The Nirmalendran brothers: a story of love, fear and violence in Regent Park
How a Toronto family became engulfed in tragedy. WARNING: this story includes some graphic details
This summer, Toronto saw a surge in shootings.
Behind one of those shootings — a spray of bullets fired in Regent Park in the middle of the afternoon on August 14 — was a long back story, filled with love, fear, violence and a family torn apart.
- How the Nirmalendran family became engulfed in tragedy
- A friend recalls a turning point in Nixon Nirmalendran's short life
- A week before the shootings, Nixon Nirmalendran talked about going back to school
- Christopher Husbands' path to violence: a teacher's perspective
On August 18, police made an arrest in the Regent Park shooting. They charged a 21-year-old named Nirusan Nirmalendran.
Nirusan is no stranger to gun violence, or the police.
His oldest brother was killed in the Eaton Centre, a mass shooting that sent the city into shock three years ago. Less than a year after that, his other brother, the middle child in his family, was killed in a shooting as well.
Meanwhile, the Nirmalendran brothers' lifelong friend, Christopher Husbands, was convicted of second degree murder in the death of Nixon and another man, Ahmed Hassan, in the shooting spree in the food court of the Eaton Centre.
CBC Toronto spoke to more than two dozen of the Nirmalendran's friends, neighbours, teachers and those who knew them from school or the Regent Park community. This is the story of three brothers swallowed by violence.
A turbulent youth
From an early age, the Nirmalendran's lives were shaped by violence.
The family is from Sri Lanka, with the three brothers born in the early 1990s.
At the time of their birth, the country was in a drastic upheaval. From the early 1980s on, ethnic tensions marred the island nation. The insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, and the government were in a conflict that many called an all-out civil war.
Following riots in 1983, more than 150,000 Sri Lankan Tamils left the island for other countries. The ethnic conflicts continued for decades.
Many of the diaspora resettled in Toronto, which is considered to have the largest population of Sri Lankan Tamil people outside of Sri Lanka. The Nirmalendrans, a family of five with three boys, were part of that wave of immigration.
When the Nirmalendran family arrived in Toronto, neither parent spoke English, and they still struggle with the language to this day.
Vigneswary Nirmalendran, the matriarch of the family, remembered coming to Canada with her three young sons in the early 1990s. Nixon was four years old, Nisan three and Nirusan one-and-a-half years old. They first lived in Scarborough before relocating to live in public housing in Regent Park.
"We came here and struggled to bring them up well," she said in court in January of this year. "But no one thinks about that."
Many people close to the family believe a turning point came Nixon was a teenager. At 16, he witnessed a shooting death of his friend.
He and the friend, Alwy Al-Nadhir, were out on Halloween night in 2007. Nixon, who reportedly carried a pellet gun, and his 18-year-old friend were planning to rob someone waking through Riverdale Park. At the entrance to the park at about 9:30 p.m., they stopped three men and attempted to rob them.
Police were not far from the scene, and confronted Nixon and Al-Nadhir.
Al-Nadhir was shot in the neck by an officer, and was later pronounced dead at St. Michael's Hospital. Nixon was charged with robbery, and the officer was cleared of any wrongdoing by the province's Special Investigations Unit.
At the time of his arrest, Nirmalendran was a student at Toronto's Central Tech High School and was just a credit short of graduating.
The killing stunned Nixon. He would get a tattoo of Al-Nadhir's face on his arm with the tribute "R.I.P. Alwy" under the image.
'I don't know what happened'
Seeing his friend killed had a profound impact on Nixon, his friends and family say. That impact likely caused a ripple effect that reached his brothers, who had looked up to their older brother throughout their young lives.
"What others say about him, I don't care. Nixon would always check with us whether we had eaten, taken our medicine and make sure we were taken care of," said Vigneswary through an interpreter. "Nixon always assured me not to worry about anything; that he would take care of us — me, his father and his brothers."
Nixon, she said, was especially fond of his youngest brother, Nirusan. "He loved him so much," remembered Vigneswary.
"When we sat together as a family to eat, these were the best moments of my life," said Vigneswary.
"My three boys were my life."
Her statement at the trial was so emotional, the interpreter began tearing up reading the statement.
"My family was a very fun-filled family; I don't know what happened."
A lifelong friend
Christopher Husbands grew up with the Nirmalendran brothers in Regent Park.
He was also found criminally responsible for the death of Nixon.
In the months before the Eaton Centre shooting, he had a harrowing interaction with two of the Nirmalendran brothers. Husbands went to visit a woman he had been seeing romantically, but instead found Nixon, Nisan and three other men waiting for him.
The men brutally beat Husbands — a beating so horrifying that Husbands claimed in his trial it clouded every aspect of his life.
It was February 2012, four months before Husbands would gun down Nixon in the food court of the Eaton Centre.
- Christopher Husbands guilty of 2nd-degree murder
- Eaton Centre shooting: Panic, bloodshed seen in video footage
Nixon, his brother and the three men tied Husbands up with electrical tape, bludgeoned him, forced him into the shower and stabbed him approximately 35 times with the water running. The blood washed away in the shower.
Details of the beating came out in Husbands' trial for the Eaton Centre shootings.
It never became clear at at trial what motivated Nixon to brutalize Husbands. Regardless, Husbands said through his lawyer that he was traumatized by the beating, and in months after became intensely fearful — "paranoid," his lawyers said in court — that another beating would take place, or worse.
When Husbands saw his old friend in the Eaton Centre in June 2, 2012, he fired 14 shots into the crowded food court. Five people were shot, two of them were killed. One of the men killed was 24-year-old Ahmed Hassan, a friend of Nixon's.
Another victim was Nixon. He was struck with four bullets that Saturday in the Eaton Centre. Nine days later, he too had died from his injuries.
More trauma for the Nirmalendran family
Security footage showed him run inside of the building at 55 Bleecker Street, just north of Carlton Street. An elderly woman was checking her mail at the time, as bullets passed by her. The man briefly hid behind the bystander, using her as a human shield. He was eventually shot multiple times, including in the chest. He died later in hospital.
The man was Nisan Nirmalendran, the middle child in the family.
Police called the killing disturbing for its brazenness. They never turned up any suspects.
With two of Nirmalendran killed by brazen, dangerous shootings, Nirusan is Vigneswary Nirmalendran's only son. After the murder of Nisan, Vigneswary said her youngest born changed.
On August 14, police allege Nirusan passed by 463 Gerrard Street in a vehicle, firing rounds at a group of men standing in front of the building.
Security footage showed what appears to be Nirusan's arm holding the weapon, and a licence plate registered to the Nirmalendrans, which police say led to his arrest.
Speaking about Nirusan before his arrest, Vigneswary said he was not coping with the loss of his brothers.
"When my sons were here, they used to sit together and eat and laugh together as a family," she said through an interpreter. "After my youngest son lost his brothers, he doesn't come near the table anymore."
See the rest of the stories in the series on the Nirmalendran brothers.
- DAY ONE | How the Nirmalendran family became engulfed in tragedy
- DAY TWO | A friend recalls a turning point in Nixon Nirmalendran's short life
- DAY THREE | A week before the shootings, Nixon Nirmalendran talked about going back to school
- DAY FOUR | Christopher Husbands' path to violence: a teacher's perspective
With files from Mary Wiens and Nazim Baksh