a very upsetting time for him. He wasn't dating anyone." If the guys were going out to dinner or a dance, he stayed home. "I remember saying to him at one point, 'You know, you don't even have to take a date.' And he said, 'No. I'm not going. I don't want to go.' So I'd just leave it alone."

This resistance continued even after university, says Mr. Farquhar, who kept in close touch with Russ and last saw him this summer at the Tweed cottage. It wasn't until about four years after the breakup, when Russ met his current wife, Mary Elizabeth Harriman, that he resumed dating, he says.

It was also an extremely spooky time on the Scarborough campus, which had been rocked by a succession of attacks and unsolved rapes. At night, male students were escorting women home from class.

Several years later, infamous serial killer Paul Bernardo, who graduated from the school in 1987, a year after Russell, confessed to having committed several of the sex crimes. (Shortly after Col. Williams was arrested, the Toronto Sun reported that the two had been "pals" as students and "partied" together, but according to the roommates, it's unlikely they even met. "If he had known Bernardo, I would have known Bernardo," Mr. Farquhar insists.)

After earning his degree, Russ spent another year in Scarborough trying to decide what to do with his life. He lived alone in a basement apartment, working part-time at the university and waiting on tables at Red Lobster.

He applied to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and underwent a rigorous background check and interviews only to turn down an offer of employment, the roommates say. He was still waiting to hear back from his first choice.

An uncle of Mr. Farquhar owned a Cessna and had, on occasion, let Russ take the controls while in the air. And Hollywood provided some added inspiration just as his interest in flying was taking off - he went to see Top Gun over and over.

It was not lost on his friends that, for most of the movie, the fighter pilot played by Tom Cruise persists in his attempt to win the affection of a senior, flight instructor.

Mr. Farquhar says that "I used to joke about it behind his back: 'Oh shit, he thinks this is going to win [his ex-girl friend]back. He's going to show up in his F14.'"

And before the year was out, Russ Williams got the call. The practical joker with a penchant for carefully folded shirts decamped for basic training at CFB Chilliwack.

His rapid ascent in the military makes it clear that the orderly, hyper-organized half of his personality persisted and prospered.

His old friends and acquaintances are left to wonder what became of the prankster.

Greg McArthur and Colin Freeze are Globe and Mail reporters. The Globe's Timothy Appleby and freelance writer Christopher Watt also contributed to this article. Follow live updates from the courtroom during the plea and sentencing hearing of Colonel Russell Williams. Readers using BlackBerries and iPhones can click here.

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About the Authors
National reporter

Greg has been a reporter with The Globe since 2005. He has probed a wide variety of topics, including police malfeasance, corruption and international corporate bribery. He was written extensively about the Airbus affair, offshore tax evasion and, most recently, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his criminal ties. More

National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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