For years, there were whispers in Toronto’s gay community about a serial killer stalking the community. Now that one of their own has been charged with the murders of five missing men, they wonder why the police didn’t act sooner.
In a small park in the heart of Toronto’s Gay Village, about 200 people assembled in the snow to mourn the victims of an alleged serial killer.
Many wore armbands painted with the words “love”, “heal”, “rise”, “grieve”. The words were later used in a call-and-response between organisers and the large crowd.
“Today we grieve,” they said, and the word echoed back from the crowd.
“Today we resist. Today we heal. Today we rise. Today, of all days, we love.”
But as the names of the victims were read out into the winter air, there was only silence.
In January, police charged Bruce McArthur with five counts of first degree murder for the deaths of Andrew Kinsman, 49, Majeed Kayhan, 58, Soroush Mahmudi, 50, Dean Lisowick 47, and Salim Esen, 44.
McArthur has not yet entered a plea and the police investigation is ongoing.
Officials believe there may be more victims.
The arrest confirmed the worst fears of many in the Village, who for years had whispered that a serial killer might be targeting their community.
“Too many people for too long in our community have been lost,” said Troy Jackson, who hosted the community vigil.
Located at the intersection of Church Street and Wellesley Street, Toronto’s Gay Village has been the city’s enclave for the LGBT community since the 1960s.
It’s also been more than a neighbourhood – a home away from home for many who may feel marginalised because of their sexuality.
Perhaps this is why the killings have hit the community especially hard, says Soofia Mahmood, a spokesperson for The 519, a community centre that helped organise the vigil.
“It’s making the community feel more vulnerable,” Mahmood says.
Many of the victims were immigrants from South Asia or the Middle East who were not out to their families. The Village was supposed to be their safe place. Instead, it became a hunting ground.
Who are the victims?
Police said they discovered the remains of six people buried in large planters on a property where McArthur stored his landscaping equipment. He has been charged with killing five men between the years 2012-2017.
All the victims appear to have some connection to the Gay Village, although some of them were not out to their family. One of the victims, Dean Lisowick, was homeless and a sex worker. No-one ever reported him missing.
So far, police have only identified one set of the remains as those of Andrew Kinsman.
Kinsman’s disappearance last June sparked a community-wide search and rekindled rumours of a serial killer.
Soon after, police launched a task force, Project Prism, to investigate his disappearance, as well as another suspicious missing persons case. Selim Esen had disappeared from his home near the Village in April.
Months stretched on with no word. Kinsman’s friend Greg Downer took to Facebook in September to implore “the person who took Andrew Kinsman” to make an anonymous report, “so that his family and friends can hopefully find closure”.
Who is the accused?
McArthur himself was no stranger to the Village community. The grandfather and father of two had came out later in life but had been a neighbourhood regular since the late 1990s. At Zipperz, one of the bars frequented by many of his alleged victims, he could often be found sitting at the bar, having a drink or chatting up a fellow patron.
“I used to refer to him as ‘Santa’,” Zipperz owner Harry Singh told the BBC. With a white beard, a slight belly and a twinkle in his eyes, McArthur even worked as a mall Santa one Christmas.
But what most people didn’t know was that underneath the jolly exterior, McArthur hid a dark side. In 2003 he was given a two-year conditional sentence for assaulting a man with a metal pipe in Toronto.
As part of his sentence, he was required to stay away from male prostitutes, the Gay Village and refrain from using amyl nitrate, also known as poppers.
Police have not said how Bruce McArthur became a suspect in the killings. But they have said he used online dating sites, and had a sexual relationship with Kinsman.
Police now say they had considered McArthur a suspect since November.
But as late as December, Toronto police were publicly saying there was “no evidence” of a serial killer and that Kinsman and Esen’s disappearances were unconnected to a string of other missing persons cases in the Village.
The denial has damaged an already fragile relationship between the Toronto LGBT community and the police.
Uniformed police were uninvited from the annual Pride parade in 2016 following heated discussions of how LGBT people of colour often feel targeted by law enforcement.
That same year, Toronto police arrested dozens of gay men at a public park after conducting a sting operation where an undercover officer solicited for sex. The arrests were likened to the 1981 Bathhouse raids where police arrested men engaging in consensual sex at gay bathhouses.
How has it affected police relations?
Now many community members felt that the lack of response from police about the missing men was just another sign of police taking the LGBT community less seriously.
“The concerns of these disappearances being linked or the possibility of being a serial killer were completely dismissed,” says Mahmood.
Toronto Police LGBT liaison Danielle Bottineau says police are aware that McArthur’s arrest has added to the strained relationship.
“Everything kind of hangs in layers on top of one another,” she says.
When did it all start?
Rumours about someone targeting the community had been swirling for years, ever since Skandaraj Navaratnam disappeared from Zipperz on Labour Day weekend in 2010.
Known as Skanda to his friends, the 40-year-old had moved to Canada from Sri Lanka in the 1990s and quickly settled into a comfortable routine in the Village, where he easily made friends.
“His laugh was just ridiculous,” Jodi Becker, a bartender at Zipperz and close friend of Navaratnam’s, told the Toronto Star after he went missing. “If Skanda started laughing, everybody started laughing, even if nothing was funny.”
When he disappeared, abandoning a new puppy alone in his apartment, his friends called police.
“He was a really responsible guy,” Becker said. “For him to just get a puppy and then to just screw off, that doesn’t add up. He would have taken the dog with him.”
A few months later, Abdulbasir Faizi also went missing. At 42, he divided his life between his wife and two sons in the suburbs and his social life in the Gay Village downtown.
He had told his wife he was going out with colleagues. Instead, police say, he went to the Village where he was last seen at a bathhouse known as a place for casual sex.
His family reported him missing, but because they didn’t know his ties to the Village, his disappearance largely flew under the radar of Toronto’s LGBT community.
That is until Majeed Kayhan went missing on 14 October 2012. Like Faizi, he had a wife and children, a whole separate life from the one he lived in the Village, where he frequented many of the bars – including Zipperz – and kept an apartment in the area. His adult son reported him missing when he could no longer reach him.
The similarities between Kayhan, Faizi and Navaratnam were too strong to ignore.
All three missing men were middle-aged. All three spent time in the Gay Village. And all three men had brown skin.
The three disappearances prompted police to create a task force, Project Houston, in 2013. A year and a half later, having uncovered little information, police abandoned the effort.
So far, only one of those men, Kayhan, has been identified by police as one of McArthur’s alleged victims. The other two remain unsolved missing persons cases.
These unanswered questions still haunt Haran Vijayanathan, executive director of the Alliance for South Asian Aids Prevention.
He has asked for a third-party investigation into why Project Houston was abandoned, and why it took the disappearance of a white man, Andrew Kinsman, to launch the police into action.
If police had paid more attention, Vijayanathan said, “you can’t help but wonder if the lives of the other men who passed or are missing could have been potentially saved”.
“Those are the ‘what ifs’, and ‘ands’ we have to contend with.”
With additional reporting from Jessica Murphy