Minister gets life in slayings

Published Mar. 7, 1996|Updated Sept. 15, 2005

A minister was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday for strangling an elderly couple who suspected he had stolen thousands of dollars from them.

The Rev. John Nelson Canning pleaded guilty last month to two counts first-degree murder in the deaths of Leo and Hazel Gleese. Highlands Circuit Judge David Langford sentenced him to two life prison terms, with no chance of parole, to be served consecutively.

In exchange for the guilty pleas, the state waived the threat of the death penalty.

The Gleeses were founding members of Canning's Fountain of Life non-denominational, 50-member church in this Florida heartland. Canning was there when the couple exchanged vows in 1988 and he presided over their graveside memorial service in January 1995.

When their health began failing in 1994, the Gleeses gave him power of attorney over their financial affairs. Last year, he promised to check on them daily after the state threatened to send the ailing couple to separate group homes, officials said.

But police and prosecutors said they had bank records showing the transfer of the couple's money into his account _ at least $8,000 of $28,000 in proceeds from the secret sales of their second home.

Defense attorneys had planned to contest claims that the minister embezzled money from the Gleeses.

Canning, 59, had been held without bail at the Highlands County jail since his arrest March 3, 1995. He originally pleaded innocent in the Jan. 2, 1995, slayings, but changed his mind before his trial began Feb. 14.

A native of Saco, Maine, Canning has preached in the Pentecostal faith at churches throughout New England, including Auburn and Canton, Maine. He moved to Sebring in the mid-1980s.