Wife-killer John Strang displayed deadly warning signs
An arsenal of weapons, threats of violence and an obsession with another woman
Two weeks before he shot his wife in the back of the head, John Strang told a coworker, "I could shoot someone, no problem" and showed off four guns in the back of his Jeep.
That kind of statement is just one of the risk factors that experts say indicates the threat of a potential domestic homicide.
"These cases can be so predictable and that's what makes them very preventable," said Jo-Anne Dusel, executive director of the Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services of Saskatchewan (PATHS).
Strang pleaded guilty on Wednesday to second-degree murder in the death of his wife, Lisa Strang, as well as to uttering a threat against another woman on Aug. 1, 2015.
As details emerged about Lisa's killing, as well as her relationship with her husband of more than two decades, Dusel recognized the pattern.
"I could almost have had a checklist of all the warning signs of a very high risk situation that could very likely lead to homicide."
Reviews of hundreds of domestic homicide cases in Ontario have led to a list of 39 risk factors that can help predict whether a relationship is likely to become deadly.
In 80 per cent of the cases, seven or more risk factors were identified.
Some of the most common ones include:
- an actual or pending separation
- obsessive behaviour by the perpetrator
- a perpetrator who was depressed
- an escalation of violence
- prior threats or attempts to commit suicide
- prior threats to kill the victim
- prior attempts to isolate the victim
- a perpetrator who was unemployed
As court heard on Wednesday, Strang and his behaviour matched many of the red flags on the list.
For Lisa's parents, Doug and Marge Thomas, the loss of their only child began decades ago according to their victim impact statement, read in court by the Crown prosecutor.
It started with the couple's wedding on June 12, 1991 when the Thomases say John insisted that no one but the couple's parents and Lisa's grandmothers attend.
"She accepted John's refusal to let her visit with us or to go anywhere without him being present," the couple said in their statement.
The Thomases say that resulted in Lisa drifting apart from her family and friends and later, in her suffering from a growing depression and weight gain.
"In many ways we lost her years before John took her from us," her parents said.
They noted John was constantly in debt, forcing the couple to remortgage their McLean home twice, in 2007 and 2010.
Although Lisa was the primary breadwinner, her parents say she lived frugally, driving an eight-year-old car with 270,000 kilometres on it.
Her husband, they say, spent freely — driving a new Jeep Wrangler worth more than twice as much as his wife's car, and buying expensive guns even though he was often unemployed throughout the marriage.
By 2011, court heard, the marriage was troubled due to financial pressures, and complaints from John that the relationship was lacking intimacy.
The defence said John was struggling with numerous health issues, including depression.
Weeks leading up to murder
In the summer of 2015, Lisa Strang was by all accounts happier than she had ever been. She had lost about 45 kgs, was preparing to start a new job and friends and family members were hopeful that she was starting a new chapter of her life, perhaps even without her husband.
Her friends said she was "glowing."
John, meanwhile, was buying guns and ammunition, ordering handcuffs and sexual supplements, and making plans to camp at the ranch of a couple he had met through a friend.
According to an agreed statement of facts, John had "developed an erotic fixation" on Lynn Larsen, who was married and unaware of his feelings.
He called her husband, Roland, on June 24 to ask if he could stay at the couple's ranch. John told Roland he had terminal stomach cancer and had only a few months to live. He said he wanted to get away from things and let his dogs run in the country.
Court heard that Roland was not fond of John, but agreed to let him stay believing he was dying of cancer. He asked John to call before he came.
Crown prosecutor Kelly Kaip said John had on other occasions told friends and family he had brain and testicular cancer. Kaip said there is no medical evidence he ever had cancer.
Two days after speaking to Roland, John bought the .357 revolver he would use to kill his wife.
On July 2, 2015 he ordered handcuffs online and bought sexual enhancement supplements.
Two weeks later, in mid-July, he purchased a large quantity of ammunition for a rifle he had also bought the month prior. It is during this same time that John tells a coworker he could shoot someone, "no problem," and showed off the four guns in his Jeep.
The day of the murder
On Saturday Aug. 1, John Strang's Jeep was loaded with camping gear, according to a neighbour who saw him packing the night before.
At noon that day, another neighbour heard two loud bangs. When he looked out his porch window, he saw John put a long gun case in his Jeep and drive away quickly.
Six hours later, John Strang arrived at the Larsen ranch.
He hadn't called ahead, as Roland Larsen had requested. Court heard Roland was annoyed by that, but showed John to a cabin on his property and then left for a singing competition in Preeceville.
At 9 p.m., while Roland was still out for the evening, John arrived at the couple's home.
John asked Lynn Larsen to join him for a walk. She declined, as she was watching a movie with her grandchildren but invited him in.
Before John left, less than two hours later, he had terrified Lynn Larsen to such an extent she still refuses to be in her home alone at night more than two years later.
After Lynn put her grandchildren to bed, the two began to talk.
John told Lynn he had fantasized about raping her and thought about "killing a lot of people." He said because Lynn had haunted his thoughts, he had planned to start by killing her first. However, he said at some point that thought had passed.
Then John said he had done "something bad." When Lynn told him he had a loving wife, John said he had shot and killed her. She asked him why and he told her he could not say.
"I don't know why I did it. I just did it," court heard John told her. He added that no one had heard the shots and Lisa's body would not be found until after the long weekend, as he had taken both of the couple's dogs with him.
Just before her husband was due home, John left the Larsen house. At the door, he told Lynn, "You're lucky your grandkids were here because I would never hurt a child."
He left and Lynn called the police to check on Lisa Strang.
On the run
As John drove away, RCMP officers headed to the village of McLean to do a welfare check on Lisa Strang. When they arrived, they found Lisa's body in the basement where she appeared to have been paying the couple's monthly bills.
She had been shot once in the back and again in the back of the head. Police issued a public plea to find her husband, as he was now wanted in connection to the homicide.
About 24 hours later, John was spotted by an RCMP officer near North Battleford and after speaking with a crisis negotiator, was taken into custody without incident.
From his vehicle, police seized an arsenal of guns, ammunition and knives along with gloves, duct tape and more than a dozen sets of handcuffs.
In total, 1,095 rounds of ammunition were seized, not including the bullets already loaded in the guns. Even the murder weapon had been reloaded, with six bullets in the cylinder.
Despite those options, John told police he had tried to kill himself by taking Tylenol and Viagra.
Sending a message
In a joint submission, the Crown and defence both recommend John Strang serve his life sentence without the possibility of parole for at least 17 years.
Family and friends of Lisa say while no amount of jail time can make up for their loss, they hope her death raises further awareness about domestic violence.
A few months after Lisa Strang's murder, the government of Saskatchewan committed to review domestic homicides for the first time. A committee will release recommendations this fall.
Domestic violence worker and committee member Jo-Anne Dusel expects those recommendations will include raising awareness about risk factors for domestic violence and tools to help people intervene if they see them.
She says many people assume violence means a physical assault, such as a punch in the face.
Dusel says attempts to control a person, whether through finances or isolation from family and friends, pose a more significant threat.
"Attempts to gain control from one partner over the other are actually a bigger predictor of increasing risk or a dangerous situation than actual physical violence," said Dusel.
She said she does not want friends or family of Lisa Strang to feel guilty about what they didn't do, but rather to educate everyone about how they might intervene if they see the warning signs.
"Imagine if someone had said to John, 'I'm really worried about you. Would you be willing to talk to someone?'" Dusel said.
John Strang returns to court on Oct. 25 to learn his sentence and the fate of his guns and ammunition. He wants to give his guns to his father and a friend. The prosecution wants them forfeited to the Crown.