Over the years there has not been much scandal or crime in Ladysmith. However, one of the strangest and still unsolved mysteries surrounds Arthur James Williams. The legendary “Wizard of Ladysmith”.
The story starts with the immigration of a slim, slightly built man emigrating from England at the end of World War Two. Eventually he settled on Westdowne Road just south of Ladysmith. A highly intelligent individual he designed an archery bow that bore his name. He made and sold them all over the world for about 20 years. The business went bankrupt in 1969. He was never one of the favourite characters with local police. His political views were public record. He made no bones of the fact that the Prime Minister of the time, Pierre Trudeau, was not his ideal as the leader of our country. In fact he declared a sort of “economic war” on him when the tax man started checking is returns, or lack of them.
For a number of years he was linked to the local motorcycle gang and their activities, but the real interest in his activities had to do with his “BC Institute of Mycology. This foundation was set up by Williams, with a considerable grant from the Government to do research on the cultivation of mushrooms. He built a considerable home; a duplex, barn and many out buildings. The extent of the site was eventually going to be the strangest part of the whole story.
In 1972 Art Williams came under the microscope of the US Bureau of Drugs and Narcotics in Detroit Michigan. They were looking into the illegal manufacture of MDA (methylenedioxyamphetamine), the drug of choice on the West Coast. They began by tracking the purchase of one of the key ingredients of this drug. An associate of Williams, Dale Elliott, had known links to the biker gangs and through them to the drug trade on the West Coast. When poor batches of MDA started showing up in Victoria police started looking for the sources. They never proved anything, but the biker gangs, Elliott and eventually Williams came under scrutiny. When a large shipment of isosaferole (one of the key ingredients) was spotted they traced it across the border to Williams Mycological Institute. Thus began one of the strangest most expensive investigations into Williams and his Institute.
The timing of the shipment was 9 days after the incorporation of The Institute. William’s name popped up immediately. The shipment was secretly marked in the hopes that Williams or Elliott could be caught using it for the manufacture of MDA. At first the investigation was intermittent due to the pressures of other higher profile investigations. But eventually it was ramped up to consume thousands of dollars and man hours over a period of 5 years. During all this time Williams knew he was being watched. What resulted from this was the construction of the strangest fortresses in Ladysmith.
Williams had a penchant for invention. That was proven out by his archery bow. But the police had no idea of the extent of his talent. For 5 years they watched his property. They bugged his phone, read his mail and followed his every move. But it took an un-named informant to close the trap. MDA needed gelatin capsules and the police had managed to virtually dry up the supply. When the informant approached Williams with an offer of a supply he was immediately accepted into his confidence. What Williams did not know was that the capsules were being supplied by the RCMP and each of them was secretly marked with a special dye.
As well Williams had a pilot’s license and his own plane. The informant led the police to the Delta airport where he had arranged to meet Elliott and Williams to purchase a shipment of MDA. The informant paid $4500 of money supplied by the RCMP for the shipment. The main purpose of their investigation at this point was to find the location of the laboratory making the MDA. They had a strong suspicion that Williams was making the MDA, they just did not know where. The phone taps were producing useful information, but time was running out. It was now time to close the trap. The informant had left the area and the investigation was at a critical point.
Charges were prepared against Williams and Elliott and teams were formed for simultaneous raids on their property. A third individual, Raymond Ridge had been identified, and he too was involved in the raids. Elliott was not at home in Duncan, and in fact he eluded capture for a further 18 months. Ridge was arrested at his home in Ladysmith. By a stroke of luck police found the back door of William’s duplex unlocked. Williams, his common-law wife and her two children were asleep. Williams’ estranged wife lived in a log cabin on the same property. When the police stormed in Williams appeared totally naked and started screaming obscenities at the officers. He kept up the pace for a whole half hour while the police searched.
What began then was the strangest revelation of Williams operation. The police were already wary of booby traps as two other suspected laboratories Williams constructed had been destroyed. They found ramps and staircases with counter weights and winches. One led by a roof top walkway to a laboratory and 2 bedroom apartment. The doors were 2 ½” thick, protected by locks which no one had ever seen. If they had not found just as weird a key they might still be trying to break in! The laboratory they found was as modern and well equipped as anything of the day. Air and water was filtered. Heat was thermostatically controlled. Lights had ultra-violet filters. He even had an electron microscope supposedly valued at $72,000. Further investigation revealed spring loaded ladders, a narrow shaft led to a storage area. But no manufacturing facility.
A chance investigation revealed the shelves to have double sides. When tugged they swung back to reveal a solid steel door with two round keyholes. All the time that the place was being searched the police were on the lookout of bomb booby traps. Fortunately, none were found, but it made for quite a stressful search. The locks had to be opened, but all that could be found were a couple of strange tools that fit the holes. Neither of them would open the door. Finally they tried turning them both together, and as if by magic the door unlocked. The door revealed a vertical steel culvert with foot grips driven into the side. The top had a metal hatch, which when opened led into a 10 foot square concrete room. The MDA manufacturing facility had finally been found. This room was as well equipped as the laboratory. But it had some strange features. All the water, electrical and air ducts led through concealed conduits to the second floor. In the floor was a 3 foot sump culvert that one could crawl through. It came out at a dry creek bed some 50 meters away. No drugs were in production, but police found traces of MDA in water splashing above the sink. The evidence was conclusive. Now the police had enough evidence to charge the gang.The investigation had been long, expensive and painful for many people. Police bugged Williams shed and installed the receiver in a neighbor’s property. This bug resulted in a raid and the arrest of 3 youths. Ironically they were arrested on suspicion of killing Robert Ferguson the uncle of Williams’s common law wife. Williams found the bug, called the neighbor and told him that he had found “his bug”. He started a campaign of harassment at that point. The campaign of harassment by Williams caused the neighbor to have to sell the property. The police had never attempted a bugging before this time and the evidence gathered was of little use. The youths did however get convicted of Manslaughter. But, with the discovery of the laboratory and facilities the police finally had enough evidence to actually charge the gang. With the exception of Elliott who was still hiding out Williams and Ridge were out on bail in two weeks. Police virtually destroyed the property looking for evidence.
Now comes the first twist in the trial against Williams and his associates. Because Williams had his own plane he flew to and from Vancouver to see his lawyer. He had bought some property in the South Wellington area in 1972. This was supposed to be the location of his Mycological Foundation. His neighbors, the Plecas family recall he was a friendly fellow and chatted about going into farming. On November 30, 1977 Williams’s plane supposedly crashed on his return with a meeting with his lawyer. Prior to the crash he reported that he was having trouble. Even though he hated flying at night it was dark and his reported height was 2500 feet. He had said he would be flying at 1000 feet in his flight plan. Not only was the trial on his drug business on his mind, but the tax man was after him as well. He was not certified to fly by instruments and the plane was known to have trouble with the instrument that shows the attitude (direction up and down) of the plane. So, when the plane crashed the inquiry recorded that Williams had died in the crash. Ever since then the world has speculated that at that height he had parachuted from the plane and set up the crash. Even though he was a terrible swimmer and hated the water…
Ridge was convicted of trafficking. He was sentenced to over 5 years, but an appeal and an order for a new trial on the charge of Conspiracy resulted in him only serving less than a year.
Elliott was arrested on a boat in the Lynnwood Marina in 1979. He had grown a beard to disguise his face. He was in the process of setting up a drug lab in N. Vancouver’s Deep Cove area. In order to protect his girlfriend and drop other charges he led them to his lab. He might have succeeded with it if his benefactor, Williams, had not died and stopped the flow of funds. Police locked him up. The next morning they found Elliott, without a beard. Overnight he had pulled the beard out hair by hair. When asked why he responded, “I didn’t need it anymore”.
The story does not end here however. Williams left behind a wife and considerable property. On March 7, 1979 Margaret Catherine Williams, Art’s wife disappeared. Her personal belongings were still in the house, but there was no sign of her. Several months later she was declared missing and Lawyer Peter Ramsey was appointed as curator of the estate. Within 2 years the property was put up for sale. It was advertised as a virtual fortress with all its concealed doors and tunnels. The new owners, Ken and Nancy Heal set it up as an attraction and charged admission for tours. It was a legend in the area and a considerable tourist attraction. A film crew came up from Hollywood to do a movie based upon Williams’s life as “The Mad Archer of Ladysmith”. The writers stayed for a very short time living in the house. They could not stay; they both complained of being “spooked” by the place, Heal had plans to use this film as the start of a film production company. The house, barn and all the buildings were to be restored for the film. At the conclusion of filming the buildings, with the exception of the barn, were to be torn down and a film studio built in its place. Heal approached the BC Film Board and was laughed out of the office. The specter of Williams continued to haunt the place. Strange phone calls from folk claiming to be workers of Williams, who they claimed was still alive, called at all times of the day and night. Eventually the Heals separated, Mrs. Heal moved to Nanaimo. On April 1st, 7:55 in the evening flames were spotted coming from the house. Two men were spotted leaving with what looked like gasoline cans. Ken Heal said he left the property at 6:40 pm. Even though the men had been seen by the firemen no investigation or arrest were made. It seemed the final page had been written on the place and it seemed that folk were more than glad the whole thing was done with. The barn and fortress remained. Finally at 11:30 am Thursday November 19, 1981 the remaining buildings burned to the ground. The fire had started in two separate areas, so once again arson was suspected. The neighbors polled were glad it was gone; they were tired of living next to it. A lot of William’s old associates were being released from jail, so once again speculation was rampant about what actually happened.But, the mystery remains. Did Williams arrange his so called death? What happened to Williams’s wife? Who torched the property? Was there treasure to be found on the property (a cache of over $75,000 had been found by police)? For years the Heals pursued the legend. But, nobody has come up with an answer.
Contributed by Thomas Wagner, January 2007