FIFTH ESTATE

Muskoka mystery: Missing senior killed to stop her from reporting 'mistreatment, neglect,' police said

Newly obtained police documents reveal additional details and shed further light on what police believe may have happened to four elderly people who mysteriously vanished two decades ago from a secluded area of Ontario's cottage country north of Toronto.

Documents reveal further insight into investigators’ theories around disappearances in late 1990s

Joan Lawrence, 77, went missing from this property on Siding Lake in late 1998. It was operated as a retirement facility by members of a local family named the Laans. (Lisa Mayor/CBC)

Police believed an elderly woman who disappeared in Ontario's cottage country two decades ago was killed to "prevent her from reporting frauds, thefts, mistreatment and neglect she was enduring" from her landlords, according to documents recently obtained by The Fifth Estate.

The Ontario Provincial Police documents, obtained in court by The Fifth Estate and the Walrus magazine, were part of a search warrant application filed in a homicide investigation into the disappearance of Joan Lawrence, a local woman known as The Cat Lady who went missing in Muskoka in the late 1990s.  

The documents show in detail investigators theories' about the 77-year-old's disappearance, which police believe took place between mid-October and mid-November 1998.

Lawrence was last seen in the fall of 1998. (OPP)

"I believe [Joan] Lawrence's death occurred to prevent her from reporting frauds, thefts, mistreatment and neglect she was enduring at the hands of [her landlords] David Laan and Ron Allen," OPP Det.-Const. Erin Burke wrote in the search warrant application.

The documents, which total more than 400 pages, describe the police investigation to date, including what was found in searches police carried out on the property where Lawrence was last known to have lived. That property, about 13 kilometres southwest of Huntsville, was owned by three members of the Laan family.

Early in 2017, The Fifth Estate and The Walrus magazine began the process in Ontario Court of Justice to obtain police documents related to the case. Of the pages the organizations received, almost two-thirds were redacted.

The Laans lawyer, Jeffrey Manishen, at that time argued that releasing the documents would "seriously impact" the "privacy and reputational interests of the Laans."

Now, after continuing the court battle to have the documents uncensored, The Fifth Estate and The Walrus were successful in having them released fully unredacted. 

Approached for comment multiple times by The Fifth Estate, members of the Laan family declined to comment.

The documents reveal new details from a police source who lived on the same property as Lawrence who told officers he saw a backhoe being operated after dark around the time she disappeared.

He also told police he heard the "sound of gunshots" around the last time he saw her in the fall of 1998.

During the investigation into the disappearance of Lawrence, police also discovered that three other seniors were missing from properties owned by the same family — John Semple, 90, John Crofts, 71, and Ralph (Doogie) Grant, 70.

The newly released documents include details about a gun found on the property from which Lawrence disappeared, along with insight into conditions of "care homes" run by the Laan family in the area and information about a forged signature on a tax cheque that police believe was the catalyst in Lawrence's disappearance.

Ralph (Doogie) Grant, left, John Crofts and John Semple were last seen in 1998 or 1999. (OPP)

Lawrence, known locally as The Cat Lady because she lived in a small, rundown garden shed with 30 or so cats, went missing from a home operated by the Laan family.

The documents show Lawrence told friends she was afraid of the Laans.

"She had stated that she did not trust them and to call the police if anything ever happened to her," the police documents from an interview with a friend say.

The affidavits, called information to obtain search warrant documents (ITOs), are written by police officers or detectives and are presented before a judge in an effort to obtain a search warrant. They contain everything from hearsay evidence to concrete facts in the investigation. The information contained in the documents has not been tested in court. 

Within the next five years after the documents were written, members of the Laan family were charged and convicted of stealing and defrauding pension and old age security cheques from some of the residents who lived at their properties, including three of the four who disappeared.

Police spent nearly three years searching for bodies, clues and answers, but none of the four have been seen since and none of their bodies have been found.

No charges have ever been laid in the disappearance of any of the four seniors. The OPP says the case remains open and declined to comment.

'Christian Retirement Homes'

The care homes were described in promotional material as "Christian Retirement Homes," with names like Cedar Pines and Fern Glen Manor.

They were run mostly by four members of the Laan family — David, Paul, Walter and Kathrine — and their uncle Ron Allen, who was a caretaker at one property.

Members of the Laan family pictured here, from left Kathrine, Walter, David, Paul and their uncle Ron Allen, were involved in the operation of questionable care homes in the Muskoka region north of Toronto. (Laan family blog)

Members of the Laan family recruited people from Toronto who were on the fringes of society and promised them a quiet life in Muskoka, with activities like bowling, woodwork and singsongs at their care homes.

"[Kathrine] would go to Toronto and find people who had no connection to any other people, really, and she would entice them and say, you know, I have a nice retirement home up north and it's a beautiful place," says former friend Alice Peddie, who knew Kathrine Laan when she was involved in the care homes.

The Fifth Estate spent months tracking down Kathrine Laan, in the end finding multiple names she'd used over the past several years and around a dozen addresses and phone numbers for her across the United States and Canada.

The Fifth Estate approached Kathrine, who now goes by Kathy or Katherine Smith, for comment near her home in Bracebridge. She said this was all "fake news."

Muskoka mystery: Fifth Estate host Bob McKeown approaches Kathrine Laan 0:38

Conditions in the homes also caught the attention of people in the community.

"My dogs have a better place to stay, like a neater, cleaner place to stay than where those people were," says local contractor Geoff Vander Kloet. He says Kathrine Laan asked him to do some work on one of the houses for her in the late 1990s.

"I was taken back by the condition of the place and the conditions that they had to live in," he said. "I thought to myself, if my grandfather was here, he'd be going in the truck with me right now."

One resident told police he thought he was in a psychiatric hospital because there were 14 people living in the house and only four were able to carry on a conversation. Ten of the residents were deaf.

Another resident told police he had no shower facilities and was told he'd be taken to Fern Glen to shower once a week. He was taken there around once a month, he said.

Contractor Geoff Vander Kloet knows the Laan family from his work in Muskoka. (Lisa Mayor/CBC)

A resident at Fern Glen Manor told police the Laans told him he was being taken from Seaton House, a homeless shelter in Toronto, to Richmond Hill. He ended up at Fern Glen in Utterson, almost 200 kilometres further north from Toronto than Richmond Hill.

Another resident of Fern Glen had broken his hip and wasn't mobile. While at Fern Glen, he said he spent all his time in bed. Detectives had to take him to hospital, where he was admitted because of his poor health.

Others reported having no access to bathroom facilities. An OPP detective who went to one property noted the septic system drained directly from the building onto the ground.

One of the first residents who spoke to police said he only had rice and pasta to eat and was paying $700 per month to live at Fern Glen.

Another resident said he was taken into town once in a while, but after a short time "he felt that it was useless to go into town because he didn't even have money for a cup of coffee."

According to people who knew Lawrence, members of the Laan family charged her more than $600 a month to live in this tiny shed. (Lisa Mayor/CBC)

The shed where Lawrence lived, according to police documents, "did not have toilet facilities, running water or electricity and was not insulated." They said Lawrence told them she paid $600 per month to rent the shed.

Forged signature

Lawrence went missing from a property owned by the Laans known locally as the "farm." Ron Allen was a caretaker there and David Laan was the landlord. This property wasn't directly connected to the other "care homes," but was used as a rooming property for renters.

Allen, along with his nephew David Laan, were the two main suspects in Lawrence's disappearance, according to the police documents.

Lawrence disappeared shortly after noticing a tax refund cheque she was expecting never came to her. When Lawrence realized she hadn't received the cheque, she had a friend who worked at a local law office look into it.

After Lawrence was reported missing, police began their search for evidence along the railroad tracks that cut through the Laan property. (Lisa Mayor/CBC)

That legal secretary told police that the cheque was endorsed with Lawrence's forged signature.

The documents show that Lawrence told a friend she confronted a person named "Ron" about it and he at first denied he forged her signature.

Lawrence told the friend that Allen later admitted to her that he had forged her signature and cashed the cheque.

That same friend told police that was the last time she spoke with or heard from Lawrence, whom she normally saw three times per week.

Dead cats

In mid-December 1998, police found the bodies of six of Lawrence's cats with bullets in them during a search of the property where Lawrence was last seen.

The documents show Allen told one detective he killed 10 to 15 of Lawrence's cats.

He initially said he scared them in to the bush or that people fishing in the lake adjacent to the property had killed them. He said later that he couldn't recall where he shot them or where they are now, but knew when he killed them.

Bank documents

According to the documents, a detective on the case also interviewed a pastor whom the Laans asked to go to Fern Glen to act as a witness as documents were signed by residents.

The pastor said he observed the forms were already completed and signed, which made him uncomfortable. The forms, he said, were to give the Laans permission to change residents' bank accounts and to have their cheques deposited directly.

The documents say he approached each resident and asked them if they understood what they had signed. He signed all but two of the forms.

Police spent almost two weeks searching the murky, tea-coloured waters of Siding Lake, a small lake adjacent to the property Lawrence disappeared from. (Lisa Mayor/CBC)

One resident told police he noticed that he wasn't receiving any of his cheques in the mail as he normally did, and that he didn't remember signing any documents allowing the Laans access to his money.

He told police there was a chance he did it while drunk, as the Laans often brought their residents — some recovering alcoholics — rye and beer to drink.

About the Author

Lisa Mayor

Investigative journalist

Lisa Mayor is an investigative journalist at The Fifth Estate, hailing from Thunder Bay, Ontario. She has recently reported on the disappearance of four elderly people from the Muskoka region of Ontario and how governments in Canada rely on gambling addicts for revenue. Lisa can be reached at lisa.mayor@cbc.ca.