September 14 2014 05:00AM
Ronald Stan’s life was starting to burn down around him, so when the big century-old barn full of pigs caught fire, he saw a chance to escape.
He’d been cheating on his wife — regularly — and in his mind his marriage was about to fall apart.
Amid the roar of the flames and squeal of the pigs, the 32-year-old father of two had a thought: Better to just leave. Sure, I have some debt but she’ll get the life insurance money.
It was 1977 when Stan bolted into the forest to begin a new life. Now, 37 years, three more wives and another child later, Stan’s world would turn to ash again. The Ontario Provincial Police discovered he was living in Oklahoma as Jeff Walton, a 69-year-old plumber with a wife and 35-year-old son. His family there had no knowledge of the barn fire, his disappearance, and the Canadian wife, toddler and newborn child left behind.
For those 37 years he lived a clumsily constructed lie, stumbling and crawling through the boozy corners of New Orleans and leveraging his charm with women to forge and temper his new identity. His first American wife, Rose Ann Walton, says he could charm a snake.
He is a man consumed by remorse but aware of the self-wrought nature of his plight. His most recent wife, Debra Proctor, unceremoniously divorced him, taking everything after she uncovered the lie beneath Jeff Walton.
Gail Stan, Rose Ann Walton, Holly Kelley and Debra Proctor. These are the women who Walton married. He cheated on all of them, with the exception of Proctor, he’s careful to note.
At 69 and after suffering a stroke, his roguish charms remain apparent. His smile engulfs his face, folding down his brow sitting at the kitchen table of his American son, Jeff Walton Jr. in a small parish outside New Orleans, recounting the women whose lives he’s trod upon.
Legally, he died in that barn fire. Ronald Stan would be no more. In New Orleans he would be reborn as Jeff Walton, baptized in the rivers of booze and debauchery that flow in the French Quarter.
His first wife in his new life was Rose Ann Cardona — a New Orleans woman in her mid-thirties from a reasonably well-to-do family.
Before he fled Canada he sold one of his cars and pocketed the cash — about $3,000 that he could use to start his life in the United States.
“I stayed in the French Quarter a little while then I realized in all actuality I had to do something to get me legal,” said Walton. “So I thought well the first thing I do is I gotta find me a local girl with a little bit of money. Didn’t have to have a lot, just a little. And I did.”
By 1978, he married Rose Ann, who took his last name and kept it to this day.
Now she lives in a quiet corner of Baton Rouge, La., tucked into the bayous. She keeps the photos of her and Jeff stuffed in a box in the closet, their wedding book sealed away where it won’t remind her of their troubled life together.
He introduced himself to her as Jeff Walton, a freshly concocted identity. Jeff, because his infant son in Canada is named Jeff, and Walton, because of the TV show The Waltons.
He said he was from Alaska and told her his mother and siblings died in a plane crash and that his father was wealthy but estranged. Throughout their marriage of about 15 years, he was sparse with details about his past. Occasionally he would talk about fighting in the Vietnam War — a blatant lie that would surface repeatedly.
Rose Ann tried to get his birth certificate so the two could get married six months after they met. Alaska, of course, had no record of his birth. She used her connections with the clerk at Jefferson Parish in New Orleans to get a marriage license without a birth certificate.
“He’s a pathological liar,” said Rose Ann. “He’s very ill. This man could carry on a double-life and keep going. How could you live with this pain?”
Walton took jobs in the energy industry, using his background in plumbing to help open the door. He says he found a name in the obituaries and obtained the associated social security number.
Rob Douglas, a private investigator and information security consultant specializing in identity theft, said the social security number could have been found through public records at the library. Walton could have used it as his own since there was no centralized death index for social security numbers until 1980, says Douglas, who started working in the field in 1983.
“He would have caught it right in the time frame when nobody was paying attention to that stuff,” said Douglas. “If he didn’t do anything to ping law enforcement or civil infractions, he was probably free and clear and it looks like he was.”
Rose Ann had a steady income from a job in waste management. Almost immediately he began cheating on her, she says, with people she knew.
Their son was born in 1979 — premature and with a slim chance of survival. He too would be named Jeff Walton — a second chance for the senior Walton to be a father. Rose Ann said he was a good dad, doting and attentive to his son.
In the 1980s, Rose Ann was involved in an accident with a truck that left her debilitated and with a large court settlement in the area of $500,000 — half of which Jeff senior had control over.
The booze started flowing again. Walton, who liked fast cars, bought a Pontiac Fiero and used a body-kit to make it look like a Ferrari.
The pair separated, though they would not divorce until the mid-90s. In the meantime, Jeff Walton Sr. began reaching back into the world of Ronald Stan. Over the years he would keep tabs on his family through a few select friends in Canada who knew the full story. Once in awhile he’d even reach out.
“I wanted to (keep in touch) so bad, and I did call a couple times just to hear their voices,” he said, laughing. They’d say hello, and he’d hang up without speaking. “That’s silly. But no, I didn’t think it was right for me to talk to them, so I didn’t.”
Walton met his match with his third wife, Holly Kelley, a New Orleans woman who appeared in Playboy’s October 1981 issue and claims to have psychic abilities.
He met her through a friend and kicked off a romance that would flay his secret life open.
“Holly was a new-age person, she was into new-age things at the time, and that’s what brought Jeff Walton Sr. to his knees,” said Rose Ann. “She got it out of him about Ronald Stan. She’s the one that got it out of him.”
Kelley is now working in Hawaii, running a business with her identical twin sister, Bobbi, and providing 30-minute psychic readings over Skype or the telephone for $75 U.S. When reached by the Star, she inquired whether or not she would be paid for an interview. The Star does not pay interview subjects.
Kelley did not return subsequent phone calls but emailed to say she was “apprehensive” about speaking publicly.
“I am very apprehensive about talking to you about Jeff Walton because he is such a habitual liar . . . He has always needed therapy . . . He is an ego manic and will do anything for attention,” she wrote.
Throughout the 1990s, Walton began disclosing his secret to his family and to Kelley. First was with his Canadian wife, then he began reaching out to his biological family.
Much remains unclear about the Canadian aspects of Walton’s story. An uncle, who admittedly had little contact with Ronald Stan and his side of the family, said the family never believed he was dead. Stan’s Canadian wife, Gail, refused to speak with the Star. His Canadian son Jamie also refused, saying it was too painful to relive the memories from that time.
Ronald Stan was formally declared dead in 1986. At that time, you couldn’t simply declare a person dead, according to lawyer Joshua Eisen at Hull and Hull LLP.
“Before the Declarations of Death Act came in 2002, there was no process to apply to a court just to have somebody declared dead. You couldn’t just bring an application,” said Eisen. “There would have to have been some other kind of proceeding for which the fact of his death or non-death was an important issue.”
There are several possibilities that could set the gears in motion for the declaration of death. A life insurance payout would require it, as would issues with his will or estate. If Gail Stan were to have remarried and required a formal divorce, that may have also led to the declaration of his death.
In 1990, Walton began to step outside his faulty persona and reach into his past. He phoned his Canadian wife.
“I did call her and talk to her. After that, she didn’t believe I was who I said I was. Thought someone was playing a joke on her. But I knew things that other people had no idea, and she gave all the (insurance) money back. It’s the truth,” said Walton.
He went to stay with his brother, John, in London one weekend in 1995 and they invited his father over. At first, the elder Stan didn’t believe it was his son.
“He comes over and touches me all over I go, ‘Hey Dad, how you doin’?” says Walton, laughing at the memory. “He says, ‘Ah, it is you.’”
He returned again to Canada as his father was on his deathbed. He and his two brothers and sisters began to talk about dividing the patriarch’s assets among the children.
“They’re sayin’ well we’re going to divide his assets up into four. I said no, divide it three ways. I don’t want nothin’ — I ain’t been a son to him,” said Walton.
His father passed away in 1997 and Walton stayed in touch with his brother and sister, John and Wendy, over the years. Despite the revelation of his survival, Ronald Stan remained dead in the eyes of the law.
Walton also told Kelley about his mysterious past. He said he told her things that he had told none of his other wives. Rose Ann said Kelley took it upon herself to break the news to her, though won’t say when she found out.
“She’s the one that got it out of him,” said Rose Ann. “She used to love rubbing my nose in everything.”
Rose Ann hid the truth from her son, Jeff Walton Jr. He didn’t find out about his father’s past as Ronald Stan until last month, when the rest of the world found out.
Throughout the 1990s Walton’s relationship with Kelley fell apart. He took a job with a company in the Virgin Islands where they gave him a computer — still a novelty in 1998 — and set to work right away.
“I thought wow, what kind of trouble can I get in with this? And I did. I would look up those dating sites and that’s how I found Debra,” said Walton.
Jeff Walton married Debra Proctor, his fourth wife, in 2000. The pair set up a life of football, golf games and grandkids in Tahlequah, Okla.
Nestled in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, the town of roughly 16,000 is home to a major hospital, where Proctor works, and the main campus of Northeastern State University. It’s a town of classic storefronts and coffee shops that buzz with the day’s gossip. In August, news rippled through the town about the man with a secret identity who had married Proctor, a prominent member of the community.
He met Debra online in the nascent days of Internet dating.
It appears the pair lived a happy life.
Photos from that era and the years that follow show a smiling Jeff Walton, seen cuddling his grandchildren — his son Jeff’s three daughters — golfing, and on his wife’s arm at various charity galas she attended as part of her position with the local hospital.
In 2003, Walton took a trip to Edmonton to attend his mother’s 80th birthday party, continuing his process of re-uniting with his Canadian family, which his latest wife knew nothing of.
“I’d see somebody and go, ‘Oh my God, they remember me as Ron,’ so I’d see ’em come in and I’d hook ’em in the elbow and take ’em outside. I said, ‘Now look, this is my name now, so don’t be calling me no Ron,’ ” said Walton.
Evidently his family listened. His mother’s obituary, published after her death in 2010, reads “She will be lovingly remembered and missed by her children: Jeff, Wendy, Alan and John.”
Walton continued to live his lie.
The enduring mystery at the heart of this story is how and why the Ontario Provincial Police reopened the investigation into the disappearance of Ronald Stan. The police force said in a statement it was part of a “routine audit” of its case files.
“We want to be able to account for missing parties whether they’re deceased or not,” said Const. Laurie Houghton.
Walton thinks Proctor was the one who sparked the renewed investigation. Proctor refused to speak to the Star for this story and instead issued a statement saying the OPP had phoned her at work on Aug. 1, 2014 and told her the story of Ronald Stan.
“We are truly saddened from this unimaginable deceit and betrayal,” reads the statement.
Ever on the cutting edge of technology, Walton is an avid Facebook user. He became sloppy with his secrets, adding and chatting with his brother from his past life, John Stan. According to Facebook, Proctor and John Stan became friends in 2013.
In March 2014, Walton suffered a stroke that has left him with vascular dementia, a condition that caused Proctor to enroll him first in a daytime care facility for seniors, then have him placed at Go Ye Village, a Christian long-term care facility in Tahlequah. Walton thinks Proctor was looking into his past while he was in the facility.
“She started digging into all these other things. She found a way to save her, make me look like the bad guy — which I am — and make her a little princess,” he said. “She comes out smelling like a rose because I’m an a—hole and that’s okay.”
In the divorce paperwork she filed August 14, and that he agreed to, she got the two cars, the house, all of their shared assets, and he would take their shared debts.
Asked why he didn’t fight it, “no point,” he said.
On the top of Walton’s list of concerns is the future of his social security pension. The FBI typically investigates cases of identity theft, but would not disclose whether or not it is conducting an investigation into Walton, who said he has been paying taxes for his entire time in the United States.
“It’s been almost 40 years that I’ve lived this lie. And actually I’ve been a real good boy, except for the philandering. I paid my taxes, I did everything right,” said Walton.
Thirty-seven years after running away from his first wife Gail, Ronald Stan says he still loves her. He is revealing his story to the Toronto Star because he hopes she reads it.
Walton, whom the Star found in New Orleans, has made a list of what he insists are truths, plucked from a life populated by lies.
It’s written in careful pencil strokes on an unlined piece of paper. His hands fold over it as the afternoon light shines in his son’s living room. His smile consumes his face, drawing down the corners of his eyes. Missing teeth give him a childlike grin.
“So, what do you want to know?” he says in a Louisiana drawl acquired after he fled Canada. The words flow forth from the penitent man.
He starts from the beginning, when he took a job at Fanshawe College teaching plumbing.
“Wow — I’ve never seen so many women in my life. That’s where the trouble started. So, I cheated on my wife. With more than one woman. A lot. Everyone I could,” said Stan.
On the day of the fire, his mother received a call from the mother of a girl from St. Mary’s, Ont., who Stan had been sleeping with. The girl told her mother that Stan was going to marry her. His mother, Rhoda, phoned him.
“She said, ‘This lady is lookin’ for you. You’re in deep trouble. She’s from a very wealthy family,’ ” Stan recalled.
That night he came home to the farm, knowing that his world would soon unravel. His wife and two kids were inside the house when he went to the pig barn just after midnight.
His explanation is that the fire started from a bale of wet hay.
“God, it went up so fast I couldn’t believe it — like a bomb,” says Walton. “I went outside and I was standing there and went, oh my God what the hell am I going to do.”
Walton has admittedly lied his whole life, but now, sitting destitute in the kitchen of his son, he says he is telling the truth. Wet hay produces a particular kind of bacteria that can cause a rapid rise in temperatures and explosive combustion, Washington State University agriculture professor agriculture professor Steven Fransen confirms. Walton says he kicked a bale of hay, a move that Fransen says would be the equivalent of pouring gas on the fire.
The truth appears lost to history. The Archives of Ontario houses records from the Ontario Fire Marshal, but has no record from that particular night. In its 2014 statement, the OPP says the force and the fire marshal’s office investigated — no charges have been laid in this case.
Neighbour Bert Toonen, who is skeptical of the wet hay explanation, says Stan never fed the pigs — they were Toonen’s. Toonen, who now owns the property, remembers the 70 pigs lost that night, and he remembers sifting through their charred remains in search of a human body.
As he watched the flames lick into the September night sky, Ronald Stan could hear his wife, Gail, screaming in the distance. On Sept. 29, 1977, Ronald Stan slipped into the acreages of North Middlesex under the cover of darkness.
She would get his life insurance payout, he thought. She would also be saddled with all the debt that came from running a farm. She was going to leave him anyway when she found out about the young girl from St. Mary’s, who got it in her head that Ron was going to marry her.
Stan picked his way through the fields and forests of north Middlesex County, travelling at night until he made it to Port Huron. With the $3,000 from the sale of a car he hopped a bus to New Orleans.
Stan now relies on the kindness of his son, who only recently learned about his father’s secret identity. Jeff Walton Jr. appears to be taking the news in stride — the 35-year-old with a young family says it doesn’t change the man he’s known for his whole life.
For Walton, he has reached the end of his story. Sitting at his son’s kitchen table in a small parish outside New Orleans, he draws pictures. They’re pointillism — little dots that, when viewed together, make up the whole.
“At least you got my part of the story, which is the truth. I have not lied at all. It’s not going to save me or anything. There’s still going to be people that think I’m a d---head and that’s fine, I don’t care,” said Walton.
He’s at once remorseful and nostalgic for his life. He was a boy on a long adventure, where the horses and princesses are replaced by fast cars and women, and the wounds he inflicted don’t fade with time but echo through generations. Two sons without a father in Canada, another who is just getting to know who his dad really is, and a trail of women left broken-hearted. All felt the sting of betrayal; of loving a man who was a living lie.
“I’m not going to lie to you and say I didn’t really want to mess with all those girls — I did, and I did. How do you get forgiveness for that? I can apologize and say I’m sorry . . . that’s all I can do. If I apologize, that’s good, but how do you apologize for all 40 years? Say I’m sorry? Am I going to get forgiven? I doubt it,” says Walton.