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Smarter than you: the confrontational life and mysterious death of Art Williams

Walking the hidden passageways of the past with Vancouver Island's forgotten drug lord
Art Williams was originally known for his bows

Reprinted and abridged from an article by Julie MacLellan, originally published in the Sept. 10, 1996 edition of the Ladysmith Chronicle.

The slight young man in the faded Second World War photographs could be almost any English lad who had signed up to fight for his country.

His faint half-smile reveals little about what lies behind his dark eyes. His rocky relationship with the tax collectors and the police was years in the future.

He had yet to disappear in a plane crash the apparently sent him, and his Cessna, into the waters off Vancouver. His wife had not yet vanished mysteriously from her Ladysmith home. That home had yet to burn down in unexplained circumstances.

The world had no inkling that young man would become one of the most fascinating and mysterious figures in the history of Vancouver Island. No one knew then, that 20 years later, people would still be asking the same puzzling question:

Whatever happened to Art Williams?

It was 1923 in Somerset England. A young couple welcomed their first son into the world.

They called him Arthur James.

His father was strict. His mother died young. His childhood seemed unhappy under the dour eyes of his grandparents. Younger sister Gladys Little and many others recall him as keenly intelligent, but he left school at 14.

When the Second World War came, he lied about his age to sign up at 17. Little is unsure whether some of the stories circulating about her brother’s war years are true — whether he was a paratrooper, for instance, or whether he was in a German prisoner-of-war camp. But she does remember he received a medal for courageous service after being wounded and sent home.

He emigrated to Canada, worked as a logger in New Brunswick and Edmonton — where he acquired a wife named Margaret McDonald — and eventually settled in Ladysmith, where he started producing bows and arrows that gained a reputation as among the finest in the nation.

Along with a production factory, Williams ran an indoor archery range and a walking archery course. But he wasn’t destined for prolonged success as an archer.

His businesses were soon in trouble.

And so was he.

The Rebel

The iconoclastic streak that was to characterize Williams’ entire adult life was first exposed during a refusal to pay his taxes. He wrote a manifesto titled a “Declaration of Economic Warfare on the Government of Canada,” espousing his anti-tax stance.

article“He was going to be the big man and change things; that’s just the way he was,” explained former Ladysmith RCMP commander Ken Sutherland, who knew Williams well in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Periodically, federal and provincial government workers went to Williams to collect taxes owed. The man who greeted them was loud and threatening. On one occasion, when collectors arrived to look at his books, Williams told them to feel free.

“He pointed to a pile of ashes on the ground and said, ‘Go ahead, there they are.’ ” Sutherland recalled, shaking his head. “He had burned them. He wasn’t going to be paying any more taxes, and I don’t think he ever did.”

Williams’ business went bankrupt. His shop was closed. His property was seized by the courts. Some of the seized goods mysteriously disappeared and were later found in the bush behind his shop. Williams was accused of theft. He was never convicted, but that episode marked the beginning of what soon became a rocky relationship with the police.

“After that he became totally anti-establishment,” recalled former RCMP Staff Sgt. Bob Hawkes, then head of the Victoria drug squad.

“He liked to cause a problem. If he could cause a problem with a policeman, he wouldn’t hesitate to do it,” Sutherland said with a chuckle.

His issues weren’t just with authority. His personal relationships were often a matter for conversation as well. He separated from Margaret, who was devastated, and moved into a duplex on his property with his girlfriend, Shirley Ferguson. Margaret lived on the same property, in a nearby log cabin.

What Williams thought of the whole situation, only he knew. No one ever really grew close enough to him to find out.

“He knew a lot of people, but you couldn’t say he had a lot of friends,” Sutherland said.

There was one defining observation most people shared, however: the man was exceptionally intelligent.

In the end, though, that brilliance would lead Williams astray. His mind concocted a new challenge: Could he manufacture drugs, sell them, and get away with it?

The Drug Lord

It was the mid-1960s when the BC RCMP first began to spot signs of a large-scale MDA operation. Large quantities of methylenedioxy amphetamine — a psychedelic  — were circulating in Western Canada and the United States.

At the time, Williams was becoming known for his work with the Institute of Mycology. From a laboratory on his Ladysmith property, he carried out government-funded mushroom research. But police soon began to suspect he was studying more than fungus.

In late 1973, they raided another laboratory near Ladysmith on a property owned by a man named Dale Elliot. Both Williams and Elliot were arrested. Elliot was convicted, but charges against Williams were dismissed.

The MDA scene grew quiet immediately after the arrest, but by the next year the drug started to circulate again. By then, Williams had bought a plane and learned to fly. He was making frequent trips to the mainland, and police suspected he was transporting MDA.

Using an informant, the RCMP were able to buy large quantities of of the drug. But Williams, ever watchful, was never directly involved in the transactions. He sent middlemen to do work. MDA seizures from around Western Canada were made and their gelatin caps traced back to Williams.

But the RCMP needed more: a lab. In February, 1977, they discovered one underground on Mount Brenton, west of Chemainus, near a mining claim owned by Williams. Williams became agitated by a hiker’s presence. The hiker, recognizing him, tipped off the police.

They did frequent sweeps of the area. Frustrated by the failing search, one officer smacked at the ground with a stick — and discovered a hidden, narrow passageway.

Police opted to come back and install a bug, hoping for evidence that Williams was, indeed, working there. They left the electronic supplies needed to plant the bug hidden in the bush. But when they returned, Williams had been too fast for them. Their equipment was gone. The lab had been dynamited.

“He was not dumb enough to try and salvage anything.” Sutherland said.

In fact, Williams was growing entertained by the RCMP’s unsuccessful efforts to catch him.

“I remember he was getting a big kick out of the fact that he thought that the police had bugged his telephone,” Little said. “He was saying these foolish things. He thought it was a great joke.”

Evidence from the phone taps were not enough. Finally, frustrated investigators decided to arrest Williams and take their chances. It was August 16, 1977.

Police arrested him on charges of trafficking in MDA, conspiracy to traffic MDA and possession for the purpose of trafficking. They took him into custody and searched his property. They had been long suspicious of a new building — dubbed “The Barn” — that Williams had been building behind his home. In The Barn, they found what they were looking for.

Williams had set up a wine cellar on a series of shelves. When an investigator pulled on the shelves, half of them swung away from the wall on hidden hinges. Behind was a three-foot square safe door. Upstairs in Williams’ mycology workshop, searchers found a tool that fit the door. It opened into a secret chimney with a round submarine-style hatch at the top. Police opened the hatch.

“When we climbed up, there was a very elaborate laboratory set up at the top,” Hawkes says.

The moment of triumph initially fell flat. There was no MDA in the room.

But the tables had turned on Williams. The RCMP lab identified splashed of MDA on the walls, counter and equipment in the room.

It was enough.

The Fall

When Williams was arrested, it was the end of what was, at the time, the biggest drug investigation of its type ever seen in Western Canada or the States.

soldierAfter a preliminary hearing in October 1977, he was ordered to stand trial. He was facing a maximum 10-year sentence — relatively light, since MDA was an offence against the Food and Drug Act, and not the Narcotic Control Act. He was released on $10,000 bail.

Then, on Nov. 30, the whole investigation came to an abrupt halt. Williams had flown to Vancouver to see his lawyer, piloting his own orange-and-white Cessna. It was a foggy, windy night when he took off from Vancouver Airport at 9:30 p.m. bound for Nanaimo airport.

He never arrived.

Hawkes heard the tapes the control tower made of their last conversation with Williams. He had declared an emergency shortly after takeoff, saying he got caught in the clouds and couldn’t see. Still new to flying at night, and unused to finding direction by instruments, he turned too sharply and began to lose altitude.

He was stuck in a death spiral down to the water.

“He was screaming at the tower that he was out of control.” Hawkes said. “They were telling him to take his hands off the controls.”

His aircraft might have righted itself if he had let go of the controls. But he didn’t.

“They say it hit the water,” Hawkes said. “He wouldn’t have had time to get out.”

Searchers sent out the hydrofoil that night, and found some debris on the water. More was caught in the current and swept away. Eventually, some floated to shore about four miles south of Campbell River. A serial number was on part of the flotsam, but no body was ever found.

“There’s no doubt it was his aircraft,” Hawkes said. “There’s no doubt he went down.”

Sutherland isn’t so sure. He believes Williams could easily have faked the messages heard by the control tower and planned to parachute out all along.

“Do I think he was killed in an aircraft accident? No,” Sutherland said emphatically.”It was too good to have happened to Art Williams,”

While Williams reported he was flying at 1,000 feet, his actual altitude was more like 2,500 feet — a safe parachuting distance.

“The stuff that was found could have been thrown out,” Sutherland said. “There wasn’t anything found that would indicate a plane crash. He likely jettisoned the stuff.”

Shortly before he died, Williams is known to have moved large sums of money out of the country to South America. Could he have staged his disappearance, and fled the country?

“That would be Art Williams, he was capable of doing that,” Sutherland said.

Hawkes and Little have heard all the speculation. Neither was swayed.

“It’s more fun for people to think he’s still alive somewhere,” Hawkes said with a laugh.

“That’s really ludicrous,” Little echoed. “There’s so many silly speculations. I don’t there’s any doubt that plane went down.”

Little has been over every detail of the crash many times. She said parachuting out of a plane over open water wouldn’t have been her brother’s chosen method of disappearance.

“He didn’t swim,” she said. “He was an intelligent man. If he was trying to escape, I think he would have found a better way than to risk his life,”

The only mystery in her mind is why Art was flying that night at all.

“He didn’t like flying at night,” she said. “I’m really at a loss as to why he would fly that night if there was any question whatsoever.”

Sometimes she wonders if the plane had been tampered with.

“I always knew him to be very, very careful of his own safety.”

The Fire

Having trouble settling her ex-husband’s estate, Margaret Williams applied to have him declared dead in the absence of a body.

By then, Shirley Ferguson had faded quietly out of the limelight. If she know more about Art Williams’ disappearance, she never came forward to reveal it. On April 20, 1978, Arthur James Williams was officially pronounced deceased.

Margaret Williams disappeared slightly less than a year later, on March 5, 1979.

Her clothes were still in her south Ladysmith home and there was food in the refrigerator. A substantial amount of cash — more than $50,000 — was later found on the property.

“That to me is a total mystery,” Little said.

She is adamant Margaret did not go to join her ex-husband somewhere. She has three theories: Margaret could have been forced to leave; she could have left willingly, with someone she knew and trusted; or her disappearance could have been connected to a remnant of Art’s past dealings.

She does not believe Margaret committed suicide.

No one has heard a word from Margaret Williams since that day. Where she went, and why, remains a mystery.

Sutherland doesn’t think Margaret’s disappearance was directly related to Art’s and he suggested foul play may have been involved.

“From what I knew of them, I doubt she would have gone to join him,” he said. “There isn’t as much chance that she’s still alive and well as there was with Art.”

He will not elaborate; even today, the case is still open. Hawkes will not discuss details, either. But he will say that police had some strong suspects.

“Let’s just say there are a few people that wouldn’t take a lie detector test,” he said.

Since Margaret’s disappearance, a third mystery had cropped up to add fuel to the fire of speculation. In 1981, two fires destroyed buildings on the property. One damaged Margaret Williams’ former log cabin. A second burned Williams’ duplex, the cabin, and the old laboratory to the ground.

The fires happened shortly after the new owner of the property announced he was planning to make a movie about Williams’ life. Before the fires, he had received a few anonymous threatening calls telling him to stay out of Williams’ business.

Sutherland said the fire is still “very suspicious.”

To this day, he has no answers and doesn’t think the mysteries surrounding Art Williams life will ever be resolved to his satisfaction.

“If anything was likely to come up, it would have come up by now,” he said.

The Memory

Over the years, Little has wondered what could have steered her brother into such deep waters. Certainly, she said, it was not greed.

Cover teaserHis duplex was simple; the log cabin he housed Margaret in was equally plain. He didn’t own many possessions, besides his property and his airplane. Even the latter wasn’t owned outright.

“If he was into this drug business, I cant believe it was for the money.” Little said. “Whatever he did was more for a challenge to his ingenuity.”

Today, Art and Margaret would be in their 70s.

Even if one — or both — lived to tell the tale of their disappearance, time could, by now, have caught up with them. It is highly unlikely either will ever return to Ladysmith to solve the mystery.

Little thinks her brother would probably be amused by the speculation surrounding his life and death.

“That at least would please him,” she said. “If nothing else, he would be happy to know that he’s got people just baffled.”

In the nearly two decades since his disappearance, Little has had time to ponder the “what-ifs” of her brothers life.

“I often wished that that he had channeled his intelligence into something more useful,” she said quietly. “I’m really rather sad to think of it. He really could have done so much.”

What could have become of her brother in a different lifetime?

The dark eyes in the faded photograph provide no answer.

Whatever secrets they conceal have long since vanished — as perfectly, as completely, and as mysteriously as Arthur James Williams himself.

In the 20 years since this article was originally published, there have been no breakthroughs in the Williams investigation. Other media reports suggest that at its peak, Williams’ production line could churn out 22,000 capsules of MDA in 24 hours, and that he was making drug transactions for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some remnants of the infamous Barn remain on the Westdowne Road property south of Ladysmith. Julie MacLellan now works as the assistant editor and arts editor of Burnaby NOW/The Record. Follow her on Twitter @juliemaclellan