Justin Ling on the Toronto serial killer who targeted the gay community

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Justin Ling on the Toronto serial killer who targeted the gay community
In his new book, Missing From the Village: The Story of Serial Killer Bruce McArthur, the Search for Justice, and the System That Failed Toronto’s Queer Community, Ling explores the investigation of the crimes in exhaustive detail, recounting how Toronto queer activists pleaded with police to step up their efforts, and how police managed to overlook glaring evidence.

In what has become one of the most astonishing crime stories in Canadian history, serial killer Bruce McArthur was arrested in 2018 and ultimately convicted of murdering eight men he met in Toronto’s gay village. The stories drew attention for their obvious extremity, but also for criticism of police negligence, which many felt allowed McArthur to continue his murder spree for years.

Journalist Justin Ling was covering the crimes, as a reporter for both VICE and The Globe and Mail. At the time, he asked the police if they thought they had a serial killer on their hands. They said no, repeatedly.

Part detective story, part journalist’s notebook, Missing From the Village is a wildly engaging read, taking us through agonizing missteps and heart-wrenching losses. I spoke with Justin Ling from Montreal, where he works as a freelance journalist.

Matthew Hays: You spent a lot of time researching this story, which of course exploded into national news. What was the most shocking revelation for you?

Justin Ling: It was the number of victims. I spent years on this story thinking there were three victims. When Andrew Kinsman went missing in 2017, it was a jarring realization that there were probably many more men who disappeared in those intervening five years. That four men were able to go missing without the city realizing, or fully grasping the relevance, was disquieting, to say the least.

MH: A perception emerged among many queers that police were truly negligent in this case. What was your sense?

JL: It’s a tough question, and it’s a bit of a paradox. The Toronto Police Service, as an institution, was negligent. There’s no question. (Peel Regional Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police bear some responsibility in their own right.) This is an institution that continued raiding queer establishments right until the ’00s, continued arresting queer men for cruising, continued gaslighting the community into downplaying their concerns and fears. It’s an institution that failed to solve murder after murder of queer people, all the while pretending as though hiring a single LGBTQ liaison officer and attending Pride events made all of that okay.

But here’s where the paradox comes in: Bruce McArthur would have never been caught if not for the individual officers on this case, many of whom worked this investigation right from the beginning, in 2013. They found clues, worked leads and interviewed witnesses with an enormous amount of determination and empathy. I’ve covered enough cases to tell you that it’s not hard to see when investigators are just running through the motions — the amount of really good police work that went into this case is really, really impressive.

This is a tension that comes back decades, in Toronto, Montreal and a list of other cities. Even as police forces, writ large, harass and belittle queer people, homicide detectives are often the ones most willing to put sexuality and gender aside and say, “Okay, we need to solve this, how do we do that?” Too often, their efforts are actively hobbled by their higher-ups.

MH: Did you ever consider trying to get an interview with McArthur himself?

JL: Briefly. The more I thought about it, I know the interviews the cops had with him, I just didn’t see the benefit. The man is a pathological liar. You go and sit in that room, and what are you going to get? Whatever he says could easily be a bald-faced lie. Is he going to tell you why he did it? Who gives a shit why he did it? Nothing he says is going to help prevent another case like this from happening. Too much risk and too little reward. There’s nothing I particularly wanted to ask him.

MH: Critics point out that police actually interviewed McArthur, but then let him go. However, this isn’t unusual: serial killers are crafty and part of the thrill for them is eluding police. Pickton, Dahmer, Gacy and Clifford Olson, among others, were all interviewed and let go for various reasons.

JL: There’s truth to this, but McArthur was interviewed twice in the midst of his crimes. Both times, if the systems and practices designed after Pickton and Paul Bernardo were working properly, I believe there’s a real chance police would have connected the dots and upgraded him to a suspect in these disappearances. That’s the great tragedy of this case: You can point to so many instances between 2010 and 2017 when, if one database had worked properly or if police had made one phone call, they may have arrested him before he killed again.

Missing From the Village by Justin Ling

MH: Continued declines in ad revenue and accompanying cuts mean newsrooms can’t afford investigative journalism as much anymore, if at all. Does it concern you that there may well be other Bruce McArthurs out there, who are going undetected?

JL: Yes. But, in fairness, I’m not sure things were different when we could afford more investigative teams. This is why diversifying newsrooms is so crucial. Queer people in Toronto knew about this case for years, knew it was a serial killer, knew the Toronto Police weren’t doing enough — why didn’t that filter into our newsrooms? Where were the investigative teams? We, in the media, have devoted unbelievable time and resources into unsolved murders and disappearances against people who look like the majority: white, straight, cisgender. That is not, in and of itself, bad; but when contrasted with the dearth of coverage for missing and murdered Indigenous, trans and Black people, it feels really grotesque. 

MH: At one point you disparage the “massive media industry that trades on profiling” serial killers. I refer to this as the Serial Killer Industrial Complex. Did you ever step back and worry that you were adding to the pile by writing Missing From the Village?

JL: I didn’t want to do the book for that reason. I told everyone who came calling, “I’m not writing a book, I’m not writing a book.” It was Robyn Doolittle who, while I was at the Globe, forced me to take her agent’s card, and then it was my agent Martha Webb who told me that I should do it. I told her the reasons I didn’t want to do it, and she said, “Well, don’t do any of those things. Do it however you want.” I think what convinced me was the argument that if we don’t do it, someone else is going to, and if you do it, chances are others won’t be able to do it. Otherwise, it’s going to be some fly-by-night, turn-out-eight-books-a-year, true-crime douchebag. It was a good sell. I can get into the record all of the things that I want to get into the book, get more into a case for police reform and society reform, than it is about a serial killer. There was already a raft of documentaries and TV shows that are coming out. A lot of people are going back to victims’ families and asking them to relive it. And for what? I’m not sure it’s going to help anyone or anybody, except the bottom line of some media organizations.

MH: There is a powerful, overwhelming sense of history repeating as I read your book. It’s infuriating that signals are missed and lives are lost. What would be one of the main things that needs to change so that we avoid this happening all over again?

JL: We, as a society, need to stop thinking that the police can fix everything. There are things the police, exclusively, should be doing — collecting evidence, conducting search warrants — but there is simply no reason why uniformed, armed police officers should be doing wellness checks, in most cases, or even doing some interviews. Surely we have seen the limitations of this model, so it’s time we try something new. One of the main reasons, I believe, that homicide cops have historically failed to solve violence against queer people is because different wings of the police were at odds with each other. On one hand, morality cops were raiding bathhouses. On the other, they were trying to solve these murders. It’s an absurd way to go about things. I think you can say that, albeit with different circumstances, with respect to the investigations into missing and murdered Indigenous women, and regarding the staggering unsolved rate for murders of racialized people writ large. Yes, you need to figure out how to do outreach better, improve cultural sensitivities, improve recruiting from those communities — but that is fundamentally keeping the structure the same. I don’t think it’s enough.

MH: Missing From the Village is so well researched, and you’re careful to talk about the history of police-queer relations in Toronto. But as I read it, I felt a blind spot: you make one reference to Joe Rose, who was murdered in Montreal in 1989, but you don’t get into what followed, which was a wave of homophobic violence and murders in the city. I covered it at the time for the Montreal Mirror and Xtra, and the parallels to what happened in the McArthur case were astonishing: police indifference and dismissals of the existence of a serial killer, gruesome murders and eventually the revelation that several of the murders were in fact connected. Why didn’t you include a bit more discussion of the eerie parallels with the Montreal situation?

JL: It’s a good point. We did a bit of that in the CBC podcast, and I was cognizant of the fact that I didn’t want to repeat too much of what we did there. I did have to make a conscious decision of what to include and what not to include. We are working on a series about the crimes, and we are going to include more about those crimes in the series. I had the feeling that the Montreal crimes were unresolved in way that if I’d included them in passing, it wouldn’t have been very satisfying in the book. ■

Missing From the Village: The Story of Serial Killer Bruce McArthur, the Search for Justice, and the System That Failed Toronto’s Queer Community (McLelland & Stewart, 304 pages, $32.95) will be released on Sept. 29

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