WARNING: This article contains graphic content.
“The city of Toronto has never seen anything like this,” then-Det.-Sgt. Hank Idsinga told a crush of reporters and a bank of TV cameras jammed into the Toronto police headquarters media gallery.
It was a frigid morning in late-January 2018, 11 days after police arrested a 66-year-old landscaper in the murders of Selim Esen and Andrew Kinsman, two men from the city’s Gay Village. There was a major development in the case — police had charged Bruce McArthur with three new counts of first-degree murder.
A veteran homicide cop, Idsinga had been monitoring Project Prism since its inception. But he became actively involved in November, after the special task-force found traces of Kinsman’s blood in McArthur’s old van, making him a suspect in that killing. Idsinga, who towered over the podium with a buzzed head and low, authoritative voice, was fast becoming the public face of an unprecedented investigation.
He also brought knowledge of Project Houston, another special task-force that he led for a time. It had investigated three earlier disappearances from the Village before dissolving in 2014 without finding evidence of a crime.
Prism had now identified five alleged victims, Idsinga said, putting on glasses to spell out their names for reporters. Among the three new victims, one was a man many in the Village would remember from Houston. Two others they were hearing about for the first time. There would be more.
“We have no idea how many more there are going to be,” Idsinga said.
What follows is the most-complete account yet of the Toronto police investigation and community efforts that caught serial killer Bruce McArthur. It is based on more than two dozen interviews with investigators — including Det. David Dickinson and Insp. Hank Idsinga — witnesses and community members, victim impact statements, and thousands of pages of court filings. The majority of the documents are police affidavits filed to obtain warrants, which outline evidence they’ve collected, witness interviews they’ve conducted and investigators’ theories.
In part four: With McArthur in jail, the Village confronts the full scale of his crimes.
In the frenetic days that followed McArthur’s sudden arrest on Jan. 18, the Prism officers began poring over his apartment — scouring every surface and piece of furniture inch by inch, seeking hair, blood, fingerprints, fibres or any other evidence.
Meanwhile, the review of McArthur’s digital files continued and investigators found yet another major piece of evidence on his phone: a photo of 58-year-old Majeed (Hamid) Kayhan, one of the Project Houston men who disappeared in 2012, that appeared to have been taken after his death. The image resembled other post-mortem images McArthur had taken of Esen and two men the officers didn’t yet recognize. All of them appeared to have been killed and then staged with a fur hat or the fur coat that McArthur had also asked other, still living, men to wear.
The evidence suggested McArthur had killed Kayhan on Oct. 18, 2012, a week before he was reported missing by his son.
It was more difficult to identify the other faces in McArthur’s photo collection who had not already been on Prism’s radar.
An officer from the force’s forensic identification section used facial-recognition software to compare one photo with the Toronto police database. It returned a match with a 43-year-old man with two distinctive moles on his lower right cheek. Dean Lisowick was a familiar and friendly face in the Village and a frequent user of the city’s shelter system. He was never reported missing, but police had his photo in their records and a relative of Lisowick later confirmed the match. Data from the image told police McArthur had killed him on or about April 23, 2016, two days after he was last seen leaving the Scott Mission, near College St. and Spadina Ave.
Det. Keri Fernandes, who was assisting Prism from the sex crimes unit, found another match among current Toronto police missing-person reports. Soroush Mahmudi was reported missing by his son-in-law on Aug. 22, 2015. The 50-year-old had not been at his job for seven days and he left behind a bag he normally took with him to work. Mahmudi had disappeared before, but this was the first time his family had reported him missing. They gave police a photo showing the man’s short hair, broad cheeks and neat goatee. It matched the one from McArthur’s computer.
McArthur killed Mahmudi, police said, on or about Aug. 15, 2015, the last day he attended work.
Those were the five at the time of Idsinga’s news conference: Kinsman, Esen, Kayhan, Lisowick and Mahmudi, killed between October 2012 and June 2017.
But the Prism team knew McArthur had killed at least once more — they had recovered an image of another still-unknown dead man among McArthur’s photos. There were also several sets of unidentified human remains recovered from 53 Mallory Cres., the Leaside home where McArthur tended the yard and stored his landscaping equipment. And police had reason to suspect the landscaper had also killed Skandaraj Navaratnam and Abdulbasir Faizi, the other two men from Project Houston. That task force had linked McArthur to both men, though Prism officers hadn’t yet found any direct evidence he had killed them.
At 53 Mallory, the Prism investigators tried using heaters to thaw the frozen backyard. A team from the Ontario Provincial Police had used ground-penetrating radar to scan the backyard and detect any disturbances in the soil. They found eight areas that needed further searching — but it was too cold and the heaters couldn’t sufficiently thaw the earth to start digging. Police opted to come back with the warmer weather.
An extensive search was also taking place inside the home. Owners Karen Fraser and Ron Smith had been “extremely co-operative,” one officer noted in a court affidavit, and they’d showed genuine surprise about their landscaper’s crimes. But police had to search everywhere. They’d given him a key to their house.
For 22 days, Fraser and Smith relied on friends and neighbours for shelter. They regularly saw their home as the backdrop of the evening news, but couldn’t return. The couple worried especially about how to take care of their rescued cats. Their pets couldn’t be left in the house, so all but one moved to a temporary home with the couple’s accommodating friends.
The remaining cat, Purrfect, had escaped to the basement when the police arrived and she had hidden amongst the storage ever since. Fraser and Smith asked the police to look out for her, and received updates by text.
“I checked on Purr,” an officer texted in early February. “She is eating and drinking. Saw her for a minute then she went into hiding.”
Officers thoroughly searched the home’s garage, finding a suitcase containing a vibrator, plastic gloves and surgical mask; rope and duct tape; two large knives and four hacksaws; a hard drive and a camcorder, according to a police affidavit.
The Prism team was also reaching out to the men who had been attacked by McArthur — and survived. They included the man who’d called 911 in 2016 after McArthur tried to strangle him in the van, the one he attacked on Halloween 2001 and two others.
In an interview after McArthur’s arrest, Peter Sgromo told police that he’d gone out for dinner with McArthur, a longtime friend, at a now-closed Village restaurant called Wilde Oscar’s in the spring of 2017. During the meal, McArthur talked about his travels in Italy and, later, they hooked up in his van. That was where the killer forcefully grabbed Sgromo by the neck, he told police. He held onto McArthur’s elbow and escaped the van. He hadn’t spoken to McArthur since.
In another interview, Sean Cribbin told police he and McArthur had hooked up in the summer of 2017 after meeting on a dating app. On one occasion, Cribbin said, they went back to McArthur’s apartment, where McArthur showed him some of his “bondage equipment.” The men had sex but Cribbin said he felt uncomfortable and cut the encounter short.
Prism investigators found photos of Cribbin handcuffed in McArthur’s bed and being choked with a bar. Cribbin hadn’t known McArthur was taking pictures.
“At least four males have come forward to say that McArthur attacked them without provocation and they all feared for their lives,” Det.-Const. Joel Manherz wrote in a court affidavit.
Meanwhile, pathologists at the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service were working to identify the remains from the planters. Officials can use various methods to identify a body, including fingerprints, dental records and DNA, each one progressively more difficult. By mid-February, Michael Pollanen, Ontario’s chief forensic pathologist began reporting matches: the remains of Kinsman and Mahmoudi had been recovered.
His pathologists had also found the remains of a new victim: Navaratnam, the first of the three Project Houston men to go missing from the Village, in 2010. It was the first piece of direct evidence incriminating McArthur in Navaratnam’s murder.
On Feb. 23, investigators charged McArthur with a sixth count of first-degree murder.
By early March, police had reason to call another press conference. Prism had hit a wall trying to identify the last man found in McArthur’s collection of post-mortem photographs.
In an exceedingly rare move, Idsinga told reporters investigators were reluctantly releasing the picture of the dead man in the hope he might be identified by a member of the public. The photo showed a dark-skinned man with black hair and a beard seen from the neck up, his mouth slightly open and his eyes closed. Idsinga said the photo had been “cleaned up” to “remove some artifacts.”
“We need to put a name to this face and bring closure to this man’s loved ones,” Idsinga said.
As the photo circulated, the pathologists continued their work. On Feb. 28, Pollanen sent police an email indicating his pathologists believed the planters contained the remains of at least seven different people.
By the end of March, they’d identified two more sets of remains: those of Lisowick and, importantly, of Faizi, the Afghan immigrant who disappeared in 2010.
Faizi’s remains were critical new evidence. Unlike most of the others, police hadn’t found original images of Faizi on McArthur’s computer. But forensic pathologists were able to use a single tooth from one set of remains to match Faizi’s DNA. Police charged McArthur with a seventh count of first-degree murder in early April. McArthur was now charged with the murders of all three men whose disappearances were the focus of Project Houston.
Just five days later, yet another charge.
Police had identified the man in the picture. In 2010, Kirushnakumar Kanagaratnam was among hundreds of Tamil asylum seekers who’d come to Canada from Sri Lanka on the MV Sun Sea. During the migrant ship’s 100-day journey he’d collected rainwater for tea and made rice soup from sea water. Kanagaratnam’s family hadn’t heard from him since 2016, but his refugee claim had been denied, so they’d assumed he’d gone underground. The 37-year-old was never reported missing.
McArthur was now charged with murdering eight men in killings that spanned 2010 to 2017. It was the worst serial killing in the city’s history.
As July heat scorched the city, police returned to 53 Mallory for a final search. Seven of McArthur’s victims had been identified among the remains found inside planters seized and taken to the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service. They wanted to find the eighth.
With the ground now warm enough to resume the dig, investigators started excavating the steep, forested ravine slanting down to a CP rail line behind the home. McArthur had used the slope as a compost pile, filling it with leaves, soil and brush. A dozen investigators worked with Dr. Kathy Gruspier, the forensic anthropologist, removing buckets of soil then carrying them down the hill to sifting tables. Looking around, Dickinson saw a yard nature had transformed since the winter search; leaves had filled the maple and poplar trees and the hedges had grown in. It was completely secluded.
Just hours into the excavation, they found human remains. They called the coroner’s office. Over the nine-day excavation, they located remains virtually every day.
The pathologists identified the remains of Kayhan, killed in 2012. He was the only victim whose body had not yet been recovered. Police had already charged McArthur in Kayhan’s murder, but the discovery brought closure. It also established that McArthur, who’d worked on dozens of properties all across the GTA, had chosen one place for his victims.
A few months later, officials relinquished the remains. After months or years of uncertainty about their loved ones’ whereabouts, the men’s families were at last able to mark their deaths.
Haran Vijayanathan had already committed to helping relatives claim the remains. He knew distance and language might be barriers to the families of the men. Vijayanathan, the executive director of the Alliance for South Asian Aids Prevention, started co-ordinating with grieving families locally and in London, Sri Lanka and Dubai.
Vijayanathan, an outspoken advocate with a neat short beard and dark hair, was born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka — Kanagaratnam’s hometown. He had been sitting in his Carleton St. office planning the year ahead when he heard about McArthur’s arrest on the radio. Only a month earlier, he’d listened as Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders responded to the community’s long-held concerns about a serial killer by telling a news conference police had no evidence the Village disappearances were connected. At the time, he’d taken Saunders’ word at face value; McArthur’s arrest made his “blood boil.”
Saunders has since stressed that at the time of his comments, police only had tangible evidence for a single homicide — Kinsman’s.
“As the investigation continued to evolve, and accelerate at an incredibly fast pace in a short period of time, it exploded into multiple victims. So, when I made that comment we had a person that we were interested in,” Saunders said. “He was a suspect for a homicide, not for a serial killer.”
As the head of an organization dedicated to LGBTQ and HIV-positive South Asians and Middle Easterners, Vijayanathan felt a responsibility to ask why it took the disappearance of Kinsman — a white man — to find a killer who had, for years, preyed on racialized men. Yes, Kinsman had written down the name “Bruce” in his calendar, but Faizi had also identified the killer, Vijayanathan noted — he’d scribbled McArthur’s email user name in his notebook six years before.
Even before the full scale of McArthur’s killings was known, Vijayanathan had drafted a letter on behalf of ASAAP’s board urging city officials to call an independent inquiry. It was imperative to examine how a serial killer went undetected for so long, even as the LGBTQ community repeatedly raised the alarm.
The revelation that Project Houston investigators let McArthur go, after linking him to all three missing men, has deepened Vijaynathan’s belief that the missing-person investigations were inadequate. ASAAP has alleged that racism, homophobia and classism “played a significant role” in police failure to thoroughly probe the disappearances.
In March 2018, with the support of Saunders, the Toronto police board launched an independent inquiry into the force’s handling of missing-person investigations. The retired judge leading the review has since vowed to examine whether systemic bias or discrimination impacted the initial investigations into McArthur’s early victims. In July, Toronto police launched a dedicated missing-persons unit, an initiative aimed at helping investigators quickly pick up on the patterns in the thousands of disappearances reported each year.
Co-ordinating some of the memorials wove Vijaynathan closer into the victims’ lives and illuminated similarities to his own. At Kanagaratnam’s funeral last fall, he watched as mourners swarmed the flower-topped casket, some collapsing onto it. Kanagaratnam’s mother sat in a chair immediately next to her dead son, despondent. Vijayanathan imagined his own mother.
In the year since McArthur’s arrest, Vijayanathan has organized community healing circles and attended all but one of McArthur’s court dates, picking up and dropping off relatives so they could be there, too. “I wanted to be at those places as well, to say, there are people of colour who give a damn about this situation,” he said.
It took an emotional toll. Vijayanathan took the holidays to process.
Vijayanathan is now sitting, as a citizen, on the independent review’s advisory committee. He’s repeatedly heard how racialized, LGBTQ and underhoused people feel unsafe to approach police officers, or feel they aren’t taken seriously when they do. He hopes the review can change that and begin to close the space between police and the many communities angered by the McArthur case.
“The divide is still there and I don’t think the gap is going to close any time soon. That wedge is so deep it’s going to take a while to get it out.”
“For years, members of the LGBTQ community believed that they were being targeted by a killer,” Crown prosecutor Michael Cantlon told a vast and packed downtown Toronto courtroom in early February this year.
“They were right.”
Just over a year since McArthur’s arrest and nearly a decade since his murderous spree began, the sprawling case had come to a sudden end. Hunched, expressionless and noticeably thinner since his arrest, McArthur stood up in court and said “guilty” to each of the eight counts of first-degree murder. He had waived his preliminary hearing, then entered his plea early. There would be no trial.
The serial killer had spent much of the last year inside the Toronto South Detention Centre’s special handling unit, a segregated area of just four cells. Immediately after his arrest, he was on suicide watch. A few months later, he was joined in the unit by Alek Minassian, the alleged murderer behind the Yonge St. van attack.
McArthur was allowed out of his cell for four hours a day. He sometimes struck up conversations with the officer standing guard about books, old movies and the Leafs. “He could have been mistaken for any regular adult,” said one jail employee, “and could never have been suspected of what he did.”
When McArthur was escorted to court or professional appointments, other inmates would hurl threats and insults; for his protection, jail guards were advised to stop walking other prisoners in the halls at the same time. The concern was warranted. McArthur has since been sent to hospital following an assault inside a federal prison.
During the serial killer’s three-day sentencing hearing, court heard McArthur kept mementos of his victims, including Navaratnam’s silver bracelet and Esen’s notebook. Data from his computer showed he revisited the photos he’d taken of his victims staged after death.
Most of the men’s remains were decomposed, and forensic officials could only determine the cause of death for McArthur’s last victims, Kinsman and Esen — both killed by ligature strangulation. Kinsman’s DNA was found on the tape-wrapped metal bar police found next to McArthur’s bed during their secret entry; the photographs on his computer show he likely used the bar to tighten a cord around their necks.
On the computer, Prism investigators found a folder containing nine subfolders of photos — one for each of his eight victims and a ninth, labelled “John,” the man officers found tied up inside McArthur’s apartment on the day he was arrested. Were it not for police intervention, Ontario Superior Court Justice John McMahon said he had “no hesitation” concluding John would have been McArthur’s next victim.
A small team of investigators has been reviewing old cold cases, looking for any possible connection to McArthur, but none have been found.
Since his arrest, McArthur had shown no remorse and given the chance to address the court he said nothing. Still, his guilty plea had averted a lengthy trial and that saved his victims’ families, friends, court staff and the larger community a “nightmare” of having to endure months of gruesome evidence, McMahon said.
Some details may nonetheless be seared into the minds of those present in court. Faizi’s two young daughters still bring photos of their dad into bed at night, his wife said. Navaratnam used to send daily texts just to say “have a good day,” said a friend. Kinsman loved to bake. He left snacks for his neighbour when she was working on her dissertation. All eight men led lives of success and challenge. People loved them.
McArthur’s actions were “pure evil,” McMahon said — he was a sexual predator and killer who exploited the vulnerabilities of his victims, men who had immigration or mental-health challenges, or were living a double life because of their sexual orientation. His crimes had devastated immigrant and racialized populations and made the city’s LGBTQ community feel endangered in the place where they’d once felt most safe.
A conviction, McMahon acknowledged, can only go so far.
“Each family member, each loved one, and the members of the community will live with this nightmare forever.”
The judge sentenced McArthur to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years, when he would be 91 — although the nature of his crimes makes it highly unlikely it would ever be granted. Now 67 and diagnosed with diabetes, McArthur is already in ill health. He will almost certainly die in jail.
Edited by Ed Tubb, with files from Kenyon Wallace and the Star archive
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