The Current

A decades-old missing persons case continues to haunt Ontario's cottage country

An enigmatic woman named Joan Lawrence became a local legend in the community of Huntsville, Ont., where she became known as "the cat lady." That legend became a mystery when she disappeared 20 years ago. Now a new CBC podcast, Uncover: The Cat Lady Case, takes another look at her story.

Uncover: The Cat Lady Case sheds light on the disappearance of 4 people in the Muskoka area

Joan Lawrence was 77 years old when she went missing in 1998. She was a fixture in the Huntsville, Ont., community because she had a highly visible routine. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Update on July 25, 2019: Police in Ontario confirmed they are investigating the disappearances of four seniors in the province's cottage country, including Joan Lawrence, as homicides.

Ontario Provincial Police made an appeal for new information in the hopes that anyone who may have avoided speaking to investigators 21 years ago may reconsider, said Det.-Sgt. Rob Matthews.

Original story runs below.

Read Story Transcript

Joan Lawrence, 77, 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.

"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.

CBC Podcasts's latest season of Uncover focuses on the disappearance of Lawrence and three other seniors in Ontario's cottage country. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

"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.

What happened to Joan Lawrence? Investigative journalist Zander Sherman sheds light on one of cottage country’s darkest crimes.

    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.

    He previously worked on a documentary for The Fifth Estate and a feature in The Walrus about Joan Lawrence's disappearance in 2017, but listeners can expect something new from this season of Uncover

    Joan Lawrence was known as 'the cat lady' because she had around 30 cats, some of which she had taken in from the community and raised from kittens. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

    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.


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