#27 – London’s Sordid Past – Part 2 – The Bedroom Strangler

About 200 km west of Toronto, lies the smaller city of London, ON, nicknamed forest city. This city has been connected to major metropolitan areas by freeways and highways since 1956, yet still separated and urban. The area is a perfect market test area as everything is ever so average: the economy, the demographics. It’s a beautiful location, surrounded by nature. But London has a dark and haunted past. We will be exploring a part of this dark and sordid past over a series of episodes. Travel with me today back to 1973 in London & Guelph, ON. This is episode #27 of True Crime Real Time, London’s Sordid Past – Part 2, The Bedroom Strangler.

Mary-Catherine was a petite, vibrant, and active young woman. She was in her 3rd year at Western University in London. Her older sister, Elizabeth, had already graduated from Western and moved to Toronto. Mary-Catherine and Elizabeth’s parents were still in Ottawa, but they had friends and family in Toronto. She was a middle child, having four siblings. Her dad was adamant that all his kids would have a degree; he wanted them to have the best possible future. Mary-Catherine stayed back in London in the apartment that she shared with a roommate, having just been accepted into her honour’s year. She was ambitious and a goal-oriented individual. She had already decided where she wanted to go and what she wanted to study for graduate school. She had decided to apply to Sorbonne University in Paris for Graduate school; she wanted to be a French professor.

It was a crisp October Friday night, and Mary-Catherine had just come back from a local bar where she was with friends for a drink or two to her ground-floor 2-bedroom apartment. Little did she know that someone had followed her home and watched from outside to see which room was hers. She made her way inside, got ready for bed, and switched off the light in her bedroom for the last time.

The next morning Mary-Catherine’s roommate came to wake her but discovered her lifeless body snuggly tucked beneath her blankets, a pillow partially covering her face and one of her schoolbooks open on the bed. Her bedroom was immaculate, not a thing out of place. Moreover, there was no forced entry to the apartment.

The police were called, they canvassed her neighbours in the building, took forensic photos, and the coroner was called to arrange for the removal of her body and to arrange an autopsy. An autopsy was completed taking into consideration there were no signs of violence or violence in the apartment; the death was ruled accidental. The coroner indicated that she aspirated after having an allergic reaction or suffering from an allergic seizure to prescription medication. According to a NAPSA conference in 2012, approximately 50 % of suffocated or strangled individuals do no show any outwardly or external signs, even when examined by a skilled medical professional. It would be another six years before the truth of her death would be known.

A month and a half later, on the 30th of November, 1973, about 120 kilometres away, in Guelph, Ontario, 42-year-old Alice Jane Ralston would be found dead in her bed. There would be no forced entry, and the apartment would be exceptionally tidy. The coroner would rule her death as natural and attribute her death to hardened arteries.

Approximately three months later, back in London, ON, 27-year-old Eleanor Diane Hartwick would be found tucked neatly under her covers in her bedroom of her Westlake Street Apartment, with an open paperback novel in her hands, as though she had died while reading a book. Again, the apartment would be impeccable and tidy, and there would be no evidence of forced entry. The London police attended the scene, canvassed her neighbours. The coroner attended as well and arranged for the removal of her body as well as organizing the autopsy. And, like Mary-Catherine, her death too was ruled as accidental, resulting from an allergic reaction or a prescription medication. Coincidently Mary-Catherine Hicks and Eleanor Hartwick were taking similar if not the same prescription medication.

Another four months would go by; the women in Guelph and London wouldn’t know there was a silent killer in their midst able to scale buildings and quietly letting himself into their apartments expertly.

In the summer of 1974, a 49-year-old mother of 5, Dodie Brown, was starting her life over. She had just recently separated from her husband of 30 years, found a job, and moved into a second-floor apartment with her two youngest children, Colleen and Laura. Her life was starting to take a turn for the better following the dissolution of her marriage. She was described as elegant and classy, a good mom, reliable and caring.

On Thursday, the 8th of August, Dodie’s youngest daughter Colleen was spending the night away visiting family, so Dodie and Laura had the apartment to themselves. It was an exciting time; Laura was turning 16 the next day and couldn’t wait to write the driving test to ger her learner’s permit. Dodie and Laura decided they wanted to be the first ones there in the morning to write the test so that Friday morning would be an early one.

With the next day an early one, they each retired to their adjacent bedrooms to go to sleep. Dodie set the alarm for earlier in the morning so she could wake up Laura to get ready to take her driving test for her learner’s permit first thing in the morning.

The following morning, Friday, the 9th of August, Laura woke up to the sun shining through her window and the sound of her mother’s alarm. She had a feeling of having overslept. She felt odd. It wasn’t like her mom to sleep in, and she wasn’t the type to sleep through an alarm.

Although apprehensive, she went into her mother’s room and saw her there, lying still in bed, completely tucked in, with the blankets up to her chin. Laura called her mom, but there was no answer; this was not good. She knew something was deadly wrong and was shocked and scared but made herself move forward to check more carefully. Laura shook her mom and called for her to wake up, but her mom was no longer living. Devastated and Crying, she called her uncle. It took a few attempts to get her voice out and for her aunt and uncle to understand what Laura was saying.

They arrived at Dodie’s apartment around 10 minutes later to find nothing out of the ordinary or disturbed. Her bedroom was in order and was neat and tidy. By all accounts, it looked as though Dodie had passed away in her sleep from a natural cause. Dodie’s brother called the coroner. When the coroner arrived, a precursory inspection of the room was completed. He noted prescription sleeping medication, which had recently been filled. However, only two pills were missing, nothing that would have caused a death. There was no outward evidence of foul play and no signs of forced entry or violent disturbances in the room. A small amount of blood was found under her body, in her mouth, as well as in her rectum; however, the police were not called.

As there was no visible evidence of foul play, her death was no reported in the media.

The coroner had concluded that her death was due to pulmonary oedema, which is an excess amount of fluid in the lungs. One cause of pulmonary oedema is strangulation.

But something would happen to their silent killer before the end of 1974. Something that would unravel his psyche and launch him into chaos, no longer grasping at the cold control he once had.

23-year-old Diane was a sweet, girl-next-door type of young woman, an only child, and her mother’s pride. Diane was starting a new chapter in her life; she just bought a new car and moved into a new apartment. She had been off work for two weeks around the Christmas holidays and was enjoying staying home and hanging out with her boyfriend. And nearing the end of the Christmas holidays, her boyfriend became her fiancé. On Monday evening, the 30th of December, James got down one knee, diamond ring in hand, and asked if Diane would marry him. She said yes. James would spend the night with Diane at her Drew Street Apartment in Guelph, ON.

On Tuesday, the 31st of December, they were both up and had an early breakfast together at 5:45 AM before James went into work. James (Britton) returned to Diane’s apartment at approximately 6 PM after his day at work. They were supposed to go to a New Year’s Eve party together. When he let himself in with his key, no lights were on, and the apartment was dark. He called for Diane when he entered her apartment, but she didn’t answer. It didn’t seem like she was home. Upon entering her room, he saw a large pile of blankets on top of the bed. He flipped on the switch and removed the bundled bedding and was devastated by what lay before him. There was his beloved Diane, naked, a pillow partially over her head, her bra still knotted around her neck and her wrists tied behind her back with her nylons. It was evident that she had been murdered.

When law enforcement arrived, they found one of Diane’s slippers outside of the apartment door; it’s twin by the telephone. A photographer came in to record the scene on film before any detectives could come in to inspect. After this, the apartment was dusted for foreign fingerprints. All these fingerprints would be cleared over the next three weeks. There was no evidence of forced entry, so initially, police theorized that maybe she knew her attacker. However, the room itself was very tidy, aside from the pile of blankets covering Diane’s body, as was her apartment. During Diane’s attack and the initial police presence, the cat remained terrified under Diane’s bed.

The neighbours were canvassed. A few neighbours stated seeing a dark-coloured 4-door Buick in the parking lot behind the apartment building between 4:00 AM and 9:00 AM with the motor running. The police searched for the vehicle registration records for similar vehicles like the one described by witnesses. There were thousands of results that matched, but none seemed connected to Diane in any way.

Her autopsy confirmed what police already knew, her cause of death was due to ligature strangulation. There were no signs of bruising around her wrists, indicating that they were bound after death. Additionally, there were signs of sexual assault after death.

After interviewing close to 200 people, the case started to go stale. Law enforcement felt that there was someone, somewhere in Guelph that knew what happened or had information. And, by the end of February 1975, the police offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest & conviction in connection with Diane’s death. Police were looking for a 4-door dark coloured Buick seen parked with the motor running at the back of the apartment building between 4:00 AM to 9:00 AM, the 31st of December, 1974.

Initially, her murder was erroneously reported Guelph’s first murder since 1967 as the other slayings were mistakenly attributed due to natural causes. Unfortunately, the police didn’t yet catch their man.

Another four months would pass, and another young woman would be found dead in bed. Her name was Luella. She was a 23-year-old country girl that had moved to London and had been living there for about one year. She was recently engaged. She worked as a cashier at the snack bar at the Victoria Hospital in London, ON. She lived in an apartment on the top floor (4th floor) of the apartment building directly across from the hospital. Many nurses and other employees of the hospital lived in this same building.

Luella was scheduled to work on Friday, the 15th of April. After not showing up, a co-worker became concerned and visited her 1-bedroom apartment to check up on her. She was found dead and tucked into bed on her top-floor one-bedroom apartment.

Law enforcement was called and attended the scene. Her apartment was dusted for fingerprints, and a forensic photographer recorded the scene on film. Her apartment was very tidy, and there was virtually no evidence of any a struggled, nor was there any evidence of forced entry. The other tenants in the apartment building were questioned; however, unfortunately, none of them heard or saw anything, and this avenue of the investigation was a dead-end.

While law enforcement was searching and canvassing the neighbourhood, they came across some jewellery and lingerie belonging to Luella that was discarded in the rubbish bin in an alley about two blocks away from Luella’s apartment building—giving law enforcement the murderer’s escape route.

Someone powerful had scaled the side of the building and let himself in through the unlocked balcony door when she was sleeping. She lived on the fourth floor of an apartment building.

Luella’s murder could have easily been mistaken for a ‘natural cause’ murder, as the killer reverted to the same MO as the first four silent murders. However, the theft of her jewellery and undergarments, proved someone had been there and had taken a souvenir. After this, the police completed a public service announcement warning about a nighttime intruder and provided a safety checklist, aka make sure all doors are locked, regardless if you are on the 15th floor of a High-rise.

Between April and July of 1977, there would be several reports to the police from women who awoke in their rooms to a dark and shadowy towering figure of what appeared to a man, who would flee the apartment as soon as he saw the women wake up. These were reported following the public announcement completed by the police. Law Enforcement would attend, but there would be no forced entry. I cannot say whether all or only some of these factually occurred; however, in June, a young lady was raped and strangled and left for dead in her bed in her high-rise apartment. The doctor had indicated that should have been strangled even a few seconds more; she would have surely died.

Two more women were similarly attacked in their bedrooms at night in their apartment buildings. Police concluded that these were all related and that the person they were dealing with must be robust and able to scale the sides of these buildings by climbing from one balcony to the other, standing on the railing of one balcony and pulling his weight onto the next balcony. One of the surviving victims was able to describe the perpetrator. She described a tall, strong man with defined muscles. Additional descriptions were provided for a composite sketch to be completed. But this wouldn’t be enough yet to catch their man, and unfortunately, another victim would die by his hands.

At 11:30 PM on the 15th of July, 1977, a man tried to get into an apartment building by buzzing a random tenant in an apartment building. When the young lady answered the buzzer, the unknown man identified himself as a police officer and asked to be let into the building. Feeling weary, the woman called the police to confirm the police officer’s name, but they denied knowing any officer by that name. At this point, this unknown man disappeared.

At this same time, 22-year-old Donna Veldboom said good night to her friend that she had spent time with that evening after work as it was getting late, and she needed to work the next day.

Donna had moved out of her parent’s home in the east coast province of New Brunswick for a better position with the gas station company that employed her. She had been living in London for about six months. Her apartment was located on Orchard Street. Living alone, moving furniture up or down flights of stairs isn’t always easy, so she felt lucky when a 30-year-old very fit and muscular man, named Russell had helped her when she moved in.

She was scheduled to work on the 16th, but she didn’t show up, which was very much, unlike her. After the morning and early afternoon passed with no communication from Donna, they couldn’t shale the feeling that something was wrong, so the concerned colleagues contacted the police and requested a wellness check.

Law enforcement went to her apartment and, when entering, found her dead in her bed, nude, with a massive slash across her chest. Her body had been bathed and placed back in bed and tucked in. The apartment was cleaned thoroughly, including the dishes and the towels used in washing Donna’s body was put in the communal laundry machine, indicating that the perpetrator was there for an abnormal amount of time. This information led law enforcement to believe that only someone with familiarity and knowledge of the building would be comfortable staying in the building for a lengthy amount of time, especially using the communal laundry facilities.

Donna’s parents were informed of their daughter’s death on the 16th of July.

At this point, law enforcement was confident they were dealing with a psychopathic serial killer who is physically strong, maybe even a bodybuilder, and who was obsessive-compulsive about cleanliness. After Donna’s death, the task force in place to find this killer grew to about 30 officers, working tirelessly around the clock to hopefully catch him before he strikes again. One of the things they do or try is to have several officers hold brainstorming sessions with some of the victim’s relatives /friends/loved ones to see if there are any common ground or other connections. What, if any, leads this provided, is unknown.

With no other leads at the time, they pulled a list of all current tenants of the building and saw a familiar name: Russell Maurice Johnson. His name was also on the list of previous tenants from Luella’s apartment building.

Coincidently, the items belonging to Luella that were discarded in the rubbish bin in the back alley were directly between Luella’s apartment building and the apartment building on Orchard Street, where Russell Johnson and Donna Veldboom lived.

Russell Maurice Johnson was described as tall, standing at 6’3″, handsome and an amateur weight lifter. Johnson was an assembly line worker at the nearby Ford plant, who had recently separated from his wife and son. He was 30 years old and an amateur weight lifter who spent a lot of time at the gym. He demonstrated obsessive-compulsive traits, where he would continuously be washing his hands. He was often described as lacking ambition, awkward who was often bullied, despite his size during school years. Guelph was his hometown, although he lived in London, he would travel back and forth between Guelph in London to visit family. 

Russell Johnson has a history of sexual deviancy. Law enforcement had already interviewed him as they were looking at all known sexual deviants, and he was on that list. Seeing as Russell had toes to Guelph, the London police called the police in Guelph to discuss him. While speaking, Guelph police informed that on the day of Dianne Beitz’ murder, Russell Johnson was the man that reporting luggage containing clothing was stolen from his vehicle after it was broken in to. Russell’s car itself is also similar to the one seen at the crime scene.

By the 3rd day after Donna’s death, law enforcement was able to connect Russel to the murders of Diane Beitz, Luella George, and Donna Veldboom. But, because all of their evidence was circumstantial, they didn’t want to move to arrest at this point and hoped to gather additional information or evidence. Therefore, he was put under 24-hour surveillance. Law enforcement had four different cars with two officers in each vehicle running surveillance on him continually.

During the observation, he exhibited strange, erratic, or abnormal behaviours; starting with excessively washing his hands. On several occasions, Russell would get in his car and drive to a random spot, get out of his far, frantically look around, maybe walk to the corner and back and then sit in his far for a while, as though he was waiting for someone and then drive off. This odd behaviour was done on more than one occasion. During the 4-5 days that they surveyed him, other than

being weird, he didn’t do anything that could be incriminating. Four days into surveillance, on the 28th of July, law enforcement became aware that Russell Johnson was planning on taking a holiday. They weren’t sure where he was going or even if he was coming back. So, although unprepared for the arrest, they needed to move now. Two chosen officers approached Russell’s door for arrest. Russell was calm and invited them in to clean up before going with them. His apartment was excessively clean and tidy. He immediately went to wash his hands before being escorted to the station by law enforcement.

Russell Johnson was taken into custody for questioning on the 28th. Law enforcement’s end-goal would be to get a full confession, as they didn’t have any physical evidence, only circumstantial evidence. His questioning would last at least 22 hours. During interrogation, Russell Johnson broke down in tears and confessed to the murders of Diane Beitz, Luella George, and Donna Veldboom.  

He indicated periods of calm and periods of uncontrollable violent urges. He told police that he would be “seized by an uncontrollable urge which drove him to scale apartment balconies in search of victims.” He would randomly walk and scale buildings looking for victims. He would go on to say that uncontrollable urges would overcome him, and he would find himself scaling apartment buildings going from balcony to balcony, looking for single women. He told the police that if he saw it was a family, then he would by-pass them. He also explained that he would get the same high strangling women as making tackles in football, just better because it lasted longer.

Concerning Diane’s murder, Russell indicated that he was in Guelph visiting his father. He provided a statement to the police that he had entered her apartment through the kitchen, presumably looking for a woman that he used to live with, and she discovered him. He then grabbed her and started choking her. He said that when he heard about her murder on the radio, he wasn’t sure if it was him or not. He had some dissociative disorder when he had violent psychotic breaks from reality.

As for Luella, Russell Johnson had scaled the side of the building, going from balcony to balcony, looking for an unlocked door and let himself into her apartment through the unlocked balcony door when she was sleeping. He would tell police that he didn’t remember getting into her flat, but that he did remember strangling her. After having strangled Luella, he tucked her into bed and straightened everything in the room.  

Russell Johnson gained access to Donna’s apartment by using his plastic time punch card from work to slip Donna’s lock. He told police that he let himself into her apartment while she was sleeping and initially just laid down in bed beside her to feel better, but when she woke up to adjust the fan, he started strangling her. After death, he slashed her across the chest in an attempt to cocoon himself inside, to again feel better.

He didn’t want her to be mad at him, so bathed her body and tucked her back in bed, so things would be as they were. He always cleaned after his assaults. He thought that by cleaning the apartments of his victims, they wouldn’t be mad at him.

There was much relief when he was caught. He was charged with 1st-degree murder for each of the three women.

Russell Johnson’s crimes had significantly escalated, and his mental stability decreased. He went from stealing underwear to breaking into apartments, staring at them while they slept. He started off stealing women’s underwear (before the age of 22). By the time he turned 22, he had progressed into full-blown sexual sadism. He had raped and strangled a girl, leaving her for dead, but she survived, and it was at this point he had checked himself into at the London Psychiatric Hospital in 1969, seeking help. There he was diagnosed as a sexual deviant. He stayed there for about one week and then had checked himself out. He would later tell the police that if he would have gotten the help he needed, then those women would not have been killed.

While he was in police custody, he hinted at other attacks and murders that he committed. To bring closure to these other cases, a deal was struck with Russell’s lawyer that if Russell admitted and provided statements to any other assault or murder, he would not be prosecuted for them. This agreement was accepted by both the crown and the defendant.

By the mid-1970s, he started murdering women. He admitted to the murder of Mary-Catherine Hicks, Alice Jane Ralston, Eleanor Hartwick, and Dodie Brown, sodomizing her body after death. All originally thought to have died from natural causes. He also confessed to approximately ten additional attacks & rapes on women while they were sleeping in their

beds.  

He was diagnosed with drug-induced schizophrenia, fetishism, sadism, voyeurism, and a necrophiliac. Other than the seven deaths that are attributed to him, he also is believed to be responsible for at least ten assaults on women, choking them to the point of them losing consciousness. He was brought to court and charged with first-degree

murder for the last three victims only. He was found not guilty because of

insanity. He is at a maximum-security facility at the Penetanguishene mental health centre now called Waypoint Centre for Mental Health care.

At court, Johnson said that he wasn’t trying to conceal the crimes when he tidied the apartments or covered the murder victims with bedding, but when the crime was over, he felt terrible and didn’t want them to hate him to he would tuck them into bed and clean their apartments.

Unlike regular federal prisons, there is no eligibility for parole. Once incarcerated there, you usually don’t get out.

With Seven murders and almost a dozen rapes, he is one of Canada’s worst serial predators.

Russell stood trial for the three murders before the supreme court of Ontario in January 1978, with a jury made up of 6 women and six men. He pleaded not guilty because of insanity. He was diagnosed with several things, including a mental disorder that manifests itself in the constant repetition of hand washing. He was diagnosed with sexual sadism, which is when someone has fantasies and get sexual gratification by inducing pain on someone else. Whether it be psychological or physical, he was also diagnosed with voyeurism, fetishism, sadism, and as a necrophiliac, which is someone who engages in sexual activity or intercourse with a corpse, as well as drug-induced schizophrenia or drug-induced psychosis. The symptoms of these, which are brought on by different legal and illegal substances, such as alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, and opioids, are Hallucinations, delusions, unusual or dysfunctional thoughts, and problems with working memory. Russell suffers from an acute episode of a psychotic nature in which he loses touch with reality. A psychiatrist who testified at the trial stated that Johnson was certifiable under terms of the mental health act. However, he was found fit to stand trial.

There was no question as to his guilt in murdering the three women, and law enforcement were convinced of the attacks & rapes that he admitted to, as well as the four other deaths. Both sides agreed that Johnson was mentally ill. The 6-man/6-woman jury took about 2 hours to deliberate, and he was found not guilty because of insanity. He was sent to the maximum-security wing at Oak-Ridge, the maximum-security wing of the Waypoint Centre of Mental Health Care (formerly Mental Health Centre, Penetanguishene), where he was going to be held indefinitely. At every hearing for transfer for a medium-security facility, the family of Russell’s victims attends, takes notes and sit in the benches, making sure their faces are seen by those making the decision. And despite undergoing chemical castration as well as take Lupron to reduce his testosterone, his bids to be transferred to a medium-security facility is denied, and he remains in the maximum-security wing. As for his remorse for the murders? He expressed some guilt, but in the same breath stated that he has moved on with his life; therefore, his victim’s families should as well.

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