Early in the first episode of the new podcast “Uncover: The Village,” from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, we visit the garden of a woman named Karen Fraser, at her house, on a quiet side street in Toronto. It’s August, 2018, and Fraser is showing the podcast’s reporter and host, Justin Ling, her flower beds, or what’s left of them; she describes “tulips and daffodils along here, lots of periwinkle.” All of this, Ling says, “was designed and maintained by her faithful gardener, Bruce.” For the past decade, Fraser allowed a family acquaintance, Bruce McArthur, to use space in her garage to store equipment for his landscaping business. In exchange, he tended to her yard. In early 2018, Toronto police told Fraser and her partner that they would need to leave the property—the police needed to excavate. In what became the largest forensic investigation in Toronto police history, officers found the remains of eight men in Fraser’s planters and a nearby ravine.
In February, McArthur, sixty-seven, was convicted, in a Toronto criminal court, of killing those eight men, all of them gay and six of them immigrant men of color, between 2010 and 2017. McArthur’s conviction, Ling tells us, answered some painful questions that “had hung over Toronto’s queer community for years”—questions that began with an awful series of disappearances, whose horrors of which were compounded by the inadequacy of the police investigation. It also reopened another, possibly related, set of mysteries, which “go back decades, to a time when being gay meant being a target; to when the community had to defend itself, because police wouldn’t; when the closet was, for many, just a safer choice than coming out; to a time when queer people were winding up dead and their killers were getting away with it.”
“The Village” is the third season of “Uncover,” whose previous seasons explore the NXIVM cult and an airplane bombing. “The Village” feels particularly vital; Ling, an investigative journalist who writes and produces the series with Jennifer Fowler and Erin Byrnes, is emotionally invested in the story and has reported it, with thoroughness and care, for five years. (He’s publishing a book on the case in 2020.) A few years ago, Ling tells us, it seemed that police had moved on from investigating the cases of the missing men. “Those disappearances nagged at me,” Ling says. “This was personal. This was my community.” Many, including Ling, suspected that the victims’ “sexuality and their skin color made them easier to forget.” “The Village” is as much a gesture toward healing as it is a work of investigation; its focus is on the victims, their loved ones, the police, and the community, not on McArthur and the murders. The care that Ling brings to the story elevates it beyond true crime; what’s being uncovered isn’t a culprit but a history.
The site of that history is Toronto’s Gay Village. The neighborhood is about three city blocks, Ling says, and it’s decorated with pride flags, rainbow spirals, disco balls, and “a bronze statue of a dapper man with a flowing coat and a walking cane.” The American version of “Queer as Folk” was set in Pittsburgh but filmed there. For many—including foreign-born Canadians and people from small towns in Canada, including Ling—it’s a refuge of sorts. Skandaraj Navaratnam, nicknamed Skanda, had moved there from Sri Lanka and went missing, in 2010, at age forty. Navaratnam was “hilarious,” his friend Joel Walker says, and he loved him for it. “If I was in a bad mood, he’d draw it out of me, and immediately I’d be fine.” Skanda was a skilled pool player; he liked to wear jewelry; he liked older men, whom he called “silver daddies.” One of these was McArthur—who was “very, very jealous and very, very obsessive and controlling,” Walker says. One day, Navaratnam disappeared, without his wallet, his I.D., and his beloved puppy. His friends were panicked, with little recourse beyond “Missing” posters and police efforts that seemed to lead nowhere.
We hear such details about several of McArthur’s victims. Majeed Kayhan, known as Hamid, had moved to Canada from Kabul, with his wife and kids, and had struggled to come out to his family; his friend Kyle Andrews had seen him with McArthur. Abdulbasir Faizi, an Afghan immigrant with a wife and children, disappeared in December, 2010. The police set up a task force to investigate the three disappearances and asked the public to come forward with information. Kyle Andrews talked to them; they discussed Bruce McArthur.
In a recording, from 2016, Ling asks Toronto police for information, and they give him a two-page report about their investigation. Flagging the men’s credit cards and alerting border agencies, the summary said, had “not returned any evidence as to their whereabouts or even a path of where they may have headed.” Ling is flabbergasted—where they may have headed? Implying that the men had skipped town seems willfully disingenuous. In 2017, Selim Esen, an immigrant from Turkey, went missing; two months later, Andrew Kinsman, a widely beloved, and white, bartender, disappeared without his medication or his cat, further terrifying an increasingly anxious community. On the last day Kinsman was seen, he’d written a word on his calendar: “Bruce.” In the photograph on his “Missing” poster, Ling says, he was wearing a Bob & Doug McKenzie T-shirt.
Friends say that it “took some coaxing” for the police to realize that Kinsman hadn’t just left town. “You kind of had to underscore to them that this was very out of character for him,” a friend says. Police set up another task force, to investigate the disappearances of Esen and Kinsman, and held a meeting at a community center in the Village which was tense and packed. We hear some of it. Police say that they’ve found “no evidence of criminality,” no evidence to link the disappearances, no evidence of a serial killer. A month after the meeting, they arrested McArthur, after finding Kinsman’s and Selim’s DNA in his van. Their remains, along with those of Esen, Navaratnam, Kayhan, and Faizi, were found around Karen Fraser’s property, as were those of three men who had not been part of the police’s task-force investigations: Soroush Mahmudi, an immigrant from Iran with a wife and stepson; Kirushnakumar Kanagaratnam, a refugee from Sri Lanka; and Dean Lisowick, who was homeless at the time of his disappearance and whose absence was not reported.
This all plays out in the first two episodes, which illustrate why the community felt not just particularly vulnerable but also unheard by the police, who seemed under-aware of the community’s particular needs and reluctant to seriously take murder as a possibility. In the third episode, Ling takes the narrative on a sharp turn—back to cold-case mysteries that he mentioned at the beginning of the series and the tortured history between police and the gay community in Toronto. In the seventies, a rash of murders of gay men struck the city, several of them characterized by “overkill”—excessive brutality that marks a crime as rage-driven, personal. At that time, McArthur, then in his twenties, had worked nearby. Could he have been involved? As Toronto police look for McArthur’s fingerprints amid old cases—communicating little about the details—Ling investigates, too. “I figure if Toronto Police are dusting off a bunch of cold-case murders, so will I,” he says.
In the process, he re-creates some of the world of the Village in the seventies, revealing joy and pain in equal measure. A gay bar called David’s Discotheque, one of the neighborhood’s first gay-owned gay bars, featured a life-sized fountain replica of Michelangelo’s David in the middle of the dance floor. “I realize it sounds a bit tacky, but I wish so badly this place was still open,” Ling says. “This would be my kind of club.” Its owner, Sandy LeBlanc, was killed in 1978, at age twenty-nine—stabbed dozens of times, in his apartment. Ling tracks down LeBlanc’s siblings, in rural New Brunswick, who talk about their brother and the case with extraordinary grace. He talks to police, too, including a well-meaning retired cop who had understood the “overkill” murders to be the work of gay killers who “had not come to terms with their sexual problems.” Gay sex wasn’t decriminalized in Canada until 1969, and many police officers and straight civilians associated it with criminality. In the seventh episode, Ling talks to a kindly widower whose partner died in 1979, in police custody, after he was arrested by “morality officers” in the men’s room of a gay bar. Raids on sexual activity in bars and bathhouses were common; growing frustration with these raids helped lead to gay-rights activism in Toronto.
As he investigates all of this, Ling makes fascinating headway. One of the most compelling things about this podcast—and there are many—is the sensitivity with which he seeks out and listens to the people who felt neglected for so long. “Uncover: The Village” is thoughtfully produced, but it doesn’t signal to you, as many crime-related podcasts do, that it’s entertainment. Its minimal music reflects your emotions without manipulating them; Ling’s narration isn’t self-dramatizing. The series is engrossing because of its powerful story, Ling’s dogged and far-ranging reporting, its sympathetic characters, compelling scenes, and a patient, well-paced narrative. But those elements can be found in good true crime. What sets “Uncover” apart is that it aims to serve something beyond its audience: more than a whodunit, the series feels like a kind of truth-and-reconciliation commission, in podcast form. What’s important isn’t the edification of those listening but the solace of those being heard.
How alleged Toronto serial killer Bruce McArthur went unnoticed
A friendly gardener and mall Santa, McArthur may also have been the worst ever serial killer of gay men. As Toronto police reopen 25 cold cases dating back to 1975, they are facing tough questions about decades of hostility to the gay communityDavid Graham in TorontoSat 23 Jun 2018 17.00 AEST
When the biggest forensic investigation in Toronto history began, it was still possible to be blind to the full extent of the horror.
On 18 January 2018, in the mid-morning, Bruce McArthur, a 66-year-old freelance landscaper, entered his Thorncliffe Park apartment building in Toronto, accompanied by a young man.
McArthur had been placed under 24-hour police watch the previous day. The surveillance officers had instructions to arrest him if they saw him alone with someone else.
They ascended to McArthur’s 19th-floor apartment and broke down the door. Inside, they found his companion already tied to the bed.
McArthur was charged with the murder of Andrew Kinsman, 49, who had gone missing shortly after Pride Day on 26 June 2017, and Selim Esen, 44, who was reported missing about two months earlier.
As a particularly cold winter dragged on into February, the city was horrified as police began to unearth the remains of corpses buried inside more than a dozen decorative planters. The planters were located outside a modest home, on Mallory Crescent in the Leaside area of the city, where McArthur had been employed as a gardener.
Police issued a plea to anyone who might have used McArthur’s services, and deployed cadaver dogs to multiple locations across Toronto. They erected tents and used heaters to thaw the frozen ground. Forensic investigators combed over McArthur’s two-bedroom apartment for months, removing 1,800 pieces of evidence and photographing every square inch.
The number of murder charges grew to five (Majeed Kayhan, 58; Dean Lisowick, 47; and Soroush Mahmudi, 50), then eight (Skandaraj Navaratnam, 40; Abdulbasir Faizi, 44; and Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam, 37).
Six of the men were south Asian or Middle Eastern. All of them were gay.
The LGBT community in Toronto was shocked, bereaved – and furious. From 2010 to 2017, gay men had been disappearing in alarming numbers from Toronto’s lively gay village. Many locals had long suspected a serial killer.
Long-simmering tensions with the Toronto police boiled over. Organisers demanded to know why the force hadn’t taken their fears more seriously. Some argued that police were too slow to warn the community of a possible serial killer, saying lives could have been saved.
To make matters worse, Toronto police appeared to put some blame on the gay community for the killings when chief Mark Saunders told reporters that they might have caught McArthur sooner had residents of the gay village been more forthcoming. “We knew that people were missing and we knew we didn’t have the right answers,” Saunders said. “But nobody was coming to us with anything.”
Toronto police had already been banned in 2017 from the Gay Pride parade, following lobbying from Toronto’s chapter of Black Lives Matter. Their request to participate in 2018 was refused.
Then, in April, in a move that some have interpreted as an acknowledgment of their neglect of the gay community, police announced that they were reopening 25 cold cases – all murders associated with Toronto’s gay village.
They date from 1997 all the way back to 1975.
And no one is suggesting it is over.
From Santa to serial killer
While investigators are still developing a profile of the alleged serial killer, they are certain of one thing. The jolly-looking McArthur, who is divorced and has two grown children, did not have the menacing countenance of a serial murderer.
In fact, he was so convincingly harmless looking that he was able to play Santa in at least one suburban shopping mall. His age, as well as his unthreatening appearance – round features and a broad, cheery smile – made him seem approachable to children shopping with their parents, as well as to gay men seeking a dark sexual encounter with someone they could trust.
After divorcing his wife, McArthur, who had been active on his church board in Oshawa, east of Toronto, became a regular in the city’s gay village. He trolled hook-up sites like Manjam and Recon, where the “silver fox” made his taste for submissive men clear – especially those who wanted to test the limits of their curiosity for dangerous sex.Advertisementnull
McArthur had been brought to the attention of local police in 2002, when he was arrested for attacking a gay prostitute with a metal bar. He was sentenced in 2003 to two years probation and told to stay away from the gay village.
In 2010, reports started to come through of men going missing from the village. The first, Skandaraj Navaratnam, rests particularly heavily on the mind of Haran Vijayanathan, executive director of the Alliance for South Asian Aids Prevention (ASAAP).
Both men are Sri Lankan, Tamil and gay. “I saw myself in Skanda,” says Vijayanathan. “He represents my greatest fear.”
That fear – one faced by immigrant and refugee men in an unfamiliar gay community – is nothing new. Just as gay men from North Bay and Moose Jaw flocked to Toronto in the 1970s to live free and open lives, a new generation of gay men from south Asia and the Middle East have been drawn to Canadain the last 20 years for the same reasons. The new arrivals may revel in Canada’s acceptance, but they are still vulnerable – still suspicious of authority, reluctant to attract attention, perhaps too eager to fit in. And perhaps too trusting of a gentle-looking older man who appears harmless.
Predators thrive on marginalized groups, says University of Toronto associate professor of sociology Jooyoung Lee, an expert in violent crime and serial homicide. Gay men – particularly gay refugees or other relatively new Canadians – fit into a population that includes prostitutes, aboriginal women and immigrants.
And then there is what Lee refers to as “missing white woman syndrome”: the idea that police, media and the public are less inclined to pay attention to crimes that are perpetrated on marginalized communities.
Vijayanathan, who is one of the most outspoken critics of how Toronto let its gay community down, insists that police only took the investigations seriously when Andrew Kinsman, one of two white victims, was reported missing.
But he also points to racism within the gay community – comparing the massive local search mounted after the reported disappearance of the other white victim, Andrew Kinsman, with the slower and less cohesive response to the disappearances of the brown-skinned victims.
Vijayanathan also believes the families of some of the missing immigrant men failed to report their disappearance.
Isolation, combined with a fear of police, has marginalized members of our community and made them more vulnerable
In some cases, he says, the disappearances were the first time family members learned their relative was gay (or MSM, men who have sex with men but don’t identify as gay). Others worried about interfering in a family member’s claim for refugee status. Still others worked under the table and didn’t want to attract the attention of authorities. For example, Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam was a Tamil refugee who came to Canada in 2016 and was never reported missing, and after Navaratnam’s refugee claim was denied he rarely left the confines of the gay village.
“Throughout our history, people have come to the city as a refuge and a place to explore their sexuality – often without the knowledge of their family and friends,” says Tom Hooper, a York University historian who has devoted much of his studies to the gay experience in Toronto in the 1970s.
But Hooper also points the finger at police. “For both gay men in the 1970s and queer people of colour today, the police have been enforcers but not protectors. Isolation, combined with a fear of police, has marginalized members of our community and made them more vulnerable to violence.”
The difficult relationship between Toronto’s gay community and police force coincides with reports of missing gay men going back decades. As long as 40 years ago, 14 gay men were murdered in Toronto in just a few years. Seven of those cases remain unsolved.
The brutal stabbing death of William Duncan Robinson at his home in November 1978 came shortly after the popular 1970s gay magazine the Body Politic to question the sluggish police response to the string of murders, and the official stance that they were unrelated: “Could they have been committed by one man?” asked an October 1978 headline. “The police aren’t saying. But the crimes do show a certain similarity …”
It has been suggested that McArthur, who has not yet entered a plea in the eight charges nor been charged for any of the cold cases, could be responsible for some of those murders. Serial killers rarely begin their murder sprees late in life, and McArthur would have been in his 20s and early 30s back then. Critics dispute that theory by pointing to a very different manner of execution and body disposal: the 1970s murders were mostly stabbings, and the victims were left where they were killed.
What is indisputable is that police never caught the killer, or killers – and it’s hardly a stretch to imagine that they didn’t feel much pressure to do so in the homophobic atmosphere of the era.
It was a holiday tradition each Halloween during the 1960s and 70s for Toronto residents to taunt gay men, especially drag queens, as they entered bars on Yonge Street like the St Charles Tavern and the Parkside. They pelted eggs, which turned into rocks, which turned into beatings on darkened side streets.
Police mostly looked the other way, recalls the Rev Brent Hawkes, a longtime leader of the city’s gay rights movement who was once himself restrained on a sidewalk by two officers as a third punched him. “Stories of men being arrested and taken to Cherry Beach for a beating were common,” he says. Officers would lurk beside the urinals in bars, waiting for men to engage in a sexual act. Entrapment was widespread at department stores, universities and hotels such as Hudson’s Bay, the Royal York and the University of Toronto.
“Sex had to be quick and anonymous,” says Hooper. “There was no courtship that led to sex. If you were married and lived in the suburbs – and you were gay – you had to hook up on your lunch break.”
The constant harassment by police reach the boiling point in 1981, when 200 police officers descended on four gay bathhouses. They marched through the corridors, swinging crowbars and sledgehammers, breaking down doors and corralling groups of men into showers and lounge areas. One officer reportedly commented that he wished the showers were hooked up to gas, Hooper said. Men were arrested and charged according to the city’s antiquated bawdy house laws.
A few of the officers were apologetic, but another boisterous contingent “seemed to enjoy it – like jocks in a frat house”, says Hooper.Advertisementnull
By morning, 250 men had been charged. The humiliation caused some to contemplate suicide. Others were fired from their jobs after police officers called their employers. Many lost the support of family and friends.
The raids were a tipping point for Toronto’s gay community. Like the Stonewall riots in New York, the bathhouse raids ignited a fury that led to the city’s modern gay pride movement. Though there had been small events held in previous years, the first official Pride parade was held that spring.
Now it’s one of the largest in the world: when the 38th annual Toronto Pride parade takes place this coming Sunday, it will attract close to one million spectators. Sponsors include Home Depot and New Balance, and regular attendees include the prime minster, Justin Trudeau, and the mayor of Toronto, John Tory.
But even as Toronto’s more established gay community gains strength, new arrivals continue to lead marginal, vulnerable lives.
DS Hank Idsinga, 50, the lead investigator on the most high-profile of murder cases, is keenly aware of media criticism that police did not take the missing persons reports or speculation of a serial killer seriously because the men were gay and mostly brown-skinned.
Idsinga, who joined police services in 1989, acknowledges it will take time to regain the trust of the gay community. He says he is disheartened by the accounts of the bathhouse raids and the history of police hostility. “I’m open to criticism,” he says. “It’s a byproduct of the job. You can block it out or you can listen.” He points out that he was recently scolded by a reporter for using the expression “gay lifestyle”, and promises: “I will avoid the term from now on.”Advertisementhttps://b0f547aeb67887e14b7a145fa28e345d.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
The decision to open the cold cases – Idsinga estimates the number of unresolved cases of murdered gay men at 20 or more – is a belated attempt to make something very wrong at least a bit more right. “I’m not that police officer from 30 years ago,” he says of his attitude to the past. “What can I do to help now?”
A community at risk
There has always been a small community of gay men who thrill at risky sex, bondage, humiliation and even torture. Assured that they are engaging in role playing, such men submit to their putative captors, who methodically and ritualistically push them to – and perhaps beyond – their “edge”.
Sean Cribbin, 50, was one man who had experimented in this fashion. Last summer, he says accepted an online invitation to meet McArthur early one afternoon.
Almost a year later, he marvels that he is alive.
A former Mr Leatherman in Toronto, Cribbin told Global TV in a wide-ranging interview that he felt comfortable submitting to McArthur’s wishes because he looked so unthreatening.
He even brought up the rumour of a serial killer attacking gay men in Toronto, but says McArthur didn’t respond.
Unlike McArthur, Cribbin has a tough appearance: sleeve tattoos, a black beard and a thick nose ring. But his voice is soft and his comments thoughtful. “I was the lucky one,” he said. “It could happen to anyone.”
First, Cribbin says he accepted the GHB cocktail prepared by McArthur, having asked him to limit the dose to 5ml – the right amount to put him at ease, cause euphoria and “heighten the sexual encounter”.
What if the roommate hadn’t arrived home when he did? I would have simply disappeared
But after Cribbins says he accepted the restraints McArthur suggested, and with McArthur’s penis in Cribbin’s mouth, his hands tight around his neck and his considerable weight on his chest, Cribbin claims he began sweating heavily – a signal that he had been “over-drugged” – and was overcome with dread.
Just then, Cribbin says he heard McArthur’s roommate enter the apartment – an excuse for Cribbin to end the date, dress and return home.
Six months later, police reportedly approached Cribbin with a photograph of him taken from McArthur’s home, showing him restrained in what investigators called “the kill position” – moments from certain death. Advertisementhttps://b0f547aeb67887e14b7a145fa28e345d.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Cribbin, who is in an open relationship, says he is ashamed that he didn’t tell his partner where he was going that sunny afternoon, that he survived while others died. For the first time in his life, he’s afraid of the dark, and he worries the experience may turn him off sex completely.
“What if the roommate hadn’t arrived home when he did?” Cribbin said. “I would have simply disappeared.”
‘One foot in the department and one foot in the gay community’
Police may never unearth the full extent of McArthur’s alleged carnage, but if it is proven in court it could be compared to the atrocities of Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed 17 boys in Milwaukee between 1978 and 1991, or John Wayne Gacy, who murdered 33 young men and boys between 1972 and 1978 in Cook County, Illinois. As the investigation deepens, police are under tremendous pressure to solve the crimes – which means trying to understand the man that investigators think is behind them.
“[McArthur] probably got a kick out of tricking men into believing he was harmless,” says Lee, who knows that investigators are struggling to get inside McArthur’s head, investigating his social circles and his online activities. Investigators will also want to understand the rituals associated with the killings and the complicated procedures involved in the disposal of his victims’ remains – not least how to fit the corpses into the planters. (Many have speculated that McArthur’s job as a landscaper could involve the use of equipment such as chainsaws and wood chippers.)
Lee believes McArthur was probably in a perpetual search “for the next kill that would top the last one. [Serial killers] become overwhelmed by the fantasy, constantly studying the craft of killing, the details of the murder and the memory of his actions afterward … He would get a small rush every time he revisited the remains of the people he killed.”
How McArthur may have slipped up, or why police decided to place him under surveillance, Idsinga won’t say. But, according to Lee, one thing is certain. “Killing requires practice,” he says. “They are seldom perfect in the beginning. Serial killers are caught when they get sloppy.”
But as well as getting into the head of McArthur, it means trying to heal a rift with the gay community that stretches back decades.
This Sunday’s otherwise jubiliant Pride parade will end with a contingent of organizers dressed in black, to pay respect to the victims of the killer and to all LGBTQ people who don’t feel safe in their own community.
While some in the gay community argue that this is a time for healing – and that police participation is crucial if the gay community is going to move forward – Black Lives Matter is not so eager to forgive, insisting that banning uniformed officers is a needed protest against broader police neglect and abuse.
Shortly after McArthur’s arrest, the mayor acknowledged that police had failed to react appropriately to the multiple disappearances, and called for an independent investigation into the department’s response.
Vijayanathan, who is the Honoured Grand Marshall of the Pride Parade and was the chief advocate of a third-party inquest into the investigation of the killings, is torn. He’s still angry over what he calls “a gross mishandling of missing person reports”. But he is pleased at the mayor’s response, and acknowledges that to heal, the community will have to work with police. He also expresses sympathy for the many LGBTQ members on Toronto’s police force who usually enjoy marching in uniform in the Parade.
Hawkes says he has witnessed the growing maturity of the department over the decades – with an emphasis placed on sensitivity training and recruiting gay officers, including an openly lesbian deputy chief.
“I don’t want to sound like a defender of the police but I am cautiously optimistic things will get better,” he says, “because I’ve seen that progress in possible.” He also knows that gay and lesbian police officers are devastated that they’ve been rejected by the Pride committee. “They’ve got one foot in the police department and one foot in the gay community,” he says.
Idsinga says: “I’d rather see police services participate. And because of the McArthur case, I’d like to participate myself.”
In the meantime, there are now dozens of cold cases to investigate.
“This community has been victimized for years,” Idsinga says. “It’s our job to stop that.”
This article was amended on 25 June 2018. An earlier version said Dean Lisowick had been reported missing; that reference has been corrected to Andrew Kinsman.
- “Uncover: The Village”: A Serial Killer, Toronto’s Gay Community, and a Podcast That Transcends True Crime, The New Yorker, 3 May 2019, by Sarah Larson https://www.newyorker.com/culture/podcast-dept/uncover-the-village-a-serial-killer-torontos-gay-community-and-a-podcast-that-transcends-true-crime
- How alleged Toronto serial killer Bruce McArthur went unnoticed, The Guardian, 23 June 2018, by David Graham https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/23/bruce-mcarthur-toronto-gay-serial-killer