External review of Toronto missing persons’ cases will probe if bias affected McArthur investigation

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An independent review into how Toronto police handle missing persons investigations will be expanded to include the victims of serial killer Bruce McArthur after earlier being excluded while the case was pending to ensure his right to a fair trial. 

The Toronto Police Services Board voted in favour of expanding the ongoing review at a meeting Tuesday. The move follows the more than year-long efforts of members of the city’s LGBTQ community for details into the force’s handling of the case. 

And for many in the community, it’s a welcome step towards answers.

“It’s going to have a huge impact on the way that we work with missing persons in the city of Toronto and hopefully it’ll be a lesson that other jurisdictions can use for their missing persons’ units,” said Haran Vijayanathan, executive director of the Alliance of South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP).

McArthur was sentenced in February to life behind bars for killing eight men, most with connections to Toronto’s Gay Village, between 2010 and 2017.

Review can now probe whether ‘bias’ played role

The independent review led by former Ontario Court of Appeal judge Gloria Epstein began in September 2018 and was set to finish in April 2020, but is now extended until January 2021.

In a statement Tuesday, Epstein welcomed the move, saying she believes her task is not only to provide answers but also to help enhance the relationship between Toronto police and the city’s diverse communities.

McArthur’s victims include eight men, most with connections to Toronto’s Gay Village. Top row, from left to right, Skandaraj Navaratnam, 40, Andrew Kinsman, 49, Selim Esen, 44, and Abdulbasir Faizi, 44. Bottom row, from left to right: Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam, 37, Dean Lisowick, 47, Soroush Mahmudi, 50, and Majeed Kayhan, 58. (Toronto Police Service/CBC)

“Such a change will also assist in my efforts to address the fundamental issue of whether systemic bias or discrimination played a role in the investigation of missing persons and whether the current policies and procedures adequately protect against such bias or discrimination,” Epstein said.

Epstein did point out that the ongoing prosecution of Kalen Schlatter accused in the murder of Tess Richey will mean some limits on her ability to examine that case.

Richey was reported missing in November 2017 after a night out with a friend in Toronto’s gay village. Her mother found her body in a stairwell four days later. Police said she died of “neck compression.”

Expanded review follows misconduct charge

A judicial order, which was unsealed in February, showed that Toronto police knew McArthur “had a link” to three of the eight men he pleaded guilty to murdering after interviewing the serial killer in late 2013.

Police had questioned McArthur after launching an investigation dubbed Project Houston, which was launched to probe the disappearances of Skandaraj Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi and Majeed Kayhan, but the probe was shut down in April 2014 when investigators said they couldn’t find any criminal evidence connected to the missing men. 

Haran Vijayanathan, is the executive director at the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP). (CBC)

A Toronto police officer was later charged with two counts professional misconduct at a police tribunal in connection with the McArthur case.

Sgt. Paul Gauthier, who arrested but later released McArthur in connection with an incident in 2016, has accused the force of turning him into “a scapegoat,” claiming it was diverting attention from other errors made during the investigation into the now 67-year-old.

At least three of McArthur’s victims are believed to have been killed after 2016. His victims were Skandaraj Navaratnam, 40, Andrew Kinsman, 49, Selim Esen, 44, and Abdulbasir Faizi, 44, Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam, 37, Dean Lisowick, 47, Soroush Mahmudi, 50, and Majeed Kayhan, 58. 

Review now extended to 2021

Meanwhile, Vijayanathan says there are members of the LGBTQ community who would still like to see a public inquiry into the case.

The Ontario government has said it has no plan to hold such an inquiry, with the spokesperson for the province’s attorney general saying in February the ministry hopes the independent investigation being undertaken by Epstein will be sufficient. 

“It is our hope that Justice Epstein’s review will be comprehensive enough to assist the Toronto Police Service in improving its practices and procedures related to missing person investigations, particularly those involving marginalized communities,” said ministry spokesperson Brian Gray.

“It is up to the Toronto Police Services Board to determine the scope of that review. Ontario has no plans to commence a public inquiry.”

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Toronto Mayor John Tory said he believes the review should be given a fair chance before a public inquiry is given further consideration.

“What is more important is the community has evidence, for example by the LGBTQ community who came today and said they have confidence in her taking on these responsibilities,” he said of Epstein. “But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

For his part, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders said the force has faced many questions about what they did with the information that they had.

“The public and the LGBTQ community had concerns about what we didn’t do. Hopefully in the right forum with the right questions being asked … I think we have an opportunity to strike a balance on how we can all improve.” 

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