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A My Favorite Murder recommended read
“A must for true crime fans.” – Booklist
“A truly impressive account of this dark chapter in [Ontario’s] history . . . Not just a sharp work of investigative journalism, The Forest City Killer is a poignant portrait of children and young people whose lives were cut short in horrific circumstances and a clarion call for long overdue justice. It is destined to become a classic of Canadian true crime.” Quill & Quire , starred review
Dig deep into the unsolved murder of Jackie English and join the hunt for a serial killer
Fifty years ago, a serial killer prowled the quiet city of London, Ontario, marking it as his hunting grounds. As young women and boys were abducted, raped, and murdered, residents of the area held their loved ones closer and closer, terrified of the monster or monsters stalking the streets. Homicide detective Dennis Alsop began hunting the killer in the 1960s, and he didn’t stop searching until his death 40 years later. For decades, detectives, actual and armchair, and the victims’ families and friends continued to ask questions: Who was the Forest City Killer? Was there more than one person, or did a depraved individual commit all of these crimes on his own?
Combing through the files Detective Alsop left behind, researcher Vanessa Brown reopens the cases, revealing previously unpublished witness statements, details of evidence, and astonishing revelations. And through her investigation, Vanessa posits the unthinkable: is it possible that the Forest City Killer is still alive and, like the notorious Golden State Killer, a simple DNA test could bring him to justice?
About the Author
Vanessa Brown has lived her entire life in London, Ontario. Her previous books include The Grand Old Lady: A History of Hotel London and London: 150 Cultural Moments , which was honored by the Ontario Heritage Trust. She is married to Canadian poet Jason Dickson, and together they own Brown & Dickson Booksellers.
Read an Excerpt
"London, Ontario, my joy, my sorrow."
— Orlo Miller
An introductory description of my hometown of London, Ontario — the Forest City — usually starts with population, geography, industry.
Halfway between Detroit and Toronto in a valley surrounded by moraines, bisected by the Thames River, at whose forks the city was founded.
The dried-up industrial background and economic struggles of the average mid-sized North American city, a thriving medical science community, a burgeoning tech sector. There's a university here.
This is all the boring stuff.
I've lived in London, Ontario, my entire life. People say it's a small town wearing big-city clothes. There are two Londons, really. One of them is packed with aluminum siding, chain restaurants, and big box stores. The other one is where I live. It's full of art and music and eccentrics. It's a community where everyone is only one or two degrees of separation from everyone else. My partner and I live in a downtown-adjacent pocket of tiny century cottages, and we make our living with our used bookstore on Richmond Row. Our social sphere is the local arts scene and have spent the past twenty years cultivating our obsession with London's past. Sometimes we joke that London is the real site of the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks.
In all sincerity, London has many similarities to that twisted small town. It has a wild vibe about it down by the river, where addicts and homeless people have set up camps, but where you can also see posh yuppies jogging along beautifully kept paved pathways. In the east end are modest, sometimes shabby, bungalows with faded plastic toys on the lawn. There are seedy motels with heart-shaped bathtubs, flea markets, and pawnshops. We also offer enormous beautiful mansions, shaded by heritage oak trees lining boulevards with cobblestone sidewalks. The summers are hot. The humidity is oppressive and the mosquitoes are massive. In the winter, you'll find yourself trudging through knee-deep snow. We're at the bottom of an ice-age valley, so your allergies act up like crazy. In between brutalist and ugly glass skyscrapers, two cathedrals chime the hours downtown and have done so for the past century; one of these has Tiffany stained-glass windows.
Such deep contrasts mean you can experience a lot of different ways of life here. I've hung around the corner of Dundas and Richmond streets (known locally as "DNR," for all the drug addicts found there) wearing a dog collar and smoking clove cigarettes, partying with ten homeless kids in a one-bedroom apartment. I've also had dinner at the university president's manor on the northern hill of the city, overlooking wealthy Masonville. Some of the homes in Woodfield or Old North are over-the-top gorgeous, with detailed paint jobs on nineteenth-century wooden gingerbread trim, cherry wainscoting, pantries stocked with fancy jars, and living rooms you aren't allowed to sit in. At one time, London had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the country. It also has about as bad a drug problem as Vancouver. Each aspect of the Forest City has its own lore, a cast of characters that is unforgettable, but perhaps only meaningful to someone who has spent a lifetime living here.
My irrational passion is hearing storytellers reveal the hidden layers of my hometown. While I grew up wanting to write novels, I've been heartily sidetracked by my irrepressible desire to hear old men (and women) tell tales. After spending eight years writing the history of a long-demolished hotel in downtown London, I focused on bookselling. Then I found out about the murders. Criminologist Michael Arntfield released Murder City in 2015, suggesting that London was the serial killer capital of Canada, if not the world. I devoured the book in a day or two, reviewed it for the London Yodeller, and then interviewed the author for the same publication. We carried the title in our shop, where I gladly talked about it with customers. I hopped online to see what other information I could uncover. This incredible list of unsolved murders that took place in the Forest City during the 1960s was a confluence of information that seemed expertly designed to grab me.
What really fascinated me was the idea that this massive cultural disruption could have happened in my hometown, that these killers had prowled the streets and taken victims with impunity, and no one talked about it. Even local history buffs like me didn't seem to know about it. It was hush-hush. Once I started to look for the evidence of this upheaval, it was everywhere and shockingly close at hand. The Big Three (as I call them in my head) were Russell "The Bedroom Strangler" Johnson, who climbed balconies up to thirteen stories to strangle single women while they slept; Gerald Thomas "Chambermaid Slayer" Archer, who hooked up with older female hotel and bar workers only to murder them in their homes; and Christian "Mad Slasher" Magee, who impulsively stabbed and raped women in the Strathroy area just outside of town. Most people in London, when prompted, knew about these psychopathic madmen. They remembered the news coverage. People even have personal connections with them. My sister-in-law's grandmother dated serial killer Russell Johnson during his murder spree. My mom's best friend woke up in the middle of the night with "Good Ol' Russ" standing over her. My ex-husband's aunt was the only survivor of murderer and rapist Christian "Mad Slasher" Magee, who left her for dead.
While these serial killers captured the imagination, the unsolved cases were even more intriguing to me. My parents had lived downstairs from murder victim Suzanne Miller when she disappeared in 1974, her car abandoned in the east end of the city, and her body found a month later. Customers at my bookstore eagerly opened up with very little prodding, sharing community rumours of who did what. A friend, unbeknownst to me, had been researching the murder of Frankie Jensen for decades. With all of these connections, how could a local history buff like me not have an inkling that this had taken place?
As I was growing up, my father, a federal fraud investigator, was a real educator when it came to the criminal life going on around us, despite the protestations of my mom. He told me about gangs and drug dealers and thieves, many who also committed the welfare and benefit frauds he put a stop to. We couldn't have Dad's name in the phone book because he testified against so many crooks, so our number was always listed under my mom's initials. I remember all the places he told me to avoid as a kid, only to realize now that they were the scenes of abductions or grisly murders. Perhaps because of its unique social geography, the degradation of mid-sized city economies, or the silo effect of the city's makeup, London seemed the perfect place for sex traffickers, drug dealers, and serial killers. They stopped here on their way through, as Ontario's superhighway 401 connects us easily with Detroit and Toronto. The Forest City was made a safe haven for the worst criminals by the covered eyes and ears of our citizens. Londoners can be remarkably incurious people.
Finding out about Jackie English was like wandering through Buffalo Bill's basement; there were all of these doors connecting rooms to one another, and behind each one was another appalling secret. Her abduction and murder were deceptively straightforward, but the circumstances around them were bizarre. Her story had the kind of twists and turns that even a veteran soap-opera scriptwriter couldn't make up. You think I'm exaggerating, sure. Every good storyteller begins a tale by saying, "You aren't going to believe this."
But really, you aren't.
After deciding to write a book on the subject, I reached out to Dennis Alsop Jr. He'd been in the news, having found boxes of files that belonged to his deceased father, a homicide investigator for the OPP. Detective Dennis Alsop Sr. and his partner, Detective Jim Topham, were the lead investigators on the 1969 murder of Jackie English. Dennis never gave up on the unsolved case; he continued to work on the files until his death in 2012.
I am a bookseller, but I don't just sell used books. I've been trained as an antiquarian bookseller. This means that I specialize in rare and antique paper materials, what people most commonly think of as first editions, signed copies, and old letters. I have a special relationship with stacks of old paper. It's my job to interpret them and find their value, not just from a monetary standpoint, but from a cultural one. The significant discoveries of lost manuscripts and letters have all involved one bookseller or another, and the 500-year-old tradition of our trade is all about recovering these materials and making sure they find the right home, usually in an archive or museum. It's our mission to salvage the scraps of paper people throw out.
So when Dennis Jr. walked into my bookstore holding two large file folders full of material, my heart beat extra fast. Anyone would be excited, but I was thrilled on a whole other level.
He was totally receptive to me, as, I learned later, he had been with everyone who got in touch with him. Dennis believes that he has a very special role to play in the transmission of his father's work to a new generation of people who might find answers. He's an imposing man, bald on top with messy grey hair around the back and sides. He's got age spots and expressive eyebrows. He has the kind of booming voice that would be great on the radio, and he absorbed many of his father's mannerisms, so that he gives the impression of having worked in law enforcement, which couldn't be further from the truth. I was grateful to discover that he's a born storyteller and needs only a bit of prompting to start laying out the history of his father and the Alsop family. He brought two files along with him to our first meeting — not that he'd let me open them that day. He dangled them in front of me, implying that he had to get to know me better first before showing me his secret stash. However, his choice of which files to bring along told me that I was on the right track.
When his father died, Dennis Jr. and his siblings helped their mother downsize and organize their father's possessions. That was when they uncovered three boxes of case files. Wanting to get to know his father better, and being curious like many of us would be, Dennis sat down and started reading. He read every word on every page in every file. The stories were incredible. Not only were there tales of derring-do from his dad's early years, but also detailed statements and information on cases that Dennis Jr. was pretty sure were still considered unsolved.
He hopped online and found a community of people on a website called Unsolved Canada. This website has been an incomparable resource for me. It's not Reddit, not Wikipedia. It's more than that. It's a place where victims' family members and concerned citizens gather online to try to solve these cases on their own. Although wack-jobs and troublemakers have poked their heads up from time to time, they are dismissed quickly when they reveal that they don't have a handle on the details or the deeper facts of the cases. The posters on Unsolved Canada are people whose respect you have to earn, by gathering new information, posting unseen photos, or offering a credible, detailed new theory on an unsolved case. What I discovered was that users such as Have faith and chickapey and, particularly, rkay had posted hundreds of scanned newspaper articles, photographs, obituaries, and detailed reports. They had subscribed to Ancestry.com to get more information on suspects and paid to get high-resolution versions of photographs from university archives. They treated the online forum like a special group project in which only the really devoted "armchair sleuths" could take part, and they'd been doing it for years.
Reading their posts after his father died, Dennis Jr. understood that the family members of the murder victims had no idea what had gone on behind the scenes. They had scoured every avenue for information, dissected newspaper articles, and demanded interviews with OPP representatives, but they were still missing huge pieces of the puzzle. He had information that could help give them peace, or at least answer some of their questions. But what was the next step? Somehow, just calling people on the phone out of the blue seemed like a really bad idea.
Then he read an article by Jane Sims in the London Free Press, printed on October 3, 2012. Sims wrote about the annual walk held by Anne English, where she re-enacts her sister's final steps across the Wellington Road South overpass where she was abducted:
Last year, English's sister, Anne English-Cremers, 59, of London decided to make that walk over the bridge herself in memory of a sister who never had a chance to reach adulthood. Halfway across the bridge, she had a sad epiphany. "That was the first time it clued in to me (that) she had no escape. There was nowhere for her to go when that car stopped but to get in. I just thought that would be horrible, what would you do short of jumping off the bridge?"
She's found new support in the past year from a group formed on the website unsolvedcanada.ca that is dedicated to digging into the case and looking for new information. English-Cremers said the group of five people has helped uncover some fresh leads. They call themselves the J.E. Crew ... English-Cremers can't explain why people have now come forward to review the evidence. "It took 43 years to find a group of people who could stay with the story," she said. "I am so grateful."
The reporter's email address was at the bottom of the article, so Dennis Jr. sent her a message. Jane Sims passed his information along to Anne English, and the two were finally connected.
Anne remembered Detective Dennis Alsop Sr. fondly and shared her memories of him with his son. Over the years, she had gotten in touch with Detective Alsop to ask questions about the investigation and find out if there were any new developments. "The case always bothered him," she said. To Anne, he was an ally in the search for answers. "I felt good when he was there. And I remember Jim Topham, and I talked to [him] within the last ten years. He talked to me, but he wasn't helpful at all." Detective Topham has never opened up about the case. I talked to a source about tracking him down for an interview but was told that at his advanced age, it might be better to leave him alone.
Dennis Jr. had information for Anne, information that could change her life and the lives of other victims' family members. Suddenly, Dennis Jr. felt the purpose of his father's legacy, the weight of it on his shoulders. This had all happened for a reason.
"I want the OPP to simply say, this is who we think it is," Dennis says. "We can't do anything about it; it's not gonna happen. We can't prove it, but we know it. And they don't have to tell me. I think they have to talk to the families. I think we have done a terrible disservice to people. They think they own the case, but it's not their case. It's the family's case."
Dennis and his wife, Sandy — nicknamed Sam — are easy to become friends with. They are agreeable people, a pair of boomers living in the suburbs, where the trees are large and developed and the 1960s-era bungalows are neatly kept with green lawns and perennial flower beds. It's the kind of neighbourhood that has a lot of swimming pools. Their home has been beautifully renovated, and in the living room is a World War II motorcycle that Dennis restored. He likes to sit on the back deck and chat with his wife while he smokes his pipe, and their little white bichon frise, Sophie, runs around their feet. Dennis always smells like pipe smoke, and his thumb is eternally yellow from packing tobacco into the wooden bowl.
I'd been at their house many times, but for our special interview about his dad and his family's biography, we set up shop in their formal dining room. It's brightly lit and friendly, decorated with Indonesian artifacts, old keepsakes his mother brought over from Holland. While we talked, Sandy puttered around and offered me coffee. Dennis settled into his oak dining chair and told me all about the hero of our story.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Forest City Killer"
Copyright © 2019 Vanessa Brown.
Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1 The English Girl 1
1 Meet London 3
2 Meet Detective Alsop 12
3 Meet Jackie English 18
4 Meet the English Family 27
5 The Disappearance of Jackie English 34
6 Jackie English Is Missing 42
7 Jackie English Is Dead 49
8 The Funeral of Jackie English 55
Part II The Mystery Murders 59
9 The Murder of Jacqueline Dunleavy 61
10 The Murders of Frankie Jensen, Scott Leishman, and Helga Beer 74
11 The Disappearance of Lynda White and the Murder of Bruce Stapylton 88
12 Welcome to Stanley Variety 99
13 Detective Alsop Investigates 107
14 Sightings of Jackie English 118
15 Meet Marilyn Hird 126
Part III The Fryer Affair 141
16 The Attack on Betty Harrison 143
17 The Conspiracy Forms 154
18 Meet Glen Fryer 167
19 The Trial of Glen Fryer 183
20 The Disappearance of Soraya O'Connell 206
Part IV Where It All Began 215
21 The Disappearance of Georgia Jackson 219
22 The Body of Georgia Jackson 228
23 Meet David Bodemer 238
24 The Confession 247
25 The Trial of David Bodemer 257
Part V What Follows 273
26 Fire! 275
27 The Residents of 133 Elmwood 284
28 A Strange Friendship 288
29 Another Possible Confession 294
30 Skeletons 297
31 The Murder of Donna Awcock 303
Appendix: David Bodemer's First Confession 330
Selected Sources 333