Feature

Cottage Country Murder

Police have dragged the lake. They’ve dug up property. They’ve brought in dogs. But after twenty years, they still can’t find the bodies of the four missing seniors in Muskoka

Illustration by Clay Rodery

Police descended on the farm at dawn, speeding past the gate and down the long driveway. Through her car window, twenty-eight-year-old Ontario Provincial Police detective constable Erin Burke appraised the mountains of junk that came into view—old snowmobiles, water heaters, drywall. The sixty-eight-acre property, located in Huntsville, about 230 kilometres north of Toronto, was being used as a de facto landfill. And somewhere among the rusted ruins, Burke believed, was the body of seventy-seven-year-old Joan Lawrence.

It was December 17, 1998. The previous morning, Burke had submitted a request for a search warrant, otherwise known as an “information to obtain.” In it, she outlined the facts of her then-three-week-old investigation into Lawrence’s disappearance. These notes and others—totalling hundreds of pages—were recently unsealed by a judge at the request of The Walrus and the CBC’s The Fifth Estate. The details contained within, which are currently unproven in court, offer new insight into one of Canada’s most notorious cold cases.

Lawrence was born in Ottawa in 1921. Petite, with brown eyes and grammar-school-neat handwriting, she had once worked as a poet and a copywriter. Lawrence got married then divorced, and, around 1963, she moved to the Muskoka area. Sometime after that, she began caring for the community’s unwanted litters of kittens. Neighbours described Lawrence’s pets as her “babies” and “family,” and she soon became known around town as “the Cat Lady.”

In 1997, Lawrence was having money troubles. She had been living in a local family-run retirement home, and she complained that her rent was taking up all of her pension. By September, she was living on another property owned by the same family. This one was a farm located on North Lancelot Road that often housed three to four elderly residents in several small outbuildings. Lawrence was given an eighty-square-foot shed to call home. It had no running water, provided little to no insulation or heat, and cost her more than $700 a month in rent. It did, however, allow her to live with her cats.

Police became aware of Lawrence’s living situation in September 1998 when a detective named Rob Matthews and the local fire chief visited the property. The two had been alerted to conditions on the farm by a social worker whose client had lived elsewhere on the property. They found Lawrence holed up in the shed with approximately thirty cats. Adult Protective Services started making plans to remove her from the farm. But Lawrence had previously told neighbours that she would leave only if she could find a place willing to accommodate her pets.

At around the same time, Lawrence was also speaking with staff at a Huntsville law office. She had gone to the office earlier that year, in June, to complain that her $744 income tax refund cheque had not arrived. Staff helped her track down the missing cheque and found that it had been issued and cashed earlier that spring. Apparently, the signature on the back of the cheque did not match Lawrence’s. Suspecting the money had been stolen, Lawrence and the firm began building a case to take to the OPP.

In early October, staff at the law firm told Lawrence that the paperwork for police was ready. But she never arrived to pick it up. Then, on November 25, another resident of the farm told his probation officer that he hadn’t seen Lawrence in a while. The probation officer relayed the information to police, and Burke was assigned to investigate a possible missing persons case.

Burke started looking into Lawrence’s landlords. She learned that the farm was owned by three brothers: David, Walter, and Paul Laan. The brothers’ uncle, Ron Allen, also lived on the property and would often drive Lawrence to the post office and bank in town so she could cash her pension cheques. Kathrine, one of the Laans’ sisters, owned Cedar Pines Christian Retirement Lodge, Lawrence’s previous home.

In the months before her disappearance, Lawrence had expressed concerns about some members of the Laan family. In a recent interview, Linda Charbonneau, who was the deli manager at a local grocery store in 1998, said Lawrence told her that one of her landlords had taunted her by stepping on her cats. Charbonneau also asked Lawrence why she used the restroom of a Huntsville fast-food restaurant to bathe instead of using the one in the farmhouse, where Ron Allen lived. Lawrence allegedly replied, “You just never know what he’s going to do.” Lawrence had also asked a social worker who lived nearby to call police if anything happened to her.

There were other strange details. Lawrence had instructed the post office to give her mail only to her “and not to the Laans.” For reasons that are unclear, David shared a bank account with Lawrence and had access to it through a bank card. Lawrence didn’t have a card of her own. Police documents note that someone was accessing the account via bank card around the same time that Lawrence was last seen.

After Lawrence was reported missing, police spoke with David Laan twice in two days. David provided numerous conflicting explanations about his tenant’s whereabouts. He said that Lawrence had gone into hiding and was wearing “a scarf over her head and dark sunglasses.” He said that she was living with a “woman named Hazel” or a “Scottish man named George.” David would eventually produce more stories, telling people that Lawrence was in New York, Vancouver, Hawaii. When police interviewed David on November 30, he claimed to have just been with her in Bracebridge, a town nearby. After insisting for more than ninety minutes that Lawrence was still alive, David left the room referring to her in the past tense. Over the years, David would tell at least sixteen different stories about where Lawrence had gone. None of them could be substantiated.

When officers arrived at the farm in December 1998 to search the property, they discovered that the space where Lawrence had been living was cleaned out. A source later told them that Lawrence’s clothing had been burned. Police scoured the woods and examined the buildings and vehicles on the property. A backhoe was brought in to dig; a helicopter flew overhead. After days of investigation, there was little sign of Lawrence. The officers later spent two weeks conducting a search of the lake that the farm looked out over. Despite their efforts, police still hadn’t found any possessions. Or a body.

Investigators did make one notable discovery, however. Lawrence had previously refused to leave the farm without her beloved cats. On the property, officers found more than half a dozen of them. All had been shot dead.

The Laans are a large family of Estonian Canadian heritage. Ain and Shirley Laan had seven children. David, now sixty, was followed by Walter and Paul, now fifty-seven and fifty-five, respectively. Kathrine was born on Halloween 1963. (There are three other Laan siblings, who were never involved in the Lawrence investigation.) The Laans became a fixture in Huntsville around 1970 after the family moved from southern Ontario to Ain’s father’s property—a wooded, lakefront farm on North Lancelot Road.

David, Walter, and Paul all attended public schools in the Huntsville area. Although athletic and good-looking, they seemed to escape the attention of their peers. (“If you hadn’t mentioned that Paul and I had been on the tennis team together,” a former classmate told me, “I would not have remembered.”) In his high school yearbook photo, David grins confidently, and his bio says that he’d like to work as “C.I.A. Spy Staff.” In their portraits, Paul and Walter stare blankly, listing no fond memories or plans for the future.

After high school, some of the Laans became known to police. David faced a charge of breaking and entering. In separate cases, Walter was convicted of breaking and entering, theft, and impersonating a police officer. And, by the time Kathrine was twenty-five, she had been convicted and served time in prison for possession, theft, and extortion.

By the 1990s, though, these Laans appeared to have become upstanding members of the community. David worked as an orderly at Toronto East General Hospital. Kathrine was voted onto the board of directors at the Muskoka Christian School, a private primary institution south of Huntsville. Walter and Paul were both plumbers and sometimes hired others to help them do odd jobs. Some of the Laans played together on a local softball team: Walter pitched, Paul was shortstop, and Kathrine and David could be seen cheering from the stands. The Laans attended a Seventh-day Adventist church in Bracebridge, and they seemed to have integrated so seamlessly into the community that Canadian Adventist Messenger—Canada’s official Seventh-day Adventist publication—regularly listed notices about the family’s births and marriages.

Around 1994, some of the Laans decided to go into the retirement home business together, ultimately running three residences in the Muskoka area. Cedar Pines Christian Retirement Lodge was located in Emsdale, a wooded hamlet just north of Huntsville. The home was run by Kathrine and housed about eight residents. Then there was Fern Glen Manor, also in Emsdale. It was run by Walter, Paul, and Kathrine together and had between eight and twelve residents in its ten bedrooms. The final home was the farm on North Lancelot Road—it was never advertised as a retirement property but would regularly house a few seniors. Altogether, there were about twenty residents living on the Laans’ properties at any given time.

According to police documents, Paul and Walter would drive to homeless shelters in Toronto’s east side to find residents for their homes. They worked their way past staff, and, describing themselves as “senior consultant and placement officers,” they looked for unaffiliated seniors who received Old Age Security and other benefits.

In its brochure, Cedar Pines advertised itself as a “Christian retirement lodge” where residents could expect an “attractive, affordable room.” It listed “qualified staff,” including nurses and “our own in-house dietitian.” Police documents—which contain unproven allegations—offer a different perspective. They describe homes with mattresses lying on the floor, “a foul odour” in the air, and underqualified staff who mostly left residents on their own.

Other documents state that the Laans hired family, friends, and acquaintances to work in their homes. It’s unclear whether these people had any prior qualifications. In 1994, one of the Laans’ old schoolmates, Jerry Carmack, became Cedar Pines’ “counselor.” In July 1996, Fern Glen Manor moved to a new address. Carmack switched to that property and was given the title “retirement home manager.” Still employed there three years later, Carmack told police that, for his job duties, he “prepares meals, cleans the house, [and] changes diapers on residents with no bladder control.” A woman named Milena Simik eventually replaced Carmack as Fern Glen Manor’s manager.

When the Laans opened their retirement homes, there was limited oversight of the industry in Ontario: there was no official agency that inspected homes, investigated issues, or revoked licences. Regulations consisted of a loose assortment of fire and building codes, tenant protections, and bylaws that varied from one municipality to the next. (The industry only received stricter oversight after the Retirement Homes Act was passed by the Ontario legislature in 2010. It was fully implemented in 2014.)

Illustration by Clay Rodery

In the summer of 1996, Kathrine asked a contractor named Geoff Vander Kloet to help bring Cedar Pines up to fire-code regulations. He declined the job; in 2002, he told the Huntsville Forester that the home was in “shambles.” When I spoke with Vander Kloet, he told me that the house was “disgusting” and smelled of cigarette smoke. He says that, as Kathrine was showing him around, he noticed people “just sitting there, incoherently. We were talking about different stuff, and they were laying on the beds just moaning and groaning.”

Life at the Laans’ farm doesn’t appear to have been much better. Joseph Paquin, the former resident whose social worker had called 911 (thereby alerting police to Lawrence’s living conditions) provided a bleak picture to investigators: for $400, he said, he shared a tiny cabin with another senior. Elderly and visually impaired, Paquin said he had cleaned out the cabin by himself in the middle of winter and subsisted on a diet of Kraft Dinner for nearly every meal. He told officers he had no access to a telephone and therefore “no way of getting help if an accident happened.” According to police documents, Paquin “was taken into town once in a while but after a short time, he felt that it was useless to go into town because he didn’t even have money for a cup of coffee.”

Betty Ireland, the wife of a Huntsville lawyer, once visited one of her husband’s clients at Cedar Pines, where he was a resident. She says that she discovered the man, who had been sober for twenty years, drunk. He had also reportedly given Kathrine $700 for a new furnace. (In 2011, Ireland told the Ottawa Citizen that, at the time, she “confronted two of the [Laan] siblings.” The money was later returned.)

Police documents include more allegations: there are complaints of jewellery going missing and banks cards being destroyed. One former resident told police, “the Laan’s [sic] are all crooks” and said that another senior living there had “lost everything to the Laan’s [sic].”

By the end of 1998, there were two concurrent police investigations into members of the Laan family: one probed whether residents in the Laans’ homes were victims of fraud and the other was regarding Lawrence’s disappearance. It was at this time that the Laans started getting rid of their retirement homes and leaving the Muskoka area.

In 1998, Kathrine sold Cedar Pines and moved to the United States. In 1999, Walter and his family moved to southern Ontario. Paul, meanwhile, left for Alberta with his wife in the early 2000s. Ron Allen, who, along with David, was listed in 1999 police documents as a first-degree murder suspect in the Lawrence case, seemed to disappear. Police have tried to track him down but have been unsuccessful. He is rumoured to now be living in Orillia, Ontario.

The Laans’ last active retirement home was Fern Glen Manor. In January 1999, a week before it closed, Burke went to interview the home’s remaining residents about Lawrence’s disappearance. One person she spoke with was sixty-nine-year-old Ralph Grant. According to police documents, they believe Grant entered the Laans’ care around the winter of 1998. People who knew Grant would later tell police that he couldn’t wash or feed himself and that he had difficulty speaking due to a surgery on his jaw. A week after Burke visited the property, Fern Glen closed, and its final residents moved down the road to the private residence of its final manager, Milena Simik.

In July 2000, police made a startling discovery: there were two more seniors who couldn’t be accounted for. One of them was ninety-year-old John Semple, who police believe had been living at Fern Glen Manor. Investigators think he went missing sometime between January and March of 1998. The other was John Crofts. Crofts suffered from bipolar disorder, and police think that he ended up at Fern Glen Manor sometime in 1997. They concluded that he was last seen in February or March of 1998, when he was seventy-one.

Then, in November 2000, police added another name to the list. When they followed up with Simik at her house that month, Grant was not there. At the time, Simik told Burke she didn’t know where Grant was. She said that he had not arrived at her residence when Fern Glen Manor closed, and, according to a record of her interview, she thought that detective Rob Matthews—who was involved in the case and had discovered Lawrence living in the shed—had relocated him. Police immediately began investigating Grant’s disappearance but could not find any leads.

There was another peculiar detail: after these three men disappeared, police say their pension cheques were still being cashed. And none of the Laans had ever reported the men missing.

In January 2001, Walter’s wife, Karen, was arrested and charged with committing fraud over $5,000, with the victim listed as one of the retirement home residents. Karen had originally purchased Cedar Pines with Kathrine, according to police documents, and a former resident told police she “did everyone’s income tax.” That April, Kathrine, who had been taking the government cheques of two other residents, was arrested and charged with fraud over $5,000. In the summer of 2002, Walter, Paul, and David were charged jointly with six counts of fraud over $5,000 and six counts of theft over $5,000, in what the media dubbed a “pension cheque scam.” Among the victims were Crofts, Semple, and Grant.

Walter and Paul pleaded guilty to their charges and received conditional sentences, restitution orders, and probation. Kathrine was convicted, and, according to court documents, she received a nine-month conditional sentence. David’s charges were dropped for reasons that have never been made public. The charges against Karen were also dropped.

In the almost two decades since Grant, Crofts, and Semple went missing, the seniors have never accessed their bank accounts or been seen in public. No bodies have been found, and no one has been charged in their disappearances. The police have discussed charges such as deprivation of the necessaries of life and criminal negligence, but no suspects have ever been named. Documents show that from the beginning, police have thought about Lawrence’s case differently—they believe that she was the victim of a homicide. The OPP refused requests for comment.

There are multiple police theories about what may have happened to the seniors. Retired officers told me they thought some of the bodies could be in a mass grave, or they could have been disposed of at the bottom of the lake that is adjacent to the farm. “[The bodies] could’ve been anywhere,” said Al Cronk, one of the officers (now retired) who searched the area around the Laan farm.

Investigators have tried multiple tactics over the years to get information from the Laans about the missing seniors. In December 2000, two years after Lawrence’s disappearance, Burke and another detective, Dave Dobson, drove to Paul’s house near Huntsville. David and Walter answered the door.

According to a transcript of the conversation, David told Burke that if she wanted to know where the four seniors were, she should speak with her colleague on the case, detective Rob Matthews. This seems to have become the Laans’ explanation for the missing seniors—that detective Matthews was involved in moving and hiding the seniors. “He knows where they all are,” David said. “He took them all away.”

Courtesy of The Fifth Estate / Lann family blog
The Laan family, at brother Paul Laan’s wedding. Kathrine Laan, Walter Laan, David Laan, Paul Laan, and Ron Allen are highlighted here. Courtesy of The Fifth Estate/Lann family blog

Burke replied, saying that never happened.

“Do you know where they are?” Dobson asked.

“Are we under arrest?” David replied.

“At this time, no,” Dobson said. The conversation shifted. “Where is Joan Lawrence?”

David told him that Lawrence was living with a “rich friend,” but he couldn’t say exactly where. Burke told David that police had followed up on every lead they’d provided and had still not located the four seniors.

“Where are they?” Dobson asked. “Are they all together or what?”

They went back and forth, and David didn’t answer.

“It’s a simple question,” Dobson said. He repeated it.

“You guys don’t have any problem telling the truth, right?” Dobson said.

“Four elderly people are missing under suspicious circumstances, and you won’t even discuss it.”

“Talk to Matthews,” David said.

The detectives left with no new information.

Burke told me the Laans’ story that Matthews had somehow relocated the missing seniors was not true. “They said that Rob had scared Joan off of the property, they said that Rob had taken Ralph Grant off the property, then they even said that Rob took all of them off the property,” she said. “That never happened.”

When media reported on the four missing seniors in 2001, Walter repeated the story that police had relocated the missing seniors, telling a Toronto Sun reporter that he and his family were the actual victims. Walter said that they tried to help Lawrence, “but it ended up backfiring on us.” He claimed that the kindness his family had shown her had been repaid with a homicide investigation. “Police were trying to sink us for these missing people,” he said, insisting the case was “really a dead issue now.”

That same year, Burke moved to Thunder Bay and eventually resigned from the OPP. The investigation into the missing seniors, however, continued. In September 2002, police once again returned to the farm to search for Lawrence’s remains. The Laans had sold the property in the intervening years, and it had since been subdivided, but police went through the original sixty-eight acres. They used ground-penetrating radar and a canine unit. Once again, they found nothing.

In 2006 and 2007, two different television crews tried to track Walter, Paul, and Kathrine down to ask them about the missing seniors. The siblings did not respond to those requests for comment. The Laans have mostly lived quietly ever since.

David and his family have lived on a lush North York street since 2002. Today, there is a David Laan listed as a “technologist,” a support-staff-like position, at George Brown College in Toronto.

In 2005, Walter was convicted of several armed robberies: in one case, he groped a man’s genitals before trapping him in a cold cellar; in another, he confined an elderly woman to her bedroom, bound her wrists and ankles, and remarked, “You have nice breasts.” He received statutory release from the Keele Community Correctional Centre in 2013 and began work for a heating and air conditioning company in Toronto. He was arrested again in 2014 for entering a home where his visit was not planned or expected. At a later hearing, Walter said the incident was a misunderstanding: he had done service work on the home, and he entered to ensure a tap he had fixed “was still working.” The charge was withdrawn in 2015. I observed Walter driving back to what appears to be his residence: a Salvation Army complex in Scarborough. Walter and David also now operate Esto Gas Service, a multiservice company. A website notes they offer a “Senior’s Discount.”

Paul and his wife have lived in South Korea since approximately 2006. In 2014, he completed his master’s in Christian education. He is listed as a faculty member at Sahmyook University, a private Seventh-day Adventist school in Seoul. A blog maintained by Paul’s wife shows photos of a smiling couple strolling the Great Wall of China and attending a baptism. The two have returned to Canada on occasion to attend family events.

A few years after Kathrine was released from jail on fraud charges unrelated to the retirement homes, she started teaching at a school in Barrie, Ontario. The media reported on her past legal troubles, and the school closed. She has since lived a nomadic life and changed the spelling of her name. Property and other records indicate she has spent time in Tennessee, Washington, Texas, Arizona, Florida, Toronto, and, most recently, Muskoka.

David, Walter, Paul, and Ron Allen have never provided a sworn statement to police regarding the disappearances of their residents. Neither they nor Kathrine responded to multiple requests for interviews. They also never responded to requests made through their lawyer. This September, journalists from The Fifth Estate approached David while he was in a McDonald’s parking lot in Toronto. He declined to answer questions, hid his face, and sped off in a pickup truck.

Detective Matthews is currently managing the case. In an email, he would only say that its “levels of depravity are truly astounding.” He declined to elaborate. Matthews did, however, say that he hoped justice would one day be served.

This past June, I was invited to North Lancelot Road by Tim Harrow. Harrow, a stocky, silver-haired fitness instructor, now rents the old Laan farmhouse. Shortly after he moved to the property in 2008, neighbours told him about its previous owners and Joan Lawrence’s disappearance. He began searching online and found the OPP’s missing persons bulletins and the cumulative $200,000 reward for information leading to arrests in the four cases. “I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is real,’” he told me.

Harrow said that people have refused to visit him because they believe the property is haunted. Ghost stories aside, the fact remains that no bodies have ever been found, which has been one of the biggest barriers to the police investigation moving forward.

The lack of information has been difficult for the family members of the victims. I met with Howard Grant, a cousin of Ralph, and he described the loss as a “tough old wound.” Barb Anderson, John Croft’s sister, said she’s been waiting for a call from police that explains what happened to her brother.

Ralph Grant would be eighty-eight today, and John Crofts would be ninety. Joan Lawrence and John Semple would be ninety-six and 109, respectively. Many of the Laans’ other former residents would be of similar age. The only people alive who might know what happened at the Laans’ homes may now be the Laans themselves.

At the farm, the rain, which had been pouring steadily since dawn, finally lifted, and Harrow led me around to the back of the house to the shed where Lawrence once lived. It’s changed little in the past nineteen years. The door, which had been too warped to close properly, has been taken off its hinges. Instead of being a makeshift home, the shed is now used to store tarp, vehicle batteries, bits of lumber, and an animal cage.

As Harrow and I stood talking, an orange tabby wandered up and stuck its head in the door. It stood there, whiskers twitching, for several seconds. Then it seemed to make up its mind, turned around, and disappeared into the woods.

Watch The Fifth Estate’s documentary on the four missing Muskoka seniors.

Zander Sherman published The Curiosity of School: Education and the Dark Side of Enlightenment in 2012.

Clay Rodery has drawn for the New York Times, The Atlantic, and HBO.

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