Toronto Police believe they have solved two of the city’s most shocking murder cases of the past year, charging an Eritrean man for the seemingly random stabbing of a hotel cleaner and the dismemberment of an English-language student.
On Monday, investigators announced two first-degree murder charges against Adonay Zekarias, 42, in the deaths of Nighisti Semret, 55, and Rigat Essag Ghirmay, 28.
Police theorize that the second killing may have been a grisly attempt to conceal the first. While they say DNA evidence is conclusive about the identity of the killer, a solid motive remains elusive.
Ms. Semret’s early-morning killing sent chills through her Cabbagetown neighbourhood last October. She had just completed a night shift as a cleaning supervisor at the Delta Chelsea Hotel. Security camera footage released by police shows her walking home in dark, rainy weather around 7 a.m., umbrella in hand, with a man trailing about a minute behind.
Somewhere along Ontario Street, the man closed the gap and stabbed Ms. Semret several times with a 20-centimetre kitchen knife, police say. Hearing Ms. Semret’s screams, a bystander managed to ward off the stabber with only an umbrella, but not in time to save the victim’s life.
Ms. Semret fought her attacker, leaving severe cuts and scratches that left traces of blood vital to cracking the case.
Police surmise that, after the attack, Mr. Zekarias returned home to a woman described only as his “supporter,” Ms. Ghirmay, then the two sought medical treatment for his injuries.
Forensic investigators found the suspect’s DNA under Ms. Semret’s fingernails, on her handbag, and the bystander’s umbrella, police say.
They now believe that all three DNA samples belong to Mr. Zekarias and are appealing to the Eritrean community to shed light on a motive.
Ms. Semret, an Eritrean immigrant, was known to be a “very demanding” supervisor at the hotel, Detective Sergeant Gary Giroux said at an afternoon press conference. Investigators are looking at whether Mr. Zekarias, who also worked in the cleaning industry, might have been fired while under Ms. Semret’s supervision, police said.
The victim and attacker at one point resided at the same transition home for recent immigrants, but police know of no other solid connection.
The same DNA emerged in the death of Ms. Ghirmay in May. A portion of her body was discovered in a duffel bag near Jane Street and Eglinton Avenue West. Police have yet to recover the full remains.
Ms. Ghirmay knew Mr. Zekarias well. She helped him through school and “supported him through his English-language studies and helped him find work,” police said.
Detective Sergeant Pauline Gray, lead investigator on the Ghirmay case, believes her murder was connected to the Semret case.
“It’s my personal opinion and theory that Rigat did know, or had figured out what Mr. Zekarias had done, and had either confronted him or let him know that she, in fact, knew that he was the murderer of Nighisti,” Det-Sgt. Gray said.
Mr. Zekarias was originally charged with indignity to a dead body after Ms. Ghirmay’s killing. He was set to appear in court on the new charges Monday afternoon.
Frank Bernardo, chair of the Cabbagetown BIA, said the arrests have helped ease lingering fears around the violence.
“The community was shocked at the time,” he said. “This was a normal citizen trying to make a good life for herself. We’re glad to hear charges have been laid and the community can breathe a bit of a sigh of relief.”