In the 1960s, eight people – Jackie English, Jacqueline Dunleavy, Lynda White, Soraya O’Connell, Frankie Jensen, Scott Leishman, Helga Beer, and Bruce Stapylton – were murdered in and around the city of London, Ontario. To this day, no one has been brought to justice for these vicious crimes, but they haven’t been forgotten. In her new, densely packed work of true-crime reportage, Vanessa Brown sorts through personal and institutional memories, witness interviews, rumours, and hearsay to compile a truly impressive account of this dark chapter in the province’s history. Aided by access to the files of the late detective Dennis Alsop, who worked the cases, Brown tracks down new sources and acquires statements from people never interviewed at the time, asking hard questions of families and suspects alike.
True-crime aficionados will likely already be familiar with stories that cast London as a hunting ground for possibly multiple killers in the 1960s and ’70s. Situated equidistant from Detroit and Toronto, with travel made easy by the construction of a brand new highway, the small city became a locus for mid-century sexual homicides that left the Ontario Provincial Police and the London police stumped and haunted. Were they looking for an outsider? Or, worse, someone within their own community?
Brown contends that instead of assuming multiple perpetrators, police should have been looking for one individual, whom she dubs the Forest City Killer (in the vein of the notorious U.S. serial murderer known as the Golden State Killer). Brown believes this person is local, perhaps still alive, and that out-dated theories about victimology have resulted in confusion, sending various law enforcement agencies in too many erroneous directions. Brown gets into the weeds while delving into the case, taking detours to examine some shady characters who inhabit the periphery of English’s murder. (The disappearance of English is Brown’s touchstone for her exploration of the potential serial killings.)
Brown’s abilities as a researcher and storyteller are obvious. Using interviews, newspapers, archival photographs, and personal anecdotes, she lays out complicated and interwoven narratives clearly and concisely. She deftly addresses the reader’s morbid curiosity without degrading the victims – a real talent in the true-crime genre. And she conveys the emotional pain of families whose lives were forever changed by these events. 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.