12 months ago
When they launched the investigation in 2012, the Toronto Police Service (TPS) called it Project Houston. It had one goal: find three missing men. The men—Skanda Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi, and Majeed Kayhan—were middle-aged, dark-skinned, and gay. They’d vanished from Toronto’s Gay Village under similar circumstances.
The project folded after two years with no resolution.
On January 29, 2018 investigators were sure they knew the fates of those men and at least two others. They were dead, some possibly buried in planters around the city. All had fallen prey to an alleged serial killer, a 66-year-old landscaper named Bruce McArthur.
McArthur now faces five counts of first-degree murder.
He’d been lurking in the background for some time. The Toronto Sun reported on January 23 that he’d had a relationship with one victim, Skanda Navaratnam.
Navaratnam, who disappeared on Sept. 20, 2010, had what the Sun termed a “long-term affair” with McArthur, one that reportedly lasted for years. But an anonymous source told the paper Navaratnam was afraid of McArthur because the older man “had a violent temper.”
Police already knew McArthur for his temper. In 2001 he reportedly assaulted a male prostitute, striking him with a metal pipe. In 2003 he was found guilty of the crime and legally barred from the Village for three years. He was also required to submit a sample of his DNA.
Skanda Navaratnam was last seen on September 6, 2010. He was in the very zone from which McArthur had once been barred. Over three months later, Abdulbasir Faizi vanished from Steamworks, a gay bathhouse.
Almost two years later, the Globe and Mail reports that Majeed Kayhan disappeared at some point after he was seen at a relative’s wedding. One of his adult children reported Kayhan’s disappearance on October 25, 2012.
The following month, Toronto Police launched Project Houston.
It’s unclear as to whether this was the event that prompted the killer to put on the brakes, but the odd disappearances stopped for a time. Based on his social media, Bruce McArthur was living a perfectly ordinary life. At one point photos indicated he was in a relationship with an Iranian-Canadian man, but that man is still alive.
From around 2015 through last year, McArthur had a seasonal side job: playing Santa Claus at the Agincourt Mall. Photos show him as a perfectly suitable-looking St. Nick, comfortably ensconced in his oversized red velvet easy chair. On one image he wrote, “Back in the Santa Chair for another year.” A simple Facebook search turned up multiple photos of families and couples posing with a smiling McArthur, sometimes with a child balanced on his knee.
Perhaps before McArthur began his Santa gig, Toronto Police indicate 50-year-old Soroush Marmudi disappeared in August of 2015.
Then, sometime between April of 2016 and 2017, a 47-year-old homeless man named Dean Lisowick disappeared. Toronto Police say Lisowick was never reported missing. On April 14, 2017, almost exactly a year after Lisowick was last seen at a homeless shelter, Selim Esen likely ended up number four in the series of known victims
On June 28, 2017, Andrew Kinsman was reported missing. Kinsman was by all accounts active on social media and had a large network of friends and family. No one saw him again after the Pride Parade.
It seems Kinsman’s death was the catalyst for Toronto Police to finally sit up and take notice. They launched Project Prism in August last year, and quickly identified McArthur as a suspect. The investigation then went into high gear. They gathered evidence which included a van McArthur had sold as scrap to an auto parts store.
Investigators found blood in the van.
Even though the TPS held a press conference in December regarding the string of disappearances in which they said there was no evidence of a serial killer, they seemed to have connected most of the missing men at that point.
By January 17, 2018, Toronto authorities had triangulated McArthur, Esen, and Kinsman. They made the arrest and immediately charged the former Santa with two counts of murder.
It was McArthur’s method of getting rid of his alleged victims that grabbed attention in Canadian and American press: Police said they first uncovered body parts in “large planters.”
In a press conference, Det. Sgt. Hank Idsinga made it clear that the planters may have been part of the killer’s m.o.
He asked that residents who had used McArthur’s landscaping service get in touch with police “as soon as possible so that we can make arrangements to search your yards and gardens.”
Idsinga expressed gratitude toward homeowners who were already cooperating. Then he said police had “seized quite a few planters from around the city and we will continue to do that. There are at least two sites that we do want to excavate where people might be buried.”
The TPS also said they’d determined that McArthur had done work at 30 different properties around the Greater Toronto Area.
If he did commit these murders, McArthur was a shark picking off prey in a well-stocked pool. Some of his alleged victims reportedly used dating apps, which make casual hookups easy. He also had dating profiles on sites with names like SilverDaddies.com, where—as SilverFoxx51—he said he was looking for anything from sex partner(s) to friends. His preferred age range, McArthur wrote, was “25 to 55.” On another “fetish” site, the Globe and Mail reported McArthur’s profile indicated he preferred “submissive men of all ages.”
Perhaps he had another advantage: police reluctance to investigate crimes in the gay community— even in a largely progressive nation like Canada.
McArthur’s motivations are still mysterious. Serial killers are almost always sexually motivated, often out of a deadly need for the ultimate feeling of dominance. But it’s never quite that simple either. Especially when you consider many are men who can comfortably live daily lives in which they play Santa for kids at the mall, or perform tricks as a party clown.
Answers to all the swirling questions about McArthur may still be waiting beneath flower beds and trees all over Toronto.