The uncomfortable truth about Toronto's 'gay village' serial killer
An area of Toronto called Church and Wellesley stands as a testament to Canada’s inclusive culture and progressive politics. Street signs are adorned in rainbow colours, bars with names like “Flash”, “Sailor” and “Buddies” stay open late and, during Gay Pride weekend, the area’s vibrancy and sense of celebration invades the whole city.
However, as well as serving Toronto’s LGBT community, it is also a refuge to those from further afield - often those whose sexuality would see them persecuted or whose families have rejected them. It is a community built on love, which has been shaken by hate.
For years, there were rumours in the village of a serial killer. Various disappearances had fuelled these suspicions however, it could be that the victims - all male and often Middle Eastern or South Asian - had returned to a previous life without the fanfare of farewells.
Meanwhile, 20 minutes northeast of the village, a man named Bruce McArthur was working as a mall Santa. McArthur had grown up in rural Ontario, marrying in the 1980s before leaving his family in Oshawa and moving to Toronto.
He had children and grandchildren by the time he eventually came out and was an elder statesman of the Toronto gay scene. Often sporting a white beard and fuller figure, his seasonal work playing Saint Nick made for a perfectly apt role. "I used to refer to him as 'Santa'," Zipperz owner Harry Singh told the BBC.
McArthur worked as a landscape gardener and got on well with his clients. He was said to be friendly and talkative. He loved nature, his work and his grandchildren. However, as he carefully attended to Torontonians’ plants, a growing number of people were disappearing.
For many people, the disappearance of 44-year-old Selim Esen in April 2017 was the last straw. Following the disappearance of Majeed Kayhan in 2012, a task force had been set up. However, it then shut down less than two years later. With a growing chasm between police and the gay community, criticism of the investigations was rife. Starting in 2010, with the disappearance of Skandaraj Navaratnam over the Labour Day weekend, Selim Esen’s case was the sixth of its kind.
The first victim, 44-year-old Skandaraj Navaratnam, had moved to Canada from Sri Lanka in the 1990s and was known as “Skanda” to his friends. "His laugh was just ridiculous," Jodi Becker, a bartender at Zipperz, recounted to the Toronto Star. "If Skanda started laughing, everybody started laughing, even if nothing was funny."
The most recent disappearance was that of 49-year-old Andrew Kinsman, in June 2017. A second task force was set up - to investigate the disappearances of Kinsman and Esen. But police continued to protest residents’ insistence that there was a serial killer in Toronto, stating in December 2017 that there was "no evidence" to support this.
However, there was one important lead in the case of Andrew Kinsman. On the day of his disappearance, CCTV footage showed him getting into the car of a man called Bruce McArthur - an older man and occasional mall Santa. However, Kinsman was known to have been in a sexual relationship with McArthur - meaning that this wasn’t out of the ordinary.
But delving into McArthur’s past uncovered more than his background checks did before he donned the recognisable red outfit. In 2003, he was given a two-year conditional sentence for an assault on a male prostitute with a metal pipe. He was ordered to stay away from the village, prostitutes and amyl nitrite - also known as poppers.
Police questioned 67-year-old McArthur and became increasingly suspicious of him. Eventually, warrants were written for the properties of his clients and a number of alarming discoveries were made. On picturesque Mallory Crescent, in the garden of resident Karen Fraser, body parts were found in plant pots. Following a wider investigation, parts of various bodies were found in a nearby ravine.
The police were shocked to find that these disappearances had, in fact, been murders carried out by a man known to them. Meanwhile, the gay community looked on in horror as it seemed increasingly likely that the man responsible was known not only to the police, but also to the village.
Concurrently, parents wondered how a man with a history of violent crime could have been allowed to work with children. Agincourt Mall stated that McArthur was hired via an events company, who they thought did sufficient background checks.
“A criminal record check will only reveal criminal convictions,” criminal lawyer David Butt told Toronto’s CityNews. “If somebody wants to work in what’s called the ‘vulnerable sector’, then the check will dig a little bit deeper and if there are serious concerns - it may not have lead to a conviction, but are nonetheless serious safety concerns - they would be flagged in a vulnerable sector check”.
Those involved and those merely spectating from a distance considered whether McArthur could actually be responsible for all the disappearances. Then, on Wednesday, McArthur pleaded guilty to all eight counts of murder. “The man I knew actually didn’t exist,” former client Karen Fraser told the press. “This is someone else entirely.” When prompted on the differences between the man she’d known and the man she’d just seen plead guilty to eight murders, she responded. “This man, if we’re being factual, is much older, stooped, lost a lot of weight. I knew a man who was always energetic, enthusiastic, always eager to get on to the next thing. This is just a shuffling, broken man - as he should be.”
The victims were 40-year-old Skandaraj Navaratnam, 42-year-old Abdulbasir Faizi, 58-year-old Majeed Kayhan, 50-year-old Soroush Mahmudi, 37-year-old Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam, 47-year-old Dean Lisowick, 44-year-old Selim Esen and 49-year-old Andrew Kinsman.
“It puts the communities and the [families] at rest to say that we have closure now, finally,” stated Haran Vijayanathan from Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention, who has been close with some of the victims’ families. “We don’t have to guess and wait and anticipate and come to court meetings and walk away with no answer,” he added. “So this is really good for closure for everyone.”
Vijayanathan successfully campaigned for an independent inquiry into the authorities’ response to the missing person reports. Just how this could have been allowed to happen is still being pored over, both within the police and within Toronto’s LGBT community.