Set in middle-class Kerrisdale, the green duplex at 2092 West 42nd Avenue is such an ordinary place it’s hard to imagine it was the stage for one of the most sensational murders in Vancouver’s history. An excerpt from my book At Home with History.
Esther Castellani, 40, died in 1965 from slow and painful arsenic poisoning by her husband of 19 years. A saleswoman at a children’s clothing store, Esther had a 12-year-old daughter Jeannine.
Rene Castellani ran CKNW’s promotional department and was known for his outrageous stunts. Once he played a Maharaja who wanted to buy British Columbia—going so far as to take out ads on bus boards. He stayed at the Western Bayshore, dressed as an Indian prince and rode around in limousines with bodyguards and an entourage of dancing girls. So effective was the campaign that outraged locals made up signs shouting “Keep BC British.” Shortly before his wife’s death, Rene climbed into a car perched on top of the 20-metre Bow Mac sign on West Broadway and vowed to stay there until every last car on the lot sold. It took eight days.
Three weeks after her death, an autopsy found that Esther’s arsenic levels were 1,500 times the normal arsenic content of the body. Rene wasn’t arrested until months later when police discovered his affair with the radio station’s blonde receptionist and stumbled over a box of arsenic laden Triox weed killer under his kitchen sink. Rene had been adding the weed killer to Esther’s food and the milkshakes he thoughtfully brought home to her.
Esther knew about the affair. She’d received anonymous late night phone calls from a woman who asked: “Do you know your husband is going around with someone else?” She found a love letter in Rene’s pocket from Lolly whose real name was Adelaide Ann Miller. Lolly, a young single mother with a six-year-old son, was recently widowed when her husband drowned while the couple was out boating.
Shortly after Esther confronted Rene about his affair she started to get stomach and lower back pain severe enough to keep her off work. Over the next couple of months she had bouts of nausea and diarrhea which quickly turned into intense pain and vomiting. Her fingers and toes went numb and she couldn’t walk or use her hands. Various diagnoses had the cause as sodium retention or gallbladder problems brought on by poor diet. Doctors failed to clue into the arsenic poisoning even after several visits and a two-month long hospital stay.
The autopsy revealed that Esther had ingested arsenic for more than six months before her death, including the time she was in hospital. The lab charted the amount of arsenic she received day by day, using a strand of her hair. What helped to convict Rene was that for the eight days he was sitting up on the Bow Mac sign, there wasn’t any sign of poison in her hair growth.
Three months after the murder, CKNW fired Rene and soon after, police arrested him—two days after he and Lolly applied for a marriage license. He was convicted and spent the next 12 years in jail. Both Rene and Lolly married other people. Rene died of cancer in 1982.
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