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Police appeal for new information in decades-old disappearances in Ontario cottage country

Police in Ontario are appealing for new information in the suspected homicides of four seniors who mysteriously disappeared in cottage country more than two decades ago. 

4 seniors mysteriously disappeared from Muskoka area 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. She's one of four seniors who disappeared some two decades ago in Ontario cottage country. (Lisa Mayor/CBC)

Police in Ontario are appealing for new information in the suspected homicides of four seniors who mysteriously disappeared in cottage country more than two decades ago. 

Ontario Provincial Police have long suggested foul play in the missing-persons cases of the following, who all vanished from the Muskoka area between 1997 and 1998:

  • Joan Lawrence, 77.
  • Ralph Grant, 69.
  • John Semple, 89.
  • John Crofts, 70.  

On Thursday, police confirmed for the first time that all four cases are being investigated as homicides despite the fact no bodies have been found. 

"We know the four people are not alive," said OPP Det.-Sgt. Rob Matthews at a morning news conference in Vaughan. 

Matthews said investigators decided to make their appeal now in hopes anyone who may have avoided speaking to police 21 years ago may reconsider. 

"Someone out there has information," he said.  "The time is right to come forward. Report what you may know to the police."

All four of the suspected victims lived in squalid properties owned by members of the same family when they vanished. The Laan family operated two seniors' residences and a 27.5-hectare farm near Huntsville, about 230 kilometres north of Toronto.

From left, Joan Lawrence, Ralph Grant, John Crofts and John Semple are the four seniors who vanished while living in Muskoka residences owned by the Laan family. Police said their disappearances are being investigated as homicides. (OPP)

Matthews said no Laan family members who have connections to the cases — namely siblings David, Walter, Paul and Kathrine Laan, as well as an uncle named Ron Allen — have been forthcoming with investigators. 

"These individuals have not co-operated with police," he said.

While he would not confirm any members of the Laan family are considered suspects, Matthews would not say investigators have ruled out that possibility.

"It would be disingenuous to say the Laans are not of interest to us."

The Laan family has since sold the properties and most have moved out of the Muskoka area, Matthews said. 

The enduring cold cases were the subject of two The Fifth Estate investigations, Murder in Cottage Country (2017) and The Muskoka Murder Files (2018). They were also explored in the CBC investigative podcast Uncover: The Cat Lady Case released this summer.

"Cat Lady" is a reference to Lawrence, who was given the moniker by Huntsville locals who would often see her walking through town with grocery bags of food for her 30 or so cats.

In 1998, 77-year-old Joan Lawrence disappeared from her Muskoka town. All police could find were her cats, many shot dead with a hunting rifle. The case remains unsolved, but unsealed documents and new witnesses are shedding a light on one of cottage country's darkest crimes. 1:41

Lawrence spent most of her last two years alive in an 80-square-foot shed without running water, insulation or electricity on the Laan's farm property for $600 per month in rent, Matthews said. 

Police believe her final days were spent in a derelict van parked about 600 metres from the shed on the same property.

Matthews said he believes Lawrence "met her end" on the farm, but would not elaborate further.

After she was reported missing, OPP searched the farm by land and air, and dragged the lake adjacent to the property, but never found any trace of her.

Police documents obtained by The Fifth Estate showed that at least one detective at the time believed Lawrence was killed to "prevent her from reporting frauds, thefts, mistreatment and neglect she was enduring" from her landlords.

Local residents disappointed

The news that no charges had been laid or no arrests made came as a significant disappointment for some of those living in the Huntsville area.

Linda Charbonneau, who had befriended Lawrence, expressed sadness when she learned that police were simply making a public appeal for any information about the case.

"I was hoping it would be something better than that," she said. "I was hoping that they'd say maybe someone came and confessed. Or have somebody in custody."

Linda Charbonneau, who had befriended Lawrence, was hoping for better news — a confession, perhaps. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Charbonneau got to know Lawrence after she would come every morning into the grocery store where Charbonneau worked.

"Somebody needs to come forward and let's put these seniors to rest and get the case solved."

'We don't feel comfortable here'

Susan Peleikis lives on Siding Lake, where locals believe the bodies of the seniors were dumped.

But she is reminded of the crime every time she walks into her backyard and gazes across the water and railway tracks, where she can see clearly the property where Lawrence had lived.

"It's a constant reminder," she said."This was supposed to be my Muskoka dream. We don't swim in our lake. We don't feel comfortable here."

Shortly after Peleikis had moved to her new home, she had discovered a set of false teeth near the lake's shoreline. She said she notified police about her discovery but has no idea what happened to the teeth or if they were ever considered evidence.

Peleikis was also upset that police didn't announce a major development in the case.

The shed where Joan Lawrence lived without plumbing, electricity or insulation for $600 per month in rent to the Laan family. (Ontario Provincial Police)

"Basically distraught at what I'm hearing today."

She also expressed skepticism that this remains an active case.

"To say that's been active all this time, to me, just doesn't seem right either because you'd think yearly this would be brought up."

About the Author

Lucas Powers

Senior Writer

Lucas Powers is a Toronto-based reporter and writer. He's reported for CBC News from across Canada. Have a story to tell? Email lucas.powers@cbc.ca any time.

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