In 2017, residents in Toronto’s Gay Village were living in a state of fear. Men — mostly of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent — had been going missing for years, and they weren’t being found.
It started in early September 2010. Skandaraj Navaratnam, a 40-year-old Sri Lankan refugee who’d worked as a landscaping apprentice, went missing.
Then, a little more than two months later, in late December, Abdulbasir Faizi, 42, was reported missing by his wife. His abandoned vehicle was found in Toronto, but no other evidence turned up.
Almost two years passed, until late October, 2012, when Majeed Kayhan, 58, went missing.
So in November, the Toronto Police created Project Houston to investigate these disappearances. For the next year and a half, they interviewed dozens of witnesses, canvassed the community, and searched the internet. They believed that Navaratnam, at least, had been killed, and at one point, thought he might have been the victim of Luka Magnotta (of Don’t F**k with Cats infamy). However, there was no evidence to bear this out.
In 2013, McArthur was questioned about his relationships to Navaratnam and Kayhan, who had worked for him. But he denied any knowledge of their whereabouts.
But by April 2014, no evidence had emerged, so the project was shut down.
Then in August 2015, Soroush Mahmudi, 50, was reported missing by his family. Like the others before him, he seemed to have vanished without a trace.
The rest of 2015, and all of 2016, passed without any more reports of missing men.
Then, in April 2017, Selim Esen, 44, was reported missing. In June of that year, Andrew Kinsman, 49, went missing as well. Kinsman was different than the other men — besides being white, he was out as a gay man and had strong ties to the community. He was reported missing within 72 hours of his disappearance.
It was around this time when the gay community started seriously thinking that a serial killer was in their midst. Many of them remembered the last time their community had been terrorized by a serial killer. From 1975–1978, 14 gay men had been killed. Most of them had been bound and beaten, raped and stabbed to death. Their killer had never been found.
The Toronto police dismissed the idea of a serial killer — at least publicly. But criminology student Sasha Reid noticed there were striking patterns in these disappearances. All the research would indicate that this was the work of a serial killer, so brought her concerns to the police.
In response to this public pressure, Toronto police formed a new task force to find the missing men, this time called Project Prism.
A search of Kinsman’s digital records showed that before he went missing, he had connected with a 67-year-old man named Bruce McArthur via Recon, an online dating app for gay men interested in BDSM.
After doing some research on McArthur, police found that he had been banned from the Gay Village in 2003, after he was arrested for severely beating a male sex worker with a metal pipe. The man had lost consciousness, and needed several stitches and weeks of physical therapy to recover. McArthur pled guilty to charges of assault with a weapon and assault causing bodily harm, and was handed down a conditional sentence of just under two years. He spent the first year under house arrest, followed by a six-month curfew and three years of probation. He was also barred from the Gay Village.
Then in 2013, a man had come forward to police claiming that McArthur had tried to strangle him during an otherwise consensual date. However, charges were never filed, and the following year, McArthur had his record expunged.
But without more evidence, police couldn’t arrest McArthur. So they put him under surveillance. Their focus was on gathering more information on the burly landscaper, who often worked as a mall Santa for the holidays.
Other than the violent assault on the sex worker, he had no other arrests, and everyone who knew him described him as friendly, kind, and even-tempered.
But in private, he was very different. Stories began to come out from men who had met with McArthur for consensual BDSM sex, but he had ignored their safe-words and had choked or suffocated them into unconsciousness — stories all eerily similar to the one told to police in 2013.
As police investigated further, they uncovered ties McArthur had to several of the missing men, besides Navaratnam and Kayhan. Faizi’s car had been found near a property where McArthur worked. Two of the men — including Kinsman — had connected with McArthur via Recon. In fact, McArthur had active profiles on a number of gay dating apps, where he said he was interested in submissive men, preferably of Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian descent.
Meanwhile, the search for Kinsman continued. In searching his apartment, they found the word “Bruce” on Kinsman’s calendar for June 26 – the last day anyone saw Kinsman. That day, surveillance video outside Kinsman’s apartment briefly showed a person matching Kinsman’s appearance approach a red 2004 Dodge Caravan. The problem was, there were more than 6,000 similar vehicles registered in Toronto. But only five of them were registered to anyone named Bruce. And only one of those was an exact match to the year, make, and model of the minivan in the surveillance footage. It was registered to Bruce McArthur.
Police tracked the minivan to an auto parts store, where McArthur had sold it. After searching the vehicle, they found trace amounts of blood, which would later be identified as Kinsman’s.
Warrants were issued to track McArthur’s digital footprint, and acting under a covert warrant, police entered his home and cloned his hard drive. The evidence of McArthur’s guilt was piling up, but police didn’t feel like they were ready to arrest him just yet.
Then on Jan. 18, 2018, undercover police who were surveilling McArthur saw an unidentified man arriving at his apartment. Fearing for the man’s safety, they raided the apartment. Inside, the man was handcuffed to the bed, but unhurt. McArthur was arrested and later charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Esen and Kinsman.
Chillingly, police later found a file on McArthur’s computer with the man’s name on it — alongside files for eight other men. In each of the folders were photographs of the men in bondage gear, as well as pictures taken after the men were dead, their bodies posed with cigars and fur coats. Police were able to identify six of the missing men — including Kinsman — in those photographs.
McArthur was held in custody while police searched the properties where he worked. One property was of particular interest. McArthur had made a deal with the owners to let him store his tools and equipment in their garage in exchange for free landscaping work.
As crime scene technicians and cadaver dogs searched the garage and property, they came upon some large planters. Inside those planters were dismembered human remains.
In daily media updates, the Toronto police kept the public updated. First, they found what looked like the remains of at least two men — though because they were dismembered, it was hard to know exactly how many individuals there were.
The search continued, and they kept finding more sets of remains. Finally, by July, the remains of eight men were uncovered. They were eventually identified as Kinsman, Navaratnam, Esen, Kayhan, Faizi, and Kanagaratnam. Two other men — Dean Lisowick and Soroush Mahmudi — were also found. They had been killed in 2016, but had never been reported missing.
McArthur was charged with eight counts of first-degree murder. Jan. 29, 2019, McArthur pled guilty to all eight counts. The following month, he was sentenced to life without possibility of parole for 25 years.
But this is not the end of this sad story. There has been criticism from the LGBTQ and Southeast Asian communities as to how the Toronto police handled this case from the beginning. Much like in the Jeffrey Dahmer case, critics said police ignored the concerns of the community that there was a serial killer in their midst. There were also allegations of racism in the handling of the missing persons cases, as well as victim-blaming by the lead detective in Project Houston. Community organizations have called for an external review into the handling of these cases, which is pending.
And more questions remain. For one, if Navaratnam was McArthur’s first victim, that would mean McArthur was 59 years old when he began killing. It’s extremely rare for killers to start so late (though Ray Copeland was 71 when he killed his first victim). This has led some to speculate that McArthur might be responsible for the 14 men killed in the 1970s. He did, in fact, work in the Gay Village at that time, and he would have been in his 20s. The pattern of beatings might fit with the attack he committed on the sex worker in 2013. However, the victims of the 1970s were (for the most part) stabbed to death — a much different type of attack than suffocation and strangulation, which is how McArthur killed his recent victims. Toronto police are re-opening these cases; hopefully DNA evidence from the original crimes can still be tested.