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Woman stabbed to death in early morning attack leaves Cabbagetown residents on high alert

Nighisti Semret

Handout photo

Cabbagetown residents are shocked and scared for their lives after a woman was stabbed to death in their neighbourhood in what appears to be an attack by a stranger with no apparent motive.

Nighisti Semret, a 55-year-old refugee claimant from Eritrea who came to Canada in 2010, was walking home on Tuesday just before 7 a.m. after her night shift as a cleaner and supervisor at the Delta Chelsea hotel on Gerrard Street.

She was cutting through a laneway north of Carlton Street, just before 7 a.m. when a security camera caught the images of a man following her. Ms. Semret was stabbed several times and declared dead in a nearby hospital a short time later.

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"I'm not gonna be walking alone no more," said Lena Wins, who lives on the second floor above Ms. Semret in a Toronto Community Housing unit on Winchester Street.

Ms. Wins and Ms. Semret's next-door neighbour, Joan Bell, said they were shocked, sad and scared when they heard what happened to their friend.

"She seemed very nice and very kind," said Ms. Bell. "She would give you the shirt off her back."

Ms. Bell said she would see Ms. Semret, who moved in about two years ago and lived alone, cooking in the community kitchen everyday. The two would exchange greetings, but did not talk much as Ms. Semret spent most of her day sleeping. She never saw her have guests over.

Ms. Semret worked for Andorra Building Maintenance Ltd., a company contracted out by the hotel. A woman answered the phone, but declined an interview. "It's just very traumatic for us," she said.

The laneway, between Bleecker Street and Ontario Street, is a popular neighbourhood shortcut. On Wednesday, people were still riding their bicycles and walking their dogs there. However, a few people chose to avoid the laneway altogether or walk with a friend, after hearing what had happened.

"I've lived in the neighbourhood for 20 years. I've never felt unsafe like this," said Andrea Rowe who lives in the building abutting the laneway. "Because it was a non-provoked attack, all the women in this building are feeling vulnerable right now. Everybody's concerned, but women are feeling particularly vulnerable."

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Ms. Rowe said she is nervous. She chose to walk around the laneway rather than through it to get to a doctor's appointment on Wednesday. She also decided to take a friend with her because she did not want to be alone.

Many long-time residents in the area said they felt unsettled after the murder, but insisted that Cabbagetown has always been a safe area.

"It hits really close to home," said Rob Haas, a maintenance worker at the co-operative housing building where Ms. Rowe lives. "It is a little disconcerting especially where there's no motive. If there's a motive, it would help to know if it's a robbery. If he's just a whack job, that's scary."

The last image of Nighisti Semret was caught on the security camera at 6:56 a.m. as she walked east. She was holding an umbrella very close to the top of her head because of the heavy rain – a circumstance that Det. Sgt. Giroux said the attacker would have taken advantage of.

Her killer was seen walking behind her on the security camera at 6:57 a.m.

"It would appear from the video that the suspect has his right hand inside his jacket and he appears to be clutching at something. I'm going to suggest that's a knife," said Det. Sgt. Giroux.

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The two of them walked out of view of the camera. In the moments that followed, a witness responded to screams coming from the laneway. The witness, a neighbourhood resident, told police the suspect was holding a large, serrated knife. There was a brief exchange between them after which the suspect was seen fleeing west on the same security camera at 6:59 a.m.

Toronto police said they tried contacting Ms. Semret's next of kin throughout the day and the following night. But it seems Ms. Semret had no relatives in Canada.

She does not have a criminal record and her purse was not stolen. So, police are speculating her attacker was a random stranger who may have been involved in similar attacks in Cabbagetown in the past, such as purse snatchings or assaults.

"This is something that this person does. This person has done this type of crime before," said Detective Sergeant Gary Giroux with the Homicide Squad.

Det. Sgt. Giroux believes the suspect lives in the neighbourhood. Police have increased their presence in the area, and have set up a community vehicle where people can provide information to police.

- With files from Tu Thanh Ha

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