The man Mary Elizabeth Harriman knew in her life was not the man who’s life is under scrutiny for the world to see. He would hold her hand on walks. They went on vacations, they golfed together, normal couple things that would raise no suspicions.
The two wed in June 1991 in a ceremony in Winnipeg. They were a power couple, with no children, and, due to the nature of Williams’ job, they spent periods of time apart.
Harriman, is the associate executive director of the Heart and Stroke Foundation in Ottawa. Following the arrest of her husband, she was described in a statement from her workplace as a “kind and compassionate individual” and a “long-serving, greatly admired and universally liked member of our team.”
After taking a leave, Harriman is back at work and appears to be living in the Ottawa home the couple purchased last year.
To many, the couple appeared very much normal and in love. There was never any outward indication of marital tension.
Harriman likely didn’t have a clue her husband was breaking into homes and stealing lingerie, that he was stalking women, and that he eventually graduated to sexually assaulting and killing them.
That man is nowunder arrest and has entered a guilty plea today in a Belleville court for two murders, two sex assaults and a string of fetish break-ins.
She has to live with the unfathomable fact that the man she loved — Russell Williams, the former commander of CFB Trenton — was leading a double life. It raises the obvious question: How could she have had no clue? Quite easily, according to experts and a slim but consistent body of research on the wives of serial killers.
“People do not believe that you could have lived with a serial killer and had not known,” says Jack Levin, professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University, and author of Serial Killers and Sadistic Murders — Up Close and Personal. “That is true in many cases: the idea that the spouse, the wife, is totally ignorant of her husband’s killing spree.”
John Wayne Gacy’s wife would take weekend trips to visit family and return home to a terrible stench coming from the basement. Gacy, who invited young men and boys to their suburban Chicago house, then killed and buried them in the basement, would say the sewer had backed up again and then go down to spread more lime on the bodies.
“She believed him,” says Levin. “Why shouldn’t she? I know we’re cynical, but how many wives are supposed to say, ‘John, what are you burying down there? Bodies?’
“I think it’s beyond the imagination of most human beings to think that the guy they’ve lived with for years is killing people, and more than one, and not doing it spontaneously but planning it out. It’s too extraordinary to be real for most people. It’s fiction. It might as well be in a novel.”
Judith Mawson was married to Gary Ridgway, a truck painter who we know better as the moniker “Green River Killer”. Ridgway killed at least 48 women in Washington state, four of them while he was married to Mawson. As appears to have been the case with Harriman, she had no idea.
“He made me feel like a newlywed every day,” Mawson said in an interview with ABC News in April 2007. “He’d come home from work with a big smile.” Of her husband’s two lives, she said: “I loved the man I knew, and I hate the man that took him away.”
Pennie Morehead wrote a book about the case and Mawson’s relationship with Ridgway. “It turns out,” she told ABC News, “that our nation’s most prolific serial killer was also a terrific husband and friend and lover to his wife.”
In hindsight, Linda Yates realized there were clues that her husband, Robert Yates, might be up to something. For example, he smelled of cologne prior to what he claimed was a hunting trip. What he was really doing was killing prostitutes around Spokane, Wash.
Families of serial killers are often subjected to a preconception that is unfair and judgmental. “When we think of victims, we think of the families of the victims who obviously suffer tremendous loss, but we almost never think of the family of the killer,” says Levin.
Mothers are often maligned for raising monsters. Wives are blamed for being either stupid or complicit.
But from all indications, Russell Williams was living completely separate lives. He was a competent base commander and loving husband — and also a serial killer with escalating tendencies and urges.
Harriman has not uttered a public word since her husband’s arrest. Only that the news was “devastating to me.”
Unlike some serial killers, who were controlling and abusive to their spouses, Williams appeared the opposite and was far from a social misfit. Often the spouse is submissive and afraid of losing her husband. It doesn’t appear Harriman fits that description, Harriman is the more outgoing of the couple.
Williams was a regular jogger, which made it easy to slip out and case his next victims or conduct many of the break-ins. He stole undergarments and other personal items in dozens of fetish break-ins. An avid photographer, he also took pictures of the sexual assault victims.
Some married serial killers have kept no-go spaces in their homes and on their property to store “trophies” — places where spouses were not allowed access.
Keeping secret a stash of underwear and photographs would not be as difficult as hiding a body. Williams had a hiding spot — reportedly in the rafters of his locked Ottawa garage — and it appears he was quite meticulous about cataloguing the items he stole. Storing of boxes in the garage, out of the way, would not have raised red flags for her.
When police dumped an additional 82 charges on Williams for fetish break and enters at 47 homes in Tweed and Ottawa, some victims were completely unaware their homes had been burglarized.
Also included in the charges were “attempt” break and enters that no one but Williams would know of, indicating he either kept a log discovered by police or he had a photographic memory and “gave it all up” to investigators.
All this he kept from his wife, continuing to seem perfectly normal.
“You think the guy’s going to wear a sign?” says Vernon Quinsey, professor emeritus of psychology, biology and psychiatry at Queen’s University. “All these guys look normal. There aren’t such things as neanderthal slavering sex offenders. They don’t exist in nature.”
The couple’s love seemed real, a neighbour says, and she believes that if Williams knew he was going to be arrested, “I think he would have done himself in … I think he loved his wife that much.”
Williams and Harriman have split their assets, remaining married. The cottage where they had planned to retire now belongs solely to him. She has the house in Ottawa.
Harriman is fighting to keep her life as private as possible. In the civil suit filed by one of her husband’s sex assault victims, Harriman is seeking a sealing order to prevent public disclosure.
“My reputation in the community is exemplary,” states her affidavit. “The publication of further particular details of my professional life, personal financial situation and legal affairs could have a significant negative impact upon me personally and professionally.”
After the crime-scene tape had come down, Harriman and a friend returned one day to the house on Cozy Cove Lane, presumably to assess the damage after a police search and to collect belongings.
There is sympathy there for Harriman. But where once there would have been greetings or waves, there were averted gazes. Such is the inescapable stigma of the family of a serial killer. Along with his well-crafted duplicity comes the blame and shame of not being any the wiser.