The weather suddenly changed in early December 2017, when Toronto police investigators obtained a judge’s permission to covertly enter serial killer Bruce McArthur’s apartment — and the patterns of the self-employed landscaper naturally shifted.
Police had been surveilling McArthur for months, as a suspect in the death of Toronto man Andrew Kinsman. Detectives had established when he came and went from this Thorncliffe Park apartment, travelling to jobs around the city, often leaving at 9 a.m. and not returning until after dark.
Snow and cold temperatures changed everything at a crucial time in their probe.
“It made it very difficult to predict anything that he was going to do,” Det. David Dickinson, a lead investigator on the McArthur investigation, said in an interview Monday.
Nonetheless, police went ahead with a surreptitious entry on December 7, 2017, copying a USB drive, and 45 per cent of an old desktop computer hard drive before they realized McArthur was on his way back and had to pull out, after only about an hour. They didn’t know it yet, but they had what they needed.
As heard in court last week, during sentencing submissions after McArthur, 67, pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder, it was through that search that Toronto police found key evidence: photos of deceased men within the killer’s digital files.
Dickinson noted the photos had been deleted and were cached, meaning they could have been wiped by the computer at any time. It’s possible that, had police gone in a week later, “we may never have found them,” he said.
Discovered on Jan. 17, 2018 — after more than a month of police sifting through roughly 100,000 images — the photos were sufficient grounds to arrest McArthur, which they’d planned to do within a few days, after obtaining the required search warrants. In the meantime, police put McArthur under round-the-clock surveillance with the caveat that he wasn’t to be alone with anyone.
It was only 24 hours later when they had to intervene, after watching McArthur enter his apartment with a man now known only as “John” — a gay recent immigrant, like many of McArthur’s victims. Police would later find that McArthur had kept a folder of photos of each of his eight victims, before and after death, and had created a ninth for “John.”
Ontario Superior Court judge John McMahon said in his sentencing decision last week that he had “no hesitation in concluding that if it were not for the police intervention … John would have been the ninth victim of Mr. McArthur.”
Dickinson said the decision to arrest McArthur once he was seen with “John” was immediate. What followed were a “very stressful” few minutes before the arrest, including an agonizing wait for the only functioning elevator to McArthur’s 19th-floor unit.
“We knocked on his door with the intent that, should he not answer it, we were going through regardless,” Dickinson said.
McArthur, he said, did answer the door and “was surprised.”
McArthur was sentenced Friday to life in prison, with no chance of parole for 25 years, when he is 91. Court heard how a break in the case came when police were investigating Kinsman, McArthur’s final victim, who went missing in June 2017. Police found a note on Kinsman’s calendar on the day he went missing, saying “Bruce,” then used surveillance camera footage to zero in on a 2004 red Dodge Caravan.
Cross-referencing the vehicle make and model with owners named Bruce, Dickinson narrowed in on McArthur, while sifting through the records at his dining room table.
Quick to give credit to officers on the Project Prism team, Dickinson said there were times when investigators got “lucky,” including during their search for McArthur’s red van. After they identified McArthur as the owner of the van, and found it in Bowmanville at a residence connected to McArthur, it soon went missing for about two weeks.
It turned out McArthur had “junked” the van, or brought it to a wrecking yard, something Dickinson said he initially thought was suspicious, but may have just been because the van was breaking down. A natural next step in the investigation was to canvass wrecking yards, and Det.-Const. Josh McKenzie and Det.-Const. Patrick Platte soon located the van at a Courtice wrecking yard.
Unlike most wrecking yards, which quickly destroy cars, the van was mostly intact because the yard often salvages parts.
“We got lucky that it was 90 per cent intact. Finding the vehicle was a big day,” Dickinson said.
McArthur was the only one of five van owners named Bruce to have had a recent encounter with police: in 2016, a man reported that McArthur attempted to strangle him, which resulted in McArthur being arrested but released with no charges.
Professional misconduct charges have since been laid against Toronto police Sgt. Paul Gauthier, who is alleged to have conducted a negligent investigation, including taking only a written statement from the victim when policy required it be taken on video. In a letter written by Gauthier and obtained by the Star last week, he denies his investigation was negligent.
Shortly after McMahon’s decision came down Friday, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders faced pointed questions about the investigation at a news conference at police headquarters — including whether mistakes had been made in not identifying McArthur as a killer sooner.
Court heard confirmation last week that McArthur was interviewed as a witness in 2013 during Project Houston, an investigation into the killer’s first three victims: Skandaraj Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi and Majeed Kayhan. According to an agreed statement of facts, McArthur confirmed he knew Navaratnam through a friend, and that he’d employed Kayhan and had a sexual relationship with him. An analysis of Faizi’s belongings, meanwhile, showed he knew McArthur.
Saunders told reporters last week that he was committed to transparency around prior investigations, but said “I can tell you from what I know, things were done properly.”
In an interview Monday, Toronto police Insp. Hank Idsinga, also a lead investigator in the case, said “it wasn’t uncommon to interview somebody who knew all three of those men. Very small, close, tight-knit community — everybody knew everybody,” he said.
Former Ontario Court of Appeal judge Gloria Epstein is currently reviewing how Toronto police investigate missing persons cases, and has asked that her mandate be expanded to allow for her to examine how the force handled the probe of McArthur. Some within Toronto’s LGBTQ community and beyond argue more should be done, and that there should be a public inquiry into why McArthur wasn’t caught sooner.
Saunders said he is committed to transparency and that the service will co-operate with any review, no matter which form it takes.
Asked if he could understand how McArthur went undetected for years, Idsinga said the killer is much like he presented last week, shuffling through the courtroom and sitting in the prisoner’s box.
“He’s not intimidating by any stretch of the imagination, he’s soft-spoken and he just blended right in. Hid in plain sight,” Idsinga said.
With the court phase of the McArthur case completed, Dickinson said an opportunity has arisen to make a change, and pursue an interest he had early on in his career — and one that was key the McArthur probe. He will soon be moving to the K9 unit.
“It was those dogs who found the remains of those eight men, and it was those dogs who ultimately assisted us with bringing closure to the families and at least be able to return the remains, which was something I wasn’t sure we’d ever be able to do.”
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis