Long before Mark Jones killed his neighbour, her son, her mother and himself, his disturbing behaviour gave the community of Burk’s Falls indications that something bad was brewing. What can this tragedy teach us about domestic violence in rural Canada?
Original Article: The Globe and Mail | Molly Hayes | 17 August 2019
On her way home from work on Feb. 23, 2018, Julia Conway stopped to pick up a coffee for her boyfriend’s grandmother, a gesture that was part of her Friday routine. Unless she gave them a head’s up that she had other plans, Paul Theoret’s family knew to expect the bubbly 29-year-old after her shift ended.
The house, up a winding drive at the end of a secluded cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Burk’s Falls, Ont., was dark and quiet when she arrived. The only sound she could hear as she approached the front door, besides the crunching snow under her feet, was the bark of the family dog, Lily. It was just 7:30 p.m., and Ms. Conway figured everyone must have called it an early night. She’d leave the coffee for “Mummi” on her bedside table, she decided.
First she headed to the basement to quiet the dog. Down the stairs, she found the white Chihuahua-mix frantically pacing outside the doorway of the bathroom. Behind the dog, on the floor, lay Paul. At first Julia thought he’d been sick. As she got closer, it registered: He’d been shot. Her boyfriend was dead.
She bolted back upstairs, where she made two more gruesome discoveries. Ulla, Paul’s mother, was crumpled on her bedroom floor. And in Mummi’s room, 88-year-old Raija Turunen lay still in her bed. They, too, had been shot.
Fending off panic, Ms. Conway, whose cellphone reception was spotty at the rural house, headed to the landline in the kitchen to call 911. There, slumped in a chair, was a fourth body. She could tell it was a man, but his face was unrecognizable from a gun blast. Tethered to the wall-mounted house phone, she sat across from him as she waited for help to arrive.
Who was he?
“Don’t look at him – look at the ground,” the 911 dispatcher kept telling her. “Look at the ground.”
In the background, the family dog – still at Paul’s side in the basement – continued to bark. Ms. Conway felt nauseated. Short of breath. Her head was spinning as she tried to make sense of who would do such a thing. But as the minutes passed, she realized who the man was — she’d seen him sitting in that exact kitchen chair before. It was their neighbour, Mark Jones.
For months, trouble had been brewing on Starratt Road: harassing letters, nasty confrontations, an allegation of sexual assault. Ms. Conway had long known about Mr. Jones’s dangerous obsession with Paul’s mother.
But she’d never imagined it would come to this.
More than a year later, the tightknit Burk’s Falls community is still reeling from the loss.
Police have confirmed the basics of the tragedy: that Mr. Jones murdered the three family members and then shot himself. But because Mr. Jones is dead, there will be no trial, and Ulla Theoret’s surviving sons, Thomas, 31, and Hans, 28, have been left with unanswered questions about how this happened and whether there were missed opportunities to prevent the violence.
While the murders stunned the community, located a half-hour’s drive north of the Muskoka town of Huntsville, the case itself – a woman being killed by a man she had known and trusted, in her home, where she thought she was safe – is not an uncommon one in Canada. Ulla was among roughly 150 women who were murdered in 2018 – almost all of them by men, according to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability. In cases where a perpetrator was identified and their relationship to the victim was known, roughly 60 per cent were killed by current or former intimate partners, and another 15 per cent were killed by friends or acquaintances. In just more than 10 per cent of cases, the killer also then killed himself.
In Ontario, all intimate-partner homicide cases are reviewed by the chief coroner’s office through a Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, in order to make recommendations to prevent future deaths. The committee is still considering whether to review this case because Mark Jones and Ulla Theoret were not, and had never really been, a couple.
After months of trying to access information, the Theoret brothers believe a public inquest could be the only opportunity to examine whether local authorities missed an opportunity to prevent the deaths. They know now that their mother had gone to police six months before she was killed, but the OPP – which wouldn’t discuss the case with The Globe and Mail – won’t disclose how it handled Ulla’s allegations or say whether the service is conducting an internal review.
In the absence of a formal examination, family, friends and neighbours of the victims and Mr. Jones find themselves haunted by their own what-ifs. No one saw the murders coming, but with the benefit of hindsight, many now realize that signs of danger were in clear sight.
It was through her older brother Peter that Ulla Theoret (then Ulla Turunen) first met Mark Jones. The two men, who had both studied together at George Brown College, met at a Halloween party in the 1980s, and though both lived in downtown Toronto, they shared a love of the outdoors.
For years, the two men and their group of friends spent nearly every weekend hunting or fishing in the woods, often at the Turunen family cabin in Burk’s Falls.
Peter and Ulla’s parents, Olavi and Raija, had purchased the sprawling farm property in Ryerson Township on the outskirts of Burk’s Falls in the 1970s. Over the years, they built a new house and a sauna – a nod to their Finnish roots – with help from Peter and his buddies during their weekend trips. At the end of a day labouring away, Raija would have a hearty meal ready. A sign hung in her kitchen: “Today’s menu: two options – take it or leave it.”
Ulla, by this time a nurse, had married an American and moved to Michigan, where they raised Thomas, Paul and Hans. She returned each summer, bringing the boys up to visit their grandparents. When they reached college age, the boys were drawn back to Canada. Eventually, as the farm became challenging for their aging grandparents to manage, the brothers took turns staying with them in Burk’s Falls and helping out.
In 2014, Ulla and her husband Steve followed to take over the caregiving duties. But their marriage was already fizzling, and Steve soon headed back to Michigan. Ulla decided to stay. Though her brother Peter had died years earlier, she was welcomed back by his old hunting buddies, who had become family friends.
One of them, Jouko Ojanpera, now lived in Huntsville. Another, Armando Cabral, still made regular stops by the family farm. And though he’d drifted from the others, there was also Mark Jones – Jonesy, as they called him.
It was by then almost two decades since Mr. Jones had faded from the friend group. In the early 1990s, the guys had started planning moose-hunting trips near Thunder Bay. But Mr. Jones had diabetes, and didn’t always take care of himself. The friends worried about being in the bush with him, far from a hospital. They stopped inviting him along.
Mr. Cabral thinks he was offended. As far as he remembers, that was why Jonesy eventually fell out of touch.
Mr. Ojanpera recalls his friendship with Mr. Jones ending more abruptly. During a duck-hunting trip in 1994, he came out of the bushes to find Mr. Jones – carelessly, not intentionally, he thinks – pointing a 12-gauge shotgun at him. Mr. Ojanpera hit the ground and heard the gun go off three times. “I started cursing at him, calling him names,” he recalls. “If I had been standing, I would’ve [been dead]. I said, ‘I don’t ever want to see you again.’ ”
Mr. Jones moved to Barrie, Ont., after that, where he bought a four-plex, living in one unit and renting out the other three. For the most part, he seemed to keep to himself. He was a member of the Barrie Gun Club and a regular at a local machine shop.
Eventually, Mr. Jones began searching for a country home. Though he was initially looking in Barry’s Bay, he came upon a property in Burk’s Falls—just down the road from his old stomping grounds. He couldn’t resist, recalled Gordon Adams, who owned the Barrie machine shop. It was twice the amount of land for half the price.
At a backyard party at the Turunen family property for Ulla’s father Olavi’s 90th birthday in the summer of 2016, Mr. Ojanpera made his way through the crowd of smiling faces — one of which stopped him in his tracks. There in the yard, sitting in a lawn chair and smoking a cigar, was Mr. Jones.
“He just grinned and said, ‘Small world, eh?’ ”
There is a list of 41 “indicators” – red flags – that Ontario’s Domestic Violence Death Review Committee look for in each case it reviews.
The number of these indicators that had been present between the victim and the perpetrator during the time leading up to a domestic homicide helps demonstrate, in hindsight, the potential for lethality that existed. In almost three-quarters of cases, the committee says, seven or more risk factors were present.
Although Ulla was not in a relationship with Mark Jones, it appears that numerous risk factors were present between them in the year leading up to the murders: among them, a victim who had an intuitive sense of fear of the perpetrator; obsessive behaviour by the perpetrator; prior threats to commit suicide; sexual jealousy exhibited by the perpetrator; unemployment; access to firearms; and an escalation of violence.
After Ulla moved back to her family’s farm, she and Mr. Jones began spending time together. As a new divorcee living with her parents in a town of fewer than 700 people, she welcomed the camaraderie, her friends say.
Her sons supported her desire to start dating. She was social and fun and had spent her entire life taking care of people, as a mother, nurse and daughter. They wanted her to be happy.
But it became evident early on that Ulla did not consider herself and Mr. Jones a match. While they shared some common interests, such as antiquing, their personalities clashed. She was bubbly and outgoing, and lived in colourful leggings and bright tops. Mr. Jones was controlling and told her she should wear turtlenecks.
“I never got a good feeling about him,” Hans says, “and that’s basically the way I described it to my mom.”
During one phone call back in 2015, Thomas says, his mom casually mentioned that Mr. Jones had been leaving unsettling notes in the mailbox. That upset Thomas, who had by this time moved to Taiwan to teach English. It reminded him of a news documentary he’d recently watched about domestic violence. He warned his mom to be careful and that the whole family could be at risk.
Ulla never mentioned Mr. Jones to him again.
But he was still lingering in their periphery. Mr. Jones was handy and helped the elderly Turunens out around the farm. Raija, in particular, took a liking to him and, despite her daughter’s reservations, continued to invite him by to play cards.
Hans was struck by his mother’s reaction when Mr. Jones showed up at the house for one such card game in 2016. He was hanging out with her in the basement when they heard Mr. Jones’s voice upstairs. His mom’s brow furrowed, and she asked Hans to make sure the man didn’t come down there. When Hans confronted Mr. Jones upstairs, he asked why Ulla hadn’t come up to say hello. Hans told him to leave. That was the last time he saw him.
Around town, however, Ulla had trouble avoiding him. On one occasion in 2017, for example, she and a friend were at the laundromat in Burk’s Falls one day when Mr. Jones showed up. He started ranting and raving, and calling her degrading names. The laundromat’s owner recalls how shaken up Ulla was.
A similar confrontation happened at a local gas station, while Ulla was out with a man whom she had briefly dated. She also told that man that Mr. Jones had liked to look at her father’s guns in the basement, Thomas later learned, and that he’d “dry shot” at her before with the unloaded gun as a joke.
Others in the small town had also witnessed snippets of Mr. Jones’s troubling and threatening behaviour toward Ulla.
Rural communities such as Burk’s Falls present distinct risks for women experiencing violence, notes Sharon Davis, a manager at the closest women’s shelter to the town, in nearby Parry Sound. On a practical level, poor cell reception and spotty internet access can make it more difficult for a woman to research and connect with support services. Firearms are also more likely to be present in rural communities and households.
And in a small town or community where everyone knows everyone, Ms. Davis says, people can be especially reluctant to raise the alarm when they suspect trouble in a relationship.
In its 2017 report, the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee found that it is not uncommon for friends, family or co-workers to struggle with how to respond to “troubled” relationships, and that in many cases, people around the victim “did not seem to know how to react in a constructive way to prevent further harm.”
“People don’t want to get caught up in it,” Ms. Davis says. “People are really fearful of being wrong.”
It was only in the fall of 2017 that those closest to Ulla realized the degree to which things had escalated.
After a grocery-shopping trip in town, Ulla, Raija, Paul and Julia arrived home to find Mr. Jones sitting in their kitchen, alone in the dark. Paul and Julia were taken aback. Ulla told them that she’d deal with it. They left her to speak with him and eventually heard him leave.
Later that year, after Julia noticed that Ulla was taking an unusual amount of time to burn their garbage in a bonfire out back, she came outside to find her crying. She was holding a piece of paper in her hands: another letter, she said, from Mark Jones. He’d been leaving notes in the mailbox again.
Ulla also confided something even more disturbing to Ms. Conway: Mr. Jones had sexually assaulted her. It had happened two years earlier in his car, in the fields behind his house, she told her. He’d forced her to perform oral sex. She thought she was going to die.
Ulla threw the letter into the fire, and asked Ms. Conway to promise she would not tell Paul or his brothers about the assault. She worried about what they might think, or what they might do.
Ms. Conway promised she’d keep quiet.
Other friends were also keeping Ulla’s secret. She had told Jouko Ojanpera about the sexual assault months earlier, during a dinner party, back in May, 2017. But to him, too, she added: “Promise me you won’t tell the boys.”
He agreed he wouldn’t, but urged her to report it to police.
“I felt like going to [Mr. Jones’s] place and beating the crap out of him,” he recalled later. “But we had already had cocktails and a bottle of wine, so I was not going to be stupid. Probably it would’ve been the right thing to do after all.”
It was a complicated time in Ulla’s life. Her father, Olavi, was ill (and would die that July). She was also seeing someone new, long distance – a Florida man she’d met at a Finnish banquet in Toronto.
“My life got easier and harder all at the same time,” she wrote on Facebook that August.
Two weeks later, she went to Florida to meet up with her new beau. “Feeling happy!” she posted.
Paul Van Dam, a neighbour who lived in the area, recalls the morning when he saw Ulla trudging toward him down the road in her rubber boots.
“I need your advice,” she told Mr. Van Dam, before she divulged the details of the assault.
He urged her to go to police. But again, she said she wasn’t sure.
“Look,” he told her, “you asked for my advice. I’m telling you to report this.”
So, standing in Mr. Van Dam’s living room on the morning of Sept. 22, she made the call to the local police detachment. Mr. Van Dam then drove her home, so that a detective could come by to meet with her. She went into the station the next day to provide a video statement.
When the officer asked why she was coming forward only now, she said her father had recently died and she didn’t feel safe. In his report, the officer described her as “agitated.”
Roughly six weeks after this, Ulla popped by Mr. Van Dam’s house again. She looked relaxed, he thought. Happy. She thanked him for his help and told her Mr. Jones wasn’t bothering her any more. Mr. Van Dam thought that was the end of it.
But a few months later, Mr. Van Dam was checking his mail at the foot of his driveway when Mr. Jones’s Subaru whizzed past his house. He caught a glimpse of Ulla in the passenger seat. “I thought to myself, ‘I should go talk to her about that,’ ” he says. “But I never did – that’s my big regret.”
The month before she died, Ulla – who had been struggling with depression, especially since her divorce – checked herself into the hospital for two weeks. Thomas and Hans described it as a mental breakdown. They had no idea at the time about the sexual assault. By that time, they thought Mr. Jones was long gone.
But they have seen his mother’s medical records, and although they are not certain of all that she disclosed to her doctor, there are hints: She mentioned an aggressive neighbour and concern that police were not helping her.
It was a short time before the murders that Joe Lazar, another neighbour on Starratt Road, started to suspect something was wrong with Mark Jones. The two were not close, but they were friendly enough that Mr. Jones would come over for dinner, or to watch a sports game now and again.
After the death of Mr. Lazar’s dog in mid-February, 2018, he asked Mr. Jones if he would mind bringing over his backhoe to help him bury the animal. In reply, Mr. Jones screamed at him: “How could you let her die?”
Mr. Lazar knew he had been fond of the dog, but the reaction was baffling. He confronted Mr. Jones, who told him that he’d been recently diagnosed with dementia.
It made sense. He’d heard that Mr. Jones had recently gotten lost while hunting on his own property, and had to call for help on his walkie-talkie. And once, while Mr. Lazar was helping him with a fencing project, he noticed Mr. Jones becoming uncharacteristically confused.
Mr. Lazar didn’t know Ulla at all and knew little about Mr. Jones’s relationship with her. Mr. Jones had mentioned years earlier that he was seeing a girl down the road, he recalled — but after he’d ribbed him about it, Mr. Jones had told him curtly that it was over and that he didn’t want to talk about her. They never did again.
Around the time he’d revealed his dementia diagnosis to his friend, Mr. Jones – who was 58 at the time and “a bit of a hoarder" – had begun selling off his things, Mr. Lazar says. He’d had his driver’s licence revoked owing to the diagnosis, he said. His own parents had struggled with dementia, he told Mr. Lazar, and he “wasn’t going to go out like that.”
Mr. Lazar was alarmed. He knew Mr. Jones had a sister, and he made a mental note to ask for her number so he could give her a call – although he didn’t follow up. He knew his friend had guns, and he was worried he might hurt himself. It never occurred to him that he might hurt other people.
On Feb. 21, 2018, Hans Theoret drove from the town of Bracebridge, Ont., to take his mother out for a birthday lunch. When he dropped her off afterward, he debated spending the night, as he often did. But he had to work the next day, so he decided to head back that evening. As he pulled away, he told his mom he loved her.
At some point after that – it’s unclear exactly when, though Thomas says investigators believe it was in the early hours of Thurs. Feb. 22 – Mr. Jones came to the house. He left his car at the foot of the long, curving driveway, and carried both a 12-gauge shotgun and a .40 calibre handgun into the house. He shot Ulla. He shot Paul. He shot Raija. Then he shot himself.
As soon as Joe Lazar learned of the murders on Starratt Road, he froze. He knew instantly that the killer was Mark Jones.
Armando Cabral, a friend of both Ulla and Mr. Jones, has had a particularly difficult time wrapping his head around the tragedy. He’s seen firsthand that murders such as these aren’t one-offs.
In 2012, Mr. Cabral’s father killed his wife and then himself. Armando Sr. and Leonilde were 74 and 70. They’d been happily married for more than 40 years. But in the months before he murdered his wife, the elder Mr. Cabral had been showing signs of mental illness. He was depressed and said he was hearing voices. Then, in 2015, Mr. Cabral’s partner at work, Halton, Ont., firefighter Trevor McNally killed his wife Sue Nesbitt-McNally and then himself.
“If you said to us that Mark was one day going to go out and murder a bunch of people and commit suicide, we’d be like, ‘No. No. Not ever in a hundred years,’ ” he says. “But people would’ve said that about my parents, too.”
After the crime scene at the Turunen family home was cleaned up, and before the house was listed for sale, Mr. Cabral spent weekends up at the property last summer, helping Hans and Thomas slowly clear out their family’s things. He would catch himself staring off in the kitchen at Raija’s cheeky menu sign, thinking back on the many meals he and Mr. Jones had shared there with the family. “We solved the world’s problems in that kitchen,” he says, shaking his head.
Down the road from the Turunen farm, Mr. Jones’s house has sat frozen in time since the massacre. His belongings are still visible through the front windows.
It was only after their family members were killed that Hans and Thomas learned that their mother had reported a sexual assault to the police: Thomas discovered a message she’d sent to a friend on Facebook, after logging onto his mom’s account.
They wondered, then, if this tragedy could have been avoided. They wanted to know if police had done enough to protect their mother after she spoke to them, and asked the detachment to turn over any evidence they had.
After months of waiting, this past April, the brothers were provided with a video of her interview. Ulla was detailed in her recounting to the officers, Thomas says. She was clearly scared. It was, he adds, devastating to watch.
They’ve asked for any other documents related to the investigation, but many of their requests were denied on privacy grounds.
“Even though he killed my family, I don’t have any right to know anything about him,” Thomas says.
They want to know what came of their mother’s report. Was Mr. Jones interviewed? Why was he able to keep his guns after being accused of a violent sexual assault? If a doctor had indeed revoked his driver’s licence after his dementia diagnosis, why not his firearms licences as well?
Ironically, Thomas points out, his mother had received a letter from the Chief Firearms Office after her hospitalization in January, 2018, informing her that her firearms licence – which she’d obtained in order to hang on to her father’s hunting guns after he died – would require a doctor’s sign-off.
Firearms licences are supposed to be difficult to obtain in Canada. Thomas argues they should also be difficult to keep.
In response to questions from the Globe, Chief Firearms Officer of Ontario Dwight Peer explained that police reporting policies around firearms-licence holders vary from force to force. But if a licence holder is reported to have sexually assaulted someone, he said that should, when coded correctly, trigger a notification to the CFO.
The CFO can also receive calls from family, friends, neighbours or physicians who have concerns about a firearms-licence holder, he said. These concerns are then followed-up on a case-by-case basis. He declined to comment on whether they were notified in this case—or whether any review is being done.
Mr. Lazar recalled that the summer before the murders, Mr. Jones had hauled “two carloads” of firearms and accessories to a gun sale near Orillia, Ont. He said he also had a target range on his property.
The Theorets filed a lawsuit against Mr. Jones’s estate last summer, for damages “for the loss of support, care, guidance and companionship sustained by them.”
The case continues to churn its way through the courts.
A sister of Mr. Jones, reached by phone, declined to speak with the Globe.
In response to an interview request from the Globe and Mail, the OPP said they cannot comment because they are mentioned (though not named as defendants) in the civil litigation.
“This was a tragic crime and our hearts go out to the families and friends of the murdered victims and the community,” spokesperson Carolle Dionne said. “As the matter is before the courts, I am unable to provide further information.”
After they sold the family farm, Thomas and Hans bought a house about an hour away, where Hans now lives with Julia Conway and Lily, the dog. Julia is like a sister to them now, the brothers say. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has not been cleared by her doctor to return to work.
Thomas has since gone back to Taiwan, where he is teaching and working on memoirs about his loss. In the meantime, he and his brother continue to try to get answers.
One morning in March, while Thomas was visiting, the three of them pulled out a box of items they got from the house after the cleaning crew went through. Most of the photos and documents were loose in the box, their picture frames – which had been splattered with blood – removed.
They smile at old glamour shots of Paul, who had modelled for a time — even appearing on the cover of Harlequin romance novels. They finger old photos of themselves as kids, wearing matching outfits, with matching bowl cuts, and playing at the farm while Raija and Olavi look on proudly. They linger over their parents’ wedding album and laugh at a more recent shot of their mom, flashing a big smile, with bright pink hair. She’d dyed it spontaneously, just a short time before she died, they said — a classic Ulla thing to do.
“I don’t know what would give me closure. I really don’t know,” Hans says, shaking his head. “I don’t want to find out that somebody messed up, or that my mom, you know, could have handled it better or that this guy was just a psycho that went off the rails. There’s nothing at this point that could really [make me feel better]. But I want to help somebody in the future … somehow, maybe, there’s a way we can get the word out and help somebody.”
There are lessons here, they argue, for victims, for family, for friends, for the general public, for police. There have to be.
With research by Stephanie Chambers