TORONTO, Canada — Could police have saved the second murder victim of Russell Williams, the former Canadian air force colonel turned serial killer?
That’s the question gripping many Canadians this week after revelations of a dramatic moment that police tried to keep secret.
It occurred Jan. 28, 2010, after Williams had already broken into dozens of homes to steal women’s underwear, had sexually assaulted two women during home invasions and had raped and murdered a 38-year-old female corporal who worked for him at CFB Trenton, Canada’s biggest air force base.
On that fateful January night, police were of course unaware of Williams’ double life. They had no idea that an SUV parked in a field next to the home of Jessica Lloyd, 27, belonged to Williams. But the female officer who spotted it, as revealed by the Toronto Star, found it suspicious enough to investigate.
The officer pulled up to Lloyd’s home, which is isolated along a rural highway on the outskirts of Belleville, a town in southern Ontario. The officer knocked on the door. At that precise moment, Williams was hiding in Lloyd’s backyard, waiting for Lloyd to return home. It was, quite literally, a life or death moment.
When no one answered, the officer made sure the home was secure, took a description of the SUV and then left, according to Belleville’s police chief, Cory McMullan.
But did she note the SUV’s license plate number?
The issue is crucial because it is now known that Williams broke into Lloyd’s home that night shortly after she returned at 10:30 p.m. He tied her up and raped her repeatedly for several hours. Then he forced her into his SUV — the one the officer earlier found suspicious — and drove her to his cottage about 20 minutes north along the same highway.
There, he continued to terrorize and rape her, killing her sometime after 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 29. The next day, he flew Canadian soldiers to a base in California.
On the morning of Jan. 29, Lloyd’s mother called Belleville police to report her missing. Police began searching for Lloyd shortly after noon — a full eight hours before she was murdered. Plenty of time, in other words, to identify Williams as a suspect if the officer had noted the license plate and done a trace of its ownership.
There are two possibilities: The officer did not note the plate or run a trace, which raises questions about gaps that may exist in the police protocol for investigating a suspicious vehicle. Or, the officer did note the plate and run a trace, which suggests an even greater systemic break down involving more police officers. Either way, the results were tragic. And there are calls for a public accounting to ensure it doesn’t happen again and to restore public confidence in policing.
Yet the police forces involved in the Williams case — Belleville’s and the Ontario Provincial Police, the province-wide force that led the murder investigations — have erected a wall of silence. (It was initially reported the police officer was from the provincial force, but there are now indications she was a Belleville officer.)
McMullan restricts herself to praise: “She did more than a lot of officers would have done.”
That of course suggests that many officers would have spotted the suspicious vehicle and not even stopped. It’s a well-known practice among police officers when investigating an incident, for one reason or another, seems to be too much trouble. It even has its own acronym, FIDO — forget it, drive on.
Col. Russell Williams.
“This is yet another twist in this horrible, gruesome case that was not revealed explicitly during the course of the trial,” said Peter Kormos, the politician responsible for public safety issues with the New Democratic Party, one of the opposition parties in Ontario’s provincial legislature. “It would appear to be an effort to conceal the fact that a police officer had an opportunity to prevent this particular crime and failed to do so.”
The incident comes on the heels of revelations that Williams began taking a cocktail of drugs for severe joint pain at about the time he began his crime spree in September 2007. One of the drugs was prednisone, which has been known to have mind-altering side effects. Studies since the 1950s indicate it can cause a range of adverse reactions, including euphoria, mania and bipolar disorder.
Some now wonder whether the drug can explain the Jekyll and Hyde character of a decorated military man who suddenly turned to a life of crime at the age of 44.
There’s a tendency to want to close the book on Williams, now that he has pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence. (The Canadian armed forces recently gathered all the military clothing Williams had in his home — his shirts, uniforms, hats and gloves — and burned them.)
But the door-knocking incident has many wondering what else police haven’t told Canadians about the hunt for one of the most notorious serial killers in the country's history.