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From colonel to sex killer: Russell Williams chosen Newsmaker of the Year

Russell Williams, former commander of Canadian Forces Base Trenton, is escorted from Belleville court after being sentenced for murder on Oct. 21, 2010.


Russell Williams entered 2010 as a decorated colonel, a rising star in the ranks of the air force who ran Canada's largest military airfield and even ferried the prime minister on VIP flights.

He ended the year as a pariah – a confessed rapist and murderer languishing behind bars in one of the country's most notorious prisons, his uniform seized and burned by a shaken military anxious to erase all traces of him.

The story of Mr. Williams's dark and twisted fall from grace – told in court in unrelenting and excruciating detail – shocked the country, dominated headlines and rocked the Canadian Forces to its very foundations.

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So massive was his betrayal, the sex killer and disgraced former commander of CFB Trenton has emerged as Canada's Newsmaker of the Year in an annual survey of the nation's newsrooms by The Canadian Press.

Some may recoil at the thought of Mr. Williams as 2010's top newsmaker, but it's an "act of news judgment," not an award, said April Lindgren, a veteran reporter who now teaches journalism at Toronto's Ryerson University.

"People have to understand, he wasn't selected Newsmaker of the Year because he's a great guy," Ms. Lindgren said.

"He was selected Newsmaker of the Year because of the magnitude of his evil, and because of the news his deeds generated."

In the long history of The Canadian Press year-end survey, criminals rarely draw many votes from those who produce the country's newspapers, newscasts and news websites. Despite their notoriety, killers like Clifford Olson, Paul Bernardo and Robert Pickton were never selected.

"It is a dark choice, and maybe counterintuitive, but it is hard to deny the impact of the story on Canadians," said Jennifer McGuire, general manager and editor-in-chief of CBC News.

"It made us all look at the world a little differently. And we reacted to it viscerally and emotionally."

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The Williams case was a "glimpse into the horrendous darkness" that exists in humans, said Murray Langdon, news director at radio station CFAX in Victoria.

"The story revealed a stark contrast; a strong, charismatic and dependable leader, and twisted, depraved and sadistic hunter," Mr. Langdon wrote.

While there was little argument about the journalistic importance of the story, some voters admitted they couldn't bring themselves to cast a ballot for Mr. Williams.

"I just couldn't vote for Russell Williams – it would be like when Time [magazine]declared Hitler 'Man of The Year,"' said Murray Wood, news director of radio stations CJME in Regina and CKOM in Saskatoon.

Mr. Wood cast his vote for Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, whose fight over the future of the province's potash industry pushed his Prairie brand of diplomacy onto the national stage.

Mr. Williams was picked by 29 per cent of the newsrooms in the Newsmaker survey. The Canadian with the second highest total – 15 per cent – was hockey superstar Sidney Crosby, whose overtime goal in the gold medal game at the Vancouver Olympics set off a wave of national delirium.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Newsmaker for 2008 and 2009, was next with 9 per cent.

And for the first time, The Canadian Press conducted a parallel survey in conjunction with Yahoo! Canada to allow the public to make its own choices for Newsmaker of the Year.

The public results were the inverse of the top two newsroom choices: Yahoo! Canada readers picked Mr. Crosby as the top newsmaker with 21 per cent of the votes, with Mr. Williams tied for second with pop superstar Justin Bieber, both with 14 per cent. Mr. Bieber came in sixth in the newsroom survey.

Still, it was clear from both surveys that for news people and the public alike, the colonel's shocking double life set the story apart from other horrific trials Canadians have been exposed to over recent years.

Unmasking a pillar of society as a monstrous sexual predator shatters public trust and "corrodes" the fabric of society, said Elliott Leyton, a social anthropologist and author of Hunting Humans, a book on serial killers.

"No other serial killer... has mixed with the prime minister and so many dignitaries in society – in fact, was part of that society," Mr. Leyton said.

"That's the distinctive thing about him... He had a lot of prestige and power which he abused to the full."

The lurid details of that abuse of privilege were laid bare over four gripping October days in an eastern Ontario courtroom after Mr. Williams pleaded guilty to all 88 charges against him.

Few could tune out the sickening details of his depraved crimes, which began with fetish break-ins to steal the underwear of women and girls as young as 11.

It eventually escalated to the brutal sex slayings of 38-year-old Corporal Marie-France Comeau, who served under his command, and 27-year-old Jessica Lloyd, whose disappearance triggered a police search that eventually led to Mr. Williams's capture and confession.

His "rise to infamy" was also fuelled by the vast amount of information that emerged in court, from instantaneous tweets to photos of the high-ranking officer in girls' underwear that were splashed across the front pages from coast to coast, Ms. Lindgren said.

Some found it too much to take, but Ms. Lindgren argued that the photos – one newspaper juxtaposed an image of a saluting Mr. Williams in full uniform with another of him posing in what appeared to be a girl's pink bathing suit – were justified.

"Those two photographs, to me, told the story of Russell Williams's sickness and evilness of his act... in a way that I don't think even stories could convey," she said.

Those images perhaps made the greatest impact in the community where Mr. Williams committed his crimes.

For one local news director who watched the horrific case unfold from January until late October, Mr. Williams clearly stood out as the newsmaker of the year.

"CFB Trenton is at the centre of everything our military does, and to have its top officer commit these crimes was a shocking reminder that evil can lurk anywhere no matter what the responsibility, income or rank," wrote Todd Smith, news director at Quinte Broadcasting.

The former colonel's crimes had a lasting effect on everyone in the communities of Belleville and Trenton, he added.

"Williams terrorized the local region for several months and committed some of the most heinous acts our country has ever seen while in a position which holds the responsibility of protecting all of us."

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