Police appeal for new information in decades-old disappearances in Ontario cottage country

Police in Ontario are appealing for new information in the suspected homicides of four seniors who mysteriously disappeared in cottage country more than two decades ago.

Ontario Provincial Police have long suggested foul play in the missing-persons cases of the following, who all vanished from the Muskoka area between 1997 and 1998:

  • Joan Lawrence, 77.
  • Ralph Grant, 69.
  • John Semple, 89.
  • John Crofts, 70.

On Thursday, police confirmed for the first time that all four cases are being investigated as homicides despite the fact no bodies have been found.

“We know the four people are not alive,” said OPP Det.-Sgt. Rob Matthews at a morning news conference in Vaughan.

Matthews said investigators decided to make their appeal now in hopes anyone who may have avoided speaking to police 21 years ago may reconsider.

“Someone out there has information,” he said.  “The time is right to come forward. Report what you may know to the police.”

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.

Matthews said no Laan family members who have connections to the cases — namely siblings David, Walter, Paul and Kathrine Laan, as well as an uncle named Ron Allen — have been forthcoming with investigators.

“These individuals have not co-operated with police,” he said.

While he would not confirm any members of the Laan family are considered suspects, Matthews would not say investigators have ruled out that possibility.

“It would be disingenuous to say the Laans are not of interest to us.”

The Laan family has since sold the properties and most have moved out of the Muskoka area, Matthews said.

The enduring cold cases were the subject of two The Fifth Estate investigations, Murder in Cottage Country (2017) and The Muskoka Murder Files (2018). They were also explored in the CBC investigative podcast Uncover: The Cat Lady Case released this summer.

“Cat Lady” is a reference to Lawrence, who was given the moniker by Huntsville locals who would often see her walking through town with grocery bags of food for her 30 or so cats.

Lawrence spent most of her last two years alive in an 80-square-foot shed without running water, insulation or electricity on the Laan’s farm property for $600 per month in rent, Matthews said.

Police believe her final days were spent in a derelict van parked about 600 metres from the shed on the same property.

Matthews said he believes Lawrence “met her end” on the farm, but would not elaborate further.

After she was reported missing, OPP searched the farm by land and air, and dragged the lake adjacent to the property, but never found any trace of her.

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