Pastor Beats, Kills Elderly Couple After They Suspect He’s Stealing Their Money

“They cared about others, perhaps too much,” the murderer said while delivering the two 90-year-olds’ eulogy before his arrest.

Rev. John Canning smiling next to Leo and Hazel Geese. He is in a black suit, Leo is in a blue suit, and Hazel is in a pink blouse.

Rev. John Canning is in prison for beating and killing an elderly couple after they suspected he was stealing their money.

Photo by: Discovery [screenshot from ID's Where Murder Lies S2 Ep 5]

Discovery [screenshot from ID's Where Murder Lies S2 Ep 5]

By: Aaron Rasmussen

A Florida pastor who murdered two devoted parishioners he called “Mom” and “Dad” delivered a eulogy at their graveside memorial service six weeks before police arrested him.

In 1988, John Nelson Canning married 90-year-olds Leo and Hazel Gleese, founding members of Fountain of Life, the reverend’s Pentecostal church in Sebring.

Around seven years later, in 1994, the elderly couple’s health was failing — he was battling Parkinson’s disease and she was nearly blind — when the two granted Canning power of attorney and he took over managing their financial affairs, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

The pastor, prosecutors said, began siphoning money from the ailing Gleeses’ bank accounts and depositing it into his own. In one instance, he was accused of secretly selling a second home the seniors owned for $28,000 and then pocketing over $8,000 from the proceeds.

On Jan. 3, 1995, 58-year-old Canning reported to police that he found the Gleeses dead in their home — Leo in the living room and Hazel in the kitchen. An autopsy determined they were both severely beaten and strangled.

Two weeks later, according to the Associated Press, Canning delivered a eulogy at an area cemetery, telling the two dozen mourners, “I’m proud they asked me to be their son; I’m proud I could call them Mom and Dad.”

“Some of you today have been longtime friends of Mom and Dad for many months or many years,” Canning reportedly said. “But I doubt if any one of you has been any closer than my wife and I have.”

“They loved their fellow man,” Canning noted, adding, “They cared about others, perhaps too much.”

Despite his professed affection for the victims, the pastor was quickly identified as the main suspect in the case after detectives learned he waited a day to notify them about the deaths. Instead, police said, Canning went to the beach and enjoyed dinner with friends.

“When it takes somebody a day to report two dead bodies, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say who the suspect is,” then-Sebring Police Chief Robert Glick said.

Hazel Gleese’s niece, Shirley Hinton, told Money Magazine that despite his promise to check on the pair “every single day,” Canning “never even called to tell me they had died.”

Investigators recovered evidence on church property linking Canning to the murders, including the pastor’s bloody clothing and one of the victim’s walking canes.

On March 3, 1995, Canning, who had been accused of financial malfeasance in several previous pastorates, was taken into custody and charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

In order to avoid a death sentence, Canning pleaded guilty a year later to the charges against him, and he was sentenced to two life terms behind bars without the possibility of parole.

To learn more about this case, stream this episode of “Where Murder Lies” on discovery+.

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