As serial killer Bruce McArthur pressed down on his throat, the man now suddenly fighting for his life had one thought: “I gotta get out of this van — it’s all I’m thinking.”
Shocked and confused, his heart racing, the man struggled underneath McArthur as the now-convicted killer pinned him with his body weight, one arm pushing firmly and steadily into his neck, another pressing the man’s arm down. After what felt like an eternity, unable to breathe and seeing black spots, the man was able to turn himself over and, “with every last ounce of energy,” push McArthur off.
“I remember that first breath of air,” he said.
Speaking publicly for the first time in an emotional interview, the man who escaped McArthur’s grasp in June 2016 told the Star he believed he was going to die on that sunny evening, with cars whizzing past on Bathurst St. and pedestrians walking by, unable to see into the dark windows of McArthur’s red Dodge Caravan.
The night nearly turned deadly just minutes into what was supposed to be a coffee and meal at a Tim Hortons at Bathurst and Finch Ave., he said.
The Star is not identifying the man because he is a victim of sexual assault and because he is not public about his sexual orientation.
McArthur, convicted of eight counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of men spanning from 2010 to 2017, has been sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.
“Someone just tried to strangle me,” he tells the 911 dispatcher, his voice sounding weak in an audio recording of a call captured by the man’s in-car camera system and played for the Star.
After the dispatcher asks him to tell her what happened, he repeats: “Someone just tried to strangle me to death.”
In the man’s front-mounted in-car camera video, McArthur’s red van can be seen driving quickly away from the public parking lot at Bathurst and Finch, at one point travelling into oncoming traffic before switching lanes and heading southbound. Angry, the man briefly attempted to chase after McArthur with his own vehicle before pulling off to the side of the road at the urging of the 911 dispatcher, the man said.
The man’s call summoned both ambulance and police, who he says took his statement within a few minutes. McArthur later went to a police station on his own, where he was arrested for assault but released with no charges.
According to police affidavits filed in court, McArthur told investigators that he met the man for a hookup and that he thought the man had “wanted it rough.”
“The investigating officer, Det. (Paul) Gauthier, indicated that McArthur appeared genuine and credible in his recall of the incident. It was determined that there were no grounds to lay charges and McArthur was released unconditionally,” the document states.
McArthur went on to kill two more men, Selim Esen and Andrew Kinsman, before he was arrested in January 2018.
Gauthier is currently facing two counts of professional misconduct in connection to the 2016 incident, including that he allegedly failed to videotape the statement from the man — a verbatim written statement was taken — and did not photograph the victim’s injuries within 72 hours.
Through his lawyer and in a letter written to his colleagues and obtained by the Star, Gauthier denies any wrongdoing, saying a proper investigation was conducted.
The man says he wasn’t surprised police didn’t lay charges in the case, saying he knew it was always going to be his word against McArthur’s. “How am I going to prove it?” he thought. “I can’t prove anything.”
The intention was to ensure that McArthur didn’t contact him again. He remembers telling police: “Tell Bruce to stay away from me. I’ll kill him.”
The man says he met McArthur online around 2011, on a dating site, and the two got together periodically to hook up. McArthur struck him as “very nice and accommodating.”
Once, the man said, McArthur took him to a home he was house-sitting, made him dinner and asked him to put on a fur coat so he could take pictures of him. The man “thought it was weird” and didn’t want to do it, but eventually obliged.
During McArthur’s sentencing hearing, court heard police later found a folder of photographs of the man on McArthur’s electronic device, some showing him wearing the coat. Court documents state this is the fur coat that is “identical” to the one with which McArthur had posed on some of his victims after they were dead.
The fur coat was spread out on the floor of McArthur’s van on the evening of June 20, 2016, laying flat in the area where McArthur had removed seats. The man said he initially believed McArthur “doesn’t want me to get dirty.”
The meeting had come at McArthur’s insistence. According to the man, McArthur didn’t contact him by cellphone, instead calling him from a pay phone. He would sometimes drop by his home unannounced, and in the lead-up to the June incident had twice come by his workplace, leaving a note tucked under the man’s windshield.
On the day in question, McArthur had been waiting outside the man’s apartment, stopped in his building’s parking lot. The man said he was “annoyed,” but agreed to meet McArthur in a short time, asking for time to go inside and shower.
When the two met in the parking lot of the Tim Hortons at Bathurst and Finch, McArthur quickly wanted to get inside the van, the man said. The van was parked on the edge of the parking lot, facing houses and directly next to the sidewalk. The location “wasn’t secluded, far from it,” but the man says the windows were dark and it would have been difficult to see in.
“He was insistent on it — insistent,” the man said of McArthur wanting to get into the van.
The men got in and lay down, and McArthur asked the man to lie with his arm behind his back. Then suddenly, McArthur began pressing down on the man’s neck, injuring him on contact. He wasn’t able to swallow properly for days afterward.
The man was confused, and quickly knew by looking at his eyes that McArthur was trying to kill him — “I thought I was finished,” he said.
“The look of anger and determination, like he was looking at a piece of garbage, like he was going to try to kill an animal … he had that look. I remember looking up in his eyes for a couple of seconds and I thought, ‘This guy isn’t joking around.’”
The man says he began twisting with all his strength, realizing he could feel his eyes “bulging” out of his head.
“My right arm is completely trapped under his body. He’s got his legs over mine. I’m a small guy compared to him. He had me pinned good,” he said.
The man’s mind went to his mother.
“I thought, she’s not going to bury me,” he said.
Once he was finally able to push himself away from McArthur, the man says he was still consumed by fear but angry, too. Having escaped his grasp, he says he was filled with desire to try to kill McArthur, but instead got out of the van, saying McArthur was “lucky.”
The man says he then told McArthur he was going to call police and McArthur would get arrested. Though the man isn’t sure how long he was in the van, the time stamp on his in-car camera says he was out, and then back in, within nine minutes.
The man says he didn’t hear anything further about his report and was never in contact with McArthur again. It wasn’t until he was driving on Hwy. 401 on Jan. 18, 2018 — the day McArthur was arrested — that he heard on the radio that a landscaper named “Bruce” had been arrested and charged with murder.
The man said he was surprised, yet wasn’t. And he quickly realized police would be in touch with him; he did an interview with investigators within a few days.
The man says he often thinks about the victims who weren’t able to escape McArthur — “I feel bad for those other guys. I really do.”
Despite knowing McArthur is locked away in prison, the man says he remains haunted. His heart races every time he thinks about the killer and he feels fearful when he sees red Caravans.
“The day after, and every day pretty much, I’d look in my driveway and see if he was there. Every day. Even after he was arrested.”
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