When j-students cover a killer

Two second-year Loyalist College j-students, Trish Allison and Nicole
, on what they learned from covering the sentencing of
admitted rapist and murderer Russell Williams. Lesson one: dealing with

When second-year journalism students from Loyalist College were assigned to cover the Col. Russell Williams trial in Belleville court on Oct. 18, little did anyone know how events were going to unfold and the depth of depravity about to be made public. The j-school, located just blocks away from the court, was ideally positioned to report on details related to the murder of two women, Jessica Lloyd and Marie-France Comeau, along with more than 80 other criminal charges.

Loyalist’s j-school faculty realized quickly the serious nature of the statements being read before the courts. Newsroom editor Mike Beaudin was in constant contact with the students via text messaging letting them know they did not have to stay if it was too overwhelming. They made it clear they wanted to stay. Students met with a counsellor the next morning for an assessment. Any student in the journalism program was given priority over the week — whether they were directly involved or not — to access counselling services. For the rest of the week, the courtroom coverage was a voluntary assignment. Some students wanted to take part while others passed. Each morning a counsellor assessed the students. The college’s mental health nurse also came into the newsroom to give a detailed presentation on dealing with trauma. These are the personal reflections of two students, Trish Allison and Nicole Kleinsteuber, who were involved in the coverage.


As part of our journalism course, we were assigned to cover the first day of the Col. Russell Williams hearing in Belleville Superior Court on Oct. 18.
Trish’s responsibility was to email news updates in real time from inside the courtroom via BlackBerry, to be sent back to the newsroom’s managing editor, Mike Beaudin.

Nicole’s duty was to record the court proceeding and prepare a news briefs and a main news story at the end of the day.

We share mixed feelings about being a part of the one of biggest murder hearings to ever hit the country.

On one hand, it’s a once -in-a-lifetime opportunity. On the other hand, this experience came with some unexpected grave consequences.

We woke up Monday morning at 4 a.m. to ensure we would obtain seats in the courtroom. Arriving at 6 a.m., there was already a line of reporters, mostly from Toronto, waiting to get into the courthouse. We were told before entering that press passes were required if we wanted to use electronic devices in the courtroom.

At 7:30, all 35 reporters went through extensive screening, including metal detection, ID conformation and a bag check. A limited number of reserved seating was provided for the media inside the courtroom where the hearing was taking place, separate from the public and victim family members.

Within the first few minutes of being in the courtroom, a Belleville police officer informed the press that seating was not guaranteed after lunch and we would have to line up again to get back in. Many of the reporters took exception and fought it.  The dispute led to an agreement that would allow everyone who was screened back inside after lunch.

Once the hearing actually started it was a completely different ballgame.


October 18, 2010 was probably one of the most difficult days I’ve ever experienced. I’ve never had so many mixed feelings about one particular event. Before the hearing, I was absolutely filled with excitement.  Being a part of one of the biggest serial murder cases in Canada is a big deal for a student journalist. 

My excitement, however, comes hand-in-hand with guilt. People suffered. They were violated, and two women died for me to be able to sit in a courtroom and gain experience. That’s not something that rests lightly on my conscience.

There was even an intimidation factor. Standing before the metal detectors and being surrounded by seasoned reporters was highly intimidating. I had this feeling, as a student journalist, that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with them and would somehow get lost in the circus.

I wasn’t really sure how to prepare myself for what was about to happen. They don’t teach these kind of specifics in class. So instead of thinking about it, I just breathed. I opened up several blank documents on my smartphone in advance so I would be ready to start sending updates back to the newsroom.

But it was the moment Williams walked into the room that changed almost everything I felt.  Seeing him standing four rows in front of me sent shivers down my spine. It felt like there was an unnatural chill in the room — I even remember being cold and making a comment to Nicole about the temperature in the room.

His presence alone was enough to make me angry. But when the hearing actually began and they started presenting the photo evidence, I was all the more sickened, furious and uncomfortable looking at the photos.

The pictures of Williams kissing and licking a stained pair of underwear belonging to a 15-year-old girl disturbed me most. I knew this man was sick — but this was too much. I felt sick; I could feel my stomach turning. Those photos along with the other ones were embedded into my brain. I can’t forget them. No matter how hard I try, I will never forget them.

For almost five hours I glared into the back of Williams’ head. Every time they showed a crude photo, I wanted to punch him. I wanted to hurt him, just like he hurt all those people. Enraged, I sat there and continued to send updates nearly every minute. Even sending those, I felt awkward. It’s bad enough I had to hear what he did, but repeating it to someone else was hard.

When I was out of the courtroom and waiting to go home, I didn’t really feel traumatized or stressed. I felt like I do at the end of most days — tired and glad to be going home.

The day after the hearing was a slightly different story. 

Nicole and I had to speak with counsellor. Our teachers were worried about us and felt it was best to be able to speak to someone about our experience.

At first, I found it extremely awkward speaking to the counsellor. I didn’t know what to say because I still hadn’t processed my feelings.  She explained the feelings we may experience, or not experience, which was helpful. It gave me an idea of what to expect. 

Working through the day was hard. I was assigned a story on potholes as an municipal election issue. I was not overly impressed. I wanted nothing more than to be back at the courthouse following the hearing. I felt like I was becoming obsessed. During the day, I often found myself on the Toronto Star’s website or watching the one of the three televisions in our newsroom following the updates.

It wasn’t like I was checking every half hour or so; I was looking for updates every five minutes. I’m surprised I even got the pothole story done. I’m surprised I accomplished anything at all.

At one point, I was reading the Star’s description of both murders and the families’ reaction.  I could feel my heart break. I felt like crying — and not just a little sob, but full-out crying. 

The days to follow didn’t really get any easier.  My attention seems to always shift back to the hearing. Until it comes to an end, I don’t think I’ll be able to get my full attention back.

And as the days pass, I’m starting to see how I’m reacting to it.  Every day since I sat in that courtroom, I come to school more tired than the last. Whenever we talk about the hearing at our assignment meetings, I’m overcome with sadness and anger.  Any mention of the families brings tears to my eyes. Seeing Russell Williams’ face on TV makes me livid. I find myself muttering profanities and getting the urge to throw things at his face on the TV.  

The school and faculty are being really supportive. They understand the situation and the feelings that go along with it. They know what to say, and know how to comfort. Even being able to talk to my peers about the hearing makes the day better.


I woke up at 4 a.m. on Oct. 18 to ensure I would have a seat in court.  What I didn’t know is that the events that would soon unfold would help shape my perceptions on journalism and life.

I felt an adrenaline rush waiting for the former colonel to enter the courtroom and found myself sitting on the edge of my seat, not knowing what to expect.

When the victims’ families entered, I was flooded with remorse and guilt for the excitement I felt. I can’t imagine how difficult this day will be for them.

A silent chill filled the room as Williams entered. I instantly felt cold. My mind and body felt two separate emotions at once. It was frightening. His eyes panned over the room before a guard unlocked his handcuffs.  Afterward, Williams’ eyes made contact with nothing but the floor.

It took 40 minutes to read all of the charges. Even though the crown warned everyone the pictures would be graphic, nothing could prepare us for what we were about to see. There was a gasp of surprise from the public when the crown attorney laid five large books containing all of the photos Williams had taken throughout his break and enters.

I was shocked to learn Williams not only broke into people’s homes, but he took pictures of young girls’ bedrooms, their underwear drawers and the contents in it. I felt nauseous when the crown presented the first set of pictures, which displayed Williams wearing a 12-year-old girls’ underwear.

The day continued with extensive and repetitive presentations of Williams wearing and masturbating in young girls’ undergarments.

I’ve never felt this level of emotion all at once.  I was disgusted and angry with Williams for his actions and embarrassed for the Canadian Air Force. His evil brought shame to our military.

During the breaks, I worked with seasoned reporters to fill in the missing details for my main news story. There was a lot of information to take in, so it was easy to miss small details. I was proud to see all of the different media personnel working together.

I submitted a news brief at noon for QNet News, our course’s online newspaper.

I stayed until court adjourned at 5 p.m. It disturbed me when the judge allowed the public to view all of the photographs in the conference room. He permitted the media to release pictures from disks for publication.

I stayed after court to listen to Andy Lloyd, murder victim Jessica Lloyd’s brother, give his press conference about how he was experiencing the hearing. I felt horrible for Andy and sad that he lost his sister is such a brutal and inhumane manner. He explained how Williams is a broken man.  He wants Williams to know the families are angry at what he’s done.

It was exhausting. At the end of the day,  I went home and wrote the first draft of my news story while everything was still fresh in my memory.

The next morning, I was happy to be going to school instead of the courthouse.
I discussed my experiences during the morning news meeting.  I explained how Trish and I had witnessed a progression of Williams’ crimes leading to assaults and then murders. I told the class how appalling it was to see and hear what Williams’ had done to so many girls and women. I was angry he had committed these crimes for so long without being caught. I sympathized with the victims’. As a journalist, I felt a little intrusive: every time a new image was displayed in court, members of the press would watch the families to record their reactions.

After the news meeting, Trish and I spoke with a school counsellor about what had happened in court and how we felt about being there. She provided us with tools for coping with traumatic experiences.

The rest of the day I found it hard to concentrate. I enjoy journalism because I get to write about something different every day. This is an extreme scenario because one day I’m writing about an air force commander charged with first degree murder and the next day I’m writing about new jobs in Belleville.

I’m glad the school is being so supportive and understanding towards us. This is a learning experience I won’t soon forget. My peers at Loyalist covered this event all week as well. It was comforting for all of us to have one another to talk to throughout this. My friend and colleague Ashliegh Gehl wrote Globe and Mail senior reporter and columnist Christie Blatchford for advice on how to handle covering tragic events like this. Her response made me feel better about showing my emotions when reporting on major events like this.

I attended the press conference given by Lt. Gen. Andre Deschamps at CFB Trenton on Thursday. I haven’t been to the base since I was a teenager in Air Cadets. I was a little nervous and excited at the same time. I’m proud of the Air Force for their dedication and determination in removing Williams’ rank, medals and military benefits. I felt a sense of closure as I listened to Deschamps speak about how the Air Force is moving on, but they’ll keep Marie France Comeau and Jessica Lloyd’s families in their thoughts and prayers.

The Belleville community joined hands on Friday at a healing event to try to let go of the hurt and trauma Williams inflicted.  I wasn’t able to attend but it’s comforting to see everyone come to together and find the strength needed to move on.

In the end…

For us to be back to ourselves once this is done and people — and the media — have moved on might be hard. What we’ve been through is nothing compared to the victim’s families, but to us it was one hell of a ride.

We understand being journalists entails covering stories similar to this one and not everything we do is going to be sunshine and rainbows. But there are just times when you have to let your emotions run free. And though we felt so much sadness and anger, neither of us regrets stepping into that courtroom.

Trish Allison and Nicole
Kleinsteuber are second-year j-students at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario.