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Serial killer Bruce McArthur plucked his victims from margins of society

Last Updated Feb 5, 2019 at 7:21 pm EDT

Bruce McArthur watches security footage of his van during his sentencing hearing on Feb. 4, 2019. SKETCH/Alex Tavshunsky

When Bruce McArthur chose to kill, he looked to the margins of society to find his prey.

While all eight of the men he admitted murdering had ties to Toronto’s gay community, most of them were further isolated due to a combination of racial, cultural or economic factors.

As the facts surrounding McArthur’s crimes came to light at the 67-year-old’s sentencing hearing this week, those with ties to the communities his victims belonged to say it’s time to explore the issues that made those men so vulnerable.

“It’s really shone a huge spotlight,” said Haran Vijayanathan, executive director of the Alliance for South Asian Aids Prevention. “It’s allowing us to really see some of these major cracks that actually create unsafe environments for many of our marginalized people.”

Vijayanathan, who has worked closely with friends and relatives of many of McArthur’s victims, echoed language similar to what emerged in court when describing the men McArthur targeted.

A statement of fact presented at the sentencing hearing outlined the clear victim profile McArthur developed between when his killing streak began in 2010 and his arrest in 2018.

Six of his eight victims were of South Asian descent, often sharing physical characteristics such as beards. Many of the men kept their sexuality hidden from friends and family, pursuing homosexual encounters furtively using dating apps. Several also grappled with substance abuse, poverty, or unstable housing situations, court heard.

Crown lawyer Michael Cantlon said McArthur actively “sought out and exploited these vulnerabilities to continue his crimes undetected” — an assessment shared by Vijayanathan.

Cultural attitudes towards homosexuality almost certainly played a role in keeping some of McArthur’s victims isolated, Vijayanathan said.

Those who grow up in cultures where homosexuality is heavily stigmatized often find themselves trying to manage the anxieties of family members and friends whose upbringing leaves them fearful that their loved ones’ sexual orientation may place them in danger, Vijayanathan said.

Homosexuality is illegal in 77 countries and punishable by death in seven, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Senior Resettlement Officer Michael Casasola said many of those identifying as LGBTQ are fleeing high levels of persecution and harassment, adding the organization frequently “prioritizes” such cases for resettlement in a country that offers stronger protections.

“Unfortunately they often find themselves in countries where they face detention, face persecution, face injustice because of their sexual orientation,” he said.

Vijayanathan said many men yield to family pressure to marry women in order to mitigate the cultural stigma they face.

Such may have been the case for Abdulbasir Faizi and Soroush Mahmudi, both of whom had wives who offered emotional victim impact statements on Tuesday.

Another married Middle Eastern man known only as John was visiting McArthur’s apartment in secret and was likely moments from becoming a ninth homicide victim when police arrested the former landscaper, court heard.

Another victim, Kirushnakumar Kanagaratnam, was further isolated from his family by virtue of being a Sri Lankan refugee claimant who came to Canada aboard the MV Sun Sea vessel in 2010.

Piranavan Thangavel, one of his fellow Sun Sea passengers, told court of how McArthur’s actions have destroyed the sense of safety many refugees thought they’d found in Canada.

“For us now to hear of such a horrible death, we who live in this world as refugees feel like there is no safety for us anywhere in the world,” he said in his victim impact statement. “Now, when we meet new people, talk to them or seek employment from them there is an untold fear in our hearts following this incident.”

Vijayanathan said Kanagaratnam also had to grapple with precarious housing, a circumstance he shared with McArthur victims Selim Esen and Dean Lisowick.

Lisowick, whom Vijayanathan said worked in the sex trade in Toronto’s gay village, was never reported missing after vanishing in 2016.

The disappearances of Skandaraj Navaratnam and Majeed Kayhan, which dated back to 2010 and 2012 respectively, generated little attention outside of the gay village where both were regulars.

Only the 2017 disappearance of Andrew Kinsman — the only man not to match McArthur’s established ethnic or socioeconomic victim profile — triggered widespread attention. Court heard that a notation in Kinsman’s calendar ultimately helped police focus their investigation on McArthur.

Vijayanathan said most of McArthur’s victims fell into demographics that can be fearful of law enforcement, cut off from social supports and ostracized from society at large.  Those factors, he said, likely played a direct role in their undetected disappearances and deaths.

“It’s the homophobia, it’s the classism that exists within Canadian society as well as racialized communities,” he said. “All of those factors played in.”

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press