Monday, October 25, 2010

More on Colonel Russell Williams

Vicki here on Monday, and like almost everyone in Canada, I’ve been thinking about this case all week. It has numerous aspects that are both frightening and intriguing in so many different ways.

As a woman, I’m horrified at what this man did to the women he assaulted and murdered. I’m also very concerned at what appears to be a lack of interest on the part of the police in connecting the dots as regards the string of break and enters to steal women’s underwear. I’ve seen a map of the sites of the B&Es: all very tightly concentrated, but no one seems to have gone to too much trouble to find out what was happening. Now quite a few of the victums never notified the police, but in one case Williams broke in NINE times. He left messages on young girls’ computers. Some reports say that the sexual assault victims (two who were left alive) were treated dismissively by the police, who accused them of having boyfriend problems. Other reports contradict that, so we will see. One of those women has publically complained about the police conduct in her case. Again, I will hold judgement on that.

Nevertheless, there continues to be, I fear, a belief on the part of some segments of society that ‘minor’ sexual crimes are insignificant or unimportant. Surely by now we have enough examples to know that rarely does anyone wake up and decide to become a serial killer – they start with apparently small things and it all escalates from there.

As a resident of my community, I’m interested in this case because it took place close to where I live. I have friends in the police forces involved. I’m proud and grateful that the police were able to apprehend him quickly and convince him to plead guilty so as to avoid the cost and trauma of a lengthy trial.

As a citizen I’m interested in the psychology of Williams. He was a senior military officer, so responsible he actually piloted the Queen, in command of the country’s largest air force base, photographed with politicians of all stripes. All the while he was breaking into people’s houses and stealing women and girls’ underwear (from some very young girls too) and taking pictures of himself wearing it. In the pictures I’ve seen he’s not smiling and stands stiffly for the camera – this is not a person having fun with his little hobby.

And what on earth is it about wearing used underwear? Seriously, I’d like to know. I had drinks with friends last night and the husband said it reminded him of hunters of pre-industrial times who dressed up as their prey before setting off on the hunt. That is truly chilling.

As a writer of crime novels I’m interested in how much coincidence and luck played a part in catching him. His car was spotted by a couple of men one night parked in a deserted area, they noticed it, and when later they heard about the killing they remembered the car and told the cops about it. The police set up a roadblock to check the tires of cars in the area to match with the prints they’d found and Williams, fortunately, came down that road. He tried to frame his neighbour for the last murder. The police searched that man’s home but didn’t find anything. Can you imagine what that must have been like for him and his family?

And finally, as a writer of police procedural novels, who spends lot of time and effort to get the policing right in my books, I’m just plain interested in the policing that went into catching him. Extensive parts of the initial interview with a police officer who’s an expert in behaviour analysis are on the Internet, if you’re interested. Fascinating stuff. Williams comes in and sits down, all unconcerned, nice and comfortable. The questions are asked, he hedges, then begins getting anxious. The cop is friendly, casual, getting familiar, identifying with Williams. He never asks for a lawyer. And then – bang the cop reveals the evidence. He confesses.

How can I not end this without mentioning that in Negative Image, my new book from Poisoned Pen Press coming out next week, there’s an extensive scene in the police station interview room as Sergeant John Winters takes a suspect through a series of questions about break and enters, and gradually, skilfully, has them confessing to something much more serious.

Life and art cross sometimes. Although I so much wish the art of the crime writer was never reflected in real life.


Janice said...

It's a fascinating case.

The photographs of him in the underwear are very weird. Especially his demeanour/attitude/pose. Interesting what your friend said about dressing up as the prey...

The thing is, this guy is so far off any sort of profile it's incredible. If you put a character like this in a book, no-one would ever believe it!

Rick Blechta said...

If you'd read a book prior to 2001 about a group of terrorists knocking down buildings in New York City by flying airliners into them, would you have believed it?

Real life is pretty strange.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Vicki, I'm taking a police academy course and I absolutely agree that "ordinary people" are too quick to minimize weird behavior. People that give us the creeps probably are really creepy people.

Kathryn Casey said...

I've been a crime writer/ journalist for a couple of decades, and my first true crime book, Evil Beside Her, published in 1995, is about a sexual predator, a serial rapist.

One of the things I learned writing that book is that most serial killers follow a path similar to the Colonel's, one that's been documented in many of the FBI studies dating back to the early Seventies.

These killers often start as the rapist in my book, James Bergstrom, did, peeping in houses. We're so dismissive about Peeping Toms, but we shouldn't be. It's frequently the first step.

As they watch, these men begin to think about how easy it would be to get inside a house. That leads to breaking and entering, and stealing. Once they know they can get into the houses, the attacks begin, often sexual assaults which sometimes become more brutal leading to homicides.

The interesting thing about the colonel is that he apparently began at a very advanced age for serial killers. Most are in their twenties. I wonder if he'd been fighting the urge for a long time. But you're absolutely right; We do too quickly dismiss what are considered petty crimes, not realizing that they can become so much more serious.

I didn't know that the police discounted the stories of the women Williams assaulted. That is horribly shocking.