MOREWOOD, Ont. — The gunman must have been cold and tired by the time Randy Rankin flicked on a basement light and sat down at his computer. It was 5 a.m. in mid-February 2007. Snow was falling in the dark.
Soundlessly, the gunman took aim through the basement window of the secluded bungalow Rankin shared with his wife, Dorothy, and their teenage daughter, Amanda.
Rankin was a sizable target. He was 6’4’’ and 400 pounds with a neck that swallowed his jaw and enthroned his chin.
His life was equally large and headstrong. Rankin, 46, was consumed with harness racing but tended to gamble more than he could afford to lose at Ottawa’s Rideau Carleton Raceway. He also held staunch, controversial opinions, which he shared online, about what was wrong with the state of racing in Ontario: He railed about horse doping, financial corruption and hinted darkly at even larger scandal.
Rankin could be argumentative and abrasive, and he collected a full share of enemies.
Yet there was another side to him, an alter ego, which manifested itself in the form of Koo Koo the Clown and Lunch Box Louie. His size was an asset when it came to entertaining children — and he took real joy in playing the clown. This was the man much loved by the women in his life: his wife, daughter, mother and grandmother, with whom he was exceptionally close.
None of it mattered, though, to the killer who applied increasing pressure to the trigger under his fingertip.
In a split second, a bullet exploded from the weapon’s barrel, pierced the basement window and crashed into the back of Rankin’s skull.
Dorothy and Amanda Rankin scrambled out of bed to investigate. As the gunman melted back into the night, Rankin slumped dead in his chair, his traumatized daughter at his side.
No one has ever been arrested for the killing of Randy Rankin, but that doesn’t mean the case is a cold one: Far from it. History is on the boil in North Dundas Township.
The racetrack gives and it takes, and so Randy Rankin lived a fickle existence.
The second oldest of four siblings, he grew up in Kitchener, Ont., and spent his formative years at the old Elmira Raceway. Wagering was in his blood. “He was into racing from the time he was born,” says his aunt, June Mercey, 81. “The whole family would go to the track. As little kids, you had to gamble. You drew a number out of a hat, and that was your horse.”
Young Randy was known as a skilled handicapper: His elementary school principal once called him to the office to help him decipher a racing program.
“I got a kick out of that,” his late father, Herb, a stationary engineer, told a local reporter after his son’s death.
Randy attended Cameron Heights Collegiate Institute, but he was more interested in standardbreds than in history or science. He worked as a bartender to build the stake he needed to get into harness racing, and bought his first horse for $2,500.
He enjoyed some modest success, and on a visit to Ottawa’s Rideau Carleton Raceway in the mid-1980s, Rankin met Dorothy Thompson, a small-scale owner and trainer who had grown up on a farm in Morewood. They hit it off. She didn’t mind that he was more than twice her size.
“Randy was a big boy,” she says. “But there was just something there.”
He moved to Morewood, about 40 kilometres outside of Ottawa, and became a fixture at the Rideau Carleton Raceway. There, Rankin befriended Robert McNamara, who owned a large standardbred horse farm in Clarence Creek. McNamara hired him as a groom based on the theory that any horse, after dragging Rankin around, would run like the wind with a regular driver in the sulky.
He supplemented his income by working as a clown, a job recommended to him because of his size. As Koo Koo the Clown and Lunch Box Louie, he performed magic tricks, made balloon animals and shared with children one of his prized lop-eared rabbits.
“He liked that a lot: He was good at that,” Dorothy says.
Randy Rankin loved entertaining kids as Lunch Box Louie, his family says. -
In 2003, Rankin thought he had finally found himself a secure place in the harness-racing industry when he was hired as track announcer at Rideau Carleton Raceway. It was an ideal fit for a man who could talk a blue streak.
But his good fortune didn’t last: He soon clashed with the general manager, who fired him as the track became embroiled in allegations of race fixing. Rankin’s friend, Robert McNamara, was at the heart of the controversy.
McNamara had gone to the Ontario Racing Commission with allegations that he’d been ordered by a track official to throw a race. Rankin provided supporting evidence to the commission. Both men also spoke to Postmedia, which published a story in 2004 based on their claims.
The racing commission investigated, but concluded their corruption allegations, including those made against the general manager, were unfounded.
McNamara was soon in hot water himself: In September 2005, he was suspended from the racing industry for buying black market drugs for his horses. Slapped with a five-year ban, he sold his animals and abandoned harness racing.
For Rankin, it represented another unexpected setback. In two short years, he had lost both his racetrack position and his job as a groom. He turned to clowning while also placing a long-shot bet on politics: Rankin entered the 2006 contest for reeve of North Dundas Township. But his heart wasn’t in the race, and he finished well out of the running.
He dabbled in poker and cigarette smuggling, but poured most of his energy into an online campaign to tear down the industry that for so long had been focus of his hopes and dreams.
On a popular harness racing discussion board, Rankin traded heavily in rumour, innuendo and gossip. “He was a very prolific poster who often made posts that riled people up,” says Addin Katz, owner and moderator of harnessdriver.com.
The two often clashed when Rankin’s posts were censored. “He had a good sense of humour, but he was moody,” says Katz. “He could be very nice to you, charming, but if he was upset, he could turn on you.”
Writing under the name “Big Daddy,” Rankin claimed to hold secrets about horse doping that would ruin the industry, making broad allegations against the racing community in general. He was slapped with a $6-million libel suit that named a number of others, including Katz. (It would be settled out of court after Rankin’s death.)
The threat of legal consequences did not rein him in: Rankin told the racing forum that he had approached journalists with CTV’s W5 to spill his secrets.
“If I go national with what I know, this industry would be in such a tailspin, it would never recover,” he wrote. “Now sit quiet and watch the ball unravel.”
He was dead one week later.
The OPP investigation of the Rankin slaying suffered bad luck right from the start: An early morning snowfall obscured whatever footprints or tire tracks had been left by the killer.
The OPP, including Const. Chris McGillis and his police dog, spent long hours looking for clues to the slaying of Randy Rankin following the shooting. David Gonczol / -
Meanwhile, Rankin’s friends and family told police they thought his killing had to be connected to his whistleblowing activities. His brother, Jim, called it “a hit” by the “horse business” during interviews with several papers. McNamara told authorities his friend had been receiving death threats from irate horsemen.
OPP investigators tried to follow Rankin’s crooked trail of conspiracies, but it didn’t lead them to a killer. A $50,000 reward for information in the case failed to unearth any telling clues. The case went cold.
Then, in the spring of 2014, a badly decomposed body was found in a Morewood ditch. It was just down the road from the bungalow where Rankin had been killed, and its discovery would raise a number of searing questions.
Among them: Was Randy Rankin the victim of a serial killer?
The long, tragic history of Morewood’s Death Row: Unsolved in the Ottawa Valley
Farmer Harold Davidson was trying to sell his 75-acre property, near Brinston, when he was shot three times through the window of his farmhouse as he sat at the kitchen table. Davidson’s former neighbour, Ronald Smail, described him as a loner: “No one was ever in that house,” Smail told the Citizen in November 1983. “He kept to himself; he never hurt anybody.” A veteran of the Second World War, Davidson, 60, was preparing to retire after more than three decades in farming. His body was found by a real-estate agent who was about to show the farm to a potential buyer.
Big, shy and kindly, Wallace Johnston was the only one of his 10 siblings who did not leave the family farm, near Avonmore. Johnston, 48, was shot in the head with a high-powered handgun as he watched TV in his favourite dining room chair. A bullet pierced the window, but did not shatter it. Johnston lived on the farm with his 93-year-old father, Willy. Johnston had few friends outside his family, didn’t socialize much, and raised banty roosters as a hobby.
John King, 59, of Moreweed, was shot once in the head before his house was burned to the ground on July 14, 1987. He was known as a quiet and private man. He had been living in a two-storey home on County Road #7 for more than two decades — ever since failing vision forced him to quit his job as a courier for the British High Commission in 1966. King would sometimes walk to the nearby Morewood Country Store to chat with the owners and drink buttermilk.
Randy Rankin, 47, was a children’s clown, poker player and harness racing enthusiast. He had grown up in Kitchener, Ont. and spent his formative years at the old Elmira Raceway. He moved to the Morewood area after meeting Dorothy Thompson, a local horse owner and trainer. They had one daughter, Amanda. He was killed by a single bullet — it was fired through a window — as he sat at his computer at 5 a.m. on Feb. 12, 2007.
Raymond Collison lived in Winchester Springs, and worked odd jobs while also collecting disability payments. He had schizophrenia, according to his sister, and “kept pretty much to himself.” He was reported missing in September 2009 after disappearing weeks earlier. Collison, then 58, was last seen getting onto his bicycle outside the McCloskey Hotel in Chesterville to pedal home. His decomposed body was found more than four years later, in April 2014. Police will say not how he died, only that the death involved foul play.
Unsolved in the Ottawa Valley, Part 2: The locals call it death row
In April 2014, two people out for an evening stroll in rural Morewood came across a human skull in a ditch running with spring meltwater.
The body was badly decomposed: It had been exposed to the elements, and preyed upon by insects and animals. Ontario Provincial Police cordoned off the area, and launched a forensic investigation.
An autopsy determined the individual, a man, had been the victim of foul play. For strategic reasons, however, the police did not release his cause of death. They deemed it “hold back material,” information that would be known only to the killer. Such material can sometimes identify a false confession, or seal a conviction if drawn from an interview subject.
DNA testing was required to identify the body and, two months later, the OPP confirmed what others in the community had already theorized: The victim was Raymond Collison, a Winchester Springs man who had disappeared in September 2009.
Collison’s family had reported him missing three weeks after he was last seen getting on his bicycle outside the McCloskey Hotel in Chesterville.
Collison, 58, lived with mental illness — schizophrenia — and had disappeared before for weeks at a time. His family knew something was wrong only when his mail began to pile up and his government cheques went unclaimed.
The discovery of Collison’s body solved one longstanding local mystery in North Dundas Township.
But it also breathed new life into a startling assortment of old, dark ones.
Locals call it death row.
The flat, four-kilometre stretch of Thompson Road, just outside of Morewood, is home to a smattering of family farms, some vast cornfields and a gravel pit. Patches of forest mark division lines between properties.
It looks like any other rural road in North Dundas Township. Yet this stretch of quiet country road in “Canada’s dairy capital” has seen more tragedy than most inner city streets.
The decomposed corpse of Raymond Collison was found at the corner of Thompson Road and Steen Road.
A few kilometres away is the bungalow where Randy Rankin was shot and killed on a winter’s night in February 2007. His defiant widow, Dorothy, continues to live in the house: “No one is going to scare me out of my own home,” she says.
Morewood’s death row has known other tragedies.
In September 2002, the charred remains of 58-year-old Fern Patenaude were found inside his burned out Ford pick-up truck in a field on Lafleur Road, just off Thompson Road. Patenaude, a part-time farmer, had suffered four years of anguish: An unexplained series of fires on his property had destroyed an old house, a barn, a machine shop, and a number of vehicles, including a vintage 1936 Chevy.
But it was the scene that he encountered on the afternoon of March 4, 2002 that would leave him, he later told reporters, “just about at the end of my rope.” That day, when he went to feed his two Belgian draft horses, he found Pirate, a four-year-old, dead on the ground from a gunshot wound. The horse’s genitals had been mutilated. The other horse, Prince, had also been hit with a shotgun blast, but would survive.
“I just don’t know who in the devil would do that,” Patenaude said at the time.
Two young offenders were later convicted of shooting the horses and mutilating Pirate.
The OPP initially concluded that Patenaude’s death was accidental. Forensic tests showed he did not suffer any injuries — broken bones or gunshot wounds — before being overcome by smoke and flames. His body was found splayed out the back window of his cab, halfway into the bed of his truck. Investigators said careless smoking might have caused the fire that killed him.
But police reviewed the case in the aftermath of the Collison killing, and now consider it a suspicious death because of one gnawing question: Why didn’t Patenaude escape out a door instead of pushing out the solid window of his cab?
What’s more, the fires that had plagued the last few years of Patenaude’s life did not stop with the arrest of the two young offenders.
By 2006, a serial arsonist was believed to be sowing fear across the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry.
Dorothy Rankin’s father, Ray Thompson, was one of the arson victims. A late night barn fire on his Thompson Road farm killed two horses and a pig. One of the horses, a standardbred named Laddie Starr, had finished in the money only days earlier.
More than two dozen barns, storage buildings and farmhouses burned to the ground in the county under mysterious circumstances in 2006 and 2007. Hundreds of cattle died in the blazes, a handful of which were found to be arson; the rest were deemed “suspicious.”
No one has ever been charged with those crimes. Yet, as bizarre as it may seem, the barn fires are not the most notorious string of unsolved crimes in the area. Not by a long shot.
Many young people in North Dundas Township don’t know the story of the Ottawa Valley serial killer.
Even the township’s 29-year-old mayor, Eric Duncan, had not heard of the case when asked about it recently by a reporter.
The case gripped the region in the 1980s, but has never been solved. No one has ever been charged in the four to six homicides linked to the killer, who tended to prey on people living alone in isolated houses.
The killer sometimes burned the homes of his victims after slaying them. Three were shot in the head.
The case is legend inside OPP detachments in Eastern Ontario.
But when investigators started working the Raymond Collison homicide case in 2014, OPP Det. Insp. Jim Gorry warned his detectives not to look to the past. He instructed them to examine the case based on its own unique set of facts.
“We looked at the Collison case and said, ‘We don’t want to get tunnel vision: We want to do it independently, and where it leads us, it leads us,’” Gorry says, referring to the start of the Collison investigation. “And that’s exactly what we did.”
This article was written by Andrew Duffy from the Postmedia Network and is reprinted with permission of The Ottawa Sun.