How a Serial Killer Divided Toronto’s LGBTQ Community
It was freezing out. January in Toronto — even at its best — is unforgiving.
In the city’s suburbs, there’s very little that protects you from the frigid wind that blows through the trees and brush. On January 20th, 2018, reporters who were parked outside a two-story home in the northeast reaches of the city’s suburbs were feeling just that. They watched as police emptied out the home’s garage, searching through a shed of gardening tools and soil that could be clues to the disappearance of two missing men.
They were all waiting for one of two things: either an announcement from the lead detective of homicide, Sgt. Hank Idsinga, that a body had been found buried in the yard somewhere, or a photo opportunity of a body bag being rushed off. Either would’ve been appropriate for the news that broke the day before, which shocked the city.
Bruce McArthur, a 66-year-old gardener with a known criminal history in the city’s gay neighborhood, the Gay Village, had been arrested in connection to the disappearance of two men the prior year. Taking McArthur into custody had been a circus. The arrest itself was triggered earlier than expected, and there were details revealing that he had been caught while in the middle of a bondage sex scene.
But while a swarm of local and national reporters waited outside the house — it belonged to one of McArthur’s landscaping clients, who let him store his gardening tools there — Idsinga was being clued into something else: Cadaver dogs had been homing in on massive knee-high planters around the property.
“They were frozen solid. You couldn’t just dig into it and see what was there,” Idsinga tells me from the offices of the Toronto Police Services, just steps away from the provincial courthouse where McArthur’s pre-trial is currently taking place.
Two weeks later, Idsinga got a call from the morgue. They had finally been able to x-ray the planter — solid ice, just like concrete, does not bode well in X-ray machines. It had been thawing over a large plastic tarp, making the soil loose enough to take a look inside.
“There’s something in there,” Idsinga remembers one of the morgue workers saying. “It looks like remains.”
Later that day, Idsinga went down to the morgue and watched as a worker cracked open the planter.
“The first thing that you could see was this skull,” he says. Then he noticed a ribcage, but not where it should’ve been. The man in this planter wasn’t buried whole, Idsinga realized. He was disassembled and placed in there.
It wouldn’t be the only body Idsinga’s team found in planters, all in pieces. Within a few weeks, six bodies in total were recovered from various planters around the property. By February, police made it official: Bruce McArthur was Toronto’s first known serial killer.
But since 2010, there had been talk amongst brown gay men — specifically within the gay “bear” community — that a serial killer could be around. Bearish men of color, primarily of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent, were going missing. And friends of the missing accused police of not doing enough to solve for the disappearing men, most of whom were migrants.
But there had also been a noticeable silence among those in Toronto’s Gay Village before; many organizers and grassroots activists didn’t voice their concerns until the disappearance of a well-known white man, Andrew Kinsman. And even after an arrest was made, anger did not dissipate. Instead, the arrest of McArthur has exposed that even in one of Canada’s most progressive cities, racism and homophobia was still pervasive.
The serial killer that once terrorized the gay community was now tearing it apart.
At any one time, the downtown corridor of Toronto is bustling with almost three million people stomping through the streets. The CN Tower and city skyline — made even more famous and recognizable through Drake’s music videos — hugs the west bank of Lake Ontario, dotted with glass-flanked condos. Toronto’s biggest draw has been its diversity. Nearly half of the city’s population is foreign-born and rivals Houston, Texas and New York City in terms of racial demographics per capita.
But the City of Toronto — not dissimilar to other neighboring U.S. cities — is a liberal mecca surrounded by five historically conservative white suburbs, or the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), where residents have seen their neighborhoods shift and become more racially diverse.
Between 2001 and 2016, when the GTA saw an influx of nearly 472,000 immigrants into the city, visible minorities in the Toronto suburbs went from just under a quarter of the population to nearly half, which has created a cultural divide. “When gay brown men started alerting [police] that brown men were going missing, it was also this time when white people were very upset that immigrants were moving into their own neighborhoods,” says Lisa Amin, a human rights lawyer and LGBTQ activist. “So I’m not surprised that the police who live in those suburbs didn’t care about people going missing. You have officers policing a community that they just don’t give a damn about.”
Amin is a regular at the Glad Day Bookshop in the heart of the Gay Village, where we first met in February. The bookstore is a hub for Toronto’s LGBTQ community; it was one of the first gay-owned stores when Toronto’s Gay Village spread west, but due to similar demographic changes that affected Toronto’s suburbs, the village shrunk and the bookstore relocated to Church Street (the main drag in the Gay Village).
The Village was once a place for young and diverse gays that lived alongside immigrants. But the Village’s quaint brick homes and proximity to downtown proved attractive to the country’s youth, who were moving to the city in droves, altering the makeup of the neighborhood. By the mid 2000s, the village shifted to an upper-class community, which was noticeably more white.
“What happens to men and women [of color] outside the village is a complete fuckin’ mystery to most of the people around here,” says Brian de Matos, an activist alongside Amin with the grassroots group Queers Crash the Beat. “I guarantee you if it’s not happening to a white gay man in the village, nobody cares.”
And over the past few years, there has been a growing tension between the LGBTQ community and TPS. Specifically, Amin and de Matos point to a police sting executed in 2016 that affected gay men cruising for sex at Marie Curtis Park in Etobicoke, a suburb just west of the downtown area, now dominated by South-Asian and Portuguese migrants. Police ticketed 72 people for engaging in public sex. The Toronto Star branded the sting in a headline as a modern “morality raid,” similar to the ones the Toronto police had done on gay bathhouses in 1981 (and eventually had to apologize for).
Public sex is illegal in Toronto, but sex clubs and bathhouses are actually enshrined in law after the country’s supreme court made them legal establishments. Toronto has three of them. But those clubs — which very well could be safer than a public park — are primarily in the Gay Village, where closeted immigrant men are not likely to wander. “Let’s be real. [Marie Curtis Park] is an area where men of color go to hook up, because they don’t have the option to go have sex in areas like the Village,” Amin says. “They’re not the ones out there taking selfies on Church. And the police know that.”
A spokesperson for the TPS stresses that the sting was not related to any community — be it a racial or sexual minority — but was a response to complaints from the neighborhood on drug and alcohol use in the park. But that doesn’t change that it was perceived as a direct attack on the gay community. Even the Toronto Police Service’s LGBT liaison, Const. Danielle Bottineau, recognizes the appearance of discrimination.
“[The officers involved in the operation] didn’t talk to me about what they were doing. Otherwise I would’ve advised them to do things very, very differently,” she says. “We don’t have the best track record of handling these kinds of things in the past.”
But when news of the raid broke, the upset in the village was only amongst men of color, according to multiple conversations I had with Middle Eastern and South Asian gays and lesbians, including Amin.
“People would say, ‘Oh, well that’s not me, that’s not my community.’ Or saying that they shouldn’t have had sex in a park in the first place, not recognizing that those same people don’t face any blowback for walking into a sex club and getting off,” Amin says. “Nobody batted a fucking eye.”
The lack of response from those who lived or partied in the village didn’t shock gay men of color, though. For them, the larger gay community dismissing what happened in Marie Curtis Park was exactly what had been going on since 2010, when men started to disappear.
On September 6th, 2010, Skandaraj “Skanda” Navaratnam walked out of Zippers — a now defunct gay bar that used to be located on the southern end of the Gay Village — with an unknown man, and was never seen again. Later that winter, on December 29th, Abdulbasir Faizi also went missing. One news article placed him at one of the bathhouses in the Village, while another said witnesses saw him at the burger joint next door. His car, though, was recovered at the Beltline Trail, a well-known cruising ground for gay men.
The two cases weren’t unique, initially. Missing person cases in Toronto aren’t uncommon — between 4,000 to 7,000 people are reported missing in Toronto each year, with almost three-quarters found within the first 48 hours. That number jumps to 99 percent within a year, according to TPS records. But that still leaves hundreds who are left unaccounted for.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable for people — even police — not to form the connection.
Many of the missing people in Toronto are from migrant communities, and “just want to disappear,” says Idsinga, the TPS lead detective. “The reality is that some people just don’t want to be found. People say that we didn’t care or didn’t do enough. I saw the missing person’s file for Skanda and there wasn’t much that the investigator in that case could’ve missed. They were solid.”
But for some, the connection was clear. Almost two years after Faizi was reported missing, Majeed “Hamid” Kayhan disappeared after a wedding. He was also last seen near the Village at a bar called the Black Eagle, a local leather bar known for attracting both older men and more discreet personalities. The most light any one room gets is usually a few dim bulbs; dark corners provide proper cover for sexual interactions.
But McArthur was never supposed to be in the village during the time of the men’s disappearances. In 2001, he turned himself into police after assaulting a man with a metal pipe. He was court ordered in 2003 to stay away from male prostitutes — who, at one point, were known to roam the Village’s side streets — and amyl nitrate, or “poppers”, the club drug made popular in the Disco era and now more commonly used for a quick head-high during sex. Even still, McArthur continued to frequent the Black Eagle.
At the same time, the bear community and people close to them saw that the traits of the missing men were all too similar: Middle-aged bears all belonging to a specific racial demographic, and all disappearing from the Village.
Around 2012, public pressure escalated and police launched a task force looking for the missing men, including Kayhan, Faizi and Navaratnam. The investigation questioned the status of other reported missing men, says Idsinga, but neither he nor other TPS officials would comment on who those other men were.
Idsinga was brought into that initial investigation, called Project Houston. Soon after, according to local reports, McArthur was questioned during the investigation. But nothing came of it. (Idsinga wouldn’t comment to Rolling Stone on why he was brought in, or why McArthur was initially questioned, citing the ongoing criminal case.)
Officials with the TPS do say, though, there wasn’t yet sufficient evidence that Navaratnam or any of the missing men had been killed, and even less to show that McArthur could’ve done it.
“What was the evidence?” Idsinga says, vehemently. It’s a question he’s been asked many times: if they had suspicions back then of McArthur, why he wasn’t arrested earlier? “You can’t bring a warrant to judge and the only proof you can offer is they were, for example, Facebook friends, or that he had a criminal history. That’s not how it works.”
Amin remembers those years during the investigation well, especially the paranoia among the bear community. Her social circle included friends of the men who were going missing, and she remembers a friend who talked incessantly about the three missing men and attempted to piece together a pattern. “Honestly, I didn’t believe him,” she says. “Women of color were going missing all the time in Toronto. They still do, in fact. And the first conclusion isn’t to say, ‘It’s a serial killer,’ because the chances are so small. There was no reason for anyone to believe it was a serial killer.”
Family of the missing men told police that these men — who were dubbed as living double lives — must have moved back to their home countries. Two years later, in 2014, the investigation was closed. Police said the possibility of running away was just one of many possible explanations, though TPS would not offer Rolling Stone any other of the explanations or reasons for closing the investigation, or the theories on where the missing men had gone to.
“It’s what we were told by the families,” Idsinga says. “We didn’t make that up.”
The LGBTQ community of color called foul on the response. “You’re gonna stand there and say these people live double lives, but then you checked in on only one side of that double life and they say everything’s fine?” asks Amin. “You have one job; It’s to find these people.”
Kerolos Saleib, founder of Arabian Knights LGBTQ, a monthly dance party serving the Middle Eastern community, felt similarly. “The police just assumed because they were Middle Easterners that they fled the country, because they were gay and closeted,” he says. “That’s not right.”
In August 2015, less than a year after the investigation closed, Soroush Mahmudi, an Iranian refugee, went missing after his wife last saw him leaving their home.
Mahmudi had no outward ties to the community, which stumped Idsinga. He would later say in a press conference that, after identifying Mahmudi in February this year, any common thread he had tying together the men disappeared.
“I think the common thread in [Project] Houston is that all three men were from the Gay Village and associated to the Gay Village and they were all of Middle Eastern descent,” Idsinga said at a news conference this year. “Unfortunately, I can’t continue with that common thread.”
Mahmudi wasn’t known to visit the Gay Village for sex — but that doesn’t mean he didn’t. The juxtaposition of being both gay and Middle Eastern is the subject of many conversations in the Village, says Saleib, with Eastern doctrine staunchly at odds with homosexuality, leading men to hide their sexuality indefinitely.
“Some individuals and families, like mine, that have been here since the early Eighties, they hold on to the last thing they feel safe with back home, and often that translates to them holding on to their culture,” Saleib, who is Egyptian, says. “It makes it even harder to come out here. It’s very difficult.”
Activists went into full revolt after police closed the investigation and plastered missing posters of missing Middle Eastern men — including Kayhan, Faizi and Navaratnam — throughout the village in a desperate attempt to show a link.
The posters — a hodgepodge of home photos, up to a dozen, some with names brashly highlighted in yellow — were taped to poles, stapled to bulletin boards and thrown at people on Church Street. In December 2016, the village was literally littered with them on every corner.
No one I interviewed knew who actually put up the posters. Some say it could’ve been multiple people, as different posters had different names and different styles. One thing was clear, though: whoever was putting up the posters sensed there was something wrong, and if the police weren’t going to do anything about it then the community would.
“We have to protect ourselves. We can’t trust the police to do their jobs or help us, so we have to take it upon ourselves to do it,” says de Matos, referring to the actions taken by the community at that time. “Truly, we should only be calling the police if there is a murder, or a rape. But even in those situations, you’ve seen what’s happened. People were, literally, being killed and they couldn’t figure out there was a link.”
And while Village vigilantes plastered the streets with the faces of missing men, the police grew frustrated. Things were getting out of hand.
“There were people on [those posters] who were already found,” says Idsinga. “Even one of the people we associated with in our earlier investigation was found after we closed the project. He wasn’t kidnapped or killed. He was one of those people that just wanted to disappear.
Trust between the gay community and the police was in a tailspin, and in the midst of the battle to prove a link, another two men, Dean Lisowick and Selim Esen, disappeared.
But both of their disappearances were overshadowed by other controversy. In June 2017, police had been invited to march in the city’s pride parade. The inclusion of the city’s police force, which historically was used to punish and over-criminalize Toronto’s gay community, was seen as a slap in the face for queer activists and they were, instead, invited to attend New York City’s pride parade, which happened on the same weekend.
Just as Toronto’s pride festival came to an end that year, with a handful of police gone to celebrate in New York, community members — predominantly white men who were staunch advocates for police — soon shifted their views. One of their own had disappeared.
A well-known LGBTQ activist named Andrew Kinsman disappeared two days after the festival, on June 26th. But there was a noticeable difference in the way Kinsman’s disappearance was handled not just by the police but by the community itself. “I think McArthur’s biggest mistake was killing Andrew,” says Bottineau. “Because that’s when everyone spoke up.”
It only took a few days for people to notice Kinsman was gone. On June 26th, Kinsman was last seen near his home in Cabbagetown — an adjacent neighborhood to the Village. He was the superintendent of his building, and when a neighbor noticed his cat had been unfed and the garbage wasn’t taken out, she began to worry.
“To not feed his cat was a big warning sign for us,” the resident told the Toronto Star. “Then we found out that he had not been going to work, which is definitely not something that Andrew would do.”
Kinsman worked at a local AIDS service organization and was active in helping the HIV and AIDS community. He was handsome, tattoo’d and charming, many say, and people in the area knew him personally. He was something of a socialite within the bear scene.
But beyond Kinsman’s personality, there was something that set him apart from almost all of the men: he was white. And that’s all that was needed for white gay men to pay attention, says Haran Vijayanathan, executive director for Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention.
“Unfortunately, it did take Andrew [going] missing for the community to push back,” says Vijayanathan. “And now we’re just like, ‘Wow, is this how we’re going to be treated and be second class citizens all over again?’ And that’s a sad place to feel like in this country.”
Within three days, Kinsman’s disappearance was reported on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, one of Canada’s most popular news agencies. Within a week, his disappearance was considered “suspicious” by the TPS.
Friends of Kinsman were cooperating with investigators, private search parties were organized and neighbors flanked the village to put up posters of Kinsman’s face, smiling on a deck with his bushy beard and round glasses resting on the bridge of his nose.
After a month, Idsinga and his detectives were pulled into a second investigation, Project Prism, that would look into the disappearance of Kinsman and Esen. That investigation was ramped up even further, according to TPS, as more friends and family came forward with information on Kinsman’s disappearance.
At a town hall at the local gay community center on August 1st, Kinsman’s two sisters told friends to “keep postering and keep searching.” By the end of the summer, though, the siblings later told reporters they gave up hope their brother would be found alive.
As the investigation continued into the end of the year, the community still didn’t have answers. In a December 5th press release, TPS said there was progress being made in the case, but there was a caveat: show care when on dating apps, such as Grindr or Scruff — often used for quick casual sex.
“When you decide to meet someone, even for a casual connection, do so in a safe space and consider telling a friend or family member where you are going. If this is not possible, consider leaving a note behind,” the press release said.
The idea to mention safety on the apps came up through conversations with people in the gay community, according to Bottineau and Idsinga. But after that announcement, the word of caution was a ringing indictment against the police. It was proof to some that the police knew something, and weren’t telling the whole truth.
“The Toronto police were not being honest,” says Salieb. “What did they mean, ‘Don’t use the apps?’ What did they know and not tell us?”
That week and leading into the holidays, the Glad Day Bookstore was buzzing. News vans parked at the bookstore’s corner of Church and Wellesley; reporters interviewed neighbors and club goers against the backdrop of Kinsman and Esen’s faces plastered on poles outside. Inside the bookstore, friends were gathering and talking about the missing men and the recent press release.
Now, people had more questions but with far fewer answers: Why mention the apps? Were these hate crimes? Were these, actually, sexually driven crimes? Even worse, could it have been one of us?
The police were, in truth, holding something back. Months before, McArthur sold off his red Dodge Caravan at Dom’s Auto Parts in Courtice, about a 45-minute drive from the city and investigators were collecting DNA evidence from the back of the van.
Without explaining to Rolling Stone why police homed in on McArthur for a second time, Idsinga says that when investigators collected the van on October 3rd, McArthur was a person of interest. By November, he was a suspect.
The morning that McArthur was arrested, Idsinga was in his office at TPS headquarters in downtown. A team of surveillance officers was stationed outside McArthur’s apartment building when they witnessed McArthur had brought someone back to his apartment, possibly for a sexual encounter.
A decision had to be made: to arrest McArthur and probably save this unknown man’s life, or stand down. It wasn’t the plan to make an arrest this early, Idsinga says, but something had to be done.
“I was thinking about everything that could go wrong,” he says. “Is he going to be armed? Is he going to break his phone? Is he going to toss the computer out the window? I remember a guy who kept a bucket of water next to his bed in the case the police came in, he could drop his phone in the bucket. You have to be prepared for that and have someone there who can handle if any of those scenarios play out.”
But ultimately, the call was to protect the unknown man’s safety, and Idsinga ordered the arrest.
Officers rushed the apartment to find a man tied to McArthur’s bed. As McArthur was arrested and transported to the local precinct, Idsinga — living up to the nickname his former trainer told me was, “the Voice of Reason” — again thought of everything that could go south.
Everyone needed to be cleared from the hallways. No one could interact with McArthur in any fashion. TPS keeps recordings of their arrests, and if anyone even coughs on tape, there is a good chance they’ll be called in for questioning during the investigation.
It’s the exact reason why Idsinga has never even talked to McArthur, or even met him. It’s his way of keeping the case as clean as possible.
The next day, Idsinga went on TV to tell the city that the man who terrorized the Gay Village for eight years was finally in police custody.
But McArthur’s arrest bred resentment.
“In all honesty, if me as a brown guy with a beard had a criminal history — like Bruce did — and I was seen somewhere where I wasn’t supposed to be — like Bruce was — I’m sure there would be police on me like there was no tomorrow,” says Vijayanathan. “That’s my hypothesis based on some of the experiences I’ve had in the community. These are real things, it’s not like we’re pulling stuff out of the air. Its been a repeat pattern.”
Amin was in bed listening to the radio when she heard news of the arrest, she immediately logged into Facebook to put a face to McArthur’s name. “I just wanted to see who he was,” she says. “And I wanted to see what friends we had in common. And sure as shit the first person I see is Skanda. That’s when I knew the bastard killed Skanda.”
The provincial courtroom during McArthur’s pre-trial fits 40 people comfortably, but on February 14th this year, at least 50 filled the room, benches clustered seven people deep in wooden pew-like seats. By Toronto standards, it was a madhouse.
It gave the public their first glimpse at the defense attorney for McArthur: W. Calvin Rosemond, a young associate at the law firm Edward Royle & Associates who, according to the firm’s website, specializes in criminal defense. Representing the city was P. Michael Cantlon, a seasoned veteran of Toronto courts who had been practicing law for nearly 30 years.
The pair of lawyers were at stark odds in terms of experience.
Rosemond had never defended a case this big — or this popular. A year before the Valentine’s Day court appearance — when he would soon become well known for representing McArthur — he was just a student lawyer. Now, he was taking on the most notorious serial-murder case Canada had seen since Robert “Willy” Pickton, who was convicted in 2007 for murdering six women in Vancouver. (When reached by Rolling Stone, Rosemond said that his client “isn’t making any statements,” and declined to comment further on the case.)
Seven months later, McArthur’s case no longer gets the front page headlines it used to. He’s still going through pre-trials motions, with thousands of pages of evidence currently being reviewed by his lawyers. There is, as of now, very little forward motion on the trial, which could not happen if McArthur pleads guilty. Otherwise, his case could last for years as more evidence is released and bodies are discovered – in July, remains of a potential seventh victim were discovered nearby one of the houses where McArthur worked.
At the beginning of June, I meet de Matos, the activist who works alongside Amin with Queers Crash the Beat. There’s one main point he wants to make to me: the gay community is even more divided than ever. “People who had nothing to say before, now are benefitting from this,” he says, referring to white gay men who are now speaking out on police abuse. “They were never in danger in the first place.” And relations with the police hadn’t gotten any better.
That same week, Const. Bottineau, the LGBTQ liaison for TPS, met me in the Village to discuss the ongoing tensions between the police and the community.
By that point, almost a year after Project Prism started to help give voice to the gay community’s concerns about police inaction surrounding the missing men, TPS was being dragged, and very publicly.
In April, the police force withdrew their application to be part of the city’s pride parade — citing tense relations in relation to the McArthur case.
A month before that, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders was accused of victim-blaming the community after he made a statement to The Globe and Mail saying that more people should have come forward sooner. “I’ve heard a lot of sources say certain things, and had those sources said those things when we had Project Houston, I think there is a very strong potential that the outcome could have been different,” he said.
And this past spring, the city’s mayor, John Tory, called on TPS bring in an independent commission to review how missing persons are handled as a direct result of LGBTQ backlash.
While walking down the street, people in the Glad Day Bookshop sneer at Bottineau as we walk by. Her presence — even out of uniform — is noticed immediately.
“We’re doing everything we can. I’m doing everything I can. The bridge can only be fixed if people trust us,” she says. “Yes, we have work to do — a lot of it. But we need to work together and bring solutions to the table. Because we’re not going anywhere.”
The ancillary backlash of McArthur’s arrest may have worsened relationships by exposing the deep divides between the community and the police force, but what it has more effectively shown are the problems within Toronto’s gay community, itself.
“Something like this should bring the community together, but it’s done the exact opposite,” de Matos says. “We only have ourselves to blame for this. We had the opportunity to do something, and we didn’t.”
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