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Hundreds attend 'healing event' in Belleville after Williams sentenced

Jessica Murphy gets hugged by her boyfriend Yves Lavigne during a rally Friday for the victims of Russell Williams in downtown Belleville, Ont.,

Lars Hagberg/CP

Hundreds gathered in Belleville's market square for a community healing event Friday, one day after Russell Williams was sent to prison for a series of horrific sex-related crimes, including two murders.

Many embraced, held hands, fought back tears, prayed and left smiling.

"It's good for the community, not just for us,"said Andy Lloyd, brother of murder victim Jessica Lloyd.

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"Everyone wants to get back to normal life," he added at the event in the eastern Ontario city.

Organizers planned the gathering to help lift the community's spirits after four days of testimony about the crimes of the former CFB Trenton base commander.

Belleville police officers, firefighters and ordinary residents made up the crowd. They listened to a prayer from a local reverend, held a moment of silence and heard speeches from dignitaries including Belleville police Chief Cory McMullan.

The square is just one block from the courthouse where Mr. Williams was sentenced Thursday to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 25 years.

The former colonel pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, as well as dozens of other charges including sexual assault.

A short while later on Friday afternoon, Mr. Williams was stripped of his rank as colonel and officially booted from the military.

Rick McKee, who organized the noon-hour event with fellow resident Hazel Lloyst, said it was designed to be uplifting and not to resemble a funeral.

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"We expect this will be the start of the healing process," he said. "We hope it will embrace everyone who's been affected by Russ Williams. It's the opposite of a funeral, it's a celebration of life and the future."

Garnet Thompson, a city councillor, reminded the crowd that Belleville's nickname is "The Friendly City."

"I would ask everyone to pause for a moment and think about the good times we've had here," he said. "We'll always be The Friendly City."

Rev. Bill Smith of Belleville's Bridge Street United Church, delivered a prayer and urged the crowd not to dwell on questions about why such tragedies happen.

"We're not here today to find answers. We're here today to be a community, to realize any burdens we face are lighter when we carry them."

"Today, we recognize the pain. But more than that, we stand in solidarity as a community ... We are all survivors. We all found the strength to live through the pain."

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Mr. Lloyd used his turn at the podium to thank Belleville police and other law enforcement officials for capturing his sister's killer and bringing him to justice.

"Everyone did a fantastic job," he said. "My sister would be proud of this."

Ms. McMullan in turn praised Mr. Lloyd for his courage. As the legal process unfolded, he become a spokesman for his family and delivered a powerful victim impact statement in court.

"Any mother would be proud to call him a son," the police chief said to applause. "He sets a wonderful example."

Ms. McMullan encouraged people to deal with their grief by doing something positive in their community.

"It's our responsibility to continue to be strong," she said.

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