Hamilton Spectator

Aug. 23, 2002. 12:55 AM

Argument over kids preceded shooting

By Bill Dunphy
The Hamilton Spectator

Hamilton Spectator File Photo
Police gather video evidence at the scene of a shooting in Dundas Wednesday that left Russell Bailey dead.

Historians talk about "the fog of war" to describe the trouble they have ascertaining exactly what happens in those bloody moments when nation sets upon nation with murderous intent.

Surely the same must be said of murder -- facts fade into a fog of grief and shock and anger that can take days or weeks to lift. If it ever does.

The reasons for Wednesday's front-porch shooting of Russell Bailey, a twice-married father of four, are still shrouded in uncertainty and speculation.

Police have charged his ex-wife, Ruth-Anne Willis, with first degree murder, and say a simmering argument over access to their children boiled over into an angry confrontation that ended with Bailey shot dead on the steps of his Dundas home.

Two days of interviews with neighbours, friends, police, and family, and an examination of the couple's divorce and custody battle documents in the Milton courthouse leave almost as many questions as answers.

Ruth-Anne Willis

There's little on the record that would suggest any reason either of them would resort to such extreme violence.

What is certain is that Willis appeared briefly before Justice of the peace Cathy Woron at Hamilton's John Sopinka courthouse yesterday and was remanded in custody.

The 39-year-old pet food store owner looked calm, but tired, rubbing her eyes and then standing quietly in the prisoner's dock as her case was put over until Aug. 29.

But the calm may be deceiving. Prison officials clad Willis in a special white jumpsuit issued to prisoners considered a suicide risk.

Ruth-Anne Willis grew up in Milton, one of Don Pelz's two daughters.

One married a Metro Toronto Police officer, (they've also since divorced).

Ruth-Anne Pelz, said a friend of Bailey, had wanted to be a police officer.

Instead, at 19, she married Russell George Bailey, a solidly-built young man from a well-to-do family with business interests that stretched throughout North America and as far afield as China.

Two children came to the couple in the first six years of their marriage and they lived in a number of homes in the Oakville, Burlington, Milton triangle.

Something went wrong and the couple separated in April 1992 with Ruth-Anne filing for divorce five months later.

Her father, still living in Milton where he's twice vied unsuccessfully for public office, says the marriage collapsed. There are differing version of what went wrong, depending on who one talks to.

"She divorced from him because of brutality," Pelz told a reporter.

Pelz says she stayed at a women's shelter for three to four months after leaving him 10 years ago and claims Bailey harassed her repeatedly over the ensuing decade about access to the children.

Bailey's family, reached at the parents' Oakville home, declined to speak to reporters yesterday, and messages left for his father, Rex Bailey and brothers at two of the family businesses, were not returned.

But a childhood friend of Bailey's disagreed with Pelz.

"Abusive? No, no. I've never known him to be abusive toward anyone, let alone women," Scott Karrys, plant manager in Whitby, said yesterday. "Rusty treated women with the utmost respect."

And the few court documents not yet archived offer only the slightest hint of rancour in their separation -- it took a full four years before the divorce was finalized, suggesting a degree of legal jousting not reflected in the polite legal language of access and visitation rights.

Still, Karrys remembers the divorce as "unfortunately bitter."

The divorce files available show that, in the end, the couple arrived at what appears to be a very amicable agreement, providing Ruth-Anne with full custody of the children while granting her ex-husband ample access, including every other weekend, some weeknights, three complete weeks in the summer and alternating holidays.

Child support (totalling $1,100 a month) and a civilized dispute resolution process are included in the divorce files.

It's hard to know whom to believe -- family, friends, or the sworn affidavits on file with the court.

"He was cordial, loving and laughing, always joking," Karrys said. "This whole thing is a shock."

Both of them re-married -- he to a woman with two children of her own, and she to Glenn Willis, whose name she took after marrying him.

Bailey and his new wife had two more children together, the Willises at least one other child.

For a time, the two daughters of Ruth-Anne Willis and Russell Bailey appeared to enjoy the parenting of both their biological parents.

However, something appears to have gone wrong not too long ago and the matter ended up in court again.

What's available now is only Bailey's version of events, since Willis didn't respond in court.

However, in an affidavit sworn by Bailey almost exactly one year to the day before he was murdered, Bailey said that he began having trouble seeing his daughters after Willis re-married.

Bailey swore that Willis, "has attempted to deny access on a number of occasions and intervention has been required by way of police assistance."

Last August, Bailey says he learned that Willis was planning to move to Prince Edward Island with their two children and her new husband.

And so, on Aug. 23, 2001, Bailey mounted the concrete steps of the Milton courthouse to do battle with his ex-wife.

Ruth-Anne Willis didn't show that day, but Russell Bailey still failed in his attempt to prevent her moving to Prince Edward Island with their two teenage children.

He did win a partial victory: a court order granting him access to his daughters, "according to the children's wishes."

In his court filings, Bailey insisted that his children's wish was to stay with him.

It's unclear whether they did, but from what Karrys said, it's likely they moved with their mother to Prince Edward island.

Karrys says the last time he spoke to Bailey -- a long evening ramble at the Bailey family's Bala cottage last summer -- Bailey spoke of his sadness and frustration at his children being so far away from him.

But something happened recently, because Pelz insists that Bailey was somehow denying Willis access to her youngest daughter.

In fact, Pelz told a reporter on Wednesday that Willis left his home where she was staying and went that morning to Bailey's Watson Lane home to look for their 14-year-old daughter.

"She had full custody" of the kids, he said. "He wouldn't let them go."

She did not succeed in getting her daughter.

Instead, a fight ensued, a fight loud enough to get worried neighbours calling the police.

Shots were heard and Bailey lay dying while his current wife wailed beside him.

Willis was arrested in Burlington an hour after the shooting after police surrounded her red company truck on Dundas Street.

They say they found a handgun inside the truck. Hamilton Police spokesman Maggie McKittrick said the police believe they know the gun's origin, but would only say that it was not at Bailey's home before he was shot.

Late yesterday afternoon, Willis's father spoke briefly with a reporter about his hopes of visiting his daughter in jail but cut the call short, saying, "I've got about 20 policemen going through my house right now."

-- With files from John Burman, Lori Fazari, and Christine Cox, The Hamilton Spectator

You can reach Bill Dunphy at bdunphy@hamiltonspectator.com or at 905-526-3262.

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