A few years back, I spent a memorable spring morning with a psychopathic serial killer.
It was in the Georgian Bay town of Penetanguishene, inside a high-security mental health facility that in a less sensitive era used to be called a hospital for the criminally insane.
The killer’s name was Peter Woodcock, although he had legally changed it to David Michael Krueger.
By the time I met him, he had been locked away in hospital for several decades – longer, according to some accounts, than any other psychopathic patient in Canada.
As a teenager in the late 1950s, he killed three young children in Toronto, and molested many others.
He finally had been caught, arrested, tried, and ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity. The verdict saved him from either execution or prison, but kept him institutionalized for what ended up being the rest of his life (He died in the institution, of natural causes, earlier this year).
But if there was any doubt about the depth and durability of his murderous nature, it was put to rest in 1991, when officials – believing him to be a diminished threat after so many years – made the mistake of transferring him to a less secure facility in Brockville.
Given a day pass and placed in the custody of a former psychiatric patient, Woodcock took advantage of his first hours of freedom in almost 25 years to kill again, orchestrating the vicious murder of another patient in the institution.
By the time I met him, he was back under top security, warehoused in an institution with other dangerous psychopaths with no prospect of release.
By then, he was also a half-blind, overweight, poorly dressed, and otherwise non-descript old man – nobody’s stereotype of a monstrous killer.
I didn’t say much to Woodcock. I was there as a television producer overseeing the taping of an interview with him. He was of interest because of a book written about him that detailed his lengthy institutionalization and showed how the psychiatric treatment of psychopaths had changed dramatically over the decades.
I sat in a room with him for hours as he talked to the interviewer calmly, with obvious intelligence and in great detail – but completely matter-of-factly – about the gruesome acts he had committed.
It was a very disturbing experience for me, for the interviewer, and for the camera crew. As professional as we tried to be during the interview, we walked out of the institution feeling shell-shocked and emotionally drained.
It would have been easier to understand and digest, maybe, if Woodcock had been more of a stereotypical monster – a barking psychotic with an evil grin and a threatening demeanor.
Instead, he was a pale, lumpy old guy to whom you wouldn’t give a second look if you saw him on a bus or in a shopping mall.
When he spoke, he sounded less like a psychopath and more like a psychologist, talking with informed detachment about the motivations behind his horrible actions.
As if he was talking about someone else.
A few weeks ago, as I read, listened to, and watched the coverage of serial killer Russell Williams’ sentencing hearing in Belleville, I thought again about the spring morning I spent in Penetanguishene
For several days last month, Williams’ shocking crimes and perverse predilections dominated Canadian newscasts, newspapers and news websites.
The former decorated commander of Canadian Forces Base in Trenton ultimately received two life sentences for his murders, assaults, numerous break-and-enters and thefts of women’s underwear.
The Williams story raised a whole host of questions about a variety of topics: About the successes and limits of our justice system; About the rights and responsibilities of media when it comes to reporting disturbing stories; About the process of screening military personnel; and perhaps most disquieting of all, about the dark twists and turns of human psychology.
Unlike Woodcock, Williams pleaded guilty to his crimes and was not found to be legally insane. He will spend the rest of his days locked up in Kingston Penitentiary, rather than in a mental health centre.
But his bizarre double life – the unfathomable gap between the man who escorted cabinet ministers and the Queen and the predator who took two lives and violated countless others – made the case especially fascinating, perplexing and distressing.
It’s no surprise to know that some human beings are consumed by darkness and capable of monstrous deeds.
What’s unsettling is that those people can be so hard to spot in a crowd.