“During an investigation in to other outstanding missing persons in the gay community, this occurrence, as well as two other missing males of similar ethnic background have come to light,” wrote a Toronto police detective. “This is a serious concern for the Toronto Police Service and further investigation is required to rule out or confirm criminal activity.”
Court documents unsealed by an Ontario judge Friday provide a limited glimpse into the police task force known as Project Houston — the ultimately unsuccessful probe that examined the disappearances of three men now believed to be among alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur’s eight victims.
They also show that years before McArthur became a murder suspect, police were homing in on areas McArthur was known to frequent — including Silverdaddies.com, a gay dating app used by McArthur, and bars within the Gay Village — though there is no mention of McArthur as a suspect in the newly released documents.
The vast majority of the information in the ITOs released Friday has been redacted by the court, but the documents do provide a peek inside the initial probe into the disappearances of Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi, 42, and Majeed Kayhan, 58.
The three men, who disappeared from the Gay Village between 2010 and 2012, became the subjects of Project Houston, which launched in November 2012. At one point in September 2013, the documents state police believe Navaratnam and Faizi were “murdered.”
The ITO documents provide a partial view of the wide net investigators cast in their efforts to determine who the men communicated with, and what they did, in the days and weeks before their disappearances. Among the companies police targeted: Yahoo!, Telus Communications, Bell Canada, Rogers Communications, Scotiabank, CIBC and Cogeco Cable Canada LP. They also sought search warrants for addresses and tracking warrants for vehicles.
Project Houston ended after 18 months, when police could find “no evidence to suggest criminal activity.” A small crew of officers at the local downtown division continued to probe the disappearances as missing persons cases.
The early investigation into the men’s disappearances — and the decision to end Project Houston — has been the subject of heated criticism after the arrest of McArthur, the 66-year-old landscaper accused of eight counts of first degree murder — including all three Project Houston men.
After the project ended in April 2014, it is alleged that McArthur went on to kill five more men — Andrew Kinsman, 49, Selim Esen, 44, Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam, 37, Dean Lisowick, 47, and Soroush Mahmudi, 50.
Police sources have previously told the Star that McArthur was questioned around the time of Project Houston. McArthur did not become a murder suspect until November 2017 — in the death of Kinsmen.
As previously reported by the Star and other media, Project Houston homed in for months on the wrong suspect — Peterborough man James Alex Brunton. Police had received a tip that potentially linked him to Navaratnam, and for a period between late 2012 and June 2013, the project became a homicide probe, pursuing evidence that he’d become the victim of a cannibalism ring.
Documents unsealed by the courts showed investigators obtained warrants to search Brunton’s Peterborough home, track a vehicle registered to his address, intercept communications within the home, and that a confidential informant and an undercover officer were involved in the investigation.
When that evidence was discounted — Brunton was later cleared as a murder suspect, but arrested on child porn charges — the case was no longer a homicide investigation.
Questions and criticisms over the force’s handling of its investigation into the disappearances of Navaratnam, Kayhan and Faizi, as well as those of five other men, most with ties to the Gay Village and of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent, prompted the Toronto Police Services Board to launch an independent review of how missing persons cases are investigated. The high-profile review, presided over by former Ontario Superior Court Justice Gloria Epstein, is looking at the policies and practices employed during missing persons investigations and whether discrimination or bias may have affected how police conducted themselves.
That review is in addition to another, internal review police are conducting on their own of how they conduct missing persons investigations.
The ITO documents released Friday reveal new details about steps police took in the days after Navaratnam, Faizi and Kayhan were reported missing and provide a snapshot of the turmoil faced by their families and friends as they grew more worried.
They also show Toronto police made inquiries concerning three accounts on silverdaddies.com, sometime around Jan. 2013. The website is a “meeting place for mature men and other men (both daddies and younger) who are interested in keeping their daddy happy and/or sexually satisfied,” according to the documents.
What, if anything, investigators gleaned from this is blacked-out in the documents.
McArthur had a SilverDaddies account, and as previously reported by the Star, used it to connect to at least one man — a closeted, Middle Eastern man living in Toronto, who anonymously spoke to the Star. He said the men had sex in a bathhouse, but the relationship didn’t progress due to how rough McArthur’s sexual preferences were.
One Oct. 2010 request for a production order for Telus Communications contains a summary of investigative work done by police looking into Navaratnam’s disappearance. The summary shows that on Sept. 26, 2010 — 10 days after Navaratnam was reported missing by a friend — a police sergeant, accompanied by 16 of Navaratnam’s friends and concerned community members, did a walk-through of trails adjacent to both the east and west side of Riverdale Park and checked a densely wooded area south of Bloor St. E.
“This area is apparently used as a meeting/pickup place by members of the gay community. Nothing of any evidentiary value located; no further information obtained,” reads the document, which stresses the exercise was a “walk through” and “not a search.”
Five days later, on Oct. 1, 2010, police conducted a cadaver search with a dog but found nothing.
In an ITO seeking a production order for a Burlington credit bureau in Jan. 2013, police detail how a cousin of Faizi reported the man missing to Peel Regional Police on Dec. 30, 2010. A few days later, on Jan. 2, 2011, Faizi’s niece reported to police that the family had accessed the man’s email account.
“Family members are extremely concerned for Faizi’s wellbeing, as he spends most of his time working or with family,” the ITO reads.
The last time Faizi was seen alive was when he was leaving his job as an assistant machine operator at a Mississauga printing company. His 2002 Nissan Sentra was later found abandoned on Moore Ave., near St. Clair Ave. and Mount Pleasant Rd.
In one application in Feb. 2013, police were seeking a production order for a Yahoo! email account that investigators had identified as being used by “the individual last known to have contact via the internet with Faizi before his disappearance.”
At that time, Faizi’s disappearance was being treated as suspicious, as he had not been heard from in two years.
“It is my belief that Faizi has ultimately become the victim of wrongdoing,” writes the officer signing the warrant.
Obtaining more information from the email account will “allow investigators to contact the individual last known to have contact via the internet with Faizi before his disappearance.”
The application was granted, but it’s not clear what happened next.
The documents show that initially police believed Navaratnam and Kayhan may have been the victims of a kidnapping. In one application in Jan. 2013 for a production order for Bell Canada, police report that when Kayhan’s son, Hamid, last spoke to his father, Kayhan “appeared in good health and good spirits.”
The document then describes what could only have been a son’s anguished attempts to locate his father. After several unreturned calls, Hamid spoke to other family members who said they too hadn’t heard from his father for two weeks. In late Oct. 2012, Hamid visited his father’s apartment at 31 Alexander St. in the heart of the Gay Village but couldn’t gain entry as the locks had recently been changed. Police were called but could find no signs of a struggle or foul play when they entered Kayhan’s apartment. Officers then tried calling downtown Toronto hospitals in the hope of finding Kayhan, but were unsuccessful.