Unsealed documents reveal early Toronto police effort to find victims of alleged serial killer

Court documents unsealed on Friday offer a rare glimpse into how Toronto police probed the disappearances of three men who would later be named as victims of alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur.

Newly unsealed court documents show Toronto police unsuccessfully trying to retrace victims' last steps

The disappearances of Skandaraj Navaratnam, 40, Abdulbasir Faizi, 44, and Majeed Kayhan, 58 were first investigated by a Toronto police task force called Project Houston. The task force was disbanded in 2014 after it failed to produce any evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Court documents unsealed on Friday offer a rare glimpse into how Toronto police probed the disappearances of three men who would later be named as victims of alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur.

The records pertain to Project Houston, a police task force struck in November 2012 to investigate the missing persons cases of Skanda Navaratnam, 40, Abdulbasir Faizi, 44, and Majeed Kayhan, 58. The men, who vanished between 2010 and 2012, each had ties to the city's Gay Village. 

Until today, the records — which include dozens of applications for search warrants and production orders laid out over hundreds of pages — had remained out of public view at the request of investigators. This week, however, an Ontario Court of Justice judge ordered them unsealed, with significant redaction, following an application from CBC News and a number of other media outlets. 

The documents show that as early as 2010, the year he went missing, investigators had reason to believe that Navaratnam had been kidnapped or murdered.

'Extensive investigations'

A detective examining his disappearance wrote in an Oct. 4, 2010, application for mobile phone records from Telus that on Sept. 6, "unknown person(s) without lawful authority seized Skanda Navaratnam."

A week after, police and more than a dozen of Navaratnam's friends searched paths and wooded areas around Riverdale Park north to Bloor Street, an area that police said was known as a popular place for men in the LGBT community to meet. 

In subsequent searches that followed, cadaver dogs and members of the mounted unit were brought in to assist, the documents show. 

When the next application was filed in Navaratnam's case some two years later, Det. Debbie Harris, an investigator with 51 Division, said she believed he had been murdered at some point between Sept. 6, 2010 and Nov. 9, 2012. 

Harris also noted that an exhaustive probe of Navaratnam's disappearance had failed to yield any results. 

"Extensive investigations, including production orders on the missing person's cell phone and emails provided no leads as to the location of Skanda," she wrote. 

Kidnapping considered by investigators

In early 2013, the documents say, Project Houston investigators believed that Faizi and Kayhan had been kidnapped. By that point, police had been investigating the disappearances of Navaratnam and Faizi for some time and were in the early phases of their look at Kayhan's case. 

Faizi was reported missing by his wife on Dec. 30, 2010. His last known location was in the Church and Wellesley neighbourhood, home to the Gay Village. 

A little less than a week later, on Jan. 4, 2011, police found his locked car left abandoned on Moore Avenue, in the area of St. Clair Avenue E. and Mount Pleasant Road. The location is just minutes by car from the Mallory Crescent home where McArthur, 66, is alleged to have hidden the dismembered remains of his victims.

The vehicle, a Nissan Sentra sedan, was not damaged. It was eventually taken to Peel, where Faizi was originally reported missing, for forensic analysis. The items found inside the car were redacted, save for a mention of unidentified "receipts."

Of the three men, Kayhan was last to disappear. He was reported missing on Oct. 25, 2012, by his adult son, a week after he was last seen by a friend nearby his Alexander Street apartment, also near Church and Wellesley. Two separate searches of his unit conducted by police and his son found no evidence of a struggle or foul play, according to the records. 

In warrant applications filed in 2013, investigators told the court they believed the men were taken against their wills.

For example, on Jan. 9 of that year, Det.-Const. Josh McKenzie, as part of his justification for requesting files from Bell Canada in Kayhan's case, wrote, "I believe that the information obtained from this production order in conjunction with other information already learned from this investigation will provide information of person(s) believed to be involved in committing the offence of kidnapping."

By early spring of 2013, police had initiated a considerable effort to retrace the last steps of each man included in the purview of Project Houston. It included examining phone, email and banking records; last uses of debit, credit and health cards; credit histories; and multiple canvasses at many of the bars, club and cafés in the Gay Village for information or leads. 

At points in 2012 and 2013, investigators requested multiple tracking warrants in connection to a man they believed to be a suspect in Navaratnam's murder. A warrant granted in March 2013, for example, allowed for more than a half-dozen different undercover officers to record their electronic and in-person interactions with a person whose identity is redacted.

This chapter of Project Houston also made use of a confidential source, the documents show. 

The trail of inquiry around the early suspect eventually fizzled out, though the man, James Alex Brunton, pleaded guilty to child pornography charges in 2014. 

Criticism of investigation

The measures listed in the various documents seem to contrast somewhat with sharp criticisms levelled at police by some in Toronto's LGBT community. In the months since McArthur's arrest in January 2018, a host of advocates have said that Toronto police ignored or trivialized concerns from LGBT residents that the disappearances were in fact linked.

Project Houston was abruptly ended in April 2014. A police spokesperson said that the resource-heavy task force was disbanded because it had failed to uncover any criminal wrongdoing. 

Three years later, the disappearances of two other men with ties to the Gay Village, Selim Esen, 44, and Andrew Kinsman, 49, prompted the creation of another task force, Project Prism. At the time, investigators maintained that the cases examined as part of Prism had no connection to those probed during Houston.

McArthur's name first appears in court documents on Sept. 7, 2017, in a request from police to have a production order for Bell Canada sealed. A week later, in another request for a seal on tracking warrants, police make mention of "the investigation into Bruce McArthur."

In December 2017, several months after investigators keyed in on McArthur, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders said there was no evidence that a serial killer was operating in the Church and Wellesley neighbourhood. 

Fewer than six weeks later, police arrested McArthur after observing a man enter his Thorncliffe Park apartment. In all, McArthur was charged with eight counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of the five men included in projects Houston and Prism, as well as Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam, 37, Dean Lisowick, 47, Soroush Mahmudi, 50.

His case was recently put over until Oct. 5. 

W​ith files from Nicole Brockbank, John Lancaster, Michelle Cheung, Jean-Philippe Nadeau and Lucas Powers


Lucas Powers

Senior Writer

Lucas Powers is a Toronto-based reporter and writer. He's reported for CBC News from across Canada. Have a story to tell? Email any time.