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UCF #104200085

Strange: Joan Lawrence 'Cat Lady' And 3 Seniors Mysteriously Vanished

Joan Lawrence

Joan Lawrence

Huntsville (Muskoka Region), Ontario — Last known to be living on the property of the Laan family touted as a retirement home, Joan Lawrence, 77, was paying $600 in rent for an uninsulated shack without running water, heat, or electricity. It is believed that Lawrence, a "cat lady," selected this accommodation to keep over 30 cats as pets.

Born in Ottawa in 1921, Lawrence moved into "Cedar Pines Christian Retirement Lodge," a retirement residence owned by Kathrine Laan in 1997. Later that year, she moved onto property owned by Kathrine's brothers, David, Walter, and Paul Laan. According to community members, the "Laan farm" was the only place she could keep her cats.

In September 1998, a social worker alerted police to conditions on the Laan farm. Police and the fire chief attended, discovering Lawrence in the shed. Adult Protective Services was notified, and began making arrangements to find Lawrence another home. In the meantime, Lawrence was moved from the shed into a decommissioned van on the same property.

Cat Lady and 3 Seniors Vanished
The OPP release pictures of a van which Joan Lawrence was moved to following Det. Rob Matthew's visit to the shed she occupied in the fall of 1998. July 2019. - OPP /photos

After being reported missing on 25 November 1998 by 57-year-old Allan Marshall, a former limo driver who also resided on the Laan farm and had become close with Lawrence - who also told police he heard gunshots and saw a backhoe being operated around the time of Lawrence's disappearance, the resulting Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) investigation did not locate Lawrence's body but found half a dozen of Lawrence's cats had been fatally shot. Police also identified three other residents - John Semple (90), John Crofts (71), and Ralph Grant (70) - as missing. Their pension cheques, however, were still being cashed.

Like other Laan residents, the missing men were marginalized, and had been brought to Muskoka from homeless shelters in Toronto. These men's pension cheques continued to be cashed although they had not been seen on the Laan property or elsewhere. The Laans had failed to report that they were missing. This led police to uncover a "pension cheque scam," and charged David, Walter, Walter's wife Karen, Paul, and Kathrine with defrauding the federal government of the benefit money it was providing Semple, Crofts, Grant, and other residents who had died or were missing. The charges against David and Karen were dropped, but Walter, Kathrine, and Paul pled guilty. No one has faced charges in Lawrence and other three seniors' disappearance.

Cat Lady and 3 Seniors Vanished
From left, Joan Lawrence, Ralph Grant, John Crofts and John Semple are the four seniors who vanished while living in Muskoka residences owned by the Laan family. Police said their disappearances are being investigated as homicides. (OPP)

All four of the suspected victims lived in squalid properties owned by members of the same family when they vanished.The Laans operated two seniors' residences and a 27.5-hectare farm near Huntsville, about 230 Kilometres north of Toronto. "We know the four people are not alive," said OPP Det.-Sgt. Rob Matthews at a morning news conference in Vaughan. "Someone out there has information," he said. "The time is right to come forward. Report what you may know to the police."

Police documents obtained by The Fifth Estate showed that at least one detective at the time believed Lawrence was killed to "prevent her from reporting frauds, thefts, mistreatment and neglect she was enduring" from her landlords.

Cat Lady and 3 Seniors Vanished
Prior to her disappearance, Joan Lawrence rented this uninsulated shed near Huntsville, Ont. (OPP)

Linda Charbonneau, who had befriended Lawrence, expressed sadness when she learned that police were simply making a public appeal for any information about the case. "I was hoping it would be something better than that," she said. "I was hoping that they'd say maybe someone came and confessed. Or have somebody in custody." Linda got to know Lawrence after she would come every morning into the grocery store where Linda worked. "Somebody needs to come forward and let's put these seniors to rest and get the case solved."

Identified early as a suspect, Raymond Joseph Cormier was charged, but in February 2018, a jury acquitted Raymond, who had been charged with second-degree murder in her death.

The Laans' retirement homes were shut down by the authorities. After serving conditional sentences, Walter, Paul, and Kathrine moved away from Muskoka, as did David. No one in the family has ever provided a sworn statement to police or cooperated with the investigation. In 2001, Walter Laan told the Toronto Sun that "Police were trying to sink us for these missing people." He added the case was "really a dead issue now."

Michael Barson

Michael Barson

See more Case Files contributed by Michael Barson.

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