The Milk­shake Mur­derer

One of B.C.’S most in­fa­mous killings is re­counted in an ex­cerpt from a new book.

Vancouver Sun - - FRONT PAGE - DEAD ENDS: B.C. CRIME STO­RIES By Paul Will­cocks Univer­sity of Regina Press Re­leased Sept. 29

Dead Ends, a new book by au­thor and jour­nal­ist Paul Will­cocks, tells the story of 40 disturbing crimes that re­veal some­thing of B.C.’s so­cial his­tory. Will­cocks delves into the lives of B.C.’s most no­to­ri­ous killers and out­laws: rustlers, scam artists, sex­ual preda­tors, hu­man smug­glers, mass mur­der­ers, ter­ror­ists and more. You’ll read about “gen­tle­man ban­dit” Bill Miner’s train rob­beries in the early 1900s, the ur­ban guer­rilla ac­tiv­i­ties of the Squamish Five, the Air In­dia bombing, even the killing of im­mi­grant Robert Dziekan­ski by po­lice.

Here is an ex­cerpt: Van­cou­ver’s milk­shake mur­derer

Rene Castel­lani stood above the city of Van­cou­ver in the sum­mer of 1965. Lit­er­ally, as he waved to peo­ple on busy West Broad­way from a car atop the 29-me­tre-high neon sign at BowMac Mo­tors.

Within two years, he was sentenced to stand on a dif­fer­ent kind of plat­form. A gal­lows.

Castel­lani was a star with CKNW. He was the Dizzy Di­aler, king of prank calls and stunts, broad­cast­ing live when the Bea­tles made their only Van­cou­ver ap­pear­ance, in the sum­mer of 1964. He fooled — and out­raged — Van­cou­verites with another stunt, pre­tend­ing to be an In­dian ma­haraja who wanted to buy Bri­tish Columbia, swathed in robes, sur­rounded by body­guards and beau­ti­ful women.

In June 1965, he pledged to stay in a car atop BowMac’s land­mark neon sign un­til ev­ery ve­hi­cle on the lot sold. It took eight days. (The dealer’s sales man­ager was a young go-get­ter named Jimmy Pat­ti­son, who went on to be­come a bil­lion­aire and one of Bri­tish Columbia’s most suc­cess­ful en­trepreneurs.)

But while Castel­lani was wav­ing to the crowds, his wife, Es­ther, was stricken in a hos­pi­tal four blocks away, suf­fer­ing from symp­toms that baf­fled doc­tors. By July 11, she was dead. Who knows how Castel­lani, mar­ried almost 19 years, got the idea. Maybe it was the times. The Bea­tles, Rolling Stones and The Who all re­leased their first al­bums in 1964. Protests against the Viet­nam War broke out. Ken Ke­sey and the Merry Pranksters set out in an old bus to bring LSD to Amer­ica, and long-haired young peo­ple started ar­riv­ing in San Francisco’s Haight Ash­bury. Castel­lani was 40, and no hip­pie. But maybe he de­cided the old rules didn’t ap­ply any more.

Or maybe it was just a more fa­mil­iar story. A man wanted out of a mar­riage be­cause he had met some­one new, younger, pret­tier.

And de­cided on a deadly so­lu­tion. And Rene almost got away with it. It should have been a good time for the Castel­lani fam­ily.

Rene’s ca­reer had fi­nally taken off. Two years ear­lier, things had looked bleak. The fam­ily had to leave Camp­bell River, where Castel­lani was as­sis­tant man­ager of the Wil­lows Ho­tel, when the his­toric build­ing burned to the ground, killing four peo­ple. (Even then, Castel­lani was a pro­moter — when a res­i­dent re­ported see­ing a sea mon­ster off the city’s water­front, Castel­lani quickly of­fered a $50 re­ward for a photo, hop­ing to in­crease business at the ho­tel.)

In Van­cou­ver, he found his niche. He was pro­mo­tions man­ager at CKNW, the Big Dog, as it billed it­self, as well as an on-air per­son­al­ity. His wife, Es­ther, de­scribed as happy and up­beat by her man­ager, worked in a chil­dren’s cloth­ing store. With their 12-year-old daugh­ter Jean­nine, they lived in a tidy, one-storey du­plex on a street in Ker­ris­dale, a pleas­ant neigh­bour­hood then and now.

But be­hind the pic­ture win­dow that over­looked West 42nd Av­enue, things were go­ing ter­ri­bly wrong.

Early in 1965, Es­ther re­ceived latenight anony­mous calls from a woman who said her hus­band was “go­ing around with some­one else.” He left early for work, but when she called, he wasn’t there. And she found a love let­ter in his pocket from some­one named Lolly.

Es­ther con­fronted Rene, who de­nied hav­ing an af­fair.

Soon after, Es­ther was struck by a mys­te­ri­ous ill­ness. Stom­ach pains, then back pains and nau­sea and di­ar­rhea. Her hands went numb, and she could scarcely lift a book or feed her­self. She started to miss work, and made wor­ried vis­its to doc­tors. Doc­tors ran through the usual sus­pects — gall­blad­der prob­lems and other ail­ments were di­ag­nosed, and ruled out.

And Es­ther be­came sicker and sicker, with in­creas­ing vis­its to the hos­pi­tal. Fi­nally, early that sum­mer, she was ad­mit­ted for a long stay. Still doc­tors were baf­fled.

Rene was the du­ti­ful hus­band. He even brought Es­ther food he had pre­pared, at home and in the hos­pi­tal, and her favourite White Spot vanilla milk­shakes, one of the few things she could stom­ach as she got sicker and sicker.

But Rene Castel­lani, de­spite his de­nials, was hav­ing an af­fair.

Lolly was the nick­name of Ade­laide Miller, a re­cep­tion­ist at CKNW. She was much younger than Rene and Es­ther, at­trac­tive and stylish, with up­swept hair and art­fully made-up eyes. And avail­able — Lolly had been re­cently wid­owed when her hus­band drowned while they were boat­ing.

Es­ther wasn’t unattrac­tive, with a friendly face and short, permed hair. But she was no Lolly.

The re­la­tion­ship be­gan in the fall of 1964. Within months, the cou­ple’s lack of dis­cre­tion was mak­ing waves at the sta­tion, and ru­mours spread quickly.

Lolly was fired in May be­cause of the re­la­tion­ship. Rene was spared, sup­pos­edly be­cause Es­ther was sick. (That Lolly, sin­gle mother of a sixyear-old son, was not en­ti­tled to sim­i­lar com­pas­sion says a lot about women’s place in the work­place in 1964.)

Their reck­less­ness would ul­ti­mately prove much more costly.

On July 11, 1965, five days be­fore their wed­ding an­niver­sary, Es­ther died. An au­topsy at Van­cou­ver Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal the next day found the cause was heart fail­ure and an un­known vi­ral in­fec­tion. Her body was re­leased, and buried two days later in For­est Lawn Memo­rial Park in Burn­aby.

And Rene and Lolly might have lived hap­pily ever after.

Ex­cept the case nagged at Dr. Bernard Moscovich, the in­ternist who had cared for Es­ther. He wanted — needed — to know why she had died. And after por­ing over the charts and ev­i­dence, he con­cluded some­thing toxic had killed her, per­haps ar­senic. He or­dered tests on tis­sue sam­ples — and the re­sults found lethal quan­ti­ties of ar­senic, hun­dreds of times the nor­mal lev­els.

Moscovich re­ported the find­ings to po­lice, and they searched the Castel­lani home and found a box of Triox weed killer un­der the kitchen sink. The main in­gre­di­ent — ar­senic.

On Aug. 3, Es­ther’s body was ex­humed from its con­crete vault, and an ex­am­i­na­tion con­firmed poi­son­ing by ar­senic, ad­min­is­tered over a pe­riod

Po­lice be­gan build­ing acase. They learned of the af­fair, the long, lin­ger­ing ill­ness, the ar­senic poi­son­ing, andt he un­seemly ac­tiv­i­ties of Lolly and Rene after Es­ther’s death.

of months.

There was still no di­rect link to Rene. But po­lice sus­pi­cions were cer­tainly height­ened when they found Rene had left on a Dis­ney­land hol­i­day with Lolly, her son, and his daugh­ter five days after his wife’s death, and that the cou­ple had al­ready ap­plied for a loan to buy a house to­gether.

Po­lice be­gan build­ing a case. They learned of the af­fair, the long, lin­ger­ing ill­ness, the ar­senic poi­son­ing, and the un­seemly ac­tiv­i­ties of Lolly and Rene after Es­ther’s death. (By Septem­ber, they were liv­ing to­gether.)

And wit­nesses be­gan re­call­ing those milk­shakes Rene had en­cour­aged Es­ther to drink ev­ery day, the meals he some­times brought to the hos­pi­tal — and the way the milk­shake con­tain­ers and any leftovers al­ways seemed to dis­ap­pear when he left.

The noose was tight­en­ing. CKNW fired Castel­lani in Oc­to­ber. In De­cem­ber, a three-day in­quest heard about the af­fair, the ar­senic poi­son­ing, and the par­tially emp­tied box of weed­killer un­der the sink. And the in­quest jurors heard about the milk­shakes, and the way the con­tain­ers al­ways dis­ap­peared from the hos­pi­tal room.

Coroners’ juries can’t as­sign guilt. But some­one killed Es­ther, they con­cluded.

It was just a mat­ter of time after that. Rene was charged with mur­der­ing Es­ther on April 7, 1966, just days after he and Lolly had ap­plied for a mar­riage li­cence. He couldn’t make the $15,000 bail.

The trial be­gan on Oct. 31, 1966 — Hal­loween. He pleaded not guilty. But over nine days, and with more than 40 pros­e­cu­tion wit­nesses, the case was built against Castel­lani. Wit­nesses de­scribed the sus­pi­cious milk­shakes, and a nurse tes­ti­fied that Rene had given her a ride home and ca­su­ally asked when she thought Es­ther would die — a ques­tion she found chill­ing from a sup­pos­edly con­cerned hus­band.

Other wit­nesses tes­ti­fied about the af­fair, and that Rene and Lolly had told them about their mar­riage plans even be­fore Es­ther was dead.

That, the pros­e­cu­tor said, ex­plained the mo­tive. In 1965, di­vorce in Bri­tish Columbia was still cov­ered by the terms of the Bri­tish Mat­ri­mo­nial Causes Act of 1857. Un­less Es­ther was cheat­ing, or guilty of cru­elty to Rene, he couldn’t di­vorce her. She wasn’t. The mar­riage plans meant Rene knew he was go­ing to kill his wife, they ar­gued.

Doc­tors and ex­perts tes­ti­fied the ar­senic was ad­min­is­tered over at least five months, rul­ing out some one-time mishap.

The poi­son­ing was con­sis­tent with Triox, the weed killer found un­der the kitchen sink. (Its pres­ence was never ex­plained; Triox killed ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing lawns. It was for clear­ing brush, not tidy­ing a home gar­den.)

And an­a­lyst El­don Ride­out tes­ti­fied that Es­ther’s hair sam­ples showed a sig­nif­i­cant drop in the amount of poi­son she was con­sum­ing dur­ing the eight days Castel­lani was atop the auto dealer’s sign.

That could have been good news for de­fence lawyer Al Mack­off. If Es­ther had been given ar­senic while Rene was on top of a gi­ant sign for a week, he couldn’t have been the killer.

But pros­e­cu­tor P. G. BowenColthurst quickly pro­duced wit­nesses to con­firm that Rene hadn’t re­ally re­mained on top of the sign, slip­ping down reg­u­larly and even vis­it­ing Es­ther in hos­pi­tal. Even the land­mark pub­lic­ity stunt was a hoax.

Rene didn’t tes­tify. The de­fence called no wit­nesses. It took the jury, 12 men in suits, four hours to find him guilty, and only 10 min­utes to de­cide against le­niency — mean­ing Castel­lani should hang for the crime.

It wasn’t over. He ap­pealed, say­ing the judge had made er­rors in in­struct­ing the jury. The Bri­tish Columbia Court of Ap­peal agreed, and or­dered a new trial.

When it be­gan, on Sept. 25, 1967, new de­fence lawyer Charles Ma­clean tried a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. Castel­lani took the stand and de­nied killing Es­ther, plead­ing his com­plete in­no­cence. His daugh­ter, also a de­fence wit­ness, tes­ti­fied that an aunt had threat­ened to kill her mother.

But the doc­tors and the an­a­lysts and the nurses and the friends told the story.

It took the jury a bit longer — six hours of de­lib­er­a­tion. But Rene was again found guilty, and again sentenced to death.

Castel­lani ap­pealed to the Bri­tish Columbia Court of Ap­peal and the Supreme Court of Canada to over­turn the ver­dict. Both turned him down.

But Rene was spared the noose. In 1967, un­der then prime min­is­ter Lester Pear­son, the gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion pro­vid­ing for a five-year mora­to­rium on cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. (The death penalty was abol­ished in 1976.)

In­stead, Rene Castel­lani went to prison, and stayed there un­til 1979.

He al­ways main­tained his in­no­cence. And he re­mained con­vinc­ing. After be­ing re­leased from jail, he went back into the ra­dio business, first in Ab­bots­ford and then as pro­mo­tions man­ager at Nanaimo’s CKEG, a new coun­try ra­dio sta­tion try­ing to break into the mar­ket. He even mar­ried again — though not to Lolly.

But free­dom was short-lived. Castel­lani died of can­cer on Jan. 4, 1982, in Nanaimo.

It had been a long, hard fall from his perch on the top of the BowMac sign.

For­mer ra­dio broad­caster Rene Castel­lani, left, was con­victed of mur­der­ing his wife Es­ther Castel­lani, right, by giv­ing her ar­senic. He was sentenced to death.

DAN SCOTT/VAN­COU­VER SUN FILES

COLIN PRICE/PNG FILES

Rene Castel­lani’s stunts in­cluded an eight-day stint atop the BowMac sign on West Broad­way while his wife was in a hos­pi­tal.

DAR­REN STONE/VAN­COU­VER SUN FILES

Paul Will­cocks’s Dead Ends tells of sev­eral B.C. true crime sto­ries, in­clud­ing Es­ther Castel­lani’s mur­der.

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