This story was originally published March 17, 2007
In March 1997, Barb Anderson helped her 69-year-old brother, John Crofts, board a bus to Toronto from her hometown of Peterborough, Ont. She would never see him again.
John Crofts had been a drifter – living in men’s shelters and seedy rooming houses in Toronto’s downtown. Over the course of Crofts’ troubled life, his family had tried to care for him, but mental illness had made that difficult.
Barb Anderson says she received a shocking phone call from the Ontario Provincial Police in 2001. Police told her that John Crofts was missing – in Huntsville, Ont. In fact, he’d been missing from there since the winter of 1998.
But why had he been in Huntsville? And why had the disappearance gone unnoticed for so many years?
The answers to those questions are connected to a string of disappearances in the Muskoka area north of Toronto between 1998 and 1999. Four senior citizens went missing without a trace – and their whereabouts are still unknown.
For the first time in their 9-year investigation, the Ontario Provincial Police tell W-FIVE what they think happened. “We’re treating this as a homicide investigation,” says Detective Inspector Dave Quigley.
Four senior citizens missing and presumed dead – John Crofts, who was 70-years-old at the time of his disappearance, 89-year-old John Semple, 69-year-old Ralph Grant, and 77-year-old Joan Lawrence. All had something in common. They were alone in the world – cut off from family and friends because of mental illness and old age.
No one has ever come forward with key information about what happened to them.
But all four of the seniors did share one other thing in common—they were connected to a family, the Laans—who owned and administered Christian seniors’ residences near Huntsville.
The three men lived at one of these residences before they disappeared. Joan Lawrence, a local celebrity known as the Cat Lady for her dozens of cats, lived in a garden shed on the family property.
In 2003 and 2004, the Laan siblings—Kathrine, Walter and Paul—were convicted for embezzling money from seniors who had resided at their retirement homes. The Laans had been depositing old age security and pension cheques from their elderly clients into their own accounts – stealing from people who had died of natural causes and from the three men who had disappeared. They had never reported them missing. The Laans were given conditional sentences.
For almost a decade, the OPP have interviewed dozens of people regarding the disappearances. They’ve heard many stories about what supposedly happened to the four missing seniors, and have thoroughly investigated the leads.
“They have not been returned to family members, they have not been brought to group homes or hostels in Toronto,” says Dave Quigley of the OPP.
Did the missing seniors wander into the bush? Did they die of natural causes, their bodies dumped? Or were they killed? And who, exactly, is responsible? The secret seems protected by a conspiracy of silence.
Barb Anderson, John Crofts’ sister, just wants to know what happened to her older brother. “We want to give him a proper burial and we can’t put a closure to it,” she tells W-FIVE.
Dave Quigley of the OPP believes that the mystery can be solved. “We need someone to come and help us because somebody knows what happened to these people, someone knows where they are – and I’m optimistic,” he tells W-FIVE.
Barb Anderson also remains hopeful.
“It’s been 8 years so – but I hope somebody does find some of the remains up there. Eventually they will, you know,” she says.