In the 1970s, four women were found dead in their apartments in London, Ontario. Pathologists determined they died of natural causes. But when three more women turned up dead with obvious signs of foul play, the community discovered something far more sinister was taking place. This is the unsettling case of the Bedroom Strangler.
In this episode
In the early 1970s, women in the Ontario cities of London and Guelph were being attacked and sexually assaulted in their apartments in the middle of the night. Some women awoke in time to see a dark figure looking down at them before slipping out of their bedroom and disappearing, some women would get up in the morning to find things in their bedroom had been rearranged and their balcony doors wide open, and nearly a dozen women woke up to find a stranger in their bed, assaulting them. But it was only a matter of time before this serial offender would escalate.
Between October 1973 and August 1974, there was four cases of women who were found dead in their apartments with no suspicion of foul play. The coroners ruled the deaths of these victims as accidental or natural causes. In reality, these women were murdered, but the police wouldn’t realize this for another three years. These women are known as the “Natural Causes” victims.
The first of the four “natural causes” victims was Mary Catherine Hicks in London, Ontario, a 20-year-old senior at the University of Western Ontario.
On the morning of October 19, 1973, Mary’s roommate tried to wake Mary up but realized she wasn’t breathing. She called police and paramedics, but Mary had been dead for some time. She was in her bed laying in a natural sleeping position with no obvious signs of a struggle or foul play. There was a pillow partly covering her face, but it wasn’t considered suspicious. Since there was no sign of a struggle or forced entry into her apartment, pathologists declared Mary’s death was attributed to suffocation caused by an allergic reaction to a prescription drug.
The second victim was 42-year-old Alice Jane Ralston. On November 30, 1973, Alice was found dead in her Guelph apartment. There were no obvious signs of trauma or violence, and the cause of death was attributed to hardened arteries, a condition Alice was known to have suffered from.
The third victim was 27-year-old Eleanor Diane Hartwick. On March 4, 1974, Eleanor was found dead in her London apartment. She was laying in bed with a book in her hand as if she had fallen asleep reading. Like Mary Hicks, Eleanor’s death was attributed to an allergic reaction to prescription drugs.
The final of the “Natural Causes” victims was 49-year-old Doris Ethel Brown – people in her life called her “Dodi” so I’m going to as well. Dodi had recently separated from her husband of 30 years and was living in a 2nd-floor apartment with her 2 daughters, Colleen and Laura. She had started a new job and was looking forward to a new life. Dodi was involved in her church, and people in her life described her as a graceful and refined woman.
On August 8, 1974, Colleen was away visiting relatives. Laura was turning 16 the next day, and Dodi and Laura had planned to go to the Ministry of Transportation the next morning so Laura could get her learner’s permit. The next morning, August 9th, Laura woke to the sound of Dodi’s clock radio going off. When she entered her mother’s room, she saw her laying with her blankets tucked up under her chin and knew immediately that something was wrong.
Although the pathologist discovered minor abrasions to Dodi’s body, blood in her throat and rectum, a small amount of blood underneath her body, and was of the belief she was most likely sexually assaulted after death, there was apparently nothing to suggest there had been a struggle or foul play, so police were never notified to investigate, and the pathologist attributed Dodi’s death to pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs).
The first 3 victims and associated crime scenes were meticulously attended to, so even though Dodi’s murder was far more vicious and frenzied, and it was obvious the killer was changing their behaviour, the police still had no idea they were dealing with a serial killer who had just taken the life of their fourth victim.
By the end of 1974, the killer’s crimes had escalated again, and their next three victims suffered violent deaths and post-mortem sexual assault. The deaths of these 3 victims were dubbed “the Vicious Murders”.
The first of the “Vicious Murders” was 23-year-old Diane Beitz. Diane was described as ‘the girl next door’. Her boyfriend, James Britton, who went by Jim, had proposed to her on December 30, 1974. Diane said yes and they had planned to be married in May of 1975.
Early the next morning, December 31st, at 3:30 am, the superintendent of Diane’s Guelph apartment reported he looked out his window and saw a brown Buick idling with one person in the driver’s seat. Other residents in the building also remember seeing a brown car in the parking lot between 4 and 8 am the same morning. An exhaust stain in the snow corroborated these reports and showed that the car had been idling for a while.
At 5:45 am, Jim and Diane enjoyed an early breakfast in her apartment before he left for work. Diane was taking a Christmas vacation from her job at Cable 8 Television in Guelph and told Jim that she was going to do laundry that day, and then get ready for the New Year’s Eve party they planned on attending that night.
At 6:15 am, Jim left the apartment to go to work in Mississauga.
At 10:30 am, police responded to a call about luggage stolen from the caller’s car just a few blocks away from Diane’s apartment.
At 6 pm, Jim returns to Diane’s apartment. He finds clothes soaking in the sink, overturned furniture, and heads to the bedroom to look for Diane. He finds her naked in her bed under a bunch of blankets. She was dead, and she was laying with her arms bound behind her with a pair of nylon stockings and her bra was knotted around her neck.
Jim immediately called the police. Upon their arrival, investigators found one of Diane’s slippers outside her apartment door. They entered her apartment and were puzzled by how tidy the crime scene was. There was no sign of a struggle or robbery, so Police chief Robert McCarron speculated Diane knew her killer, suggesting it could be a former boyfriend or friend, or she had answered a knock at the door where she was immediately seized by the perpetrator. Other tenants hadn’t heard anything, so the only witness to what had happened in the apartment was Diane’s cat.
The autopsy put the time of death at 2 pm. It revealed a few bruises, and the pathologist reported that Diane was carried to the bedroom and strangled with her bra. She was bound and raped post-mortem.
The police carried out an extensive investigation where detectives questioned more than 200 people, searched for the dark-coloured, four-door Buick that was seen parked at the rear of the apartment building, and offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the killer. As local residents were now aware of the tragedy, a delivery driver called police to let them know he had dropped off flowers to Diane a few days before her murder. Police looked into this lead and learned that the flowers were not sent by Jim, but an unknown stranger. Despite the intense investigation, the case went cold.
The second of the “Vicious Murders” was 23-year-old Luella George. Luella was a country girl who wanted to move to the city and chose London for its size – not too big, not too small. She was engaged and worked as a snack bar cashier in a hospital on Grand Avenue and lived on the 4th floor in an apartment building directly across the street.
On April 15, 1977, Luella hadn’t shown up to work, so a concerned co-worker went to check on her. The co-worker found Luella dead, in a tidy, made-up bed, and when police arrived to investigate the scene, they noticed her underwear drawer was ransacked and some jewelry was missing. They searched the area around the building, and a few blocks away from Luella’s apartment, they found the underwear and jewelry disposed of in a garbage can. Pathologists determined she had been strangled to death and sexually assaulted post-mortem – the same MO of the first 2 London victims.
London police now believed that they were dealing with a serial killer and began investigating. They canvased the area, reviewed the building’s tenant list, and spoke to potential eyewitnesses. 3 months later, not far from Luella’s apartment, that belief was confirmed when the killer struck again and displayed disturbing signs of escalation.
In July 1977, Donna Veldboom was 22 years old and described as very popular with a great social life. She was from New Brunswick and had been living in London for less than a year, where she worked at Union Gas. Donna spent the evening of July 15, 1977, visiting a friend and this is the last known time she was seen alive. She didn’t show up for work the next day and her co-workers were concerned because she was described as consistently punctual, so they called the police to conduct a welfare check. When the police arrived at Donna’s 5th-floor apartment, she didn’t answer so they let themselves into a horrible scene.
Donna was dead, lying naked in her bed, and the third victim of the “Vicious Murders”. She had been strangled and stabbed with a knife, and sexually assaulted, bathed, and posed post-mortem. She also had a slash across her chest.
London police started investigating Donna’s murder. They were disturbed by the escalating MO and the amount of time the killer spent in the apartment. They wondered if the person was familiar with the apartment since they made their way around so well and spent so much time in it. They began reviewing a list of tenants in Donna’s building and recognized a name they’d seen when reviewing a list of previous tenants renting in Luella George’s building. Russell Johnson. They searched further into Johnson’s past and found he was recently separated from his wife and thought this could trigger a psychological break. They learned he grew up in Guelph, so they called the police department there and spoke to the lead investigator of Diane Beitz’s murder to let them know of their person of interest. A check of Guelph PD’s records confirmed that the morning following Diane’s murder, Johnson had reported a break-in to his car a block away from her apartment, a brown, four-door Buick.
Since Johnson was a current resident in Donna’s London building, a former resident of Luella’s London building, and had parked his car within walking distance of Diane’s apartment in Guelph, the London PD believed they had their killer and enough circumstantial evidence to pursue Johnson. They charged eight detectives paired in four cars to 24-hour surveillance of Johnson. One of the first things they noticed was Johnson was obsessed with cleanliness. He washed his hands compulsively and always wore gloves and petroleum jelly at work and the gym to prevent “contamination.” He also displayed signs of psychosis, driving aimlessly for blocks before exiting his vehicle, standing on the sidewalk for a period of time, and then driving off again. When police learned that Johnson was planning an August vacation, they decided it was time to bring him in for questioning. On July 28, 1977, they knocked on the door of his basement apartment several times. Johnson finally opened it, revealing a spotlessly clean abode with gleaming floorboards. After making a call to his lawyer and then his girlfriend, he agreed to go with police.
He was interviewed by police and immediately broke down and confessed to everything he had done – the 3 “vicious murders” of Diane, Luella, and Donna, and the 4 “natural causes” murders of Mary, Alice, Eleanor, and Dodi, which at that time police had no idea were anything but natural causes.
During the interview, Johnson confessed to police how he managed to enter all of the victims’ apartments – scaling up the sides of the building, going from balcony to balcony. He claimed to experience sudden, overpowering feelings of loneliness that would drive him to scale high-rises without concern for his personal safety. If he saw a family sleeping inside the apartment, he would move on because he claimed to love families and didn’t want to hurt them.
He said after the murders, he would tidy up and clean the scene. He made one victim’s bed and washed another victim’s dirty dishes. At each crime scene, he did his best to make the deaths appear natural. He explained that after killing a victim, he would feel remorseful, so he’d put her back to bed to “make it right again”, and then spoon their bodies for hours.
When discussing Diane Beitz, Johnson said he was visiting his father in Guelph and knew of Diane because his ex-wife used to live in the same apartment building, so he stalked and murdered her while he was in town.
When discussing Luella George, Johnson confirmed he climbed up to her 4th-floor apartment balcony, immediately attacked and strangled her, and sexually assaulted her after death. He also confirmed he was the one who stole her underwear and jewelry but disposed of them a few blocks away from the building.
When discussing Donna Veldboom, it was determined that Donna not only lived in the same apartment building as Johnson, but she lived directly above him. He stated he had been out drinking when he was overcome by his impulses, so he went home, climbed up onto her balcony, and managed to bypass the lock using his plastic punch card. He claimed he just wanted to lay down beside her in bed to feel better, but when she woke up to adjust the fan, he strangled her to death, stabbed her with a kitchen knife, then slashed her chest open so he could “crawl inside her to be safe and warm”.
These confessions led to him being charged with the first-degree murders of Donna, Diane, and Luella, the 3 victims of the “vicious murders”.
So, evidently, this man is a disturbed monster, but let me tell you a little more about this sorry excuse of a human.
Russell Maurice Johnson was born in 1947 in St. Thomas, Ontario but grew up in Guelph.
He grew up poor with two brothers and parents who suffered from mental illnesses. His father didn’t allow his sons to celebrate Christmas because he believed the stores were “owned by Jews who simply wanted to drain the pockets of Christians”. Religious observances were heavily enforced in the household. Johnson went to church every day and confession once a week. He says the overall message he got from attending church and confession was that “you could do wrong, just don’t get caught”.
From a young age, Johnson suffered from mental health issues and had an unhealthy attachment to his mother. Classmates from his elementary school in Guelph remembered him as a colossal, awkward kid who was always getting beat up by smaller children. Despite his size, he lacked the aggression to defend himself and hated confrontation.
In his late teens, he was employed as a bouncer but had a reputation for being conveniently absent whenever a customer got rowdy or violent, another display of disliking confrontation.
His juvenile records show arrests for sexual offenses such as stealing women’s underwear off clotheslines and being a peeping tom.
In 1969 at the age of 22, Johnson voluntarily entered a psychiatric hospital in London, Ontario for treatment where he was diagnosed as a compulsive sexual deviant. He was given medication, deemed cured, and sent on his way.
Later, he was married and had a child but left them when his wife supposedly cheated on him. He channeled his anger into weightlifting and amateur bodybuilding at a local London gym and heavily consumed diet pills and alcohol. He was employed full-time as an autoworker at the Talbotville Ford Plant, and around this time in his life, he met a woman named Barb and they began dating. Everyone in his life, from people at the gym, the Ford Plant, his girlfriend, all said he was a good guy, and even referred to him as “good ol’ Russ”.
He may have been “Good ol’ Russ” by day, but by night he was a serial offender and murderer. Johnson sexually assaulted almost a dozen women who survived. He would often stalk his potential victims and climb up the sides of apartment buildings to enter through their unlocked balcony door. Johnson once scaled a building to the 15th floor, only to find the balcony doors locked. If he couldn’t enter the intended victim’s apartment, he would scale the building until he found an unlocked door to enter, where he would watch his victims sleep, sometimes even laying next to them while they slept, before attacking them.
On one occasion, Johnson tried switching up his tactics and buzzed a potential victim’s apartment claiming to be a police officer. The woman phoned the police for confirmation, but by the time she spoke to the dispatcher, learned that no officer by the name she gave existed in their department and buzzed back down to confront the man, he had fled.
But he couldn’t flee anymore, because on February 1, 1978, Johnson was brought to trial to face the consequences of his heinous actions.
During the trial, a psychiatrist named Dr. R.L. Fleming described Johnson’s childhood environment as the most “chaotic” and disturbed” he had ever seen. About his obsessive cleanliness, the depths of his compulsions were further revealed when the court learned before leaving his home, Johnson would spend up to an hour cleaning dishes and rearranging his apartment. Another psychiatrist, Dr. Douglas Wickware, speculated that Johnson did this ritual to create barriers for his homicidal urges but were defense mechanisms that would ultimately crumble after he consumed a few drinks since alcohol acted as a “facilitator” for his criminal activity. I thought this was an interesting point because after committing his crimes, he would spend time in the victims’ apartments cleaning, doing dishes, and rearranging their things, and he admitted to consuming alcohol when he got the urge to enter Donna Veldboom’s apartment.
Johnson pleaded not guilty to all charges, and a jury of 6 women and 6 men found him not guilty by reason of insanity for the murders of Diane, Luella, and Donna. He was committed to the Oak Ridge maximum-security facility of the Mental Health Centre in Penetanguishene, Ontario, where he remains to this day.
Psychiatrists have endlessly studied and interviewed Johnson, and they’ve found he’s motivated by sexual gratification, and anger toward women including the need for revenge and the need for absolute control over them, and have described him as a sexual sadist, lust murderer, and necrophile. So, around 2005, doctors decided it was best for Johnson to begin chemical castration with Lupron, a reversible treatment that overstimulates the body’s production of testosterone, which causes that production to shut down temporarily. The idea is that lowered testosterone minimizes sexualized thinking and, with therapy, the user will change their sexually deviant behavior. But Johnson continues to blame his actions on stress from drug use, marriage troubles, and sleep problems and doesn’t accept the psychiatrist’s diagnosis. He consistently fails to accept responsibility for his actions and continues to externalize blame.
He applies every year for leniency, including escorted day passes and being permanently moved to a medium-security facility, but he’s been denied every time. This means for decades the victim’s families have made the trip to Penetanguishene to voice their concerns about Johnson receiving any sort of leniency.
The most recent update I could find is from August 2019 that states in July 2019, Johnson applied for leniency, so the victim’s families had to make the trip again to give victim impact statements about the loss of their loved ones. The good news is that the review board continues to side with the victims and, as far as I know, Johnson is still alive, he’s 74, and he’s still being held in the Oak Ridge maximum-security wing of the Mental Health Centre in Penetanguishene.
With every request for leniency being rejected, Johnson will likely die in Oak Ridge. If he wasn’t declared insane and had instead been convicted of murder and sent to prison, The Bedroom Strangler would probably be on parole, walking the streets, and likely declared “rehabilitated”.
And that is the horrendous case of the London/Guelph Bedroom Strangler, one of the many serial killers out of London, Ontario, and the first episode of a very dark series.
So, how many serial murderers do you think there have been in Canada? According to Lee Mellor, author of Cold North Killers: Canadian Serial Murder, there have been more than 60.
Of those 60, at least 6 and as many as 9 serial killers emerged from London, Ontario between 1959-and 1984. That means for a quarter-century, London had the greatest number of active serial killers, and to this day, still holds the record in all of North America.
13 of the 32 killings have been attributed to three confirmed murderers, and the links among the remaining 19 victims suggest at least 3 additional serial killers were also operating during this time.
London averaged around 200,000 residents during this period, and big cities like New York and Los Angeles only had up to 4 confirmed serial killers active at any given time. To compare, if London had a population on par with New York or L. A., there would be the equivalent of 80 to 100 serial killers walking the streets at once.