December 30, 1974, was the biggest day in the life of 26-year-old Diane Beitz of Guelph. James Britton, with whom she’d been in a relationship for over a year, had proposed and presented her with a diamond engagement ring. The wedding was to be in May.
On Dec. 31 at 6:15 AM, Britton left Beitz’s basement apartment in a small building on Drew Street to go to work in Mississauga. Beitz was taking a Christmas vacation from her job at Cable 8 Television in Guelph and intended to do laundry.
When Britton returned that night, he found clothes soaking in a sink. Then he went into the bedroom and found Diane – dead. Still dressed in the nightgown she’d been wearing that morning, she lay on the bed with her arms bound behind her and a brassier and pair of pantyhose knotted around her neck.
Guelph police could find no evidence of forced entry or a struggle. The apartment hadn’t been robbed. Other tenants hadn’t heard a thing. The only witness to what had happened in that apartment was Diane’s cat. Police chief Robert McCarron speculated Beitz had known her assailant, possibly a former boyfriend.
The autopsy put the time of death at 2 p.m. It revealed a few bruises,and evidence the victim had been sexually assaulted after death. Despite an intensive investigation during which detectives questioned more than 200 people, and the offer of a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Diane’s killer, the case remained unsolved for three years.
At the time, police didn’t realize they were dealing with a serial killer who had already struck at least four times without arousing suspicion of foul play. Twenty-year-old Mary Hicks of London, found dead in October 1973, was thought to have had a fatal reaction to a prescription drug.
One month later, Alice Ralston, 42, of Guelph, apparently died from hardening of the arteries. In March 1974, the death of another London woman, Eleanor Hartwick, 27, was attributed to a reaction to medication. The following August, Doris Brown, 43, of Guelph, was thought to have died from pulmonary edema. All of the women had been found in their beds.
Not until the April 1977 murder of Louella George, 23, in London, would police conclude that a psychopath was preying on women in Guelph and London. Newspapers called the unknown killer “The Bedroom Strangler.”
Three months later the body of Donna Veldboom, 22, was discovered in her London apartment. She’d been strangled and stabbed. Within two weeks of Veldboom’s murder, police arrested another tenant in her building, Russell Maurice Johnson.
Thirty-year-old Johnson was from Guelph, where he’d attended St. Joseph Elementary School. He was a big, athletic man who’d once been employed as a bouncer. He had also formerly been a patient in a psychiatric hospital in London where he’d been diagnosed as a compulsive sexual deviant.
Johnson admitted to the murders of Veldboom, George and Beitz, as well as to a series of unsolved rape cases. Investigators were taken by surprise when he also named Ralston, Hartwick, Hicks and Brown as his victims. Their names hadn’t previously been reported to police. Johnson said he’d targeted Beitz because a former girlfriend had lived in her building.
The crime spree started in 1969. Johnson gained access to upper-storey apartments by climbing up balconies and getting in through unsecured doors and windows. Sometimes women sleeping alone awoke in time to see the dark form of a stranger looking down at them before slipping out of the bedroom and into the night. Or they got up in the morning to find things in the room had been rearranged.
On one occasion, Johnson buzzed a woman’s apartment claiming to be a police officer. The woman phoned the police to get confirmation. By the time real officers arrived, he’d fled.
Three women whom Johnson had raped, strangled and left for dead, survived. After Johnson’s arrest, they identified him as their assailant.
In January 1978 Johnson was tried for the murders of Beitz, George and Veldboom. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a maximum-security institution. He later confessed to an additional seven murders and 17 sexual assaults during his horrific career as the Bedroom Strangler.