For strangling an elderly couple who feared he had stolen thousands of dollars from them, a minister was sentenced to life in prison. In the killings of Leo and Hazel Gleese, the Rev. John Nelson Canning pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder. Judge David Langford of the Highlands Circuit Court sentenced him to two life sentences without the possibility of release, to be served consecutively.
In January 1995, two of Fountain of Life Church’s valued elderly members, 90-year-olds Leo and Hazel Gleese, were found brutally murdered in their home, shocking the small village of Sebring, Florida. ‘Where Murder Lies: Diabolical Devil,’ a documentary on Investigation Discovery, has detailed the horrific details of their killings. Let’s take a deeper look at this terrifying case together.
What Happened to Leo and Hazel Gleese?
Leo Gleese was a retired draughtsman who relocated to Sebring in 1969 from Warren, Pennsylvania. Hazel Stanley, a former hairstylist from Tolley, North Dakota, who moved to Sebring in 1974, was there when he met her.
They were two of the first members of the Fountain of Life Church, which had 50 members, the most of whom were old, and gathered in a warehouse that served as a makeshift sanctuary. The chapel first opened its doors in 1987, and the pair married the following year, in 1988.
Leo and Hazel were described as nice and god-fearing by everyone in the town. Reverend John Nelson Canning, the church’s minister and a close associate of the Gleeses, hastily claimed to the police on January 3, 1995, that he found them both dead at their residence when he went to meet them, as usual, the day before. Leo was discovered in the living room, laying on the floor in front of his chair, while Hazel was discovered in the kitchen in a similar manner.
Both the husband and wife had bruises on their faces, and Leo had several blunt force trauma injuries to his head. The pair had been severely battered and strangled to death, according to further investigation. The switched-on VCR and unlocked front door showed that the killer was known to the Gleeses, as did multiple traces of blood on the wall behind Leo.
Who Was Responsible for the Deaths of Leo and Hazel Gleese?
Two weeks after Leo and Hazel died, 58-year-old John Canning gave a moving eulogy at their memorial, describing the profound kinship he and his wife had with the elderly couple. According to the minister, he was the one who had married the Gleeses seven years before, and they had apparently “adopted” him and his wife because they didn’t have any children of their own. He also addressed them as “Mom and Dad,” and referred to himself as their kid.
Leo and Hazel had been mostly housebound since a few months before their deaths, as the former had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and the latter had nearly completely lost her vision. As a result, social officials planned to place them in a group home, but John intervened and assured Hazel’s niece Shirley Hinton that he would keep an eye on them and report to her on a regular basis.
In an interview, she revealed that he never did so, saying, “He promised to check on them every single day… He didn’t even call to tell me they were dead.” The couple had such faith in John that they gave him power of attorney and entrusted him with the sale of Leo’s house, where he lived before marrying Hazel and moving in with her, in 1994.
However, the police’s suspicions were aroused when he reported finding the couple dead on January 2, 1995, but waiting one day before reporting it to the authorities. They also discovered scratch and tanning marks on his forearms, which he couldn’t explain well, according to the episode.
The police dug into the sale records of Leo’s old residence when the murder inquiry began. According to the police and prosecutors, John allegedly syphoned at least $8,000 from the couple’s funds to his own account out of the $28,000 earnings.
He also took “tens of thousands of dollars” from the Gleeses, according to the authorities. This surprised Hazel, because she allegedly told one of her neighbours the weekend before she was slain that they were concerned about where the money from their house sale went and planned to speak with John about it.
A further look into John’s past revealed that he had issues in both of his previous pastorates. In 1968, John was accused of embezzlement and sexual misconduct by founding members of Granby Pentecostal Tabernacle in Connecticut.
According to reports, John was forced to resign from his next two pastorates due to alleged financial malfeasance and a feud with the trustees. Not only that, but he got himself into hot water in Sebring in 1992 when several parishioners reported that money meant for the church ended up in his private bank account.
The police went to the pastor’s house after hearing Hazel’s talk with her neighbour, and discovered a watch with a broken band that matched the scratch marks on his arms. It had his DNA traces, as well as Leo and Hazel’s, according to forensic investigation.
Apart from that, significant evidence was discovered in a garbage pile near the church’s under-construction new sanctuary. A foam piece from Leo’s chair, John’s blood-stained clothes, and the alleged murder weapon, a walking cane with Leo’s blood on it, which had caused the head injuries were among the items found.
As a result, it was determined that John paid the Gleeses a visit on January 2, 1995, to deliver their breakfast. He murdered them and spent the rest of the day at the beach with pals when they challenged him about their missing money. John reported Leo and Hazel’s deaths the next morning to avoid suspicion. He was arrested on two counts of first-degree murder on March 3, 1995, and imprisoned without bail.
What happened to Rev. John Nelson Canning and Where Is He Now?
On February 14, 1996, Rev. John Nelson Canning was convicted for the double murder of Leo and Hazel Gleese. Despite initially claiming innocence before to his trial, he was sentenced to two life terms without the possibility of release on March 6, 1996, after pleading guilty to the allegations against him. He is currently detained at the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Florida, for the rest of his life.