Uniform burning ‘exorcism’ of memory of Russell Williams

In an act freighted with symbolism, the Canadian Forces has burned convicted serial killer Russell Williams’ military kit — all his ceremonial and fighting uniforms, as well as shirts, headdress, boots, gloves, rucksacks, and other items of military apparel.

The kit was committed to the flames of a roaring furnace at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, which Mr. Williams once commanded, in the early hours of Thursday morning. The bonfire was witnessed by the four military officials who, one day earlier, spent 90 minutes reclaiming the uniforms from the former air force colonel’s cottage in Tweed, Ont.

The wardrobe, including two boxes of military clothing previously shipped from Mr. Williams’ Ottawa home, was loaded into a minivan and driven to the Trenton base, and stored overnight.

Canadian Forces spokesperson Cmdr. Hubert Genest said in an interview that the idea to burn the uniforms had emerged “from the bottom up and been endorsed by the chain of command.”

“We did what we felt was necessary,” said Cmdr. Genest. “It feels right.”

There was no formal ceremony, he said, and no pictures were taken.

Mr. Williams, 47, pleaded guilty last month to 82 fetish break-and-enters and thefts, two sexual assaults involving home invasion, and to the rape and murder of his colleague Cpl. Marie-France Comeau, 38, of Brighton, and Jessica Lloyd, 27, of Belleville. Now serving a life sentence in Kingston Penitentiary, he has been stripped of his rank and formally evicted from the military – the first Canadian officer ever to be so disgraced.

Military historians called the burning of his kit unprecedented. “I’ve never heard anything like that,” said Jack Granatstein, director general of the Canadian War Museum. “I guess it’s embarrassment as much as anything…to erase the shame and stigma” of Mr. Williams’ association with the Forces. “It’s an exorcism. We are exorcising the memory of Russell Williams.”

“I have absolutely no idea where that idea might have come from,” said Terry Copp, director of the Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic and Disarmament Studies. “It’s unprecedented. I know deserters were executed during the First World War, but they’d have been given proper burial.”

Cmdr. Genest said it is common in the Forces for soldiers to return their military kits at the end of their careers. Typically, uniforms in good condition are recycled, in the interests of cost effectiveness. In this case, he said, “ we felt it would be very improper and inappropriate to keep this kit in the supply system,” especially since some of it had Mr. Williams’ name on it.

Cmdr. Genest declined to say whether the Forces was also motivated by a desire to ensure that Williams memorabilia did not fall into the hands of people who might sell it.

Various websites appear to conduct a lively commerce in items connected to famous criminals and serial killers, including Adolf Hitler, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Harold Shipman, Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy.

“By making sure the kit was destroyed,” he said, “you are ensuring that no one else will ever use it again.”

Asked what purging the archive of every possible vestige of Mr. Williams’ association with the Forces might signify, Cmdr. Genest said, “it’s not my role to lend my voice to that discussion. I just know it feels right.”

Within days, the Forces also intends to confiscate Mr. Williams’ military medals (the Canadian Forces Decoration Medal, given for good service, and the South West Asia Service Medal, for having served at least 30 days in Afghanistan), as well as the commission scroll — signed by the Governor General and the Minister of National Defence — that confirms his role as a serving officer. Retiring officers usually keep the scroll.

Cmdr. Genest said the medals will be kept “in a safe place.”


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