Toronto Police’s new missing-persons unit has solved 250 cases since being launched last summer in response to complaints about the service’s handling of missing-people reports.
On Monday, they released a composite drawing of a man whose body was pulled from Lake Ontario on Jan. 17, 1988. The water was partially frozen at the time, and witnesses saw the man – estimated to be between 20 and 25 years old – go through the ice. There’s no indication that the man’s death was nefarious, Const. Manherz said; it seems to have been a case of death by misadventure.
But police just want to find out who he was.
“This one’s been [open] since 1988,” said Constable Joel Manherz, one of four investigators on the team.
“You know, I was 14 years old at that time. You have to think that the people who might know something might be in a different place, or they might be in a better position now to read [the news release] with the internet, so it gets more exposure."
Thousands of people are reported missing to Toronto Police each year. In the past year, the service has faced mounting complaints about how some of the most vulnerable cases have been handled.
When Aloura Wells, a homeless, biracial and transgender woman was found dead in a Toronto ravine last August, it took four months for the 27-year-old to be identified.
When 22-year-old Tess Richey was reported missing last November, it was her mother who ultimately discovered her body – steps from where she’d been last seen in the gay village after a night out with friends – when police allegedly failed to do a proper canvas of the area.
Earlier this month, 67-year-old Bruce McArthur pleaded guilty to the first-degree murder of eight men with ties to the city’s gay village, dating back to 2010. The closure of that high-profile case was bittersweet for members of the LGBTQ community who say their concerns about a serial murderer in the gay village had been wrongly dismissed by police.
In addition to the new missing-persons unit, both internal and external reviews of those cases have also been commissioned in response to those concerns.
Constable Manherz says he believes the creation of this dedicated unit reflects the service’s commitment to getting it right.
“Missing-persons cases are a very specific type of investigation, and if you’re not doing them day in and day out, I think you’re missing a lot of the investigative resources that are out there. You’re not making the contacts within other agencies to help you bring these to a conclusion,” he said.
Because the vast majority of missing people are found within the first seven days, his team will specifically look at people who have been missing more than a week.
Inspector Hank Idsinga, who heads the homicide unit, said the dedicated department will help provide “better occurrence and trend analysis, and will ensure that proper analysis is conducted on what we find during investigations. This will encompass missing persons and unidentified human remains cases.”
On any given day, Constable Manherz said there are roughly 600 cases that fall within their mandate. The oldest dates back to 1919, he said, although the majority of their cold cases are from the late 1980s onward.
“We want to be able to close all of these cases,” he said. “I know that’s a far-fetched idea, but we want to give them all as much attention as they deserve.”