Missing persons cases have been a chronically low priority for the police services tasked with such investigations, the civilian review of disappearances linked to Toronto serial killer Bruce McArthur has repeatedly heard in ongoing public consultations.
“This has been an issue that so many people — police officers and civilians — have raised with us: the lack of priority of missing persons cases,” said Mark Sandler, lawyer for the Independent Civilian Review into Missing Person Investigations, in a sit-down interview with the Star on Monday.
And despite Canada’s tragic familiarity with high-profile disappearances, including British Columbia serial killer Robert Pickton and the history of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, national research on missing persons “leaves much to be desired,” Sandler said.
“There’s a lot more that has to be done, and it will undoubtedly form part of our recommendations,” Sandler said.
Commissioned in the wake of controversy over Toronto police handling of missing persons cases — including the disappearances of eight men from the Gay Village now known to be McArthur’s victims — the review headed by retired Ontario Court of Appeal justice Gloria Epstein, has spent the last 14 months quietly examining all aspects of how officers have, and should, tackle disappearance cases.
The review’s mandate: to probe an array of Toronto police policies and practices concerning missing persons investigations, determine if they were hindered by systemic bias or discrimination, and produce recommendations.
That work will be done in part through unflinching scrutiny of past cases, including disappearances linked to McArthur.
After the 67-year-old former landscaper pleaded guilty in January to first-degree murder in the deaths of eight men from 2010 to 2017, Epstein and her review team got full access to a trove of Toronto police files connected to the serial killer and his victims. That includes documents from Project Prism — the investigation that culminated in McArthur’s arrest — and Project Houston, the probe into three brown men who disappeared from the Gay Village between 2010 and 2012, which ended in no arrests.
Those men — Skandaraj Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi and Majeed Kayhan — are now known to be McArthur’s first three victims. During Project Houston, McArthur was brought in for questioning due to his connections to the missing men, but released without being arrested.
He went on to kill five more men.
Many of McArthur’s victims were of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, and some struggled with homelessness, precarious immigration status in Canada, substance abuse and more. That McArthur was able to get away with his crimes for years has led to criticism police failed to take the disappearances of racialized and vulnerable men seriously.
Among the first items of business for Epstein and her team of 10 was reviewing close to 80,000 pages of documents from the Toronto police and its board; the summaries alone now sit in two massive folders in Sandler’s University Avenue office.
Simultaneously, the review began community outreach, starting with forming an advisory committee to help facilitate meetings and interviews with “hundreds” of people so far, Sandler said.
That includes police officers directly connected to the McArthur case “right through the ranks, lowest to highest,” Sandler said. Current officers are compelled to participate by an order from Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders, though Sandler noted that he felt most would co-operate regardless.
Investigators from Peel Regional Police — where Faizi, McArthur’s second victim, was reported missing — have also been questioned. One of the larger themes the review is exploring is whether police are working well with other services in potentially related investigations, Sandler said.
“Do we still have siloed policing as identified by Justice (Archie) Campbell?” Sandler said, referencing the 1996 findings of the Ontario judge who, after probing in the case of Paul Bernardo, found a lack of police communication allowed the serial rapist and killer to “fall through the cracks.”
Epstein and her team have also met with surviving victims of McArthur, as well as family and friends of the murdered men “to get a sense of how they would describe their interactions with police,” Sandler said. Participation is not mandatory, he stressed, but people have been eager to talk.
And they’ve conducted meetings with a broad array of communities, including those within the LGBTQ communities, homeless or underhoused people, racialized groups, sex workers, Indigenous communities, and more — “I don’t think you can name a demographic that we haven’t thought about,” Sandler said.
The review has attempted to make those participating as comfortable as possible, including granting anonymity and meeting in familiar places, such as Covenant House Toronto for homeless youth, and the 519, an LGBTQ community centre, Sandler said.
Their latest venture — an anonymous online public survey, launching Tuesday — is another attempt at ensuring a broad spectrum of perspectives. As part of a public awareness campaign, posters inviting participants to take the survey will be placed around town, including in locations where the city’s homeless will see them, Sandler said.
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“I think you’ll find it’s as extensive an outreach that has existed for any systemic review,” he said.
Although precipitated by McArthur, the review is also examining other cases of missing persons connected to the Gay Village, including the death of Alloura Wells, a 27-year-old transgender woman, and the murder of Tess Richey, 22. She was reported missing in November 2017 and her body was later found in Toronto by her mother (Kalen Schlatter is charged in her death).
As part of consultation, community members have brought forward concerns about police handling of other missing persons cases. When that happens, Sandler said, the review follows up with investigators.
“We do hear a lot of comments from people about some of their frustrations around the relationships (with police) and those are certainly things that Justice Epstein has to look at,” Sandler said.
In a few cases, the review has been told of cases where people looked for their loved one only to find that they had been in the morgue the whole time. As a result, they met with Ontario’s chief coroner and forensic pathologist to discuss improvements to communication with police.
The review has also commissioned four research papers from experts connected to policing and missing persons probes. That includes a review examining the level of research on missing persons in Canada “and what the deficiencies are in the work that’s been done to date.”
“I can tell you that the level of research in Canada on missing persons leaves much to be desired,” Sandler said.
Also commissioned is a review from a United Kingdom expert who will report back on international best practices in missing persons investigations, including whether some tasks currently being performed by police could be done by civilian investigators.
Last year, Toronto police launched a missing person’s unit. As part of its work, the review will be examining that new model.
The online survey launching this week will be live until spring of 2020, when Epstein and her team are hoping to host a town hall and public policy round tables.
The review’s findings and recommendations are scheduled to be released in January 2021.
“Justice Epstein is really committed not to provide aspirational recommendations,” Sandler said. “These are going to be very specific, practical recommendations,” with timelines for when the review suggests the changes should be implemented.