Investigators who probed the disappearances of three men from Toronto’s Gay Village explored the possibility that their main suspect had killed and cannibalized Skandaraj Navaratnam with the help of notorious killer Luka Magnotta, according to recently unsealed court documents.
The Project Houston task force was launched in November 2012 after Toronto police received a tip from a confidential informant in Switzerland. The informant claimed that a Toronto-area man had mentioned the name “Skanda” to him in a lengthy conversation about “human consumption” on a member’s-only cannibalism website.
Now, largely unredacted warrants and production orders from Project Houston are shedding new light on the extensive investigation born out of that tip — and ultimately shutdown after two years pursuing a dead-end suspect.
Serial killer Bruce McArthur pleaded guilty to the first-degree murder of Navaratnam, the other missing men from Project Houston — Abdulbasir Faizi and Majeed Kayhan — and five other men in January.
But in 2012, the Swiss tip led police down a grisly rabbit hole of online cannibalism fantasies and child pornography as they tried to figure out whether James Alex Brunton of Peterborough, Ont., had killed Navaratnam and if he’d had any help.
Navaratnam went missing in early September 2010. While police considered his disappearance “suspicious,” there had been no new evidence or leads in the case until they received the tip two years later. Armed with an email address provided by the informant, documents show investigators quickly identified Brunton.
For two years, the task force investigated Brunton as a murder suspect in the disappearance of Navaratnam. Along the way, they began to look into whether Magnotta was involved as well.
The convicted killer was arrested in June 2012 for the slaying and dismemberment of Jun Lin in Montreal. The international student’s body parts were found in a suitcase outside Magnotta’s apartment, in packages sent to the headquarters of political parties, two Vancouver schools, and in a Montreal park.
Magnotta was in custody awaiting trial as police investigated Brunton.
Through production orders police obtained almost a decade of emails and forum chat conversations between Brunton and a number of young men, some underage, where they talk about kidnapping and cannibalism.
Remington’s strip club connection
After reviewing the communications, police noticed that from the beginning of the messages, “Brunton consistently speaks of Nathan, another cannibal” who he met at Remington’s — a male strip club in Toronto — where “Nathan” worked as a dancer.
Investigators then note in a warrant that Magnotta was a dancer at Remington’s from 2001 to 2003 and that Magnotta refers to himself as “Nathan” in text messages obtained by Montreal police. The two men also lived within four minutes of each other when Magnotta stayed with his grandmother in Peterborough as a teenager.
Other circumstantial evidence from financial and medical records shows that Brunton might have paid Magnotta’s rent in exchange for sexual favours.
Most of this information is detailed by investigators in a September 2013 warrant to examine Magnotta’s digital devices for anything else that might link him to Brunton or Navaratnam.
The warrants show investigators then dug deeper into Magnotta’s potential involvement in Navaratnam’s murder and found three online advertisements Magnotta had posted “looking for Middle Eastern men.” The ads went up in June 2010 — just a few months before Navaratnam went missing. Navaratnam was born in Sri Lanka.
Cabins near Bancroft, Ont.
The week before Navaratnam disappeared, he visited a friend’s cabin south-east of Bancroft, Ont. Cellphone records from the time of the trip place Navaratnam “in the Peterborough area both enroute and on the way home from the cabin,” and cell tower pings “indicate more than just a mere ‘passing through,'” according to a warrant.
Brunton lived in Peterborough, and talks about having access to a cabin near Bancroft, Ont., in communications obtained by police.
In the end, despite these circumstantial connections, investigators found no criminal evidence tying Brunton or Magnotta to Navaratnam, Faizi and Kayhan.
Instead, Brunton pleaded guilty to child pornography charges in January 2014.
There’s only a brief mention of the man actually responsible for Navaratnam’s death in the judicial orders obtained during Project Houston.
McArthur’s username and email address “silverfoxx51” was found in extracted computer data from Navaratnam and Faizi, as well as on Faizi’s notepad, in September 2013. A cellphone number was also listed alongside the email address in Navaratnam’s deleted email contacts.
Police then identified McArthur by tying that phone number to a contact card for the landscaper from a 2005 vehicle stop. At the time of the last Project Houston warrant, police were still trying to set up an interview with McArthur as a witness in the investigation.
In November 2013, McArthur was interviewed as a witness in the Project Houston investigation. At the time, McArthur admitted to knowing Navaratnam and Kayhan, but denied knowing Faizi.
After the interview, police knew McArthur was linked to all three missing men who’s disappearances they were investigating in Project Houston.
It’s unclear whether investigators did a criminal record check on McArthur at the time. If they had it would have shown that the serial killer was convicted of assault for beating a man with a metal pipe in 2001.
McArthur later received a pardon for the conviction and his record was expunged.
CBC News and other media outlets were in court for a year fighting to unseal information in more than 88 heavily-redacted judicial orders obtained by investigators in Project Houston and Project Prism, the investigation which eventually lead police to focus on McArthur.
On Monday morning, Ontario Court Justice Cathy Mocha unsealed most of the information contained in the thousands of pages of warrants and production orders.