In the aftermath of the recent sentencing of serial killer Bruce McArthur, you could be forgiven if you felt the justice system had seriously dropped the ball. Radio talk show hosts fumed, columnists condemned, and several friends of the victims decried the concurrent sentence — life in prison, with full parole eligibility after 25 years — as too lenient for the murders of eight men. But are these conclusions fair, or correct?
To be sure, the Toronto Police Service has taken it on the chin regarding their response to missing men from Toronto’s gay village. Bruce McArthur carried out his sadistic crimes since at least 2010, and for that, it is fair to ask tough questions of the police.
Retired Justice Gloria Epstein will lead an investigation into how the service investigates missing person cases — a review that is supported by police. But despite some flaws, we should acknowledge that the last 18 months of police work has been meticulous, thorough and effective.
In June 2017, Andrew Kinsman, McArthur’s last murder victim went missing. His disappearance was reported immediately and police launched an investigation. In Kinsman’s home police found a day-timer entry with the name “Bruce.” They seized building security camera footage, which could have been routinely erased if they hadn’t acted quickly. It showed a vehicle arriving at Kinsman’s home. This was a pivotal moment in the investigation.
So what happened next? According to the agreed statement of facts, after police narrowed down the make, model and year of the vehicle, they sifted through 5000 registrations. Several belonged to owners with the first name “Bruce.” Police then began intensive background and surveillance investigations that eventually led them to McArthur. Detectives tracked his abandoned van to a wreckers yard and found crucial DNA evidence inside linking him to two of the missing men. Police then began round-the-clock surveillance, which included surreptitiously entering his apartment to gather digital evidence.
In January of 2018, surveillance officers witnessed a young man entering McArthur’s apartment. Police made a split-second decision to go in, knowing it would bring an end to their covert investigation. It turns out that decisive action saved a life. So, I’d ask the reader to think about that: it’s your move. You have no more than seconds, or maybe a minute to act — you might be saving a life, or potentially sabotaging an investigation. As it turns out, detectives made the right call.
After McArthur’s arrest, the evidence collection ballooned. Ten officers were assigned to a search of his apartment. Over the course of four months, police seized 1,800 exhibits and took 18,000 photographs at his residence. The scene was protected 24/7. And, in addition to a cadaver dog search of 75 properties, an enormous forensic “dig” was completed where remains for his eight victims were located and linked to McArthur.
Most people see police work through the Hollywood lens: witness interviews done without a notebook, multiple databases readily available to police, cartoonish depictions of mobile surveillance, complicated cases solved in just hours or days. But in real life, successful dynamic surveillance can often be beyond difficult. If you’re too close, you alert the suspect. Too far away and you lose him. In this case, detectives had to obtain judicial authorization just to get a digital copy of the photo on McArthur’s driver’s licence. With the Supreme Court of Canada often focused on process over results, every important decision must be made with the Charter of Rights top of mind.
And that brings us to the sentencing decision. McArthur’s life sentences will be served concurrently, not consecutively, with the ability to apply for parole at 91 years of age. As the lead investigator in the case has said, McArthur will die in prison.
Consecutive sentences in this case would have been purely symbolic. And symbolism is not a sentencing principle. Imposing consecutive sentences to appease public outrage could have resulted in a higher court overturning the sentence, or potentially striking down a good law. I believe Justice John McMahon made the right decision imposing concurrent sentences.
You discover very quickly when you become a police officer that back pats don’t often come your way. Professionals get that. I don’t know any of these officers personally, but it’s clear that a lot of careful, diligent and intensive police work put McArthur behind bars, where he belongs. And for that, the entire team deserves our thanks. The path wasn’t perfect, but outside of Hollywood portrayals of law enforcement, that path rarely is.