The head of the Toronto Police cold case squad says the investigation into serial killer Bruce McArthur has yielded “promising” leads on a slew of unsolved homicides of gay men dating back to 1975.
Investigators have been sifting through 23 unsolved killings from between 1975 and the late 1990s, particularly targeting Toronto’s LGBTQ community, for evidence of a connection to McArthur.
In January, McArthur pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder. Even then, he volunteered little, if any, information to police. That has left open the possibility that there are other victims.
Det.-Insp. Stacy Gallant, head of the Toronto Police Service cold case unit, said they have yet to find any connections to the serial killer. But thanks to a mix of detective work and DNA analysis, they have found answers in a 20-year-old unsolved killing.
In February, investigators announced a break in the 1995 homicide of 47-year-old Dennis Joseph Colby. Lab results positively identified a man who, they believe, beat Colby to death in his apartment.
Investigators at the time had a composite drawing of a person of interest — someone who had reportedly been living with Colby. But it was new technology, which helped extract a DNA profile from evidence collected at the scene, that identified the suspect.
“Unfortunately — or, fortunately, depending on how you look at it — that person died in 2015,” Gallant said.
But police are awaiting lab results in some of the other cold cases, which could provide long-awaited answers to the friends and family members of these men. “I’m hopeful,” Gallant said.
McArthur ruled out in 8 of 23 cold cases
Given McArthur was 66 at the time of his arrest, investigators widened the scope of their search right back to the mid-’70s, when McArthur would have been fresh out of college. Back then, he was working for the Eaton’s department store in downtown Toronto, not far from a line of gay bars on Yonge Street. He eventually married, and moved to Oshawa around 1979.
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Part of the work in re-examining these cold cases is to match up the chronology of each victim’s last days and McArthur’s known whereabouts.
Gallant went through the normal checklist investigators use in analyzing those cases: “Were they neighbours? Were they living near each other, or were they in the same business at the time? Is there any connection to any of the other people or any of the names within the files?”
That work involved digging case files out of police archives — boxes that contain the body of work investigators collected at the time. Police are now testing that evidence to see if they can pull any usable DNA.
Of the 23 cases, investigators have ruled out McArthur’s involvement in eight. In another seven cases, there’s no conclusive answer one way or the other. Even in the cases where McArthur has been ruled out, police are still running the DNA analysis to see if they can identify the culprit.
A few cases will likely never be solved, Gallant said, as the evidence in the case files has deteriorated and can no longer be tested. Work on the remainder of the cases is ongoing.
Part of the reason McArthur was able to operate for years without arrest is that police failed to connect his victims. Through the RCMP-run Violent Crime Linkage System (ViCLAS), investigators are now looking to see if the commonalities between McArthur’s eight murders appear in other unsolved cases countrywide.
The system attempts to draw linkages between cases based on an array of criteria: Including the time at which the murder was committed; the modus operandi of the killer; even whether there were particular phrases uttered during the crime.
But Gallant said there’s “nothing specific enough … to lead us in any further direction to include [McArthur] as still a potential person of interest in those [outstanding] cases.”
Ultimately, Toronto police hope to have the most success in solving the remaining cold cases in the Gay Village via DNA analysis. Advances in DNA analysis technology in recent years have made it easier to pull a usable sample from, say, a tiny drop of blood on a piece of clothing, which may not have yielded a DNA profile just a few years ago.
“We resubmit them today, and we’re finding things on some of these items that, 20 years ago, they said there was nothing,” Gallant said.
There are limitations. Some of the evidence has deteriorated, having sat in storage for decades, to the point where no DNA sample can be pulled.
If they can pull a sample, the cold case team submits the DNA profile to a RCMP-run database, which contains profiles of more than 500,000 people in Canada. If there’s no match, Gallant and his team can track down past suspects in these cases and check the sample they’ve pulled from the evidence against that person’s DNA — or, if they’ve died, that of a family member.
Families awaiting answers
Of the reopened cases, Gallant has only had the chance to call one family — that of Dennis Joseph Colby.
“They were glad to hear from us,” Gallant said. He said that given that the perpetrator was now dead, Colby’s family “understood that we couldn’t do anything further with it.”
Gallant is hoping to make more calls of that nature in the near future.
Unless they’re delivering news that his team has cracked a case, Gallant and his investigators aren’t calling friends and family of these victims.
“Contacting friends and relatives at this point really doesn’t come into play for these cases, unless it was to advance to the point where we have a usable DNA profile — then we have to start trying to track people down.”
That has frustrated the loved ones of some of these dead men.
Kathy Robinson lost her brother, Duncan, in 1978. He was killed at home, and police investigated the possibility that his death may have been linked to a slew of murders in the late 1970s.
When McArthur was arrested and police opened a tip line for information about any aspect of the investigation, Robinson was proactive.
“I did call and leave a message on the tip line to say, ‘I hope that you’ll look back,'” Robinson said. She didn’t hear from them.
Sandy LeBlanc was murdered just two months before Duncan Robinson. The murders of the two men looked similar — both were in their late 20s and both were stabbed to death in their bedrooms.
Jo-Ann Hicks, LeBlanc’s sister, has been seeking answers for 40 years. After McArthur’s arrest and her brother’s case was reopened, she saw it as an opportunity to finally get some resolution.
But first, she wanted to make sure police got his name right. His full name was Alexander Reid LeBlanc, but he went by Sandy. Police and media at the time gave him another middle name: Romeo. (LeBlanc’s family suspects they took inspiration from the former Governor General.)
Hicks called the cold case team to inform them of the oversight, and ended up speaking with Gallant. The two stayed in touch. While investigators haven’t said much, they did confirm to LeBlanc’s family that there are persons of interest in his case, raising the possibility that the DNA tests could provide some answers.
LeBlanc’s name is still incorrect on the Toronto Police cold case portal, however.
Need for greater ‘sensitivity,’ ‘education’
The families are encouraged by the tantalizing possibility of new information. But there is also frustration with how police are reopening these cases.
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Gallant insisted that the investigations conducted back then were beyond reproach and that his team won’t be re-interviewing witnesses or chasing down old leads.
“There was really nothing left to do,” he said of the old investigations.
Kathy Robinson is of a different mind. She remembered sitting in the police station in 1978, and said the interview with officers was “perfunctory, at best.” She thinks police just lumped it together with other deaths in the community.
“My impression was that the detective had formed a conclusion almost instantaneously that this was a ‘gay murder.'” Robinson said she and her family haven’t heard from police since that interview.
Many of these killings occurred at a time when the relationship between the community and police could not have been worse.
There were assaults and robberies of LGBTQ people that went ignored by police. The city’s morality squad busted bathhouses and arrested men for consensual sexual activity. These unsolved deaths were another sore point in that relationship.
Kathy Robinson is hoping to “have some answers” in her brother’s unsolved killing. Even if her brother’s death goes unsolved, Robinson hopes the conversation around violence targeting the community spurs the development of “some more sensitivity and some more education for not only the police, but for others who are dealing with people who are in vulnerable or marginalized positions.
“To me, that would mean a lot.”