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On paper, Joan Lawrence lived in a retirement home. In reality, she lived in a shed.

When a police officer visited the 77-year-old, back in September, 1998, following up on a welfare check, he was taken aback. The shed, on a farm property near Huntsville, Ont., was uninsulated and had no running water. It contained only a single bed and a primary-school desk, with a desk lamp plugged into an extension cord that ran through a hole in the wall.

Newspapers lined the floor, which was covered in cat urine and feces. There were more cats in the shed than the officer could count. The smell of ammonia stung his eyes. Ms. Lawrence told him she paid $600 a month to live there.

On Thursday – more than 20 years after Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Inspector Rob Matthews’s encounter with Ms. Lawrence – the officer appealed to the public for information in connection with what he now describes as her homicide.

Ms. Lawrence is one of four residents connected to a trio of Christian nursing homes in Muskoka, Ont., that are believed to have been killed.

Ms. Lawrence, 77; Ralph Bernard Grant, 69; John Leroy Crofts, 70; and John James Semple, 89, had all been living in homes that police say were collectively owned by four siblings when they disappeared around 1998.

All four were described by police at a news conference Thursday as vulnerable people. They had health and mobility problems, and had fallen out of touch with friends and family.

“They relied upon and trusted others for certain aspects of their care, sustenance, and shelter,” OPP Interim Deputy Commissioner Paul Beesley said. “Our goal is simply to find out what happened to these four souls."

The Laan family – siblings Kathrine, Paul, Walter and David – owned and operated three retirement homes, police said.

The first, Cedar Pines Christian Retirement Home, opened in Emsdale, Ont., in 1994. The second, Fern Glen Manor, opened in Sprucedale, Ont., and was later relocated to a remote property outside of Huntsville, Ont. There was a third property known as “the farm,” also near Huntsville.

It was in 1996 that Insp. Matthews (then a constable) first encountered the Laan family while investigating a fraud and theft case on behalf of the Muskoka Christian School.

The school’s treasurer was found to have misappropriated $30,000 from the school’s bank account, writing cheques “directly to herself as well as Cedar Pines Retirement Home.”

“This ultimately resulted in a successful prosecution through the criminal court process,” Insp. Matthews said Thursday.

On Christmas Day in 1997, Constable Matthews was called to Cedar Pines, after police received calls from administrators at a men’s shelter in Toronto, who were concerned about two men who had been taken from the shelter to the home by one of the owners.

Constable Matthews drove out to Cedar Pines and met the residents – including John Cross. But the two men who’d been reported missing were not there.

On Dec. 26, he received a call from one of the Laans, who told him that the two men he’d been looking for were at Fern Glen Manor – another retirement home they owned. When Insp. Matthews visited, the men appeared well-dressed and well-cared for, and said they were pleased with the accommodations. He left and reported his findings back to the shelter.

In the summer of 1998, police received more calls from concerned shelter workers in Toronto about the state of these supposed care homes. Residents were described as “escaping” the homes, sometimes in the middle of the night.

Around the same time, Constable Matthews was assigned to another fraud investigation, in connection to benefits theft. The victim was Joan Lawrence, who was known around Huntsville as “the cat lady,” because despite having little money, she would often feed her many cats before herself.

Constable Matthews knew of her, but didn’t know where she lived. It was on Sept. 24, 1998, when he visited the Laan family’s farm property with the local fire chief, that he discovered Ms. Lawrence was living in the shed.

Two days later, when Constable Matthews returned to the property with a public health inspector, Ms. Lawrence was gone and the shed had been cleared out. He was told that she had moved away. He has since discovered that she was moved to an abandoned camper van, just 600 metres away. She lived there for another two months before she “met her end,” he said Thursday.

By 2002, as a result of their fraud investigation, detectives had identified 46 residents who had lived on one or more of the Laan family’s properties. Of them, police determined that 12 had died. Their benefit cheques continued to be cashed, long after their deaths had been reported to the authorities.

Another four residents, they discovered – Mr. Grant, Mr. Crofts, Mr. Semple and Ms. Lawrence – were missing, though their disappearances were never reported to police. Their cheques also continued to be cashed.

Several charges were laid in connection to that fraud case in 2001 and 2002. While police said Thursday that those charges “resulted in successful prosecutions concluded through due process in court,” Interim Deputy Commissioner Beesley said they could not provide specific details due to the Pardons Act.

Their focus now is on what happened to those four missing residents.

“We are treating this as a homicide investigation,” Insp. Matthews said Thursday. “We know that the four missing people are not alive.”

All three of the properties were sold by the mid-2000s, police said, adding that the new owners are not connected to the investigation in any way. But they would like to speak with the Laans. Insp. Matthews said Thursday that they have not cooperated with police.

“It would be disingenuous to say the Laans are not of interest to us," Insp. Matthews said.

None of the victims’ bodies have ever been recovered, he said – though he said investigators have reason to believe they were victims of foul play.

Police are appealing to any former residents or employees who have not yet spoken with police to reach out to them.

“Someone out there has information. There is a possibility that there are past residents, or employees, or witnesses, who have not provided statements to police. We urge them to come forward,” Insp. Matthews said.

“It saddens us to know there are people out there who prey on the vulnerable, who don’t have the ability to look after themselves.”

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