In his native Sri Lanka, Skandaraj Navaratnam was forced to hide his sexuality. When he moved to Toronto, however, he was free to be himself and he found a welcoming community in the Church-Wellesley Village. Tragically, it’s also where Navaratnam was last seen more than eight years ago.
His family and friends held a private memorial Saturday evening at The 519 community centre on Church St., not far from where Navaratnam disappeared in September 2010. Known as “Skanda” to his friends, Navaratnam was one of eight men allegedly murdered by Bruce McArthur between 2010 and 2017. Police charged McArthur in February in relation to the death of Navaratnam, 40.
Saturday’s event was a sombre milestone not only for those who knew Navaratnam, but for the entire Church-Wellesley Village community, many of whom had long feared there was a serial killer targeting gay men in the area. All of McArthur’s alleged victims had ties to the area.
“(Navaratnam) was the first person to go missing and now he’s the last to be laid to rest,” said Haran Vijayanathan, the executive director of the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention who has acted as a liaison for Navaratnam’s family.
While Navaratnam’s memorial may close one chapter in the gruesome tragedy, Vijayanathan said there are still unanswered questions about how the Toronto police initially investigated his disappearance and others whose murders McArthur now stands charged with committing.
Navaratnam was one of three brown-skinned men who went missing from the Church-Wellesley area between 2010 and 2012, prompting police to open up an investigation dubbed Project Houston. That investigation was closed after 18 months when police found “no evidence to suggest criminal activity.”
The other men whose disappearances were investigated as part of Project Houston — Majeed “Hamid” Kayhan and Abdulbasir “Basir” Faizi — are also now alleged to have been killed by McArthur.
Police sources have previously told the Star that McArthur was questioned around the time of Project Houston. McArthur allegedly killed five more men after the investigation was completed.
Criticism of the investigation prompted the Toronto Police Services Board to commission an independent review of how missing persons cases are investigated by the force.
Vijayanathan is hoping the review leads to some answers. He said there is concern within the community about what role homophobia and racism may have played in the police’s initial investigative efforts. “Did they do everything they could do with (Project) Houston?”
McArthur, 67, was arrested in January and eventually charged with eight counts of first-degree murder. His trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 6, 2020.