Thursday, October 28, 2010


When truth is more compelling than fiction

Like many Canadians I watched the Fifth Estate last Friday night. It was an hour-long deconstruction of the interrogation and confession of Russell Williams, senior military officer and sadistic killer. And it was a terrific show.

What made this documentary so gripping? Well, for one thing, it wasn't so much about the killer as it was about the strategy that went into orchestrating his confession. OPP Det. Sgt Jim Smyth and his team had enough circumstantial information to make them believe this was their man but their only actual evidence was a couple of tire tracks picked up near the home of one of the victims and matched to William's SUV.

Once they had the colonel in their sights, Jim Smyth and his team took four days to plan the interrogation. What then? Did a SWAT team scream over to the Williams' house in a blaze of flashing lights? Did they drag the suspect out in handcuffs? Not at all. They telephoned Williams at home and asked if he'd mind coming in to give them a hand in the investigation. At three o'clock that afternoon, Williams drove himself to the station. He walked in full of confidence and ten hours later he was still there having confessed to murder, rape and innumerable break-ins.

So what happened at the police station? Did they toss him into the interrogation room, play good cop/bad cop, slam him against the wall? No again.

Jim Smyth, looking rumpled and a little careworn, thanked Williams for coming in, chatted a bit about the investigation and then wondered, very nicely, if he'd mind letting them have a wee sample of his DNA and a peek at the boots he was wearing. Smyth, it turns out, knows the value of a polite manner and long silences. At no point in the parts of the interview we saw did he raise his voice or react in any way when the murderer finally began to confess.

We're told this program will be a major learning tool in every police academy across the English-speaking world. It will change the way police interview suspects. But will it change the way TV portrays the police? And will it change the way we, as crime writers describe the interrogation process?

Sue Pike has published nineteen stories and won several awards including an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Crime Story. Her latest, Where the Snow Lay Dinted will appear in the January issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Sue and her husband and an opinionated Australian Shepherd named Cooper spend the winter months in Ottawa and the rest of the time at a mysterious cottage on the Rideau Lakes.


  1. As chilling as the entire thing was, it was fascinating watching his demeanor change (although I know the time was compacted). Also, liked the commentary that went along with it -- most useful. You're right, Sue -- most compelling.

  2. It's also interesting that at no point, that we saw, did Russell Williams think "oh oh, I'm in trouble here, I'd better get a lawyer." He was offered that option when he first walked in, and clearly thought he could handle anything this mild-mannered cop threw at him. It's a testament to the cop's hypnotic effect on him that in the end, he walked quietly into the trap.

  3. I remember a member of the Ottawa Police Service who spoke at a Capital Crime Writers meeting who, in speaking to us about interview techniques, said, "Everyone wants to tell their story. Eventually." And if asked in a manner that suits their 'personality.'
    It was remarkable to hear him say how many 'suspects' rarely ask to speak to a lawyer during an interrogation and still end up confessing.
    The Williams case is a fine example of the degree to which behavioural studies has influenced modern police work.