A decades-old missing persons case continues to haunt Ontario's cottage country
Uncover: The Cat Lady Case sheds light on the disappearance of 4 people in the Muskoka area
77-year-old Joan Lawrence was a fixture in Huntsville, Ont. For years, people in the community saw her walking up and down the main road every day, carrying plastic bags full of groceries and food for her beloved pet cats.
In the fall of 1998, however, locals and friends noticed that they hadn't seen "the cat lady" on her usual route for weeks. She seemed to have vanished.
The Cat Lady Case, the fourth season of CBC Podcasts's Uncover, dives into Lawrence's mysterious disappearance.
"When people stopped to give her rides, she would let them, but she wouldn't say anything about who she was, or where she was from, what she was doing," said Zander Sherman, host and co-producer of The Cat Lady Case.
- The Fifth Estate: Murder in Cottage Country
"So she became a local legend; on the one hand she was highly visible, but totally unknown on the other," Sherman told The Current guest host Katie Simpson.
Police searched for Lawrence by air, land, and water. All they could find was her tiny shed where she lived, and her 30 cats — many of whom had been shot dead with a hunting rifle.
A senior without options
Few knew about Lawrence's difficult living conditions before she vanished.
"She was living in an eight-by-10 shed on the side of a muddy lake," said Sherman, noting that the structure — where she lived with all her cats — had no electricity, toilet, or running water.
Linda Charbonneau, a friend of Lawrence, said that the shed was incredibly unsanitary, and she froze each winter due to the lack of insulation. Police were perplexed why the elderly woman paid her landlords $600 a month to rent the property.
Sherman believes that Lawrence paid the rent out of desperation. It appeared to be her only option.
"It was the only place that would keep her. Also the only place that she could find that would accommodate her cats. Everyone else said no," he explained.
In the weeks before her disappearance, Lawrence shared with a friend that she was worried that her landlord would hurt her pets or steal from her.
From there the Ontario Provincial Police unearthed startling facts not only about how Lawrence was being mistreated, but also that three other people's disappearances, which occurred between 1998 and 2000, may have been connected to her case.
At a glance, the three men who've disappeared from the nearby cottage country area have a lot in common with Lawrence.
"They're elderly... they're clearly marginalized," said Sherman.
They lived near her and had the same landlords. All four of them are missing, and police are investigating their disappearances as possible murders.
Witnesses come forward with new info
Born and raised in Muskoka, Ont., Sherman has been investigating this case since 2014.
His previous coverage of the missing persons in Ontario's cottage country has prompted more witnesses to come forward with new information, some breaking their silence for the first time in decades.
Since the documentary, newly released police documents also provide insight into what really happened over 20 years ago.
"The final piece of the puzzle could come forward now," said Sherman. "I feel closer than I've ever felt before."
All six episodes are now available on the CBC Podcasts feed or wherever you download your podcasts.
Written by Judy Ziyi Gu. Produced by Alison Masemann.