Muskoka mystery: Family linked to disappearance of seniors fights release of police documents
Members of Laan family oppose release of information to the public
Members of the family who were the focus of a recent Fifth Estate investigation into the disappearance of four seniors in Ontario's Muskoka region are fighting the release of additional information from police documents that were obtained earlier this year.
A lawyer for members of the Laan family, who were the subject of a joint investigation by CBC's The Fifth Estate and The Walrus Magazine into a cold case dating to the late 1990s, has filed a court document opposing the release.
Earlier this year, The Fifth Estate and The Walrus magazine began the process in Ontario Court of Justice to obtain police documents related to the case. Of more than 400 pages the organizations received, almost two-thirds was redacted.
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Now, the two organizations are back in court, fighting to have those redactions lifted.
In the document filed by the Laans in mid-September objecting to this information being made public, lawyer Jeffrey Manishen says that releasing the documents would "seriously impact" the "privacy and reputational interests of the Laans."
Manishen also criticizes the "cynical tone" of The Fifth Estate co-host Bob McKeown and the "highly sensationalized" use of re-enactment footage of an underwater search in the Fifth Estate's documentary broadcast in mid-September.
'Orders should be maintained'
"It is the position of the respondents that the sealing orders should be maintained until the police investigation is closed or, alternatively, any trial proceedings arising from the death of Joan Lawrence have been completed," the document filed by Manishen says.
Because no charges have been laid, a trial is not foreseeable in this case.
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In late 1998, Joan Lawrence, a woman known locally as the "Cat Lady," disappeared outside Huntsville. She had been living in a garden shed she rented from David Laan and his uncle Ron Allen.
Shortly after her disappearance, police discovered three residents living at retirement homes run by the Laans had disappeared.
In the latter three cases, members of the Laan family were charged and convicted of stealing old age security and Canada Pension Plan cheques from the residents. Some of this occurred after some of the residents disappeared.
No charges have been laid in any of the disappearances.
The Fifth Estate is fighting in court for the release of what are called information to obtain search warrant documents (ITO) that outline the police investigation into Lawrence's disappearance.
In a document filed in court on behalf of The Fifth Estate and The Walrus magazine, the organizations argue that the material is imperative to the administration of justice and the public's knowledge of the case.
'Significant public interest'
"Without access to the sealed material, the public's knowledge concerning the disappearance of Ms. Lawrence will be restricted," the document says.
"The public deserves to have a better understanding of what happened through access to presumptively open court materials. It is through this kind of investigative journalism that the strengths and weaknesses of our justice system are brought to light. These are matters of significant public interest and public importance."
While much of the information in the documents The Fifth Estate obtained was redacted, two names appeared on the sealing orders of two of the ITOs as people police thought may have been responsible for the first-degree murder of Lawrence — David Laan and Ron Allen.
In this homicide case, there were seven search warrants obtained by police, including one to search the property owned by the Laan family where Lawrence disappeared and the small body of water adjacent to the property known as Siding Lake.
ITOs are written by police officers or detectives and are presented before a judge in an effort to obtain a search warrant. They outline, often in great detail, the investigation to date, including interviews with witnesses and any information police have obtained in the investigation. They contain everything from hearsay evidence to concrete facts in the investigation.
ITOs, by definition, are sealed documents until someone from the public — including media organizations and journalists -- goes to court asking for them to be unsealed.
The Fifth Estate is back in court later in October to attempt to obtain more information.