Video: Watch the full Dateline report
updated 2/19/2011 10:09:18 AM ET 2011-02-19T15:09:18

A bizarre criminal rampage that began in September 2007 with the theft of women’s and girls’ underwear from homes in a rural community in eastern Ontario ended almost 2 ½ years later at the unlikeliest of places — the offices of a senior commander in the Canadian Air Force, a standout officer, a man who had piloted planes carrying the Canadian prime ministers and the queen of England, a devoted husband.

Left in its wake like so many discarded cigarette butts: Two murdered women, two sexual assault victims and survivors asking a question that not even the killer could answer.

The case of 47-year-old Col. Russell Williams — commander of Canada’s largest air base by day; sexual predator and killer by night — shocked Canadians as it ran its course last year. When it finally ended, on Oct. 21, 2010, Williams was sentenced to two life sentences  with no chance of parole for 25 years for the murders of Jessica Lloyd, 27, and Cpl. Marie-France Comeau, 37, and scores of other crimes.

But many Americans were either ignorant of or only dimly aware of the surreal case of a double life unfolding to the north — a sordid tale in which a decorated officer’s sexual fetish spiraled into gruesome violence against unsuspecting women who caught his eye.

"Dateline NBC" revisited Williams’ case Friday night, recounting a crime spree that began with a series of break-ins and lingerie thefts in the small community of Tweed, where Williams had a cottage, and spread to the Ottawa suburb of Orleans, where Williams and his wife had a home. Eventually Williams broke into more than 40 homes, some multiple times. And over time, those lingerie thefts morphed into murder.

In the two-hour special that aired at 9 p.m. ET Friday, Keith Morrison interviewed victims of those initial break-ins, the neighbor who was for a time a suspect in the sexual assaults and a police chief whose officers gathered the clues that helped them snare the colonel. Morrison also detailed Williams’ astonishing double life and interviewed his unsuspecting friends and former military colleagues.

But the riveting heart of this program came during the police interrogation.  In less than five hours, Russell Williams went from a confident colonel to a confessed murderer.  To watch his façade slowly crumble, to see his lies exposed, to watch a killer cornered is to see police work at its very best.

Also chronicled were Williams’ chilling answers during the interrogation about how he murdered his two victims, horrific crimes recounted as matter-of-factly as if he were going to the mall.

Morrison layed bare the colonel’s legacy of loss and pain, speaking with those whose homes were burgled, those whose loved ones died and Williams’ perplexed and anguished friends.

“Russ is still my friend,” says Jeff Farquar, one of Williams’ oldest friends. “And I hate the crimes, but I don’t hate Russ.”

But for all his digging, Morrison can’t answer what remains the central question of the case: How can a man who was by all accounts an exemplary officer unravel so completely?

Additional details emerged after his trial. The Toronto Star, citing an informed source, reported in November that Williams had been taking multiple pain medications for at least two years before his arrest. Among them was prednisone, which has been documented in some instances to produce mind-altering side-effects.

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"After it all happened I thought, what on Earth could cause that?" the newspaper quoted an unidentified former friend as saying. "I knew he had been taking (the drugs) — but I'm really only grasping at straws because the whole thing is inexplicable. "But it did strike me that maybe it was all those pills he was taking."

Williams himself was either unwilling or unable to shed any light on his motivations.

Asked by his interrogator after his confession if he had spent much time thinking about why he committed his crimes, he replied simply, “Yeah, but I don’t know the answers and I’m pretty sure the answers don’t matter.”

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