The Milkshake Murderer
One of B.C.’S most infamous killings is recounted in an excerpt from a new book.
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.
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.
Rene Castellani’s stunts included an eight-day stint atop the BowMac sign on West Broadway while his wife was in a hospital.
Paul Willcocks’s Dead Ends tells of several B.C. true crime stories, including Esther Castellani’s murder.