Bruce McArthur case: How a hobby database of missing persons uncovered a serial killer

’Knowing serial homicide, you learn to recognize patterns,’ says Reid. ’You don’t sensationalize them, but you pay attention to them.’
Alanna Evans

Sasha Reid doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t fascinated by monsters, but she does recall the moment she stopped believing in them.

“I grew up across from this really big forest, and I always assumed that monsters lived there,” she says. “Monsters had completely fascinated me.” Since she was a kid, the 29-year-old from Dryden, Ont., knew she wanted to study deviants and soon began researching psychopathy, violent crimes and serial killers. But as she dug deeper, she came to understand the subjects of her study differently.

“The more I learn about them, the more I approach them with an open mind and the less I actually believe monsters exist at all,” she says. “We can agree these people do truly awful things, but they are not monsters in my opinion. The whole purpose of my research has been pulling away from the idea of ‘monster’ and understanding the complexity of human behaviour and development.”

Reid, who holds two masters degrees (one in applied psychology and child development and another in criminology and socio-legal studies), is pursuing a Ph.D in developmental psychology at the University of Toronto. Serial homicide has been the main focus of her study for the past 11 years, and for the last four years she has used phenomenology (the study of how a person perceives and understands the world) to attempt to enter into the minds of sexually-motivated psychopathic serial killers. “It’s a really specific subgroup, and the reason that I’m doing this is to better understand who these people are, how they view the world, how those views could impact their motivation and why they do what they do. I’m using that information to help explain the development of serial killers so we can better intervene—and apprehend.”

Creating detailed databases in her spare time

As a form of stress relief, Reid set out to create her own Canada-wide database of missing persons and unsolved homicides. (In addition to several provincial databases for missing persons, the RCMP has its own public registry and the Government of Canada maintains a portal where individuals can search current cases of missing persons and unidentified remains.) Reid wanted to create her own database so she could control the variables to use as her own cross-reference. In addition to names, Reid catalogues descriptive data such as age, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, the GPS coordinates of a person’s last known location (or where they were found, if they were found deceased) and any important circumstances surrounding a person’s disappearance, like the people who last saw them or if a car was involved. “It gives me a good scope, but more importantly, it humanizes the data,” she says. “These are people with stories and lives—and it’s so important that they don’t get lost in a series of numbers.”

Creating a database like this is an odd way to unwind, and Reid recognizes this, but she says she’s always had a propensity for putting her emotions aside and investigating crimes until she’s able to tease them out.

READ: 7 charts that tell the story of Canada’s higher homicide rate

“I’m one of those people who just throws themselves into their research, and I needed an escape from studying serial homicide. I thought that this would be an amazing way to spend my time, just cataloguing missing people and unsolved homicides.” 

Reid didn’t have any particular goal in mind when she started her database. “I found it freeing, because with serial homicide research it’s all very goal-oriented, but this project was just guided by the vision that ‘nobody gets left behind.’”

Making a connection between several missing men

Late one night in July 2017 while Reid was populating her database, which now contains 8,218 names, she came across Ontario’s Missing Adults Registry. She was adding names from the registry to her own database, cutting and pasting between documents, when she noticed something alarming. On the registry, she found the names Skandaraj Navaratnam, Majeed Kayhan and Abdulbasir Faizi—one after another, all missing from the same area—and it gave her pause. “Knowing serial homicide, you learn to recognize patterns. You don’t sensationalize them, but you pay attention to them,” says Reid. She began googling each name and started seeing obscure news articles and a few blog posts from people in the LGBTQ+ community worrying about a potential serial killer in Toronto’s Church and Wellesley area, commonly referred to as the Gay Village. “The second I saw that amount of concern—that’s when I really started to make connections and dive in a little further,” she says. The blog posts gave Reid a better sense of who each individual was—so much so that Reid credits the Church and Wellesley community with helping her draw connections between the men who were missing and a potential serial killer.

“It’s important to remember that strong communities, connected communities and caring communities are the absolute best defense against serial killers,” says Reid. “Toronto’s LGBTQ+ community should be a model for how every community should be because they were so focused and so vocal and so active, and I think that made such a big difference—at least for me, it made such a huge difference.”

Putting the pieces together into a profile

The moment Reid saw what felt like an unmistakable pattern, she tried to keep a level head. “I’m always wary of having any kind of judgment or bias or subjectivity filtering into my work, so I tried to push aside any emotions, take a deep breath and explore as much as I could.”

To create a profile of a potential serial killer, Reid relied on another database she had created that catalogues 600 variables for close to 5,000 known serial killers from around the world, stretching as far back as the 1400s. Aspects like early childhood development, educational background, past employment, medical and psychiatric history—you name it, Reid has inventoried it. “Over the past five years, this database has been my baby,” she says. After pooling data, she started examining trends and patterns from her database in an attempt to gain insight into who the suspect might be.

READ: The Barry and Honey Sherman murder investigation by the numbers

Once Reid developed her profile of a potential suspect, she reached out to Toronto police. She says the officer on the line was very courteous and respectful as she explained her story. The officer told her the police were aware of the rumours of a potential serial killer in the Village. He also referred to Project Houston, which was formed in November 2012 to investigate the disappearance of the men she had mentioned—Navaratnam, Kayhan and Faizi—all of whom spent time in the Church and Wellesley area between 2010 and 2012. Because Reid’s data was educational, as opposed to evidentiary—meaning it didn’t contain any evidence that could be used in a court of law—she says there wasn’t much more the police could do with it. That’s the last Reid heard from them.

We reached out to Toronto Police to verify these details and while they couldn’t confirm the name of any one person who came forward, they did acknowledge the many tips they received. “We will confirm, however, that we received hundreds of pieces of information from the public, which were followed up as part of the investigation,” a member of the police’s information and issues management office told us. “One of the issues raised was the possibility of a serial killer. However, investigators can only work with what evidence supports at any given time.”

Stunned but not surprised by the suspect’s arrest

Almost six months later, Reid was stunned but not surprised when Toronto Police arrested a suspect. Bruce McArthur, a landscaper, was charged with six counts of first-degree murder after the remains of at least six people were discovered in planters at a North Toronto home where he stored some of his tools. Police have so far identified the remains of Navaratnam, Andrew Kinsman, and Soroush Mahmudi; dismembered remains belonging to three more people have yet to be identified.

The alleged serial killer fit nearly the exact profile Reid had created—right down to the fact that she believed the suspect would likely bury his victims outside or in a home. “I think of all things in the profile I created, that sounds the most magical, like it was taken out of thin air,” she says. “But it’s not magic, it’s data. It’s science. My deduction was grounded in data.”

At a news conference in early March, Detective Sergeant Hank Idsinga, who is the lead investigator in the McArthur case, confirmed that police recovered a seventh set of human remains linked to McArthur from the same North Toronto property. Police are currently investigating five more properties associated with McArthur and reviewing hundreds of outstanding missing persons cases going back as far as the 1970s as they believe there may be more victims.

Reid admits that McArthur doesn’t fit the typical profile of a serial killer—although she cautions against stereotyping serial killers. “I can say that McArthur is very atypical in the sense that it appears he started late,” says Reid. “So I do worry we may learn about more victims.”

Two elements of Reid’s profile, which was first shared by the Toronto Star, didn’t fit McArthur’s description: she speculated the suspect would be a little over 30 and a person of colour. McArthur is 66 and white. “The information in my database shows that serial killers tend to kill within their own communities. It’s very rare for serial killers to kill specifically just other races. We see it sometimes—Jeffrey Dahmer and Carl “Coral” Eugene Watts are two names that come to mind—but it’s very rare,” says Reid. “So I did get that completely wrong, and it was a mistake on my part, but I did not suggest it to offend. I do feel bad about it because I know that racialized communities have problems historically with criminal profiling and being profiled. People have since called me racist, and it bothers me because the whole reason I put together my database of missing persons and unsolved homicides was inclusivity—no bias, no judgment—so that cut deep. But I understand where it is coming from, and I think it’s an important discussion for us to have. And I want to have it.”

READ: The ethics of police using technology to predict future crimes

But Reid doesn’t want to speculate why it took so long for police to zero in on a person of interest. She hopes when it comes time for an internal review, police will do so with a neutral and objective assessment. Toronto Mayor John Tory is already calling for an independent inquiry, amid criticism from the LGBTQ+ community that police didn’t take the missing persons cases seriously when the first spate of disappearances occurred.

“All serial homicide cases have their fair share of systemic and human errors,” says Reid. “And there’s no doubt that Project Houston shares both types of errors.” She says that detectives are often overloaded with missing persons cases and issues can arise from lack of communication between police departments. As reported by The Globe and Mail, Toronto Police have acknowledged that they themselves don’t have a missing-persons unit or a dedicated team in place to pursue missing persons cases. And it’s come to light that the names of at least six men who disappeared from the Village over the past eight years weren’t in the RCMP’s public registry.

“It’s also important to understand that people who commit serial homicides are often highly organized, plan meticulously and are forensically aware, and this can be problematic when it comes to solving serial homicide cases,” says Reid.

As details continue to unfold in the McArthur case—he is due back in court on March 14—Reid understands the particular fascination to know more details. But she says it’s important to avoid sensationalism. “These are people with stories, and they are stories of trauma and stories of healing, and I think it’s important to focus on the depth of emotionality and to not ignore it or negate it or make light of it—and to go deep yourself. If you can, try to learn something while you’re reading these stories. Read the legal documents, familiarize yourself with them. Use the knowledge you gain to be an advocate and help others. Above all, remain open-minded.”