Toronto

Survivor of one of Canada's worst sex offenders explains why she kept silent

Serial rapist Selva Kumar Subbiah is set to be released from prison on Sunday, even though he's expected to reoffend.

Serial rapist Selva Kumar Subbiah to be deported to Malaysia but those whose lives he destroyed remain haunted

Susan Chapelle, now a British Columbia-based health researcher, was one of hundreds of women interviewed by police during their investigation into serial rapist Selva Kumar Subbiah in the 1990s. She never formally reported her assault. (Submitted: Susan Chapelle)

It was a Facebook message Susan Chapelle never imagined she'd receive.

Amid the birthday notifications and photo comments: a corrections officer writing to let her know the man who raped her was being freed.

"All around awesome day," Chapelle wrote, irked after reading the note. "The man that raped me is being released. The prison guard that took care of him got in touch with me to inform me that he is still dangerous and going to reoffend."

Today, Chapelle is a 48-year-old B.C.-based health researcher. But in the 1990s, she was one of hundreds of women who officers would identify as victims in their investigation into one of Canada's worst sexual offenders: Selva Kumar Subbiah.

The now 56-year-old Malaysian native preyed on women in and around downtown Toronto. He would meet them by posing as a modelling agent or exotic pet seller, or simply at a coffee shop.

The extent of Subbiah's depravities would only be known after investigators entered a locked room in his west-end home containing scores of photos and journals, a book rating his victims, as well as a large quantity of the sleeping drug Halcion, according to retired officer Brian Thomson, an investigator in the case.

Altogether the cache included the names of some 500 women, who Thomson and his partner, Peter Duggan, painstakingly interviewed — 120 of whom agreed to go to court. 

Selva Kumar Subbiah, middle, was arrested Aug. 7, 1991. He's set to be released this month. (Dale Brazao/Toronto Star)

'Deception and manipulation'

Subbiah was ultimately convicted in December 1992 and January 1997 of 75 crimes, including 26 counts of sexual assault against more than 30 victims, four of whom were minors and one as young as 14.

But on Jan. 29, after serving a sentence of more than 24 years, Subbiah is set to be deported to his home country under "an enforceable removal order," the Canadian Border Service Agency confirms.

A 2014 Parole Board of Canada review of Subbiah's case reveals his disturbing tactics: "The offences involved you luring and grooming the female victims using deception and manipulation, subduing them with intoxicants allowing you to have full control over them while they were incapacitated, and sexually assaulting them. You also took pornographic pictures of the victims while they were nude and unconscious."

Chapelle didn't report her assault at the time, nor did she testify in court, she told CBC News.

It is never the fault of the survivor for being attacked regardless of how she behaved, what she said, what she was wearing.- Tamar Witelson, legal director at METRAC Action on Violence

It was 1989. She was 20 and living in Toronto's Beach neighbourhood, when she responded to an ad for a pet that she saw in the paper. Subbiah picked her up and took her to his Parkdale-area home around 4 p.m., where she says he offered her a glass of wine.

That's when things went black.

"I don't remember anything until I woke up at 11 o'clock," Chapelle said, recalling the incident. What she did know was her skirt was now on backwards and she felt awful all over.

"I had no idea what had happened. I assumed it was something horrible. But in your mind you're already justifying: I went to a stranger's house, I had a glass of wine, you're making those justifications in your head."

Rape myths persist

It's a familiar feeling for all too many survivors of sexual assault, says Tamar Witelson, legal director at METRAC Action on Violence. She said many victims — largely women — will refrain from reporting or speaking about their experiences because they feel culpable, even years after the fact.

"There's also a continuing social stigma," she said, adding friends, colleagues and even family members may engage in victim-blaming, asking what the person may have done to contribute to being attacked.

"It is never the fault of the survivor for being attacked, regardless of how she behaved, what she said, what she was wearing," said Witelson. "But these types of myths about sexual assault do persist."

Survivors of sexual assault have often said they found themselves retraumatized by the adversarial nature of the criminal court system. (Source: 'Limits of a Criminal Justice Response,' Holly Johnson)

On top of that, the legal system can be a barrier, both because of its complexity and because complainants often find their credibility questioned.

"She will have to answer questions that are very personal and private and can actually make her feel like her dignity is being attacked," said Witelson, adding that civil suits, human rights claims and victims' compensation boards are, for some, less adversarial alternatives to the criminal courts.​

Chapelle says that's one of the key reasons she didn't come forward.

"You know that you're going to be questioned," she said. "I went with a stranger in a car. I wasn't willing to put myself in front of that prosecution and I was really afraid of the line of questioning."

Nearly 30 years later, she says little has changed for sexual assault survivors, citing a lack of culturally appropriate services and forensic testing that is still an hours-long drive away from many rural communities. 

Overshadowed by Bernardo case, former officer says

But Chapelle couldn't escape the memory of the assault. At the time police were investigating, she had suicidal thoughts and consulted police about counselling, only to have an officer suggest she speak to a priest.

At the time, police resources were tight. It was all hands on deck for the investigation into serial killer Paul Bernardo, Thomson said. While a few other officers were put on the Subbiah case temporarily, he and "Pete" quickly found themselves working alone, referring as many women as possible to Victims Services to connect them with the necessary supports.

"Subbiah was not big news at the time. Bernardo was. They had a whole team of people investigating that," Thomson said. "I wish we had more people."

"I can say that in my heart we did everything we could and tried to put things in place for assistance and help," Thomson said, ahead of Subbiah's release. "I'm sorry," he added, apologizing for Chapelle's experience.

The investigation in serial killer Paul Bernardo, shown here in 1994, took up significant police resources at the time Subbiah was attacking women, Thomson said. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Thomson knows Subbiah's impact will never be erased. With his release date imminent, Thomson says several of the victims who kept in touch over the years have called to express their worry.

"It affects, and still does to this day, the victims," said Thomson, who retired in 2011 and has since moved to a property near Georgian Bay. "And in a different way it affects Pete and I," he said, the hours of interviews and endless graphic details etched into his memory.

"Now I can look out my kitchen window and it's an acre of land, the old fence that the farmers put up and beyond that, forest. And that's my solace. But I know his date's coming."

A 2014 parole board report details Subbiah's "superficial remorse" and "need for control... and self-gratification," finding him at high risk to reoffend.

"He is a prolific psychopath who should be kept behind bars for the rest of his life," Thompson said.

'It's still raw'

Asked if Subbiah will walk free in Malaysia, High Commission spokesperson Dzulkefly Abdullah responded only that the 56-year-old has served his sentence in Canada, and that "the matter is under the purview of the Malaysian authorities."

For her part, Chapelle says she remains haunted by the thought that just maybe she could have done something to prevent Subbiah from destroying so many lives.

"That has weighed on me," she said. "If you think of the sheer number of women that were abused by this man ... It's impossible not to feel guilty. It's still raw for me."

But since sharing her story, she says dozens of women have disclosed to her that they too have never reported their sexual assaults.

"It's sort of like a sisterhood," but it's not a solution for the lack of support for sexual assault survivors, says Chapelle.

"But I think that women want to say, 'Hey, me too' and be counted," she said. "To be counted is very powerful."

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