Muskoka mystery

Nearly 20 years ago, four seniors vanished in Ontario's cottage country. Was it murder? The Fifth Estate has the inside story about what police believe happened

I - The mystery

Shortly after Susan Peleikis bought her dream home, a fixer-upper on the edge of a shimmering postcard-worthy lake in Ontario’s cottage country, she stumbled across something that nearly made her heart stop.

Peleikis had been slowly transforming the ragged edges of the lake that almost encircles her Muskoka home into a lush shoreline garden when her shovel turned over something white and shiny. A closer look revealed a set of false teeth.

It would be a startling discovery for anybody, but for Pelekis it was downright chilling.

That’s because she’d heard the grisly rumours about Siding Lake. Locals believe four seniors who went missing from this area nearly 20 years ago were killed and dumped in the lake.

“I don't want to swim in the lake till I know where they are,” says Peleikis as she points to where she found the teeth at the lake’s edge.

“It's shallow, it's muddy, it's weedy,” adds her spouse, Scott. “You could make somebody disappear pretty easy, right?”

Siding Lake is southwest of Huntsville, in Ontario's cottage country. (Lisa Mayor\/CBC)

Siding Lake is southwest of Huntsville, in Ontario's cottage country. (Lisa Mayor/CBC)

No one has seen the seniors since they disappeared. It’s a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.

“And also the question of why,” says Peleikis. “Why it's not solved, like why are the old people still missing? We heard so many stories. Everybody's got a story.”

There is no shortage of stories, theories or rumours about what's become of those four seniors who went missing from nearby retirement homes in the late 1990s. Nearly 20 years later, almost anyone you talk to who lives near Siding Lake has something to say about the case.

“Oh yeah, people still talk about it,” says Tim Harrow. He lives across the lake from Peleikis.

“I still have friends who won't come up to visit me out here, who live in Huntsville. Everyone has their version on what happened.”

One version of this mystery that’s never been revealed in detail is what the police believe happened.

The Ontario Provincial Police spent years actively investigating the missing seniors, but the force has been largely mum about the details of the case.

In fact, they refused to be interviewed for this story.

So The Fifth Estate and The Walrus magazine teamed up for a joint investigation and went to court to have hundreds of pages of secret police warrants unsealed.

For the first time, we can shed new light on the police theories, including details never revealed before such as a potential motive that could have triggered four killings, an elaborate coverup intended to throw the police off the scent and new information about the controversial family who ran the care homes where the seniors were last seen alive.

The Laan family, at brother Paul Laan’s wedding. Kathrine Laan, Walter Laan, David Laan, Paul Laan and Ron Allen are highlighted here. (Laan family blog)

II - The family

The Laans are a family of seven siblings who grew up in different parts of rural Ontario. Several, however, have checkered histories that stretch as far back as their teenage years — beginning in the 1970s. And in the Huntsville area, where many of them lived, the stories would grow with time.

One story has one of the siblings stealing skis from the local ski hill. Another has a sibling breaking into the local hospital to steal drugs. There are even stories about the boys cheating at baseball as youngsters.

As adults, however, it went from colourful town gossip to serious brushes with the law.

“It's unreal that one family can have so many criminals,” says Geoff Vander Kloet, a local contractor who knows the family from his dealings in the community.

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

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

According to court records, the oldest brother, David Laan, has a criminal record 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 even impersonating a police officer.

And 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 Kathrine Laan had stolen nearly $30,000 from the Muskoka Christian School. She was the school's volunteer treasurer at the time.

“I think the first word that comes to mind was betrayed,” says Alice Peddie.

Peddie taught at the Muskoka Christian School and was friends with Kathrine before she was caught embezzling money.

“My trust was broken,” says Peddie. “She professed to be a Christian and to do this when you profess to be a Christian is so unchristian-like.”

Kathrine was eventually convicted for fraud, but it was the Laans’ next business venture that landed five members of this family in the middle of a controversy that’s lasted nearly two decades.

This property on Siding Lake was one of the Laan retirement facilities. (Lisa Mayor\/CBC)

This property on Siding Lake was one of the Laan retirement facilities. (Lisa Mayor/CBC)

Kathrine and her brothers Paul, Walter and David converted three family homes into facilities for the elderly, located in the woods outside Huntsville. Their uncle Ron Allen lived at one of the properties, where he helped with some of the residents.

One home called Cedar Pines was described as a “Christian Retirement Lodge” that offered “attractive, affordable rooms in a cozy homelike atmosphere.”

According to a brochure for the home, services included care from a registered nurse and meal planning by an in-house dietician. There were also the promises of bowling, woodwork, outings and parties.

“[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 Peddie.

But Vander Kloet says it was a drastically different story inside the homes. He says Kathrine asked him to do some general contracting work on one of the homes and he was shocked by what he saw.

“They weren't in nice condition,” he says. “My dogs have a better place to stay, like a neater, cleaner place to stay than where those people were.”

Then, in 1998, police say one of the residents came forward with complaints about the conditions, and the police made inquiries.

According to police documents obtained by The Fifth Estate, they say they found as many as 11 seniors housed in a single four-bedroom house. Police found bedrooms with multiple beds, and later a realtor would find mattresses on the floor. One resident reported eating Kraft Dinner three times a day, with occasional “boiled eggs from the chickens that were on the farm.”

“[The residents] were hanging out in a little room with a little exhaust fan going,” Vander Kloet remembers from a visit to one of the homes. “They were all smoking cigarettes, playing cards, it was just a little — it looked like a little janitor's shed — just a little messy room.”

The most concerning of the police discoveries was a small, decrepit garden shed located close to one of the homes. The shed looked to be homemade and was built from chipboard. It had little in the way of insulation, no electricity or running water. The door didn’t close properly.

Inside lived an elderly woman with dozens of cats.

“No water, no toilet, no windows, just a little double door,” says Vander Kloet.

“Just something you put your lawn mower in or your rakes or your garden tools. You wouldn't even put anything that you really like in there, let alone a person, to live.”

According to people who knew Joan Lawrence, members of the Laan family charged her more than $700 a month to live in this tiny shed. (Lisa Mayor/CBC)

III - The missing

She was known affectionately in the community as The Cat Lady.

Why and how Joan Lawrence moved to Muskoka in the 1960s and accumulated dozens of cats is still a mystery. However, an investigation by The Fifth Estate sheds some light on her early life.

She was born in Ottawa in 1921. In her 20s, Lawrence went to work for a Toronto newspaper as a copywriter. People who knew Lawrence said she told them she was also at one time a reporter in Barrie and a newspaper editor in Hamilton.

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

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

Lawrence married young to an army officer from Montreal who had become a salesman. She also divorced young, stating in a 1949 published notice that she was requesting a divorce for reasons of “adultery.”

And she was a published poet.

The Little White Rose was printed in The Toronto Star in 1941.

Written when Lawrence was 20 years old, it seems in ways to foreshadow the sad circumstances she found herself in half a century later:

The window of the florist's shop was gay
With flowers in an orderly array,
But all alone one little white rose lay
Forgotten in a dusty corner.
There no eye could see that it had once been fair,
No ear could hear its wishful prayer.

When police came to inspect the Laan retirement properties in 1998, they described seeing Lawrence emerge from that garden shed in bare feet surrounded by as many as 30 cats. The floor was covered in newspaper.

“There was no other place, she was trapped,” says Linda Charbonneau, who used to manage the deli at a local grocery store. “She had no place to go. That was it.”

Charbonneau knew Lawrence better than most in Huntsville. Lawrence would come to the grocery store where Charbonneau worked every morning for free coffee and companionship.

She told Charbonneau she had no choice but to move into that shed at the Laan retirement home because no one else would take her cats. Lawrence had no family that Charbonneau knew of. Many who knew her said the same thing: Her cats were her family, and she would do anything to keep them.

According to people who knew Lawrence, members of the Laan family charged her more than $700 a month to live in that tiny shed — almost all of her monthly government income.

“Her cats meant so much to her that she put up with living in those living conditions for the sake of keeping her beloved pets, her family,” says Charbonneau.

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

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

Ralph Grant — Doogie to his friends — is another senior who fell on hard times and ended up in the Laans’ care.

“I think he was taken advantage [of], myself,” says his nephew Howard Grant.

Originally from a small town in Nova Scotia, Doogie Grant moved to Ontario and worked for a manufacturing company. He suffered from alcoholism and fought jaw cancer. He was treated at various Toronto hospitals before eventually, in the 1990s, ending up at one of the Laan retirement homes.

His nephew Howard says police told him his uncle was lured there by one of the Laans.

“I think if somebody promises you a nice quiet life, at half the price, you know, it's kind of ... holding up a lollipop to a child,” says Grant.

“It turned out to be a horror show.”

The full extent of the horror show, as Grant calls it, began to emerge in November 1998. At that time, a fellow resident confided in his social worker something that would cause the police to dig much deeper into the homes and their owners.

Lawrence — The Cat Lady — was missing.

Police documents obtained by The Fifth Estate show that police learned Lawrence had concerns about a missing tax return cheque worth more than $700 shortly before she disappeared.

“She asked me if I'd gotten my income tax back,” says confidante Charbonneau.

“And I went: ‘Yeah, I got it like a month ago, or a long time ago.’ I said: ‘Why?’ She goes: ‘Well, I filed a while ago and I just never got my cheque.’ And I said: ‘Oh, well I guess you should — better look into that.’ So she goes, ‘I'm gonna look into that.’ ”

In the early fall of 1998, Lawrence told Charbonneau and others in the community she was going to confront her landlords about that missing cheque. That was around the last time anybody remembers seeing her alive.

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

IV - The investigation

In late November 1998, when Lawrence was reported missing, the Ontario Provincial Police assigned a young up-and-coming detective named Erin Burke to the case.

The 28-year-old had been a police officer for six years, but she’d made a name for herself working several high profile cases — including a 1996 killing that, at the time, was Huntsville’s first murder in 10 years.

Burke, who has since left the force, wouldn't be interviewed on camera after the OPP advised her not to. The current officers assigned to the case also declined to be interviewed because they say it’s still open.

So The Fifth Estate and The Walrus magazine went to court to get access to hundreds of pages of previously sealed search warrants. They explain in detail how Burke and her colleagues worked the case.

OPP Det. Const. Erin Burke was assigned to look into the disappearance of Joan Lawrence in 1998. (OPP)

OPP Det. Const. Erin Burke was assigned to look into the disappearance of Joan Lawrence in 1998. (OPP)

They also, for the first time, allow us to reveal who police believe was responsible for Lawrence's disappearance.

According to the documents, it wasn't long before Burke believed she had another murder on her hands.

“I do not believe that Lawrence moved off of the property,” Burke wrote in a search warrant request just weeks after The Cat Lady was reported missing.

“Her body may be buried on the property.”

That initial request to search the Laan property where Lawrence was last seen alive was the beginning of an active case that would last for years and expand well beyond a routine missing persons case.

“I think there was a number of suspicions around town,” says Ron House, who was the mayor of Huntsville during the police investigation.

House believes at the time Lawrence went missing, some members of the Laan family were working hard to distance themselves from the investigation. He remembers an interaction he had with one of the brothers, Walter Laan.

Former Hunstville mayor Ron House remembers the 'suspicions' around town. (CBC)

Former Hunstville mayor Ron House remembers the 'suspicions' around town. (CBC)

“He was making me very well aware that they had taken [Lawrence] in and they were the good people and she all of a sudden disappeared,” he says. “And they had no idea what happened to her.”

But soon police had two other family members in their sights.

They learned that David Laan owned the section of the property where Lawrence lived, and that his uncle, Ron Allen, lived in the house next to her shack.

“It has been determined from several witness interviews that Allen had a great deal of contact with Lawrence,” Det. Burke wrote. “Allen ... picked up her mail, or would drive her to pick up her mail, he drove her to the food bank, he drove her to pick up her cat food, and he would drive her to the bank to get her money.”

Witnesses also reported seeing Lawrence around town with David Laan, including at a local store where she would buy cat food.

“They often came in together [to the Country Depot] and paid their bills,” Burke wrote.

David Laan told police he had nothing to do with Lawrence going missing.

But The Fifth Estate has learned that when police confronted David Laan several times over the next few weeks, they say he offered more than a dozen different explanations for Lawrence’s sudden disappearance.

First he told police she was afraid of them and was hiding. Then he said she was visiting a wealthy friend in New York. Then police were told she was on vacation in Vancouver. And finally, she had taken a trip to Hawaii.

“From what I saw and knew of Joan Lawrence, I don't think she'd be at any of those three places,” says House.

“I don't imagine Joan Lawrence — in the 10 years previous to her disappearance — got any farther south of [the nearby town of] Bracebridge.”

But the biggest revelation in the police investigation came when they began to dig deeper into Lawrence’s finances.

They discovered one of the Laan siblings somehow managed to get a joint bank account with Lawrence allowing them the freedom to access her money. They also discovered the last time her money was accessed, around the time she disappeared, was with a bank card at the Canadian Tire in Bracebridge — 30 kilometres from where Lawrence was living.

But police quickly noticed something: No bank card had been issued in Lawrence’s name. The only card issued on the account was in the name of the account’s joint owner -- Lawrence’s landlord, David Laan.

Police did multiple searches of the Laan property, at times using a helicopter. (CBC)

Police did multiple searches of the Laan property, at times using a helicopter. (CBC)

And then there was Lawrence’s missing tax return cheque.

Police interviewed an employee at a local law firm who had become friends with Lawrence and was volunteering to help her look into what happened to the missing cheque. Lawrence would stop in the law office every other day or so, the employee said, to check on the progress.

“[The employee] last observed Lawrence at the National Trust Bank in early October 1998 and told Lawrence the papers were ready and to come in,” wrote Burke.

The Fifth Estate has learned those “papers” included proof that Lawrence’s tax refund had been stolen. The police believe the signature on the back of the cashed cheque wasn’t hers.

Lawrence “seemed very eager to pursue the matter concerning her tax return,” adds Burke, “but never attended” to pick up the papers.

In fact, the employee at the law office never saw her again after that.

This series of events ultimately led police to spell out what they believe happened to Lawrence, and who did it.

In June 1999, police believed Lawrence had been murdered and applied for a warrant to search the lake that bordered the Laan residence where Lawrence lived.

It has never been reported until now, but the justification police offered for that warrant includes this:

“David Laan and Ron Allen, sometime between the 28th day of October in the year 1998 and the 27th day of November … did commit first-degree murder on the person of Joan Dorothy Lawrence.”

A police sketch shows the Laan property where Joan Lawrence lived before she was reported missing. (OPP)

A police sketch shows the Laan property where Joan Lawrence lived before she was reported missing. (OPP)

The investigation carried on for months. Police talked to over 50 people, conducted more than seven searches, including a helicopter search, a cadaver dog search and an underwater search, and grilled several suspects and conducted hours and hours of surveillance.

But in the end, Lawrence's body was never found — and no one was ever charged.

Work on the case slowed, until two years into the investigation when police made another startling discovery. Lawrence wasn’t the only person to go missing from the Laan properties. Three other men had been missing for years, their money also stolen.

One of them was Doogie Grant, whom police had spoken to during the investigation into Lawrence’s disappearance. His last known sighting was that very police visit to one of the Laan homes, called Fern Glen Manor, in late January 1999.

“How can people live for years in a place and all at once disappear, and nobody knows what happened to them?” asks his nephew Howard.

The two other men, John Semple and John Crofts, were last seen in the early months of 1998.

The Laans never reported any of the residents missing.

“The question is something happened to them, and [the Laans who owned the retirement homes] know,” adds Howard Grant. “Or they should know. Because they were in charge.”

The picturesque town of Huntsville, in the middle Muskoka, is 13 kilometres from the Laan residence where Joan Lawrence disappeared. (Trevor Lyons/CBC)

V - Unanswered questions

The Muskoka Mystery, as it’s known locally, remains just that, a mystery — leaving locals with lots of questions.

“Why? Why would you want to do that to people who are not able to defend themselves? I don't understand,” asks Tim Harrow, who now rents the property where Lawrence was living before she disappeared.

”Where does someone get the mentality or the thought process to do that to an elderly person who needs our help?”

Court records show all four of the Laan family members who shared in the ownership of the retirement homes were initially charged with stealing money from their residents.

In fact, they continued to steal government cheques well after some of them vanished.

According to court documents, Kathrine Laan, who also embezzled from the Muskoka Christian school, received a nine-month conditional sentence, though it’s not clear what she served in the end.

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. The charges against David Laan were withdrawn.

None of them went to jail.

Paul now teaches English at a university in South Korea, and travels with his wife extensively, professing their love for God on their family blog.

Paul Laan travels widely. (Laan family blog)

Paul Laan travels widely. (Laan family blog)

The Fifth Estate tracked Kathrine to more than 10 different addresses across Canada and the United States, including one at a Seventh Day Adventist religious community in Florida.

Walter Laan is a different story. After the retirement homes closed, he was caught robbing and assaulting local seniors in a series of violent home invasions in Ontario in 2004. Court documents say that “during each home invasion, [Walter] was armed with either a gun or a knife and forcibly confined the victims to gain their compliance, which resulted in severe psychological harm.”

He went to prison for 11½ years and was recently released. He works in the heating, refrigeration and air conditioning (HRAC) industry with his brother David in Toronto. They offer a seniors discount for their services.

And then there is David Laan, the person police believe, along with his uncle, killed Lawrence.

The Fifth Estate sent letters and emails to both of them —along with Paul, Walter and some of their other siblings —asking for an interview, but received no response.

We recently caught up with David in Toronto where he works as a HRAC technician at a Toronto college.

But he refused to answer any questions about the police theory that he committed first-degree murder, or why he never reported any of the seniors missing.

One final revelation from the police investigation involves the fate of Lawrence’s cats.

Many in the community have long wondered what became of them. The police don’t know who pulled the trigger, but The Fifth Estate has learned several were found dead on the property, their bodies containing bullet fragments.

“Mostly what she talked about was her children, her cats. She loved them,” says her friend Linda Charbonneau, breaking down in tears. “God, she would have died for her cats. Maybe that's what happened. She wouldn't leave her cats.”

The OPP say the case remains open to this day.

Susan and Scott Peleikis, who discovered the false teeth on their property, never heard back from police after they came to collect the potential evidence. They still have no idea who the teeth belonged to.

Now, like everybody else living on Siding Lake, they continue to wait and wonder.

“Somebody got away with murder times four, and that's a very uneasy feeling, no matter where you live,” says Susan.

“And,” adds husband Scott, “it's in our own backyard.”

Watch the season premiere of The Fifth Estate Friday at 9 p.m. on CBC.

Editing: Janet Davison