Canadian Psycho

Colonel Russell Williams

During the third week of October, 2010, the Canadian media covered the case of Russell Williams like no other news story. Williams, prior to his February 7, 2010 confession of murders, rapes, and scores of panty burglaries, was a colonel and decorated pilot in command of the Canadian military air base in Trenton, Ontario, the country’s largest and busiest military airbase. The case of this sado sexual serial killer with transvestic fetishism on the side is unusual in the annals of crime for three reasons: he was a very successful man, even a prominent authority figure; and he started his crime spree relatively late in life, breaking bad at the age of 44. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this otherwise dark, twisted and sad tale is his confession: the confident, powerful colonel goes into the interview with the investigator on a Sunday afternoon voluntarily, not in the least suspecting that he will be talked into confessing his depravities four hours later. The police work to catch Williams and get a confession out of him is a hard-boiled egg of Canadian heroism, really.

Not one person has indicated even the slightest suspicion of “the colonel” prior to his arrest. Not his wife, not his best friend, none of his colleagues or people of lower military rank who served him—no one. He was, by all accounts, simply an exemplary officer. Impeccable. Admirable. Diligent. Fair-minded. Active in community matters. A good liaison between the surrounding community and the air-base. His best friend, who has known him since the early eighties when they were undergraduates in University together, paints a picture of a long-time close friend with nothing more dangerous than the prankster in him. He was even an animal-lover and was observed checking his lawn for frogs before mowing it to ensure he slew no frogs.

Russell Williams (left) with Peter MacKay (Canadian Minister of Defense), and General Walter Natynczyk

Everyone who knew him  remarks on their inability to resolve the admirable colonel with the man who confessed to raping, torturing, photographing, filming, and murdering two women, sexually assaulting and photographing two others, and breaking into over 80 homes in which he photographed himself wearing and masturbating in the underwear and lingerie of the females who lived in the houses, some of them as young as 11. He amassed boxes of underwear from his panty raids.

For all Williams’s efforts as a media producer, the most interesting media to emerge from the events is the video of his confession. He goes into the interview room on February 7  as a confident cocky colonel in command of a huge military airbase, a decorated pilot filmed chatting with the Queen whom he flew around Canada during one of her trips. He was also photographed and filmed advising Peter McKay, the Canadian Minister of Defense in the conservative government of Stephen Harper. He went into the room as an officer making $12,000 per month, a confident, murderous psychopath who grins into the camera, confident he can talk his way out of the conversation. He had attended the best schools in Canada. He was a Canadian leader. He came out of the room after having confessed to everything. He was arrested and plead guilty to it all. And was eventually sentenced to 25 years in the darkest hell hole in Canada with no chance of parole.

Russell Williams

The video of the interrogation in which he cracked and confessed is a source of pride by Canadians in their cops–or in that particular cop and the team of which he is part. Which of course contrasts with what the story inspires in Canadians concerning their military leadership–though that might not be entirely fair because not even Williams’s friends or family had a clue about his brutal deviancy. The investigator who conducted the interrogation, Jim Smyth, is now, quite deservedly, a national hero. He comes across with all the Canadian virtues. He’s modest. He’s friendly. He’s not really threatening. He’s polite. He’s respectful. Yet over the course of the ten hour interview, he turns the screws so tight that the powerful, psychopathic colonel cracks and confesses. Though the tale is dark as night, in many ways, it does have this surprisingly strong ending.

The tale is extraordinarily dark in that Williams was a figure of such rank and standing in Canadian society and acted with such sadistic cruelty to his victims. Indeed, he looks like the perfect Canadian Psycho of the era of Stephen Harper’s conservative government. The USA had their Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and various military psychoses. Russell Williams’s abuses of power are a Canadian correlative.

Moreover, Williams appears as a peculiarly Canadian psycho. For instance, in the interview, he gives the impression that he cannot stand the thought of being perceived as a cold-blooded psychopath. He comes across, instead, as a warm fuzzy psychopath. He expresses concern for his wife, the Canadian military, and his cat. He says he confessed and plead guilty to “make his wife’s life easier”. Not especially convincing, of course, but at least he tried to appear warm and fuzzy. He even apologized in writing and at the end of his sentencing for his depraved actions, which is unusual in those who do such things. But, then, Canadians apologize for everything. It is a national tick that doesn’t necessarily mean much, especially from the mouth of a sadistic murderer who killed women without blinking an eye.

Still, it would be a mistake to write him off as a human being. He’s one of us, however damaged and dangerous he is. He was never a split personality. There are connections between the man everyone admired and the sadistic murderer. Many say he’s not sorry at all, that he’s incapable of remorse because he is incapable of feeling anything for other people. But that seems like it might be a dehumanizing approach not so much reflecting reality as making it easier to throw him away or kill him. It’s clear that sex murderers are indifferent to the suffering of their victims and may even enjoy it. But for us to think that means they are incapable of loving or truly caring for anyone seems slightly irrational; dehumanizing others is something we should be very cautious about. Lest we suffer a little bit from what ails the psychopath and the soldier in times of combat: a dehumanizing of selected other folks.

Williams at the start of the interview with Jim Smyth

How was Smyth able to cook a confession out of him? The first piece of evidence he tells Williams  is that the tire tracks of his SUV match tracks found near the scene of one of his murders. This is not too incriminating, of course. There are other vehicles with the same tires.

Smyth then asks Williams what he is willing to give Smyth to convince him that Williams is not a suspect. What do you need?, asks Williams. Fingerprints, DNA, and a bootprint. Williams surrenders all these things. A little bit too cooperative, of course. He chose not to get a lawyer at that point. Not long after that, Smyth reveals that the bootprint matches a bootprint found near the tire tracks. Oops. The colonel is done at that point.

Not long after that, Smyth reveals that they have a warrant and Williams’s houses are currently being searched and Williams’s wife is being told why the search is going on. Williams knows they will find boxes of underwear and lingerie. And his snuff videos. And videos of his sexual assaults. And photos of himself masturbating in the stolen underwear in the bedrooms of the girls and young women he targeted.

Williams slumped in defeat later in the interview

Professing that he wants to spare his wife the destruction of her “dream home”, he confesses to everything and tells them where all the media they ask for is located. I would think his wife would be very happy to have the house completely searched so as not to miss anything he may have not revealed. It wasn’t clear whether Williams was genuinely concerned for his wife and the intrusion into her recently purchased “dream home” or whether he was angling to avoid some media being found concerning, say, he and his wife. Then again, it may indeed be that he simply loves his wife and wanted the cops to leave her alone as much as possible simply because she didn’t deserve to be dragged into it.

It is clear that he went to great lengths to avoid his desires being discovered for many years and was deeply ashamed of his transvestic fetishism, never mind his sexual assaults and murders. So it is likely he confessed to avoid the prolonged shaming a trial would involve. Certainly he didn’t count on the shorter but nonetheless intense shaming of the four day sentencing hearing in which some of his media and all of his crimes were made intensely public around Canada and the world.

In any case, the video of the interrogation is absolutely classic good guy vs bad guy. The chief investigator described it as “a smart man being outsmarted by a smarter man” and remarked that it is the best interrogation he’s ever seen. Detectives of all stripes have remarked that the video of this interrogation is destined to be played as a training film for future investigators—as a definitive how-to.

When you watch it, have a look at the time stamp from time to time. The original interview was around ten hours long. It’s been condensed for distribution to the media.

The confession video was first shown to Canadians on October 20, 2010. That was the third day of a four day sentencing hearing. Williams plead guilty to all charges, so there was no trial. But there was a four day sentencing hearing which involved a presentation of the evidence against him, and then his official plea of guilty, and then the victim impact statements, then Williams’s statement to those in the courtroom, and then the sentencing of him to two 25 year terms in Kingston Penitentiary, which holds the worst of the worst in Canada. The sentencing hearing went from October 18 to October 21.

I also include various links to get a better sense of the whole story.

Video Links

Connect TV Show (

October 20, 2010 Connect TV show: The confession video: This version of the presentation of the video is from a CBC television program called Connect with Mark Kelley. If you search the web or youtube (etc) for ‘Russell Williams confession’, you find shorter versions of the confession video broken up into three pieces. The original interrogation was ten or eleven hours long. This version of the video is longer than what we normally find on the web.

October 21, 2010 Connect TV show: The deepest hell hole in Canada: This show concerns the sentencing of Williams. It includes an interview with someone who has been in the unit where Williams is going in Kingston Penitentiary.

October 19, 2010 Connect TV show: Evidence of the two murders committed by Williams.

October 18, 2010 Connect TV show: Evidence of Williams’s panty raids.

Fifth Estate TV Show (

The Confession: A 60 minute show on the confession video.

Above Suspicion: A 60 minute show from September 24, 2010. An overview.

Print Links


Macleans coverage (scroll down for more articles)

Globe and Mail coverage

Montreal Gazette coverage

One Response to “Canadian Psycho”

  • The story reminds me of elements from two films.

    One of them being American Beauty. The military man murders the protagonist because the protagonist knows the soldier has homosexual desires, and he doesn’t want anyone knowing it. Russell Williams was a ‘transvestic fetishist’, which simply means he derived sexual pleasure from cross dressing. Of course, that’s a total no-no, especially in military culture. Especially for an officer. He couldn’t have anyone knowing about it, like the military man in American Beauty. And they both became murderers out of their fear of their desires and insistence on hiding them at all costs.

    But of course the cases are very different. Russell Williams, in addition to being a ‘transvestic fetishist’, which is harmless, really–it isn’t, in itself, violent at all, either towards oneself or others–seems to enjoy rape and hurting women. He is a sadist. Of course, there are sadists who only do so in adult, consentual situations, sadomasochistic relationships, where the dynamic is consentual (among adults), and they don’t really hurt one another, they just play at it. But Russell Williams apparently had no one to play with, played far too rough, and killed them partly for kicks and partly to protect his dark secrets.

    The other film I’m reminded of is American Psycho. It’s directed by Mary Harron, a Canadian woman, actually, but it’s an adaptation of a book by an American, Bret Easton Ellis. The film is one of my favorite American films. Christian Bale plays the psycho. It’s set in Reagan’s era. Bale works in mergers and acquistions. I’m reminded of that film partly because Russell Williams is so very much the Canadian Psycho.

    Odd that the two films I’m most reminded of both are named American this or that. But the Williams case, though it could have happened in the USA, for the most part–or at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, say–is distinctively Canadian, in some ways. Williams does not want to be seen as a ‘coldblooded psychopath’. He is, instead, a warm fuzzy psychopath. The perfect psychopath of Harper’s era. A man of authority and power, power that he abuses in total secrecy, appearing otherwise to be quite the nice guy. No one on the planet had even the slightest suspicion of him. But it wasn’t a matter of ‘split personality’, either.