Toronto has known since the arrest of Bruce McArthur earlier this month that a serial killer may have been prowling its streets. Still, the confirmation on Monday came like a punch in the gut to a generally safe and orderly city. As the case investigator put it: "The city of Toronto has never seen anything like this."
When police first charged Mr. McArthur, accusing him of two murders and saying they believed he was responsible for more, they held back from using the term "serial killer." During Monday's news conference at police headquarters, they did not hesitate. "It's a serial killer," said Det.-Sgt. Hank Idsinga, the detective in charge of the case.
Not only has Mr. McArthur been charged with three more murders, but police say their search is far from over. They have identified 30 properties where Mr. McArthur, a landscaper, did work. They have found the dismembered remains of "at least" three bodies at one of the properties. They have seized more than a dozen landscaping planters from "various addresses around the city" where remains may have been hidden.
Asked by reporters how many victims police expect in the end, Det.-Sgt. Idsinga would only say: "We do believe there are more, and I have no idea how many more there are going to be." Would it be more than in the case of Robert Pickton, the British Columbia man convicted of six killings and suspected in many others? "I don't know that yet," the officer said.
Mr. McArthur was charged just a couple of weeks ago, and police say they are throwing "unprecedented" resources at the case, so this is only the beginning. Two of the dead men named in Monday's charges had not been listed before as possible victims. Police are combing through missing-persons records to see if others might have fallen prey to an alleged serial killer.
The enormity of all this is just starting to sink in. It comes as a shock, quite obviously, to the families of the victims. It comes as a shock to the quiet neighbourhoods where the alleged killer, under the guise of a friendly landscaper, is said to have concealed the evidence of his crimes.
It is harrowing for the scores of officers who are working on the case. It is deeply disturbing for Toronto's gay community, which feared for months, even years, that a killer was at large, but was assured by no less than the chief of police there was not. Even though Mr. McArthur has been charged, the case raises all sorts of questions.
Again: Why did police say so definitely that there was no serial killer even after a string of unexplained disappearances of gay men? Do police really take the safety of the community as seriously as they insist? Do they, for that matter, take seriously the disappearance of marginalized people?
One of the victims whose identity was revealed on Monday was a man who found refuge in the shelter system and had never been listed as missing. The Pickton case showed that police often have a blind spot when it comes to street people, sex workers and others who are preyed upon. When someone who is addicted to drugs or living a marginal existence goes missing, police may be tempted to brush it off as something of little consequence.
Another notorious case, that of Paul Bernardo, showed flaws in how police pursue serial predators. An inquiry found that Mr. Bernardo went undetected for so long in part because police forces and other parts of the justice system failed to share information and resources. That was supposed to change when police set up a new case-management system. Has it?
Neighbours of the properties where Mr. McArthur is alleged to have buried at least some of his victims say he came and went freely, picking up flowers, storing equipment, going about his work. Nothing they saw seemed suspicious. This case is disturbing not just because of the nature and extent of the allegations, but because a killer may have been among us for so long, hiding in plain sight.