Michael Arntfield is a professor and criminologist at Western University, where he founded its Cold Case Society in 2011 and was named its Humanitarian of the Year in 2017 for his work with victims of crime. He is the author of 12 books on crime history and serial murder, and is a director of the nonprofit think tank The Murder Accountability Project. He is also a former police officer.
If you’re like every other Canadian who picked up a newspaper, scrolled a social media feed or turned on the TV within the past week, you couldn’t help but be inundated – and revolted – by Crown attorney Michael Cantlon’s disclosures made during convicted serial killer Bruce McArthur’s sentencing phase in a packed Toronto courtroom. There was talk not only of the grotesque dismemberments and interments of many of his victims in planter boxes as already widely reported, but also of the postmortem posing and photographing of his victims, of souvenir and trophy collection and curation and of sundry other indignities. As disturbing as these revelations are, they are also not necessarily surprising.
Just more than a year ago, when I first learned of Mr. McArthur’s crimes and how he had disposed of his victims – especially the fact that the dismemberments appeared to have an expressive and even pleasurable dimension that actually brought additional risk of being caught versus, as is instead more commonly seen, a purely strategic purpose (such as to prevent identification or even the full recovery of the remains) – I knew that he was in all likelihood a rare breed of an already rare type of murderer. As not only a serial killer but also what’s known as a homicidal necrophile, his disordered erotic preoccupation with the aesthetics of death and particularly of lifeless and defiled corpses had become so intense that he was likely prepared to claim innocent lives to indulge it.
The truth is that very few necrophiles, or a person with a sexual attraction to the dead, are homicidal or even dangerous; for instance, there have been some studies suggesting that a great many mortuary workers have at the very least pseudo-necrophilic proclivities. Many, it seems, merely prefer the company of the dead over the living – what are, believe it or not, known as “romantic” necrophiles – and are actually just lonely and disordered but otherwise benign.
But like all necrophiles who make the leap to murder and even serial murder, the act of killing is in itself not enough. It’s just the first step. It’s what comes after death – the ownership of the victim beyond death, of preserving the moment of death and of revisiting the sensual experience of the murder through photos and mementos – that these individuals find most fulfilling. That’s precisely why, when we look at the crimes of murderous necrophiles, the same range of behaviours tends to exist concurrently in nearly all cases. The use of expressive dismemberment seen in Mr. McArthur’s case is, for instance, correlated with keeping souvenirs (inanimate objects such as jewelry) and trophies (living tissue such as hair and nails); posing corpses is correlated with photographs being taken; and both are correlated with journalling or chronicling the crimes – all of which we learned within the past week was exactly what Bruce McArthur did. We also know these most twisted of serial offenders don’t just dabble in these activities. Rather, they are voracious and often prolific predators. They are also incorrigible. Mr. McArthur may have targeted Toronto’s gay community from 2010 onward for any number of reasons. But like all homicidal necrophiles, his true sexual orientation, his factory settings if you will, is death and suffering. Man, woman, transgender, gay, straight, adult, child – it doesn’t matter. That’s precisely what makes them so dangerous.
Take for instance two cases of homicidal necrophiles whose crimes we can use to decrypt Mr. McArthur’s atrocities and mindset – and why I can hypothesize with confidence that Toronto’s Gay Village was almost certainly where his murder spree stopped, but not where it started, at least not this time around. Mr. McArthur’s age – which everyone still seems to be fixated on – is indeed unprecedented, at least in Canada, in terms of serial murderers, and is exceptional in a global context. However, we do see that older serial killers tend to also exhibit similar necrophilic tendencies. Take for instance Joseph Naso, a self-employed cheesecake photographer now on death row in California for six sex slayings, the final known victim being claimed when Mr. Naso was 60 years old – the same age Mr. McArthur was when he claimed his first confirmed victim in Toronto. Mr. Naso would have no doubt carried on killing had he not been caught largely by luck after his probation officer made a home visit and found dozens of old department store mannequins in elaborate sexual positions as part of a twisted diorama Mr. Naso had used to recreate – and rehearse – his real-life murders. While convicted of six murders, Mr. Naso is suspected in dozens of other slayings as far away as his home state of New York.
Take also the case of Gary Leon Ridgway, the “Green River Killer” and the most prolific serial killer in North American history. Convicted of 49 murders committed over the course of 16 years, he’s known to have murdered at least 70 women and likely even more, with his admitting to authorities that he eventually lost count. An inveterate necrophile, the parallels between Mr. Ridgway and Mr. McArthur are startling. Like Bruce McArthur, Mr. Ridgway used a ligature to strangle his victims either during or after sex and also posed his victims – mostly hitchhikers, runaways and sex workers hailing from the Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., areas – and kept their bodies concealed but also readily accessible to him, hiding them in the dense brush of King County and along the eponymous Green River. He would often return to visit the bodies for weeks and months afterward, gazing upon them, touching them and sometimes more.
So, with all of these details in mind, including the fact that I can think of no serial killer on record who started murdering at such an advanced age as Mr. McArthur, that homicidal necrophiles tend to have long and devastating criminal careers with elevated victim counts, and that they also tend to be highly versatile and variable – a process known as polymorphism – in their victim selections, usually zeroing in on vulnerable or marginalized communities regardless of gender or age, why is there still no systematic inquiry under way into what Mr. McArthur was up to, if anything, between roughly 1978 and 1993?
More precisely, what is the status of the investigation into his movements during those same years when he led a largely nomadic existence across Eastern and Northern Ontario, as well as throughout the expansive and burgeoning GTA, as a travelling sock and underwear salesman? Who is cross-referencing cold cases, missing-persons cases and the dozens of still unidentified human remains recovered from these same areas to Mr. McArthur’s old sales routes, hotel stays and known visits to his department store clients? Sadly, to date, it still seems no one. As what stands to be one of the most complicated and political multijurisdictional investigations in provincial and perhaps even national history, the Ontario Provincial Police in particular are hoping that Mr. McArthur remains strictly a Toronto blight. In reality, when looking at substantively similar offenders, most of his victims are likely in rural OPP territory. One need only read my 2015 book, Murder City, to get a sampling of this agency’s tragicomic track record with cold cases and the prevailing institutional attitude that highways are only for catching speeders and texters, not killers.
In the United States, the FBI’s Highway Serial Killing Initiative tries to be more thorough. The specialty unit currently estimates that there are 450-500 active serial killers currently traveling the country’s Interstate network under the cover of legitimate business travel; and that’s in 2019, when every car and cellphone leaves digital breadcrumbs and CCTV cameras are ubiquitous. In the lonely hinterland of 1980s Northern Ontario, Mr. McArthur would have been a ghost. With a car and convincing story, there is no limit to what he could have done and to whom. Consider also that, by that point, he may very well have cut his teeth as a sexual murderer and even a necrophile.
With his looking increasingly like a viable suspect in the original “Gay Strip” murders of the 1970s while working in downtown Toronto – at least 14 similar murders that suddenly stopped in 1978 when Mr. McArthur hit the road as a travelling salesman – we may very well be talking about a serial killer who was already highly experienced before going mobile. We may, as such, be talking about eventual victim numbers equal to or greater than those of Robert Pickton. The victims won’t all be gay men, either. There were no gay strips or villages in Sudbury or Timmins in the 1980s. But there were lots of runaways, drifters, sex trade workers, drug addicts and other people on the margins that Mr. McArthur knew no one would immediately go looking for. The question is: Will they now?