How six Toronto lives were fractured by serial killer Bruce McArthur

There is a ripple effect when someone is murdered.

“Doctors always say it is better to break something over fracturing it. Fractures never really heal as well as a break,” said Greg Dunn, best friend of Andrew Kinsman, the last of eight men murdered by serial killer Bruce McArthur. “My heart, soul and spirit have been fractured. They may heal in time but it will never be the same and it will never go away.”

Dunn’s words were read aloud in court Friday by Justice John McMahon as he described how the pain of the murders of eight men by McArthur reverberated through families, friends, communities and Toronto as a whole.

Six people shared with the Star how fractures in their own lives and communities have emerged since the serial killer was arrested just over a year ago. For some, McArthur’s crimes exposed pain from past traumas and historical violence against marginalized communities. For others, there remain haunting questions that may never be answered and thoughts of reunions that will never be.

These are their stories:

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"There is an untold fear in our hearts," Piranavan Thangavel says of refugees like himself following the murder of Kirushnakumar Kanagaratnam.
“There is an untold fear in our hearts,” Piranavan Thangavel says of refugees like himself following the murder of Kirushnakumar Kanagaratnam.  (Toronto Star)

Piranavan Thangavel, who spent three months at sea with Kirushnakumar Kanagaratnam

An unanswered question has been weighing on Thangavel since he learned of his friend’s murder: Just how did Bruce McArthur come into contact with Kirushnakumar Kanagaratnam?

“We have to know,” he says. “That’s what his family still wants to know.”

Knowing how they met could help us know how to better protect people hiding from authorities, as Kanagaratnam was after his refugee claim was denied, Thangavel says.

As far as he knows, McArthur hasn’t shared that information, and that may be the only way to find out. Thangavel is resigned to never knowing.

His friend came here to save his life. Instead, it was taken in a way that Thangavel is unable to contemplate.

“For us now to hear of such a horrible death, we who live in this world as refugees feel like there is no safety for us anywhere in the world,” he said in the victim impact statement he read out in court. “Now when we meet new people, talk to them, or seek employment from them, there is an untold fear in our hearts.”

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He says he did not see a reaction from McArthur to his words.

Thangavel’s years in Canada have been difficult — like many of those who came on the boat with him and Kanagaratnam. And though Canada does welcome refugees, he says, it is hard for him not to be angry and bitterfor him not to feel that Canada’s policies led to his friend’s death.

Thangavel is hoping to meet soon with the federal Minister for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. He hopes to convince him to change the refugee claim appeal process so failed claimants don’t feel they need to go into hiding to avoid deportation — so they don’t have become as vulnerable as Kanagaratnam was and many still are now.

This is the legacy he wants Kanagaratnam to leave.

“He is not with us but maybe we can do something right for other people,” he says.

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A timeline of the Bruce McArthur case and the police investigation into the Gay Village killings

"When we report that we have been victimized ? we've been assaulted, or raped ? they need to believe us," advocate Susan Gapka says.
“When we report that we have been victimized ? we’ve been assaulted, or raped ? they need to believe us,” advocate Susan Gapka says.  (Toronto Star)

Susan Gapka, an advocate for transgender and homeless rights

Susan Gapka walked out of Bruce McArthur’s sentencing hearing Monday, “raw and weak-kneed.”

She had sat inside the imposing downtown courtroom looking around the police officers, victims’ families and friends, community advocates and journalists and thought: “we all did our part.” Yet she knows the finality of McArthur’s conviction won’t mark the end of a traumatic period for her personally, or for Toronto’s Gay Village, in which she is steeped.

“Sentencing,” she says, “is a bit like the Band-Aid’s being ripped off. But there’s still a wound under there.”

For Gapka, McArthur’s case has highlighted the vulnerabilities of a life she knows well, and it has played out in a part of Toronto where she’d felt most at home. Twenty years ago, she came out as trans at Zipperz, the bar — a now-closed Gay Village institution — where McArthur had been a frequent face. The area, she says, was “a safe space to be ourselves until we feel comfortable enough to expand our network.”

Each of the stories of McArthur’s victims were devastating, but it was Dean Lisowick’s murder that “rocked” her. Once homeless and a drug addict, she spent many nights not knowing where she would sleep. One night, she stayed with a stranger who had picked her up, “and this person, this man, took advantage of me while I was sleeping.”

“It brought something up that I hadn’t even been thinking about, and I hadn’t even considered it to be abuse,” she says. “It brought something up that I had ignored as part of street life, and survival.”

The case has illustrated how the vulnerabilities of people on the margins can be exploited, she says — a scary thought amid a housing crisis and an opioid epidemic. And it has underscored the essential need for trust between police and the public, particularly those within the LGBTQ community.

She stressed that police must take reports of violence seriously, citing the fact McArthur was arrested following a 2016 allegation he assaulted another man, but was never charged.

“When we report that we have been victimized — we’ve been assaulted, or raped — they need to believe us. They need to believe us. I’ll say it again: They need to believe us.”

"That is trauma that is not going to go away," Rev. Deana Dudley says.
“That is trauma that is not going to go away,” Rev. Deana Dudley says.  (Toronto Star)

Rev. Deana Dudley, a minister at the Metropolitan Community Church

The betrayal of a wolf in the fold, of a man who used his own community as a hunting ground, runs deep.

“People trust themselves less. They trust other people less. They trust the police less,” Dudley says.

“I know people who were approached by (McArthur) and got away. I know people who lived on the same floor as him and saw him on a daily basis and heard things and saw things they didn’t put together at the time. That is trauma that is not going to go away,” she says.

She and other ministers at the church have spoken to many who now live with survivors’ guilt, with fear, with disgust, with anger. Spaces once considered safe are tainted, routines that once seemed manageable — like using dating apps — are too dangerous.

“I have been afraid for my friends. I have been angry at the ways people have been traumatized. I am happy to sit and talk with people about the things that happened to them, that have made them afraid, the nightmares,” she says. “But you know what, no one should be going through this and it pisses me off.”

Their grieving process will continue. Pain will surface in ways expected and sudden.

It will not be easy to repair, foster and build connections among community members, especially for the most marginalized people, she says, but it is more necessary than ever.

In the fall, Dudley was part of a group that gathered at the Mallory Cres. home where McArthur hid the remains of seven of his victims in planters. They cleaned up the yard, seeded the grass and planted hundreds of daffodil bulbs. They will bloom brightly this spring in what Dudley describes as sacred ground.

“They are hardy and they are resilient and they will survive,” she said in the victim impact statement she gave in court this week. “Toronto’s LGBTQ community is also strong and resilient. And we too will survive (though) changed forever.”

"Everyone is responsible for this," Haran Vijayanathan says of how his agency and others need to deliver community support after the McArthur case.
“Everyone is responsible for this,” Haran Vijayanathan says of how his agency and others need to deliver community support after the McArthur case.  (Toronto Star)

Haran Vijayanathan, executive director of the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention

It was only in the quiet pause around the holidays, after Kirushnakumar Kanagaratnam’s funeral, that the horrors of the past year truly sank in. Vijayanathan thought of his mother having to receive a phone call like the ones made to the mothers of Bruce McArthur’s victims, most of whom were South Asian or Middle-Eastern.

“I was sitting there thinking, ‘that could have been me in the casket,’” he says. “That could have been my mother and my family there and they wouldn’t have been able to see me one last time.”

The past year he has focused on supporting families with the logistics that come with loss, organizing funerals and raising funds to defray costs. It was also a time to demand answers, he says.

“Why did it take eight people to be missing and murdered before (McArthur) was found,” Vijayanathan says. “Why wasn’t the same level of attention given to the first three men who went missing?”

The missing persons review is one step in the right direction, he says. But law enforcement agencies have so much work to do to build trust with communities who do not feel safe or protected by them because of racism, classism and homophobia.

“How can the community and the police actually work together to address some of the biases that exist around, for example, someone with a mental health issue coming in to report a friend of theirs didn’t come back to their sleeping bag last night, as was their routine,” he says. “That credibility needs to be applied to everyone.”

The past year has also made Vijayanathan rethink how his agency and others deliver community programming and support, especially important considering some of the men McArthur killed were connected to community agencies and shelters.

“This is a wake-up call. There is a huge spotlight that has been shone on Toronto to see all of the gaps that we have. Some of those gaps are shallow and easily filled, but others are deep and the light has gone deep into those cracks,” he says.

“Everyone is responsible for this.”

"He made a mark on my life," Jeremiah Holmes says of his childhood friend Dean Lisowick.
“He made a mark on my life,” Jeremiah Holmes says of his childhood friend Dean Lisowick.  (Toronto Star)

Jeremiah Holmes, a childhood friend of Dean Lisowick

Relationships that will never be haunt many whose loved ones were killed by McArthur. Dean Lisowick’s daughter will never be able to connect with him or introduce him to his grandchildren. That was Lisowick’s dream too: His cousin Julie Pearo says his face lit up in the times she last saw him, as he described the electric bike he wanted to buy his daughter — something to bring her joy.

Lisowick’s childhood friend Jeremiah Holmes always hoped he’d see Lisowick again. Holmes was 7 when Lisowick came to live in their shared foster home in Udora, Ont.

The boys became close in a happy and strict home with a bullmastiff named Rocky where chores were mandatory.

“He made a mark on my life,” says Holmes. “I have a brother, but Dean became my new brother.”

They attended classes at Morning Glory Public School in Pefferlaw, Ont. Most of their free time was spent outdoors.

“We played together in the summertime until the lights went out. We were little kids, so we were exploring stuff.” That included poking around an old burnt-down house and collecting bullfrogs from the local creek, adventures fuelled by pop and bags of chips.

One winter outing ended with Lisowick freezing and soaking wet, after he walked out on a frozen river to retrieve a large stick.

Lisowick shouted, “I’m the king,” then fell through the ice, says Holmes.

He last saw Lisowick when he was a teen and tried unsuccessfully to find him over the years. Then, in 2018, Holmes saw Lisowick’s name in the newspaper. He felt shock, then hollowness. This wasn’t how he was supposed to find his friend.

Last summer, Holmes visited the Udora home where he and Lisowick spent some of their boyhood years. It was a chance to pause and reflect.

He doesn’t allow himself to think about how Lisowick’s life ended. Instead he hopes Lisowick knew how many people loved and cared about him — how many lives he touched for the better.

“It is just a sad ending for my foster brother and all the other victims that I read about and potential and almost victims,” Holmes says. “I didn’t let myself hold on to any (other) kinds of emotions, other than I think it is just sad.”

"As long as people are vulnerable there will be individuals who exploit that vulnerability," Becky McFarlane says.
“As long as people are vulnerable there will be individuals who exploit that vulnerability,” Becky McFarlane says.  (Toronto Star)

Becky McFarlane, senior director of programs and community services for the 519 community centre

For years, men linked to the Gay Village were going missing and no one had any answers.

“For a lot of people post the arrest of Bruce McArthur, it legitimated a fear I think many people didn’t feel entitled to have, because there was a lot of reassurance that there wasn’t a predator,” she says. “They wanted to believe it couldn’t be possible and I think in the face of McArthur’s arrest it raised a lot of fear.”

The first words of Crown prosecutor Michael Cantlon at McArthur’s sentencing were a validation of sorts.

“For years, members of the LGBTQ community believed that they were being targeted by a killer,” he says. “They were right.”

But just being told that you were right doesn’t make the fear go away, McFarlane says. “It is the reality of what happened that actually creates the fear.”

There was a period of time after McArthur’s arrest where people were more scared than they were before, she says.

The factors he exploited, that made many of his victims vulnerable — refugee status, lack of stable housing, secret lives — have not gone away. They are things people still live with every day in this city.

“How many individuals will it take before we recognize that there is a much more important systemic conversation that we need to have?” she says.

Queer and trans people have long faced targeted violence, she says. Bruce McArthur’s crimes are yet another example.

“As long as people are vulnerable there will be individuals who exploit that vulnerability. That is what makes us scared. There is no relief at the end of the day because people are not left less vulnerable because Bruce McArthur was caught and is in jail and won’t get out. People won’t be harmed by him but they will be harmed by others.”

Alyshah Hasham is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and court. Follow her on Twitter: @alysanmati

Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at wgillis@thestar.ca or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis

Emily Mathieu is a Toronto-based reporter covering affordable and precarious housing. Follow her on Twitter: @emathieustar

TORONTO STAR

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