Archive for October, 2010|Monthly archive page

Another Post On Justice – One Close To Home For Me.

This week saw the end, at last, of one of the more sordid Canadian crime stories in recent memory, and one that struck more of a chord than usual with me given that it was both close to where I used to live, and involved the former Wing Commander of 8 Wing (CFB Trenton), a major Canadian Forces Base which was the support base for my former unit, somewhere I have spent much time, and where I even briefly lived.

As usual, I’m working for speed here and I’m not going to go mining links – I’ll give you the summary, and Google will certainly help you find more.  The now convicted and sentenced offender is David Russell Williams, formerly Colonel Russell Williams, a rising star in Canada’s Air Force, a “streamer” as we call it.  Russell was a pilot, had flown many VIPs – this tells me he was probably with 412 Squadron for a while, and then commander 437 Squadron at Trenton, before he was named the Wing Commander there.  By all accounts, he was an excellent pilot and an excellent officer.  But he had a dark side that we all now know.  Williams had some sort of an obsession with lingerie, and was quite the skilled burglar.  Beginning in about September 2007 he started executing a number of very skillful break & enters, taking photographs and stealing underwear, sex toys, and other such items from victims both in Ottawa where he lived with his wife, and the tiny town of Tweed, Ontario, not far from the Trenton base where he had a cottage and stayed much of the time his duties required him in Trenton.

The burglaries were in fact so stealthy that early reports after he was finally caught suggested that many victims didn’t even know they were victims until police informed them.  Williams kept elaborate records of his crimes, and many trophies, as well as pictures and video.  Again, if you want to read more, Google will find links for you, and every Canadian news outlet has plenty of info.

Soon things escalated, though, first to a sexual assault where he bound a woman and photographed her, and then to murder – first, a flight attendant from the base, Cpl Marie-France Comeau, a shock to the small town of Brighton, also near the base, and a town I had clients in and have visited often.  Cpl Comeau’s death was initially thought to be a domestic violence incident but then became much less clear.  Then this winter, a second victim, a young woman from Belleville, the biggest community in the area of the base, a young woman named Jessica Lloyd.  In both cases Williams broke into their homes, waited until they were vulnerable, and struck, raping and eventually murdering them.

It was only something of a spot of luck he was identified as a suspect, because a couple of passers-by had spotted an SUV in a field in the early hours of the morning and thought it unusual enough to tell the police.  They found distinctive tire tracks and set up a spot check (like a drunk driving checkpoint) through which Williams happened to pass in his Pathfinder, when they noted the tires matched.  They brought him in for questioning and eventually managed to extract a thorough confession.

Williams attempted and failed suicide in jail, and then finally this week pleaded guilty to all charges against him, which under Canadian law brought a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for 25 years.  To ensure that parole won’t happen, for two days, while reporters tweeted details, the Crown presented the evidence against him, photographs and videos of the shocking hidden life of a man who had been thought to be so honourable.  The details were horrific, but their etching into the public record will all but guarantee that Williams will die in Kingston Penitentiary, to which he was transported immediately after the court proceedings ended.

Today comes word that Governor-General of Canada (who holds the normally ceremonial role of Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Forces) has revoked Williams’ commission, stripping him of his rank and honours, and allowing him to be discharged from Her Majesty’s Service.  The current uproar concerns the fact that he is entitled to a pension of approximately $60,000/year, and there is no legal mechanism to force forfeiture thereof.  (I am actually prepared to argue that that is a good thing, and not worth fighting over).

The shock to me comes from how close to my former home this was, and the fact that I have several friends and acquaintances, including female military personnel who might just as easily have been Cpl Comeau – they’ve met him, worked closely with him – one actually received an award presented by him at a Christmas dinner last year – after his first murder, no less.  Military personnel tend to trust each other implicitly, consider each other part of an extended family, so the breach of trust is truly appalling.  The horror of betrayal is terrible.

I’m also forced to empathize with Williams’ wife, who had absolutely no knowledge of his deviance or his crimes, her name has been dragged through the media, and while he noted that part of his reason for confessing was to attempt to shield her from the nightmare, he clearly failed.  She will live in infamy and likely unjustifiably be vilified for years to come – as though she should have known – suspected – done something.  It’s unreasonable but I fear it is the reality she faces.

The pension issue is interesting though, because it’s prompting – or rather – rekindling a debate about such things with incarcerated persons.  There was public outrage not long ago when it was realized that notorious serial killer Clifford Olson was drawing Old Age Security benefits in prison.  Perhaps because Williams’ pension will come from the Federal Government the outrage is amplified.  However, the rational argument is simple.  First, notwithstanding his crimes, which only began very recently, Williams served honourably, with distinction in fact, in the Canadian Forces, and he paid into the Canadian Forces Superannuation for his career – much of the pension he will receive is from his own money.  Second – his wife, under law, is entitled to half of the benefits accrued during their marriage – I don’t know how much of his career that is – but presumably, given that I suspect her ability to earn an income and live a normal life is somewhat at an end, she will likely need to live off those funds.

I think the best way this should be handled is relatively straightforward.  I expect that the victims will sue Williams – one has already filed a suit – so the funds payable under the CFSA (military pension) that aren’t to be claimed by his wife (whose name escapes me) should likely wind up going to those victims.  The scenario can generate as well an interesting discussion – for example, those incarcerated who have income from things like pensions could be made under law to forfeit those monies to the Crown so as to offset the cost of their incarceration (in the case of a maximum-security prisoner, it’s something north of $135,000/yr) during the term they are imprisoned, barring any lawsuits.

It’s sad that this incident happened – sad that it involved a military member, but overall I can take some comfort in the fact that there’s been no effort to blame the Forces – except one crackpot I heard on Talk Radio today – given that the standing of the military in the eyes of the public hasn’t always been good and has finally risen strongly, many of us worried that this would set us back, but it hasn’t – the communities close to Trenton demonstrated that strongly with rallies showing their support for the military community there, and that is very good to see.

On Semrau’s Sentencing

Robert Semrau’s sentence was pronounced yesterday, after a couple of delays, possibly related to the fact that there is no precedent to work with in the matter in any of the ABCA countries.  This case has indeed been unique.

The sentence: reduction in rank to Second Lieutenant and dismissal without disgrace from the Canadian Forces.  No jail, which is good.  In fact, theoretically, the dismissal doesn’t even prevent Mr. Semrau from reapplying to join the Canadian Forces once the appeal process is complete, and it seems certain he will appeal, though one has to wonder if there’s any advantage to doing so.  An appeal stands little chance of success, and I have to wonder if it would expose him to more risk sentence-wise should the Crown decide to push for a more harsh sentence, as they had initially requested.

Amongst the majority of my military peers it seems there’s satisfaction with the sentence – the judgment was clear, that Semrau acted in the wrong, but the sentence reflects the reality that the situation is anything but simple.  It is something of an effective deterrent without being excessive or pointless.

What is striking is that it seems like many pundits are suggesting that troops have an opposite opinion – I don’t think so, and haven’t really seen so – and more importantly, when there are soldiers who think the whole thing was “unjust”, it normally takes but a brief discussion of the importance of the Laws Of Armed Conflict, the Geneva Conventions, and the maintenance of discipline in a professional army, particularly amongst its officers.  An officer very senior to me quipped that what’s disturbing is not the perception that an officer was punished for making a decision, but that there is a risk of reviving a culture of concealing incidents.  That’s very disturbing indeed, since it was just that sort of concept of sweeping things under rugs that led to the mess that became the Somalia Affair.  We’ve already learned the lesson.

My impression is that the outcome was probably the best possible.  Robert Semrau can return to his family, isn’t going to be incarcerated, and while his military career is at an end, he should be able to bounce back.  In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked if I learned that he might reapply to the Forces, given that he has been such a dedicated officer.  Regardless of the course of action he takes, I can only wish him all the best.