Russell Williams clings to his pension

With a court date looming, serial killer Russell Williams fights to maintain his military retirement benefits.

Fred Thornhill/Reuters

Fred Thornhill/Reuters

Russell Williams’s military pension is believed to be worth roughly $60,000 a year, which means the killer ex-colonel has received nearly a quarter-million dollars worth of retirement benefits since his career in uniform came to a shocking end in 2010. At the penitentiary canteen, there is nothing he can’t afford.

But, four years after Williams was sentenced to life behind bars—and four years after the Canadian Forces confirmed that his pension is irrevocable, regardless of his sadistic crimes—Ontario’s highest court is about to weigh in on the former commander’s controversial retirement plan. And Williams, now locked in a solitary cell in rural Quebec, is fighting back against the one victim seeking a piece of his generous pension.

Laurie Massicotte, a neighbour who was ambushed in her living room and sexually assaulted less than two months before Williams committed his first murder, wants to amend a lawsuit she originally launched in 2011 to include a new allegation: that the Canadian Forces Superannuation Act, which shields military pensions from court actions, violates her Charter rights because it deprives her of potential compensation. Simply put, Massicotte says a woman who endured what she did on Sept. 30, 2009, should have every legal right to pursue her attacker’s pension. The serial predator who climbed through her window doesn’t think so.

In written arguments filed in advance of a Nov. 3 Court of Appeal hearing, Williams says Massicotte’s proposed pension amendment is “premature and hypothetical” because she hasn’t won her lawsuit, let alone been awarded damages. If she does eventually win her case—and if Williams fails to pay the dollar figure specified by a judge—then she “might be in a position” to ask the courts to declare the pension regime unconstitutional, Williams argues. But even then, he claims, the target of such an action should be the federal government, not him.

“Such redress can only be claimed against the attorney general for Canada,” reads Williams’s 12-page factum, submitted by his Ottawa lawyer, Pasquale Santini. The Superannuation Act is “legislation passed by the federal government for the benefit of all Canadians and not just David Russell Williams,” it continues. “David Russell Williams had no input or involvement in the passage of this legislation and has no input or involvement with its continued application.”

In other words, it wasn’t Williams who decided that pensions should be immune from court-awarded damages and, if Massicotte wants to challenge the constitutionality of that system, a lawsuit against him is not the proper place to do it.
Like most Canadian pension laws, the military’s legislation clearly states that benefits are “exempt from attachment, seizure and execution,” meaning they can’t be cancelled by government or targeted by court claims. As outrageous as that may seem when the plan member is a depraved killer, the law is rooted in reasonable public policy: that pensions are designed to protect the basic financial security of retirees, and should therefore be off-limits to creditors.

Rare exceptions do exist. Pension earnings can be awarded to ex-spouses in divorce proceedings, for example, or diverted to cover unpaid child support. “The problem, however, is that there are no further exemptions,” says Kerri Froc, a lawyer and Ph.D. candidate at Queen’s University who specializes in women’s constitutional rights. “What of a case, like Williams, where the pension-holder intentionally inflicts physical and psychological damage? The kind of injuries experienced by sexual assault survivors are such that it may have an impact on their income-earning potential. They may also require funds for treatment and, in any event, they have a right to be made whole, so far as a judgment can do that. Why should their need to recoup those losses be treated as less deserving than a rapist’s need for his pension?”

That is not the question facing Ontario’s Court of Appeal. (Not yet, anyway.) At this point, the high court is only being asked to rule on a very technical issue: Should Massicotte be allowed to expand her lawsuit to claim, come trial, that the military’s pension plan breaches her Charter rights to life, liberty and security? A judgment in her favour would not grant her automatic access to Williams’s pension, but it would put those benefits in jeopardy for the first time—setting up an intriguing constitutional challenge that just might succeed.

“I do think it’s time that we take a hard look at why we would want to maintain barriers to sexually assaulted women being able to obtain some degree of justice and recovery from their perpetrators,” Froc says.

As first reported by Maclean’s in August, Williams reached an out-of-court settlement with the plaintiffs in two other civil lawsuits: “Jane Doe,” the victim of his first home-invasion sexual assault; and the family of Jessica Lloyd, whose abduction and horrific murder left behind the clues that ultimately led to Williams’s arrest. Whether he offered to settle with Massicotte is not clear. (Santini, his lawyer, declined an interview request.)

What is certain is that Williams wants Massicotte to pay his legal bill for next month’s hearing. As his factum concludes, he wants her appeal dismissed “with costs.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.