Four weeks ago, I published a story in this magazine about one of Canada’s most notorious cold cases. Part of a seven-month joint investigation with CBC’s The Fifth Estate, the feature delved into recently unsealed police files to try to answer a question that has obsessed detectives for nearly two decades: What happened to four seniors who went missing in Ontario’s Muskoka area in the 1990s? To date, no one has been charged in relation to the disappearances, but the four Muskoka missing had one thing in common: their landlords, David, Walter, and Paul Laan.
A criminal defence attorney representing the Laan siblings, as well as their uncle, Ron Allen, has responded. In a legal filing published on September 20, Jeffrey Manishen, of the Hamilton-based firm Ross & McBride, says his clients could face “vigilante justice” because of stories released by the two media organizations. The wide-ranging response also flags the “cynical tone” of Fifth Estate host Bob McKeown, the use of “highly sensationalized” re-enactment footage of an underwater search conducted by the Ontario Provincial Police, the observations of interview subjects with no immediate knowledge of the police investigation, and the depiction of missing persons flyers seen floating in the water. (Manishen has ignored requests for an interview.)
Around 1994, David, Walter, Paul, and their sister Kathrine—who is not one of Manishen’s clients—opened a series of retirement homes in Emsdale and Huntsville. The four missing seniors all lived with the Laans prior to their disappearance. None of the Laans, or their uncle, Ron Allen, reported their residents as missing.
“Quite apart from the potential of ‘vigilante justice,’” Manishen continues, “the enhanced public scrutiny of highly dramatized commentary in all forms of media, including the nation’s public broadcaster, have the potential for reaction at an international level.” Stories about his clients could also affect their jobs and give rise to “psychological and emotional distress which may continue indefinitely.”
David Laan, who is now sixty, is believed to work at George Brown College in Toronto. Walter, fifty-seven, operates “Esto Mechanical,” a North York–based heating, refrigeration, and air-conditioning company. The youngest brother, Paul, teaches English at a private university in metropolitan Seoul. Ron Allen’s age and whereabouts are unknown.
In November 1998, the OPP began investigating the disappearance of Joan Lawrence, a seventy-seven-year-old Huntsville resident known as the “Cat Lady,” who lived on a farm property owned by the Laans. The case quickly turned into a homicide investigation, and eventually, police discovered the names of three more seniors who had gone missing from a different retirement home owned by the Laans.
In Lawrence’s case, David and Ron Allen were listed as first-degree murder suspects. In the case of Ralph Grant, John Crofts, and John Semple, whose ages ranged from sixty-nine to ninety, no suspects have officially been named, though in 2001 Walter told the Toronto Sun that “police were trying to put a murder charge on us.”
David, Walter, Walter’s wife, Karen, Paul, and Kathrine were eventually charged in relation to the theft of residents’ government benefit cheques—including cheques belonging to three of the missing seniors. Walter and Paul pled guilty, and Kathrine was also convicted, though for reasons that have never been disclosed to the public, the charges against David and Karen were dropped.
For the stories, The Walrus and The Fifth Estate have petitioned an Ontario court judge to unseal several search warrants executed in the early months of the investigation. Manishen’s filing is in response to an application first made by The Walrus and CBC News, which hosts The Fifth Estate, to get at the warrants, which the Crown attorney’s office is also opposing.
Writing on behalf of his clients, Manishen says information about the case should remain private “until the police investigation is closed.” Citing legal examples in which judges ruled against journalists seeking similar access, Manishen argues that the publication of stories containing “inadmissible or irrelevant” details about his clients that could prejudice prospective jurors and infringe on their right to a fair trial.
In a previously filed legal document, Justin Safayeni, a lawyer for the Toronto-based firm Stockwoods, who is representing The Walrus/CBC, argued that unsealing the information “poses no serious risk” to the Laans or their uncle and that the threat of vigilante justice is “entirely speculative and without foundation.”
“In fact,” Safayeni writes, “numerous media reports have linked the Laans to Ms. Lawrence’s disappearance over the past 20 years and no charges have been laid, yet there is no evidence that the Laans (or Mr. Allen) have faced any kind of threats or violence.” The possibility that that would happen now is “entirely speculative.”
Another point of contention between lawyers is the extent to which the police investigation remains open. In an affidavit filed in June, the OPP investigator currently assigned to the case, Rob Matthews, repeatedly describes it being active and ongoing. However, a source with knowledge of the case claims it hasn’t been active for years.
In his affidavit, Matthews points to other cases in which “advancements in technology” and suspects who “let their guard down” have led to convictions, suggesting that he hopes the same will be true with this case.
In a strange twist, Matthews, who was investigating the Laans’ retirement homes before Lawrence’s disappearance, was said by David and Walter to be responsible for “relocating” the missing seniors. Other stories told to police included that Lawrence, who subsisted off a pension cheque and rented an eighty-square-foot garden shed, had gone to Vancouver, Hawaii, and upstate New York. None of the leads were proven true, and in the almost twenty years since their disappearance, the missing seniors have never resurfaced. (Matthews declined to be interviewed.)
The portions of the search warrants that remain under seal will be challenged by The Walrus/CBC in a hearing later this month. Manishen’s objections will also be heard then. Despite considerable media attention in the case, Manishen is the first person to speak publicly on behalf of the Laans and their uncle, none of whom responded to repeated interview requests. When journalists from The Fifth Estate approached David in a Toronto parking lot this past summer, he declined to answer questions and drove away.
You can read the feature “Cottage Country Murder” here.