Canadian war hero charged with sex attacks and murder

He is one of Canada's top military commanders, boasting a chest full of medals and a glittering CV that had put him in charge of the nation's biggest airbase and seen him pilot official flights for the likes of The Queen and Stephen Harper, his country's Prime Minister.

But behind the starchy façade, prosecutors claim that Colonel Russell Williams was a dangerous sexual predator whose bizarre obsession with collecting women's underwear led him to commit scores of burglaries, two sexual assaults, and two grisly murders.

This week, Col Williams appeared in court in Ottawa accused of 86 lurid crimes that have alternately transfixed and appalled Canada since his arrest two months ago. If he pleads guilty – or is found guilty at trial – he faces spending the rest of his life behind bars.

The married father-of-four was detained at a police roadblock in Belleville, Ontario, in late February, not far from the house where a 27-year-old local called Jessica Lloyd had been sexually assaulted and strangled by an intruder a few days earlier.

The prosecution says that officers noticed that the tyres on his SUV matched a very rare pattern left in the snow near the murder scene. When the military veteran failed to properly explain what he'd been doing on the night of Lloyd's death, he was brought in for further questioning.

Soon, detectives were searching the home in suburban Ottawa where Col Williams and his family lived. They turned up five hundred sets of underwear, belonging to at least 82 different women, together with evidence which prosecutors say links him to a murder in nearby Brighton, and two sexual assaults.

Prosecutors believe the 47-year-old military veteran, who was in charge of logistics for Canada's relief efforts in Haiti and Afghanistan and who flew The Queen and Prince Philip during their visit to his country in 2005, had since 2008 been in the habit of leaving his sleeping wife at night, and breaking into houses to steal women's underwear. "Some people who have been contacted didn't even know that he or anyone else had been in their house," John Williams, the local mayor, told reporters.

"They just thought their underwear had gone missing in the wash, or something. It's really weird. He was a respectable man, heavily involved with the local community. Shocking is the right word."

At least four of the burglaries committed by Col Williams are said to have ended violently. On two occasions female homeowners in Tweed, Ontario, allegedly disturbed him during a break-in and were promptly forced to strip naked before being blindfolded and told to pose for photographs.

Both of the murders he is accused of involved a victim being blindfolded and sexually assaulted. Prosecutors say he carried out robberies at 47 properties near to the Canadian Forces base at Trenton, where he was the commander, often returning to the scene of previous crimes to steal yet more underwear. One house was broken into nine times.

After his arrest, Col Williams was suspended from the military on full pay. His deputy has since been running the Trenton base, which is home to Canada's biggest search-and-rescue mission, together with its most important rapid deployment force and the fleet of private jets used by government officials.

During his spell in custody, the "Creepy Colonel", as headline-writers have dubbed him, has already attempted suicide, and for several weeks was on a hunger strike. If he does not plead guilty, or fails to strike a plea bargain with prosecutors, he's scheduled to return to court for a full trial in June.

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