Canada·FIFTH ESTATE

'Just a matter of time': Police pursue 'significant' number of new tips in Muskoka mystery of missing seniors

After two decades, the Ontario Provincial Police have received substantial tips that are helping them advance their investigation into what happened to four seniors who disappeared from the province's Muskoka region in the late 1990s, The Fifth Estate has learned.

Disappearances from late 1990s now considered to be homicide cases

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

After two decades, the Ontario Provincial Police have received substantial tips that are helping them advance their investigation into what happened to four seniors who disappeared from the province's Muskoka region in the late 1990s, The Fifth Estate has learned.

Joan Lawrence, John Crofts, Ralph Grant and John Semple vanished from retirement homes owned by a local family under what police say are suspicious circumstances. Their disappearances were initially treated as missing persons investigations, but are now considered by police to be homicides.

OPP Det. Insp. Rob Matthews told The Fifth Estate the case is moving forward in a substantial way after they received a "significant" number of tips and information following a news conference this summer and media attention to the case.

"It's amazing," said Matthews, who has been working on the case since the beginning. "Many people, in historic investigations, don't come forward in the beginning because they're scared, and as time goes on, often times, they believe that the police must have the information.

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"I can say as a result of the press conference [this past July], we received a significant number of tips which allowed us to move this case forward…. The missing piece of the puzzle is out there somewhere and I'm very optimistic that we will find it. It's just a matter of time.

"I am optimistic that one day we'll be sitting in court and the individuals responsible will have to justify their actions."

The OPP released this photo of a van that Lawrence was moved to shortly after police began investigating care homes run by the Laan family. In police documents obtained by The Fifth Estate, a police informant who lived on the property with Lawrence said this was the last place she was living before she disappeared. (Ontario Provincial Police)

In 1998, the OPP began investigating the conditions of care homes being run by a local family in Muskoka.

Siblings Kathrine, Walter, Paul and David Laan had purchased residential homes in the area and operated them as what they described as "Christian retirement homes," with names like Cedar Pines and Fernglen Manor.

Over the course of their operation, four residents disappeared from the Laan family homes: 77-year-old Lawrence, a former newspaper reporter and aspiring author; 69-year-old Grant, a family man and former auto parts salesman; 70-year-old Crofts, a former Eaton's employee and father of twin boys; and 89-year-old Semple, a father, grandfather and war veteran.

In late 1998, a resident of one of the homes where Lawrence was living reported to his social worker that he thought she was missing. It was during the investigation into Lawrence's disappearance that police realized three men had also disappeared.

The Fifth Estate approached David and Walter Laan for comment, and they declined to speak. Paul Laan has not responded to a request for comment. The Fifth Estate has learned that Kathrine Laan died in July.

Lawrence, left, Ralph (Dougie) Grant, John Crofts and John Semple are four seniors who disappeared while living in residences owned by the Laan family in Ontario's Muskoka region in the late 1990s. No charges have been laid in any of the disappearances. (OPP)

While investigating the disappearances, police also began looking into the conditions of the homes.

What Matthews saw in the early days of investigating the homes had him worried for the well-being of the residents who lived there.

"I had significant concerns regarding the care of these individuals," he said. "I'd like to describe what I saw, but I can't because it's a point of evidence. But I will say that I had significant concerns regarding the care of these individuals."

Several of the family members who ran the homes have criminal records.

According to court records, the oldest brother, David Laan, has been convicted for breaking and entering and theft. His younger brother Walter Laan's criminal record began at the age of 18 and continued over 24 years — with convictions for property offences, breaking and entering, fraud and impersonating a police officer.

By the age of 25, their sister, Kathrine Laan, had spent time in jail for drug possession, theft and extortion. Then, in 1997, it was discovered that she had stolen nearly $30,000 from the Muskoka Christian School. She was the school's volunteer treasurer at the time. She was sentenced to nine months in custody.

Cheques stolen from residents

Not long after Kathrine was found stealing money from the school, she and three of her brothers — all four Laan family members who shared in the ownership of the retirement homes — were charged with stealing pension and old age security cheques from residents of homes they operated before and for years after their deaths, at least $100,000 in all.

It was later in the investigation that the OPP would learn 12 more people died while being cared for by the Laans — making that 16 in total over about seven years. Police say they've looked into those 12 deaths and say they are not considered suspicious.

Police recently confirmed all 16 residents who died had their money stolen before and after their deaths.

The Fifth Estate has learned Lawrence paid the Laans more than $600 per month to live in this garden shed in the late '90s. Police say the shed had no insulation and had a hole in the wall with an extension cord running through it for electricity. (Ontario Provincial Police)
 

According to court documents obtained by The Fifth Estate, Kathrine Laan received a nine-month conditional sentence in connection with some of those thefts.

Paul and Walter Laan received sentences that included probation and community service. Paul was given a restitution order to pay back more than $20,000, and Walter more than $10,000. Charges against David Laan were withdrawn.

None of them went to jail.

No alarm bells at the time

One of those people who died while being cared for by the Laans was 76-year old John Jefferson (Jeff) Hurley. 

Hurley lived at Cedar Pines, one of the homes run by the Laans, for a few years until his death in 1996. 

His son, Michael Hurley, wasn't aware his father's money was being stolen until a 2017 investigation by The Fifth Estate revealed that Kathrine, Walter, Paul and David Laan had been involved in fraud in connection with residents at the homes they operated.

Michael Hurley's father, John Jefferson (Jeff) Hurley, lived in the care of the Laan family at Cedar Pines, one of the homes they ran in the '90s. Hurley wasn't aware that members of the family had been convicted of stealing money from his father. (John Badcock/CBC)

Hurley made several visits to Cedar Pines to see his father and said he didn't think anything was off at the time. 

"It appeared to be clean and well-kept," he said. "There was nothing there that would send an alarm bell off into my head. I looked around and went, oh it seems OK."

Hurley met Kathrine and Walter Laan during his visits. "They were the ones that were always there when I went."

But in hindsight, he has questions. 

"When [my father] did call me, I always got the feeling that there was someone on staff in the room with him," Hurley told The Fifth Estate

'No digging beyond that'

In 1996, his father fell ill and was moved to hospital in Huntsville. About a week later, his father died.

When Hurley inquired with the Canada Pension Plan about his father's survivor benefits paid to the next of kin to assist with the costs of a funeral, he was told that the payout had been made to "the other applicant."

John Jefferson (Jeff) Hurley was a resident of one of the homes operated by the Laan family. Police say Hurley is one of the 16 people who the Laans were stealing money from before and after their deaths. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

But Hurley was the only surviving family member of his father's family.

"I didn't get suspicious, only in so far as we couldn't pay the bill to the funeral home. But we didn't do any digging beyond that."

He said at the time he assumed his father owed rent payments to the care home. 

Hurley said police called him two years after his father died — around 1998, when their investigation began — but didn't offer him any new information. They wanted his impressions of the Laan family and the care homes. 

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Court documents obtained by The Fifth Estate show that Hurley's father was one of 12 people police say the Laans were stealing money from after they died — and in Hurley's case, cashing his pension cheques for four years after he died.

Hurley received a letter from Kathrine Laan shortly after his father died, saying that his father had become like family to them and that they loved him.

His father's lifeline

The Fifth Estate showed Hurley the court documents, which show the date on the charging documents against the Laan family is just days after he received that letter. 

"[Kathrine] was a con artist," Hurley said after realizing the letter and the date they began stealing his money were almost identical. "And she was a very good one, apparently."

Many of the people who lived at Laan homes were homeless, mentally ill or had no family left. OPP say they think the Laans sought out people who had no family or friends to look out for them.

Hurley said reflecting back now, he thinks the only reason his father lived as long as he did is because, unlike in many other cases, his father had family to watch out for him. 

OPP Det. Insp. Rob Matthews has been investigating the disappearance of four seniors from Muskoka for more than two decades. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

"Occasionally I would get a phone call from Kathrine or occasionally I would call her to give me the rundown on him," he said. "That was probably his lifeline that kept him from either disappearing or dying quietly in a bed there."

For those four who disappeared and had no one to look out for them, Matthews is hopeful that justice will be served and they can finally be laid to rest. 

"[I hope] we can finally bring justice to the families of those victims," he said. 

"Every police officer, I think, if you ask them, 'Why do we do this, we do this to serve?' it's to make a difference. I wish I could talk about what I saw in those homes but when this case finally is resolved, I feel those [victims'] families will have justice."

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.