The Forest City Killer by Vanessa Brown

This week on True Crime Index, our hometown reviews continue with Jesyka’s review of Vanessa Brown’s The Forest City Killer.

The Place

It’s hard for me to say that I grew up in London, ON, because really, I only spent my teenage and young adult years there. My father was in the military and as a result, we moved a lot, mostly around the East Coast. We moved to London right before I started high school because my father was retiring from the military and that’s where my mother’s family was.

The London I spent the most time in is the middle class, suburban, tree lined postcard version. Of course, as with any mid-size city, there are other versions. There’s a downtown core where businesses open up just as frequently as they close, an upper-class north end where the doctors and lawyers live, the sprawling campus of Western University where I did my undergrad, an artsy village in the south end of the city with great restaurants, and an east end that comes with a crime-heavy reputation. These are only someone’s version of a city, only parts of one complex whole. Vanessa Brown’s The Forest City Killer: A Serial Murderer, A Cold-Case Sleuth, and a Search for Justice (ECW Press, 2019) also presents its own version of London—and one that comes with at least one serial killer.

Me on Convocation Day, Western University, North London

The Crimes, London, 1969.  

The London that Brown describes in her opening chapter “Meet London” is another version of the city, and one that rang very true for me. She describes a London that, “had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the country. It also has about as bad a drug problem as Vancouver” (11-12). Brown also explains it’s a London where “addicts and homeless people have set up camps, but also where you can see posh yuppies jogging along beautifully kept paved pathways” (11). It’s also a London where, shocking to both Brown and I, several serial killers were in operation in the 1960s. London has crime like any other Canadian city of 400,000 people, but it’s always seemed such a vanilla place to me that the idea of several serial killers operating among the leafy greens of London, Ontario, was an unfathomable one. But as Brown explains:

“Perhaps because of its unique social geography, the degradation of mid-sized 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, and 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” (14).

As someone who studies true crime, I’m well aware of the ways that particular geographies lend themselves to serial killing, and because of this, Brown’s explanation about London’s geography and the way it has potentially enabled crime struck me. Coupled with this, Brown also adds that “Londoners can be remarkably incurious people,” and if that’s not a perfect storm for serial killing, I don’t know what is (14). Brown’s text does a deep dive into some of the unsolved murder cases that have haunted London, cases that she attributes to one perpetrator: The Forest City Killer. The first case Brown discusses is the murder of Jackie English in 1969. Before she gets into the case, Brown paints a detailed sketch of the people who surround it, mostly detectives and family members, some of whom were still involved with the case well into the 2000’s. Dennis Alsop Jr., the son of one of the detectives on the English case not only assisted Brown in her research but worked on the case until his death in 2012.

I really appreciate these individual portraits Brown gives, because they explain to readers the brutal legacy this case has created for family and detectives alike. They also remind us that this is case is still very much open. As Brown says at the beginning of the text: “More than anything, this book is a call to action, intended to renew interest in these unsolved cases and to urge the Ontario Provincial Police to reinvestigate these crimes vigorously, using all DNA and other evidence in their possession” (6). The ability for true crime to become a catalyst for justice is true crime at the height of its powers, and Brown’s text is a part of that movement. Brown seems to implore us, as consumers of this genre, to put this information to good use.

Jackie was abducted on October 4th, 1969, from the Wellington Road South overpass, a totally innocuous overpass, one you wouldn’t look twice at and would likely be familiar with if you’ve spent any time in London.

Wellington Road South Overpass, courtesy

Jackie was walking to the bus stop after her restaurant shift got off at 10pm when a car picked her up. Eyewitness accounts of the driver, as well as the colour and make of the car have been varied and haven’t led anywhere. A thorough search done by her family the days after the initial appearance turned up nothing except a few cryptic and coded entries in Jackie’s diary. Brown provides great photos and asks important questions about these items.  Jackie’s body was found by police on October 9th, 1969 in Big Otter Creek, which is about 60 minutes from London. After an extensive search of Big Otter Creek, as well as throughout Jackie’s London neighbourhood, the police had no leads. Blunt force trauma was the cause of death.

Jackie was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where my great grandmother and great grandfather were buried. This connection left me jarred. That someone who died in such a horrific way was buried in the same beautiful cemetery as my maternal grandparents forced me to reconsider the story I was consuming and what it meant to me. My grandparents got to live out their lives into old age, while Jackie’s was ripped from her while she was essentially still a child. Brown’s intimate portrait of Jackie certainly spurred on this reconsideration, as it reminded me that Jackie wasn’t just a victim, she was a 13-year-old girl with her own interests, hardships, dramas and happiness. This opening section on Jackie is well told.

Brown is not interested in relishing in the brutal details of the death of a young woman whose life had only just begun. She spends less time on the crime and more time on the things that were occurring in Jackie’s life before her death. When I was reading the summaries of her last days, I kept thinking that all of this was being relayed for a greater purpose. Not only is the narrative forcing you to know this girl as a human being as opposed to a victim, it seems to be written with the hope that someone knows something. Maybe someone will read these details and remember something they experienced, or heard, or were told. Just maybe.

Jackie English, courtesy

The Crimes, London, 1968

Brown then jumps back to January 9th, 1968. This time jump was jarring to adjust to as a reader, but as the story unfolded, I realized this was the best possible way to tell this story. Using Jackie’s murder as a framing device or a point of origin, Brown prepares us for the bizarre details that surround the story of The Forest City Killer that are later presented in the text. That Brown’s story begins and ends with Jackie focuses our attention when the plot goes down unexpected avenues.

 In the books section on Jackie, Brown sketches a scene where Jackie’s sister wonders if her murder was connected to a similar case—the 1968 abduction and murder of 16-year-old Jacqueline Dunleavy. The connections between these two cases, as well as the many others that Brown goes through in her book, are undeniable. Brown makes a strong case for these murders being the work of  serial killer, even if the London police stated in 1968 that the murders were not connected.

Jaqueline Dunleavy, courtesy

Brown again paints a vivid portrait of a 16-year-old girl and the family she was ripped from. The little details she includes round out this picture, like Jaqueline’s pastor having described her as “a girl who believed everyone was good and everything was beautiful” (71). The archival photos Brown provides, mostly sourced from the Archives and Special Collections at Western University, my alma mater, left me feeling unsettled to say the least. Not only was a vibrant young woman’s life extinguished, it was extinguished in places I had a connection to, places I recognized, places that were a part of my story, my family’s story. Jaqueline Dunleavy never got the chance to leave London and let The Forest City become just a part of her story like I did. Neither did Jackie English. Brown’s book forced me to question the way I consume true crime because these crimes didn’t happen in a faraway place. They happened in my own backyard. I couldn’t maintain the usual distance that I am able to maintain when I consume true crime. When I went to London for Thanksgiving, I felt the absence of these young women on the streets where I was a teenager. I wondered about their families, and if they still lived in London. I imagined them walking through the trees and wishing for answers after years of having none.

The Forest City (Serial) Killer

Brown begins the latter, and most complex, section of her book by exploring several other cases that she attributes to The Forest City Killer. She presents a quick succession of cases in dizzying detail, acknowledging that the story is about to get complex. It is, at times, hard to follow. However, Brown guides her reader through the cases with ample footnotes and appendices that help keep things straight.

 Brown also acknowledges the arguments that counter hers and claim these murders were not done by a single killer. She explains that yes, the modus operandi is different for some of the murders. However, there are plenty of serial killers whose MO is inconsistent—Dennis Rader is notable in this regard. Put plainly: I buy it. I think most readers of true crime have probably come across investigators within those texts reluctant to link multiple crimes to a single perpetrator. Sometimes for good reason. Sometimes not. The murders Brown presents have glaring similarities, and eventually investigators do seriously consider the possibility of a serial murderer. And yet, the cases still remain unsolved.

Overall, Brown’s text contains a wealth of expert interviews and research. She tells these stories with compassion, care, and a genuine desire for justice. She says in her Epilogue that “[u]ntil the cases are solved, I’m not sure this feeling will ever leave me” (275). I know for certain that I will never look at the place of my youth in the same way again, and I think this is a good thing. Brown’s text is, among other things, a challenge. She gives us the pieces. May we make something of them.

Please visit Vanessa Brown’s bookshop on Twitter and put The Forest City Killer on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content warnings: Violence, sexual violence.

Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature.

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