It’s a daunting task now being undertaken by a team of officers, brought together to transform missing persons investigations in a city that has become all too familiar with tragic disappearances.
At work on the sixth floor of Toronto Police headquarters are four detective constables, together reviewing thousands of missing persons files — the bulk dating back to the 1990s, the oldest to 1953. They are digitizing the cases and looking for ways to advance them through modern techniques. The goal is to update each one by locating the person, or confirming they’re still missing.
“It’s a mountainous challenge,” said Det. Mary Vruna, a veteran homicide and sex crimes investigator now overseeing the daily operations of the Toronto police missing persons unit, which officially launched in July.
“But we have to do this,” said her fellow unit leader Det. Sgt. Stacy Gallant, “in order to ensure that we’ve accounted for all the missing people.”
That detailed accounting was promised by Toronto police chief Mark Saunders in March when he announced the unit amid urgent criticism over the force’s handling of high-profile disappearances, many centred in the city’s Gay Village.
The arrest of alleged killer Bruce McArthur — accused in the deaths of eight men, all with ties to the Village — has amplified concerns about previous probes of the men’s disappearances, and whether an alleged killer could have been stopped sooner.
Three of the men now alleged to be among McArthur’s victims were the subjects of a special police probe into their disappearances between 2012 and 2014 — but the project ended with no arrests.
It’s alleged McArthur went on to kill five more men after it did.
Other recent cases — including the handling of homicide victim Tess Richey’s disappearance — have also raised “serious questions … that concern the community and me,” Saunders acknowledged in a statement earlier this year.
Richey’s body was discovered by her mother, who travelled from North Bay in a desperate search for her daughter, in November, four days after she was reported missing. Two officers are now charged with police misconduct for allegedly failing to properly investigate her disappearance.
Varina Richey, Tess Richey’s sister, told the Star this week it was “shocking” Toronto didn’t already have a dedicated missing persons unit, “but it’s also better late than never.” When her sister went missing, they knew something was wrong, “but it felt like our cries went unheard.”
The review of historic cases is just one aspect of the unit’s work — its creation marks a new approach to the investigation of missing persons cases, establishing a central hub overseeing the estimated 4,200 cases in Toronto each year.
Individual investigations will still be conducted by front-line officers within the city’s 17 divisions, but the unit — comprising Vruna, Gallant, four detective constables and an analyst — will review every case as it unfolds. They will ensure new protocols are followed and, if necessary, become involved in a disappearance that requires deeper investigation.
The new regime is intended to tear down silos between detachments, enabling police to quickly identify broader trends and detect patterns.
“We will basically be looking at the city from above,” said Gallant, who will head the unit while overseeing the cold case unit. “We can see where all the missing people were, and are … We’ll be able to pull that together and see, in short order, ‘You know what, we might have a problem here.’”
“Before, there was really no way to notice that,” he said.
Standardization is a priority. The unit is developing a detailed checklist, something Vruna calls a “fail-safe,” to ensure every missing person’s case is catalogued and approached in the same way in the crucial early hours. The list will collect as much information as possible to determine, for example, whether there is anything suspicious about the disappearance — including specifics about the person, their lifestyle and social factors, when available.
The report is two-tiered, meaning a supervisor will have to sign off on it, something Gallant says brings a new level of accountability to the initial investigative phase.
The unit will also serve as a resource to officers probing a missing person, housing the expertise on who to call to find out, for example, if the individual was in hospital or on social assistance.
“We will make sure that, from the beginning, it’s done consistently,” said Staff Supt. Myron Demkiw, who oversees Toronto police’s detective operations. “If it’s not resolved in a timely manner, then we have the ability to ramp up our response as the evidence presents and makes necessary.”
The issue of unidentified human remains continues to be a significant challenge. Toronto has 63 sets of unidentified human remains dating back to the 1950s; officers are searching for matches with the newly formed National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains.
New procedures are being established around the collection of DNA, including how the unit will work with the national centre. Officers are now more likely to immediately collect DNA — a hairbrush or ball cap, for instance, that could help identify someone in a worst-case scenario where a body is later found.
“Hopefully we never need it,” said Gallant.
A central hub for missing persons can ease communication with other jurisdictions, too. For example, if a body discovered elsewhere in the province is found with a TTC pass — indicating the individual may be from Toronto — there’s now one point of contact within Toronto police. Before, an officer would have had to call various divisions inquiring about any missing persons cases.
As the unit’s protocol around how to investigate missing persons cases continues to develop, Gallant and Vruna stressed the importance of new police powers outlined in the Missing Person’s Act, passed by the previous Liberal government but not yet in effect. The new law would allow police probing a missing persons case to obtain judicial orders for access to critical information, such as phone records or financial information. Currently, investigators can only see such records if a crime is suspected, a roadblock slowing down a probe when someone could be in danger.
The act is part of Bill 175, the omnibus policing legislation passed earlier this year that Premier Doug Ford has promised to “fix.” His government has stalled one part of a bill concerning police oversight.
A spokesperson for Michael Tibollo, Ontario’s minister of community safety and correctional services, said in a statement Thursday he “has already instructed his staff to begin the work on developing the necessary regulations to bring the Missing Persons Act to life.” He did not provide a timeline.
The creation of the missing person’s unit is a welcome development to those concerned about police response to past disappearances. But why Toronto — unlike other police services including Vancouver and Ottawa — didn’t already have one is still a “constant concern,” said Haran Vijayanathan, executive director of the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP).
Vijayanathan said it’s tragic eight men — many of whom were marginalized and racialized — had to die to demonstrate that change was desperately needed. Police are responding positively to the pressure they’ve been under, he said, “but you can’t ignore the fact that this was an international case and the TPS, specifically, was under the microscope.”
Those behind the new unit say its creation had been suggested before the high-profile disappearances and McArthur’s arrest, though “in 2018 of course, the conversation around that gained some greater traction and urgency,” said Demkiw.
“Obviously there’s a lot of media play on missing people right now and pressure to do things and we’ve recognized the need to step up our game, globally, and making sure that everything is done properly,” said Gallant.
Many of the concerns raised about prior missing persons investigations centred on the issue of systemic bias and discrimination, including against members of the LGBTQ community or other marginalized groups, including homeless or racialized individuals.
In response, the Toronto police board commissioned an independent review, led by former Ontario Court of Appeal judge Gloria Epstein, examining how Toronto police handled missing persons cases. That includes the men now alleged to be among McArthur’s victims, and it will examine whether the probes could have been “tainted by systemic bias or discrimination,” Epstein said in a speech to the board this summer.
A spokesperson for the review this week told the Star it has begun collecting relevant documents relating to its mandate and is working to form an advisory group to help facilitate “extensive outreach to the community.”
Community feedback has helped inform the direction of the missing persons unit, said Vruna, and will continue to do so as the unit evolves.
“We are listening to the criticism,” she said, “and we’re going to learn from previous criticism on how to do things better.”
Varina Richey said a dedicated missing persons’ unit may have been able to find her 22-year-old sister sooner — and saved her mother from “the horrific discovery that will be forever seared in her mind and her nightmares.”
Kalen Schlatter, 21, is accused of first-degree murder in the death of Tess Richey, who was reported missing on Nov. 25. Her body was found by her mother four days later, in a stairwell not far from where she was last seen.
“I hope no family ever needs to use that unit,” Varina Richey said, “but realistically, it will hopefully help a lot of people in their most desperate time.”
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis