Mark Saunders needs to explain himself to this city.
He is not only Toronto’s police chief, top of the investigative and administrative chain. He’s also a crucial community leader.
We look to him for reassurance and forthrightness in times of trouble. Sometimes even pre-emptively, when the trouble is not widely known or suspected.
Except there were strong suspicions — at least in the Gay Village community — that a serial killer had, for years, been preying on homosexuals who had vanished from their usual haunts, from their homes, from their families.
And there were clearly some common denominators identified by detectives investigating what was then believed to be five missing men. That was evident in documents unsealed by the courts this week — heavily redacted applications to support search warrants indicating police had already zeroed in on Bruce McArthur as a suspect.
Over subsequent months, police tailed McArthur, a self-employed landscaper, hither and yon. They watched him as he worked at various properties across the GTA. They tracked his meanderings to coffee shops and restaurants. They had eyes on his vehicle. They covertly entered and searched his apartment, accessing and cloning his computer digital files.
The missing men had specific commonalities: All middle-aged with facial hair; most of South Asian or Middle Eastern ethnicity; each self-identified as “bears” in the gay community, an insider term for a “larger, hairier man who projects an image of rugged masculinity,” according to the documents.
Every one of them — ultimately the missing extended to eight males — had frequented the Black Eagle Bar on Church St. and every one of the five had disappeared on a holiday: Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Labour Day, Pride weekend.
The police chief would have known all of this when, on Dec. 8, 2017, during an hour-long news conference, he dispelled escalating rumours of a serial killer at work. “We follow evidence,” Saunders said in response to a direct question about the serial scenario. “The evidence is telling us that is not the case right now.”
That was the day after investigators had surreptitiously entered, for the second time in a week, McArthur’s apartment.
Parsing Saunder’s language, he told the literal truth. Investigators did not have actionable evidence to support the belief that anyone had been murdered. No bodies, no forensics. But they damn well had their suspicions. And they had a distinct suspect.
Police are not obliged to publicize their suspicions; indeed, they often bend over backwards to avoid doing so. There may be investigative reasons for that, although police departments long ago dropped the posture of withholding information for the purpose of protecting an ongoing investigation lest a suspect be tipped off.
Putting the public at risk is no longer tolerated. That was one of the lessons learned from the fiasco of the “balcony rapist” investigation in the mid-’80s when women who matched the description of the rapist’s preferred victim — he operated in a particular downtown area — had not been warned. They were essentially used as bait.
The woman known as Jane Doe — his last victim, raped at knifepoint in her apartment — subsequently and successfully sued Toronto police, although it took a full decade after she secured the legal right to sue the department for her case to be resolved. In a scathing indictment of the police force and its officers, Justice Jean McFarland slammed Toronto police for being “utterly negligent” in the way they handled the balcony rapist probe. McFarland condemned police for failing to warn women about a serial rapist who’d already been identified, ruling it was a violation of Jane Doe’s charter rights, fuelled by systemic sexist discrimination and a complete failure to understand how the crime of rape affects women.
Toronto police were ordered to pay Jane Doe $220,000 in damages and $2,000 a year for the next 15 years.
An investigator involved with Project Prism told the Star on Thursday that the two cases — the balcony rapist, the serial murderer of gay men — have little in common. With the rapist, there were victims who’d been interviewed and a suspect who’d been identified. With alleged serial killer McArthur — arrested on Jan. 18, 2018, ultimately charged with eight counts of first-degree murder — the 66-year-old was very much on the police radar but there were no victims to interview, no solid case to be made for murder and, allegedly, no links among the victims. No concrete evidence.
Yet, as more information surfaces, it becomes harder to take Saunders on his word — the words that came out of his mouth some 10 months ago. At the very least, the police chief was withholding; at the very worst, he gave false assurance to the gay community about a suspect serial offender still at large. McArthur was clearly a “person of interest” even if, as the police affidavit states, “no evidence currently exists to suggest culpability in the commission of the offense.”
Saunders was unavailable for comment on Thursday. But police spokesperson Meaghan Gray earlier told the Star that the documents detailed officers’ “theories” about what may have happened, with no evidence to support them in a way that would have justified Saunders going public with suspicions. This, despite Manherz having noted of the five missing men, in the December affidavit: “At this point, I believe they may all be related.”
It may be true that Saunders was being circumspect. However, the chief went significantly beyond that. He expressly debunked.
I cannot call the chief a liar. But I will say he deliberately misled because investigators were following the evidence and they did have reasonable cause to suspect a worst case scenario.
For that the chief owes the gay community, the entire city, an explanation. If not an apology.
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno