'Don't mess with us': Family of the 'Cat Lady' seeks justice in Muskoka mystery of missing seniors
Joan Lawrence’s relatives hope to learn what happened after her disappearance in late ’90s
When an isolated 77-year-old vanished from Huntsville in 1998, the Ontario Provincial Police couldn't locate any next of kin. Joan Lawrence, the so-called "Cat Lady," lived a hermitic life, spending her pension on cat food and an eight-by-ten-foot, $600-a-month shed.
More than two decades later, CBC Podcasts has found Lawrence's family.
"I felt angry, I felt upset," said Sherry Churchill, Lawrence's first cousin once removed. "I just looked at that shack she lived in.… If anyone in the family had known about that, we'd have come in there with shotguns, probably."
Lawrence wasn't the only one to go missing at that time in Ontario's cottage country. Three other seniors — John Semple, 90, John Crofts, 71, and Ralph Grant, 70 — also disappeared. (The OPP now say they were homicide victims). Despite multiple stories in the media, little about Lawrence's life has been previously reported.
The breakthrough happened on Nov. 4, 2019, when researcher Laura Beacom — who was featured on Uncover: The Cat Lady Case — was studying Lawrence's family tree on Ancestry.com.
She noticed Churchill's profile. Out of curiosity, she clicked.
"I started going through her tree … and discovered it was all connected," Beacom said. "She was related to Joan."
Churchill, 68, is a generation removed from Lawrence. Her mother, Virginia Hunter, was Lawrence's first cousin. (Hunter died in 2016.) Even so, Churchill heard stories about Lawrence growing up, including from her grandmother, Agnes Joan McCarthy. "When she saw I was writing poetry, she said, 'You know, we have poets in the family.' "
Before Lawrence became known as the "Cat Lady," she was a struggling poet and freelance writer living in Ottawa. Seemingly disillusioned with her profession at age 19, she wrote an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen, declaring journalism as a "closed corporation."
A few years later, when she was 26, Lawrence was dismissed from her advertising job "for trying to write a book while she was supposed to be working," according to the OPP.
Despite her grandmother's stories, Churchill had no idea what had become of Lawrence, or that her cousin was the central figure in a high-profile homicide investigation.
- Listen to "The Cat Lady Case" from CBC Podcasts
- Watch "Murder in Cottage Country" from CBC's The Fifth Estate
After reading up about the story, Churchill immediately contacted other family members. Though they had watched a documentary by CBC's The Fifth Estate on the case — which shows Lawrence's picture and says her name — they didn't realize they were related.
"I'm more like Joan than anyone in the family," Churchill said. "They all laugh because I'm known as the 'Cat Lady' too."
Another 'Cat Lady'
Churchill was born in Detroit, Mich., in 1951. She wrote poetry, and graduated from Florida State University with a degree in Theatre Arts before going to work in the Florida State Legislature. After 18 years with the Florida House of Representatives, she retired in 2002, and she and her husband, Larry, now live in a gated community in Hudson, about 75 kilometres north of Tampa.
Though she and Lawrence never met, she described the two as "soul twins."
"I've got a magnet on the back of my car that says 'Crazy Cat Lady,' " she said. Like Lawrence, Churchill even adopts unwanted cats, and in 2011 she founded Kitty Coalition, a Florida-based nonprofit that traps, neuters and adopts stray and feral cats.
Other family members were equally stunned by the news of Lawrence's disappearance and suspected homicide.
"I was really quite amazed to realize that we were related," said Susan Ruyter, another cousin in Ottawa who saw the Fifth Estate documentary. "And shocked and angry that she was treated that way."
As for Churchill, the case has become an obsession. "I've gotten so wrapped up in the story," she said. "All I do all day is just think about that."
No return address
While it's still unclear exactly why Lawrence became so isolated, Churchill believes a family rift over property could have something to do with it.
The clue comes in the form of a Christmas family newsletter written by Churchill's cousin, Dianna Hill (now deceased).
In 1996, Hill visited Lawrence's aunts — Churchill's grandmother's sisters — in Vancouver. According to the newsletter, the aunts told Hill that both Lawrence and her mother, Irene McCarthy, were "quite unhappy" when the aunts inherited a family property and not McCarthy. Churchill believes if the property had gone to McCarthy, it would have eventually ended up with Lawrence, her only child.
Churchill doesn't know exactly when the property in question would have come up for grabs. But in the newsletter, Hill writes that no one had heard from Lawrence since a 1976 Christmas card. Lawrence, Hill noted, had left "no return address."
It was a few years later, in the 1980s, that the "Cat Lady" made her debut in Huntsville.
Earlier reporting on this story listed 1963 as the date of Lawrence's arrival in Huntsville. But the OPP now say Lawrence cared for her elderly parents in Toronto until their deaths, which Churchill believes happened in the 1970s. Numerous witnesses have said they saw Lawrence in Huntsville in the 1980s, and her name appears on a local property deed in 1984.
Quiet but articulate, Lawrence stood out in the community of around 20,000 year-round residents. She was a small, "tough as nails" woman who wasn't afraid to make her voice known, according to the OPP. Her standard outfit was "Salvation Army clothes," and she was known to hitchhike even in the middle of winter. She offered $20 for short rides into town, a sum most people refused.
At some point, Lawrence began taking in unwanted litters of kittens, and was soon living with dozens of cats.
In 1994, the shack she was living in burned down. According to the OPP, Lawrence had stacked newspapers too close to her woodstove, which caught fire. After that, she moved constantly between boarding houses and the Salvation Army, always returning to the woods to check on her cats.
'It broke my heart'
By the time of Hill's letter in October 1996, family members had lost touch with Lawrence.
"It would be so nice if we could find out what happened," Beverly Lawrence, another first cousin whose surname is a coincidence, wrote to Churchill that November.
Not long afterward, Lawrence moved into the attic of Cedar Pines Christian Retirement Home. Despite its name, Cedar Pines was an average house on the side of Highway 518, north of Huntsville. The owner was a woman named Kathrine Laan. Sometime in 1997, Lawrence complained that the rent was too high, and moved 44 kilometres south, into the eight-by-ten shed. The shed was located on property owned by Kathrine's brothers, David, Walter and Paul Laan.
Because the Retirement Homes Act didn't come into effect in Ontario until 2010, no one screened the Laans or questioned the legitimacy of their business. Police only discovered Lawrence in the shed a few weeks prior to her disappearance, at which point she was relocated to a van on the same property.
David, Walter, and Kathrine all had criminal records, and Walter, Paul, and Kathrine eventually pleaded guilty to defrauding the federal government of more than $120,000 in benefit money it was providing their residents.
Jeffrey Manishen, a lawyer who has represented members of the Laan family in the past, did not respond to the CBC's request for comment.
Soon after Lawrence's disappearance in November 1998, police discovered she had been working with a local lawyer to report the theft of a $744 income tax cheque.
Suspecting Lawrence had been killed to "prevent her from reporting frauds, thefts, mistreatment and neglect," according to documents, police obtained a search warrant for the Laan farm that December.
They didn't find Lawrence's body, but they did find another piece of evidence: Six of her cats had been fatally shot. According to the OPP, the Laans' uncle, Ron Allen, eventually confessed to shooting them with a .22-calibre hunting rifle.
"It broke my heart when I found out about the cats," Churchill said. "I knew exactly how she felt."
A cold case thaws
When Churchill was first contacted by CBC Podcasts, she hadn't been interviewed by police. More recently, she was contacted by OPP Det. Steve Boyd.
"He just had a lot of questions about who I was … and how I was related to Joan," Churchill said. "He seemed to want every detail I was telling him, which is why the conversation probably took about 45 minutes or so."
The call is a sign that the OPP are actively investigating the case — something lead investigator Rob Matthews has always insisted. Matthews was one of the original officers assigned to the case, and now manages the file.
Last summer, just after CBC Podcasts released Uncover: The Cat Lady Case, he held the first news conference in the case's 21-year history. Since then, he said, police have received a steady stream of new information.
"People have come forward. It's just quite amazing, really."
Churchill mentioned something else in her call with the OPP's Boyd.
Her mother, Virginia Hunter, is Lawrence's closest known relative. In 2016, she submitted her DNA to FamilyTreeDNA, an at-home genetics company headquartered in Texas. Though Hunter died shortly afterward, Churchill has access to the results of that test, which have been preserved online.
"I just wanted to say, 'I'm family. I have DNA if you need it,'" Churchill said.
Asked about the potential usefulness of Hunter's test, Matthews acknowledged that the OPP already has Lawrence's DNA, though he declined to get more specific. "If we didn't have Joan's DNA, then the next option would be to use [familial]. And that's certainly an option. But we actually have Joan's DNA."
Even so, Matthews agrees that having Hunter's DNA wouldn't hurt.
Justice for Joan
Though the investigation into Lawrence's disappearance remains unsolved, Churchll said she wants justice. "I would hope there would be an arrest. I would hope there would be a … trial."
After those two things happen, she said she would like to bury Lawrence's remains at Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa, where generations of the family are interred. "And I said [to Det. Boyd], 'If nobody closer comes forward, I would like the privilege of, you know, burying any remains found.'"
Churchill has already reached out to the cemetery, and started thinking of an inscription for Lawrence's headstone. She wants to incorporate one of Lawrence's poems, The Little White Rose, about a flower that dies an unnatural death. Churchill calls it a "prophecy."
"I'm childless as well," she said. "And the feeling of disappearing off the face of the Earth, just like the little white rose, with no legacy, no children that care.…" She trails off.
"It breaks my heart.… As far as I'm concerned, the last thing that her family can do for her is to memorialize her on a headstone."
Matthews said he would also like justice for Lawrence, as well as John Semple, John Crofts and Ralph Grant.
"This has followed my career," he said. "I'd like nothing more than to give resolution to the remaining family members of all four missing people."
Even without those pieces, Churchill said the act of learning about her family member — lost for so many years — has brought her a measure of peace.
"I've grown to love Joan," she said. "And all of a sudden it's like, well, it's like the feeling of the family pulling together. 'Don't mess with us.' "