Day 6

'Waiting for the other shoe to drop': Toronto's LGBT community confronts an alleged serial killer

Alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder and police say there could be more victims. Toronto's LGBT community is shaken.
In this artist's sketch, Bruce McArthur, left, appears in court in Toronto on Friday, January 19, 2018. (Alexandra Newbould/Canadian Press)

by Brent Bambury

Last summer, after years of speculation over the fate of people who had vanished from their community, LGBT activists in Toronto organized a town hall to share information and talk about their worst fears.

Two men had disappeared between April and June, and there were three earlier cases that made them suspicious. There was open speculation that there was a serial killer in the community.

Nicki Ward is a director of the Church-Wellesley Neighbourhood Association. (Amanda Grant/CBC)

Toronto police made it clear there was no evidence to support that theory. LGBT advocate Nicki Ward thinks they made a mistake.

"They very much downplayed that there was a pattern to this behavior, or any suggestion this might be a serial killer," she tells me on Day 6.

"I don't think it was in the public interest for them to do that."

Now, with Bruce McArthur arrested and charged with five counts of murder, police admit that they're investigating an alleged serial killer. They're warning the community to prepare for more charges, and relations between police and the community are strained.

"We've been long-prepared for more bodies," Nicki Ward says. "It's the police who haven't been prepared."


An all-time low

James Dubro is a freelance crime writer in Toronto. (James Dubro/Twitter)
Journalist James Dubro, who spent decades writing about the LGBT community, says the case has profoundly damaged their trust in police.

"Relations are at an all-time low," he says. "I think the police have to say they made mistakes."

Dubro believes the police should have investigated the disappearances earlier.

"They let it go," he says. "Whereas everyone in the community — including myself — assumed a serial killer was at work, they stopped the investigation. That was a mistake."

Dubro remembers a buzz in the room at the town hall in August; the expression of a long held idea that a serial killer was stalking the neighbourhood.

"A friend of mine who has been a long-time community activist said: 'I wonder if the serial killer is in the room?'"

"It was a joke," he says, "but serial killing was number one, and it was number one back in 2010 to 2012 when the posters went up for the original three missing people."

A worn missing poster for Andrew Kinsman is taped to a pole in the Church and Wellesley neighbourhood in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Police continued to downplay the serial killer theory through December 2017. Ward says mistakes like that underline the dysfunctional relationship that police now have with the community.

"The fact of the matter is, that by definition and as evidenced by what's been going on, there is a breakdown that whatever systems are in place are not working. I think, actually, proper dialogue has long been absent," she says. "I think the police services need to do some serious listening."

"It seems that the only way to get through to them is to raise your voice to a screaming pitch and that's no way to actually establish a partnership moving forward."


Other cases raise different issues

As police continue to investigate Bruce McArthur, activists are focusing on other cases from the community and posing questions about the way they've been handled.

Alloura Wells, a transgender woman who went missing during the summer, was found dead a month later. When Tess Richey, 22, disappeared in the gay village in November, a police search was not successful. Days later, her mother discovered her body.

The discovery of dismembered skeletal remains in backyard planters and the police allegation that a serial killer is responsible for the gruesome crimes have prompted at least one homicide expert to suggest the perpetrator is likely a psychopath. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Dubro says these cases undermine confidence and form a pattern that police need to address.

"They have to come down," Dubro says, "and start working with the community, working on the Alloura Wells case." 

On Monday, Feb. 5, Toronto police announced that Kalen Schlatter has been charged with second-degree murder in the death of Tess Richey. 

"They handled it very badly," says Dubro.

There's no evidence connecting the Wells case to McArthur. Ward says that's why, even though McArthur has been arrested, people in the community don't feel safe.

"Many of us are, frankly, waiting for the other shoe to drop — or the other shoes. We strongly believe that there are perhaps many more people," she says.


Wolf in sheep's clothing

There is now a sense of disbelief that, after years of speculation, the suspect was found within the community. He's a familiar person who moved with ease through the neighbourhood.

A frequent visitor to Toronto's Gay Village, 66-year-old Bruce McArthur is accused of killing two men and police believe there may be more victims. (Bruce McArthur/Facebook)

"I'm hearing from so many people who knew some of the victims, who knew the alleged serial killer," Dubro says.

"They're in a state of fear, horror. Even I've had troubles — a veteran crime writer — processing this."

Some claim McArthur was not part of the LGBT community. Dubro says that's wrong.

"He's definitely a member of the gay community," he says. "Some people that are in denial say he was pretending to be gay and therefore targeted gay people."

"No, he was a member of the gay community."

But Nicki Ward rejects the idea that the accused belongs to the community.

"He was a wolf in sheep's clothing," she says. "I think you disqualify yourself from membership if you prey upon other folks. So, perhaps that's more of an abstract point, but certainly I don't feel any kinship with that."

On Tuesday, a vigil will be held in a park in the centre of the village.

"It is a tragic time for the LGBTQ community, our neighbourhood, and the city," organizers say. "We all remember the ones still missing."

*Feb. 6, 2018: This story has been updated to include the arrest of Kalen Schlatter in the death of Tess Richey.

To hear the full interview with Nicki Ward and James Dubro, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.