If you were to type in the names of the seven men who have disappeared from Toronto's Gay Village over the past eight years into the RCMP public database for Canada's missing people, there would be only one hit: Skandaraj Navaratnam.
Mr. Navaratnam disappeared in September, 2010. Homicide detectives are now investigating if his disappearance is connected to Bruce McArthur, who has been charged with the deaths of five of the missing men.
Amid criticism from the city's LGBTQ community that the men's disappearances weren't properly investigated, Toronto Police Service has defended its handling of the cases. But for years, the service failed to make use of the federal registry that was born out of failures into the investigations of both Vancouver serial killer Robert Pickton and the continuing issue of missing Indigenous women.
Toronto Police also haven't created a central missing-persons unit, or dedicated any full-time staff just to missing-persons cases, despite overseeing thousands of cases. It's a gap the service is considering filling, acknowledging it may have allowed police to identify a pattern of mysterious disappearances in the Village sooner.
"I think we definitely need a missing-persons co-ordinator," said Detective Sergeant Hank Idsinga, the homicide detective leading the investigation into Mr. McArthur. A single set of eyes watching all missing-persons cases "might have picked up on that pattern" when three men disappeared several years ago from the Village.
The RCMP created the public registry, canadasmissing.ca, in 2013 as a tool to focus the attention of investigators, coroners and the public together onto outstanding missing-persons cases. The site now contains a searchable database of 1,200 cases, but it remains an opt-in system, leaving the decision on whether to publish a specific case to the lead investigator.
Toronto Police have listed just 18 open cases dating as far back as 1978 – including Navaratnam. That number does not account for missing-persons cases that may have been solved and removed from the site. The RCMP, meanwhile, have added more than 350 cases. Montreal police list nearly 100 cases and Vancouver has dozens.
The scope of the problem is wide. A 2012 study, conducted for the Pickton inquiry, found that more than 100,000 Canadians are reported missing annually, with nearly 5,000 of those remaining unsolved for more than a year. The study found that 270 of those cases involve long-term missing persons.
Det. Sgt. Idsinga said investigators trying to find the missing men years ago were operating on the best information they had at the time.
"Skanda [Navaratnam] was put on there because there was some evidence of foul play in 2013," he said.
While Toronto Police would not get into specifics about what that evidence was, the lead appears to have been ultimately fruitless. A friend of Mr. Navaratnam told The Globe and Mail that, as police investigated, they homed in on the idea that his past in Sri Lanka, which was locked in a bloody civil war when he left, played a role in his disappearance.
Two other men who went missing in the years after Mr. Navaratnam's disappearance, Majeed Kayhan and Abdulbasir Faizi, were not added to that public database either. Asked why, Det. Sgt. Idsinga said that "Faizi and Kayhan were different situations." While he declined to comment on the specifics of either case, he said the prevailing theory at the time was that both men had simply taken off. "That's exactly what the families thought," he said, and that they had simply "gone back to Afghanistan or Iraq."
A police report from the time, citing Mr. Faizi's wife, reported "her husband has no enemies and no reason for anyone to want to kidnap him. He is not involved in any criminal activity … there has been no indication of depression or suicidal thoughts." The same report mentions that Mr. Faizi had left his passport at home.
Police eventually launched a task force, dubbed Project Houston, to investigate all three cases, given their similarities, and put in a considerable amount of work into solving the disappearances. Any missing-persons case, Det. Sgt. Idsinga said, is "intense" and involves a considerable amount of resources. "You guys might not see it."
The homicide investigator, however, acknowledged there's room for improvement. "We're always looking to learn and do things better. I think we're getting better with missing-persons occurrences."
Mr. McArthur has not been charged in the disappearances of either Mr. Faizi or Mr. Navaratnam, athough he has been charged with the murder of Mr. Kayhan.
The other cases police have tied to Mr. McArthur highlight the difficult and complicated nature of missing-persons investigations. Soroush Mahmudi, whose disappearance was investigated by a different division within the Toronto Police Service, was not linked to the other missing men until after Mr. McArthur's arrest. Dean Lisowick, who was transient at the time of disappearance, was never reported missing. Andrew Kinsman was the subject of a huge community effort to try and locate him, and to ensure police kept up their investigation, and Det. Sgt. Idsinga said a break came in that case relatively quickly. Selim Esen's disappearance was not considered suspicious until Mr. Kinsman vanished.
There's a procedural reason why Toronto Police didn't enter those names, or any other of Mr. McArthur's alleged victims, into canadasmissing.ca. A Toronto Police spokesperson confirmed that, generally, the service will only enter a name into the public database if foul play is suspected. That is due, in large part, to the high volume of cases Toronto sees every year.
To triage cases, Toronto police assign every missing-persons case to a level, from one to three. One is a basic case with no "extenuating circumstances." Level two is where foul play is suspected, or if there are concerns for the person's well-being. Investigations go to level three when a level-two investigation has proved unsuccessful. At each step, more resources are allocated. Specifically, levels two and three recommend increased public outreach and co-operation with the media. Under this rubric, it seems that all of the missing men would fall squarely under level one, meaning no foul play was suspected and police would not take additional steps to reach out to the public and to media.
Toronto Police generally rely on press releases and social-media posts to advertise missing-persons cases. That has led to confusion in recent months, as fears in the LGBTQ community grew. Facebook posts, which cobbled together press releases of various missing persons, went viral, even though some of the men featured in the posts had been found safe or were unconnected to the Village. There was simply no easy way to cross-reference those names, as is made significantly easier by the RCMP site.
This isn't the first time there have been calls for Canadian police to improve their treatment of missing-persons cases. After Robert Pickton was convicted in the murders of six women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside – although investigators have always believed the true number of his victims was much higher – a public inquiry led by former B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal was critical of how police handled disappearances from the city.
That 2012 inquiry surveyed police agencies across the country to assess their approaches, and limitations, to missing-persons investigations and found a total lack of consistency. That lack of consistency, in some ways, continues.
In an interview with The Globe, Mr. Oppal said the failures of police forces uncovered by his inquiry were "egregious." Since his probe issued its recommendations to Vancouver's police department, and police agencies all across the country, he said, "they've all purported to listen." Whether they have, he says, is another question.
Failures to communicate, to share information, and to devote adequate resources to the missing women all contributed to police failing to catch Mr. Pickton. But Mr. Oppal said that, sometimes, it comes down to police not being willing to accept the obvious. "The police sometimes don't want to admit there is a serial killer, for fear that they will alarm the public and because it may reflect on their own abilities," he said. "Stonewalling" the media contributes to these problems, he added.
In 2014, in response to calls to address the long-standing problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women, the RCMP was given the task of creating a national missing-persons strategy. It laid out a variety of changes that needed to be made as to how the national police handle missing-persons cases, including facilitating co-operation between police agencies, improving public awareness for those cases, and helping investigators recognize that "perception of lifestyle, behaviour, and culture may hinder timely reporting and police action."
Superintendent Dennis Daley, the director-general of the RCMP's National Criminal Operations, said that commissions of inquiry such as Mr. Oppal's are huge movers of how the RCMP operates, especially on missing persons. Some changes, in recent years, have included requiring officers to conduct mandatory risk assessments for any missing persons, and bring in supervising officers to more missing-persons cases, something that wasn't always done in the past, but which can help bring more expertise and skill and help investigators make those "key linkages."
And yet, Supt. Daley said, "we're still dealing with human beings." Failures to communicate with other agencies and with the public can consistently hamper investigations, he added. Asked whether dedicated missing-persons units – which are common in the RCMP and other agencies, and which Toronto appears to be considering – are useful to that end, Mr. Daley was quick to respond: "I would say, wholeheartedly, absolutely, yes."
Improvements are coming from new technology. Police across the country do have a national database, which links to canadasmissing.ca but that is accessible only to investigators, allowing them to check missing-persons cases in other jurisdictions, including dental records. Regulatory and legislative improvements are under way nationally and on the provincial level to allow police to collect, enter and search for DNA in that database.
Inspector Roland Gosselin, the officer in charge of the RCMP's National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, which both manages the database, canadasmissing.ca, and provides training for RCMP officers, said once that DNA database comes online, it will be an "additional tool" to police countrywide.
Toronto Police have said they plan on asking the RCMP's centre for help, and Insp. Gosselin says his agency could provide an analysis for any police agency requesting the centre's expertise on cross-Canadian missing-persons cases.
Insp. Gosselin added that how local police use canadasmissing.ca is ultimately up to them. "It has to be left to the primary investigator," he said. And they may have "any number of reasons for choosing not to publish" a case.
The RCMP officers stressed that "consistency" is crucial in these investigations so that a missing-persons case would be investigated just as rigorously if it occurred in the remote north of Nunavut, or the south shore of Nova Scotia. That's something Mr. Oppal called for more than five years ago, and that has yet to really take hold in Canada. He said police agencies need to co-operate, and standardize how these investigations work. "There has to be some kind of uniformity."
The Canadian Press