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Lori Leckie at the site along Heart Lake Road in Caledon, ON where the body of Kera Freeland was found. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Lori Leckie at the site along Heart Lake Road in Caledon, ON where the body of Kera Freeland was found. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

crime

Locals fear mounting body count in idyllic corner of GTA Add to ...

Joe Colucci was arranging a rock garden around a spruce tree in his front yard a year and a half ago when he heard the thumping of a helicopter overhead.

Though he had only recently moved onto a 12-acre lot near the north end of Caledon, he already knew the building and zoning codes of the picturesque area were strict.

As the helicopter got closer he wondered for a moment if his landscaping was an aesthetic violation of some sort.

Seconds later, when the helicopter was practically grazing the top of the tree, he knew something more serious was at hand.

For a week, news reports had been revolving around Sonia Varaschin, the 42-year-old nurse from nearby Orangeville who had gone missing from her blood-stained townhouse.

A dog walker had just found Ms. Varaschin’s remains 500 metres west of Mr. Colucci’s house.

Last week, police identified another set of human remains found 10 kilometres south of Mr. Colucci’s property as those of Poonam Litt, a 27-year-old mother who disappeared from Brampton three years ago. That brings the number of bodies found dumped or left for dead in the Caledon area to eight in the last five years. It’s a rate double that of the much larger rural Durham on the other side of the GTA, and it’s a tally that is bringing unwelcome notoriety, and more than a little anxiety, to this quiet area of forested hills and horse stables.

For four years running, Maclean’s magazine has rated Caledon the safest place in the country. It’s an area where farms that have been in families for generations share fences with the country estates of Toronto’s wealthy. People are here to avoid the city, whether as a way of life or just on weekends. Either way, strolls down quiet country lanes here are not supposed to end with a call to police to report a decomposing body.

A four-foot white cross now stands at the roadside around the corner from Mr. Colucci’s house. Tacked to it are some plastic flowers and a photo of Ms. Varaschin skiing.

Mr. Colucci says he put flowers at the cross when it went up, and he crossed himself the first few times he passed it, but now he hardly notices it.

His wife Janet doesn’t notice it much either, but that’s because she doesn’t drive or walk down that road any longer. Their daughter, Barbara Angelou, is similarly affected.

“I find myself noticing details now, like if I pass a stopped car on the road, I’ll note what kind it is,” she says. “It’s still a peaceful place, I’m just not as free-minded as I was when we moved here.”

How many more are out there?’

“If they had just put the body on the other side of the road, in the swamp, no one would have found her,” says Mr. Colucci as he looks across the road where a bank of trees hides the kind of unvisited wetland common in Caledon.

The likelihood that undetected remains are out there is something Lori Leckie thinks about a lot.

“How many more are out there?” she wonders. The marketer who is in her forties moved to Caledon from Brampton six years ago because she was “tired of the congestion and wanted some peace and serenity.”

She says she doesn’t go on her five-kilometre trail walks any more. Instead she goes to the gym.

“It was getting to be a morbid pastime for me,” she says. “I’d be wondering, ‘Is there going to be a body in a ditch up there?’”

Ms. Leckie stresses that she is not paranoid. It’s just what comes from having ice-skated on the pond at Palgrave on Highway 50 where police found the body of Raquel Junio after she was abducted from her Brampton home in 2011. Her estranged husband has been charged.

Even closer to home, the ditch on Heart Lake Road where last spring a pedestrian spotted the body of 20-year-old escort Kera Freeland, is just a five-minute walk from Ms. Leckie’s front door.

The cases of Ms. Freeland and Ms. Varaschin are the only two in which no arrests have been made. Ms. Leckie says that only increases her aversion to the site.

“There is still police tape blowing around. It’s a sombre feeling to pass a place where a woman’s body was disposed of after being murdered.”

Inspector George Koekkoek of the Peel Regional Police says the bodies are ending up in Caledon because of the forested roads and large spaces between the homes.

“If you drive north from the city, it’s the first isolated pocket where there’s less chance of someone coming down the road while you get rid of a dead body,” says Insp. Koekkoek.

Ms. Leckie isn’t fatalistic about Caledon’s empty roads being convenient dumping grounds.

“We have to be more vigilant,” she says. “If you are up at two in the morning and you see a car on the side of the road, make a note of it so you can report it.”

That heightened level of community concern is something Erica Pratt witnessed last year, shortly after Ms. Freeland’s remains were found. Ms. Pratt, a 64-year-old artist, was out jogging near her house when a car slowed down behind her and finally stopped.

“A woman got out of her car and told me that they had just found a body nearby and that I shouldn’t be out jogging alone,” says Ms. Pratt.

Ms. Pratt hasn’t stopped jogging alone. She, like anyone else you ask in the area, will tell you that as grisly as these discoveries are, they are just the disposal portion of violent acts that have been perpetrated elsewhere. In all but one of the eight cases, it’s believed the victims were murdered outside of Caledon.

Statistics Canada reports that for 2010, the most recent year of records, Caledon’s spread-out population of nearly 60,000 people saw only two homicides (one of the victims, Sonia Varaschin, was likely murdered in Orangeville, but because the murder remains unsolved it goes on the books where she was found). There were no attempted murders, abductions, aggravated assaults or aggravated sexual assaults.

As Ms. Leckie puts it, “We don’t kill anybody in Caledon. It’s the safest city in Canada.”

Keeping the city at bay

“Development is a big issue here,” says Andrew Livingstone, a reporter for the Caledon Enterprise. He explains that each new discovery brings unease about whether suburbs encroaching from south and east will corrupt the bucolic character of these rolling hills. Some in the community can’t help but wonder how long Caledon can resist big-city problems.

It’s a topic apparently familiar to the self-proclaimed “Bitch and Toot” club eating lunch at Terrapin Station Café, two kilometres south of the town of Caledon East.

The four retired men, all farmers at one time or another, are happy to let their meals get cold while listing the ways life isn’t like it used to be.

Bill Colclough, now in his sixties, taught at Mayfield Secondary School, on the border with Brampton, in the late 1980s. At the time, almost all students were from nearby farms. “Now, farm boys are the exception,” he says. “The serenity is leaving. The last few decades have taken a lot of the quiet away.”

But while Caledon is feeling the influence of changes around it, strict conservation regimes protecting the Oak Ridges Moraine and Niagara Escarpment might prevent development from penetrating too deeply into these hills. The men run out of fingers on one hand when counting the number of agency approvals needed to install a septic system here.

It’s because of its rough topography that Caledon is full of places for outsiders to dump bodies. Now with that same topography protected, Caledon has help keeping the city at bay.

Back at the north end of the Caledon, Mr. Colucci says the area reminds him of Brampton 34 years ago.

“When I moved there, it was like this place is now, quiet,” he says. “Now, down there, you’ve got to watch who you’re talking to.”

He’s not happy about the bodies, nor about zoning regulations that prevent him from severing his lot or putting up another building. On balance, though, he says he’d rather live in a place where dead bodies appear, not where they disappear from.

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