Toronto police chief’s comments on 2012 missing men probe anger LGBTQ community

TORONTO — A suggestion by Toronto’s police chief that an alleged serial killer would have been arrested sooner if the public had been more co-operative with investigators has angered LGBTQ residents and could worsen already strained relationships with them, community leaders said Tuesday.

Chief Mark Saunders told the Globe and Mail that “nobody” came to officers with information in 2012 when police launched Project Houston, an ultimately unsuccessful investigation into multiple men who went missing from the city’s gay village.

Police arrested self-employed landscaper Bruce McArthur in January, and have since charged him with six counts of first-degree murder. Most of his alleged victims were men who had gone missing from the gay village, and two were among those whose disappearances were investigated by Project Houston.

Saunders issued a statement Tuesday evening saying he had spoken with Globe reporters about the challenges faced by police and the force’s desire to work with the community.

“As a police service, we put resources into Project Houston — a dozen full-time investigators did thousands of hours of work canvassing the community, posting flyers, issuing news releases, interviewing witnesses, and still those activities did not yield any results,” he said in the statement.

Community leaders said Saunders’ comments to the newspaper will likely aggravate the already tense relationship between police and the groups affected by McArthur’s alleged crimes, including the LGBTQ community.

“This is actually just going to push that divide a bit further and not allow people to work together,” said Haran Vijayanathan, executive director of the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention advocacy group. “The chief is creating his own problems now.”

There are legitimate reasons for members of the LGBTQ community to distrust police, said Maura Lawless, executive director of The 519, a community centre in the gay village.

“(Saunders’) comments affirm that systemic institutional discrimination, homophobia, transphobia and racism are real and continue to pose a significant risk to the safety and well being of our community,” she said.

“I hope that chief Saunders reflects on the community’s outrage related to his comments and retracts them immediately.”

Police launched a second probe into disappearances from the gay village in 2017. Called Project Prism, the investigation focused on missing men Andrew Kinsman and Selim Esen — both of whom police now allege were murdered by McArthur.

In December 2017, one month before McArthur was arrested, Saunders told reporters he was launching a review into the way his force handles missing person cases.

At the same time, he said there was no evidence to suggest a link between the various missing person cases in the neighbourhood, nor any evidence that a serial killer was targeting men in the area.

Toronto police representatives echoed those claims in private and public meetings with community members, said Toronto city Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, whose ward includes the gay village.

“I am extremely perplexed by the police chief’s comments that perhaps the community didn’t do enough. I’m just shocked,” said Wong-Tam.

Some locals who tried to share information with police during the investigation say they had “mixed results” and were not necessarily taken seriously by officers, Wong-Tam said.

“I know for a fact that the community rallied around asking for additional resources and attention to the missing men (as early as 2010 and 2011),” she said. “I know it was the community who went out and organized search parties, it was the community that put up posters all over the neighbourhood and beyond … saying, ‘If you know something, please say something.’”

Police have found the dismembered remains of six individuals in large planters at a home where McArthur did landscaping work and rented storage space.

Investigators have identified three sets of remains so far — 49-year-old Kinsman, 50-year-old Soroush Mahmudi and 40-year-old Skandaraj Navaratnam.

McArthur, 66, is charged with first-degree murder in their deaths, as well as the presumed deaths of 44-year-old Esen, Majeed Kayhan, 58, and Dean Lisowick, either 43 or 44.

Peter Goffin , The Canadian Press

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