On April 30th, 2017, Selim Esen was reported missing to the Toronto Police. On June 29th, 2017, Andrew Kinsman was reported missing to the Toronto Police. In early July 2017, the need to create a dedicated task force to investigate their disappearances was identified. The mandate of Project PRISM was to investigate these two disappearances but also keeping an open mind to three previous missing men, Skandaraj Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi and Majeed Kayhan whose disappearances were investigated during Project Houston in 2013.
The team commenced what turned out to be one of the largest investigations in the history of the Toronto Police Service. During the course of the investigation, the team was successful in identifying Bruce McArthur as someone who could not be excluded in the disappearance of Andrew Kinsman. Over the next few months the team worked to develop McArthur into a person of interest and then a suspect, finally obtaining grounds to arrest him for Murder on January 17th, 2018.
The project team continued to manage the investigation consisting of one of the largest forensic investigations in Toronto’s history. More than 1800 exhibits were seized and 18,000 photographs were taken during this investigation. Searches of 100 properties utilizing cadaver detection dogs from multiple jurisdictions were conducted. The team also liaised with police services all over the world who reported possible missing person linkages to Bruce McArthur. On February 28, 2019, Bruce McArthur plead guilty to 8 counts of first degree murder.
In this interview, Steve Smith, Detective Sergeant with the Toronto Police Service discusses the case as well as lessons learned and shares tips for other agencies working larger cases and across jurisdictions. He also shares two other unique cases that have stuck with him over the years, including one that reads like a movie script.
Laura: Thank you for tuning into our annual video series from the International Symposium on Human Identification. Today, we’re very lucky to be joined by Steve Smith from the Toronto Police Department. If you can tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and also, I think, the Toronto Police Service, would be more accurate.
Steve: Thanks for having me Laura. My name is Steve Smith, and I’m an acting Detective Sergeant with the Homicide and Missing Persons Unit with the Toronto Police Service in Toronto, Ontario. I’ve been on the service for 26 years now. I’ve done a myriad of different things: drug squad, rope squad, hold-up squad, and now homicide and missing persons.
Laura: Wow, that’s a lot of experience. We’re really lucky to have you and I know this year you’re talking about a very complicated case. I believe it started in 2017, with looking for two missing persons, called Project Prism, but it turned into something much, much more. Maybe you can tell us a little the background. You reviewed all pieces of the case to make sure everything was covered, so we’d love to hear your take on it.
Steve: I did. So, I wasn’t one of the original investigators on it. There were a whole myriad of people who joined the team, and it did, it started with a couple of missing people in the downtown Gay Village in Toronto, which is a large, vibrant community. We had a number of people… it started with two that were missing and we couldn’t really connect them at that point, but then it got up to three and four people and it started to become where we were looking at and saying, “Are there connections between this or are there not connections between this?” It was very difficult, just because of some of the people involved. Some of their lifestyles weren’t fully out. Some of them lived outside of the city of Toronto. Some of them just came down for entertainment purposes. So, it was hard to connect all of these people in one place or to put them together and say, “Definitely, these people are all connected as missing.” And as you know, missing people are the hardest thing to investigate, because when people disappear without a trace, there’s a million different reasons why they could disappear with only one being foul play.
Laura: Absolutely. And, to complicate this case further, you had so many Crimestopper’s tips, there were so many pieces of evidence. You had to go through an enormous amount to link everything together. Can you talk about that?
Steve: That’s right. Once the investigators went to the media, there was a huge glut of people providing information. And, information as you know, is great, but every single piece has to be followed up to the full extent. At some points in this investigation, it did give us some red herrings, and very, very good red herrings, I have to say, where people were followed up on and other crimes were determined, but in the end, they weren’t involved in the disappearance of these men, so it’s a very, very intricate web that that weaved.
Laura: With such a daunting task, since you did review all this, is there any advice you would give other teams who might be looking at something like this?
Steve: If you get into something like this, obviously, once everyone’s out of the way of harm and you’ve been able to apprehend the offender, you slow everything down. Slow everything right down and make sure you have all the best people or financial resources and make sure you go over everything. Every possible case. Every possible link bit by bit in order to ensure that everything is covered within the case.
Laura: So, how were you ultimately able to identify Bruce McArthur as a person of interest and then a suspect and arrest him eventually?
Steve: You know what? It was actually great investigative work by the team. When Mr. Kinsman went missing, he was a pillar of the community and he was meeting up with people from the community everyday. He also had his pets at home that loved more than anything in the world. So, when he went missing it was an anomaly within the community and that really brought a lot of interest from the community and we were able to definitely say because he lived and worked and played down in the community, he had definitely went missing from the community. So when investigators were able to go look into Mr. Kinsman’s lifestyle, they were able to find a meeting chart where he said he was going to meet someone named Bruce, and then a video canvas of the area was able to turn up a vehicle that was linked to Mr. McArthur and from there everything really started to take off and the investigation really started to flourish.
Laura: It’s incredible to read about it after the fact, because it sounds like ultimately more than 100 properties were searched to make sure you were covering every single person connected to McArthur?
Steve: No stone was left unturned in this. We had the support of everybody in our upper management, of the city, of the provence. Everybody was chipping in to provide resources. Other services were helping us out. We had a huge team that was investigating this and they went to every length to make sure that every stone was turned and there wasn’t going to be a victim that we didn’t find or that we didn’t return to their family.
Laura: And part of that process, I believe, involved missing persons from other countries as well.
Steve: Absolutely. There were some trips overseas, and as I said, they weren’t directly involved with Mr. McArthur, but they did turn up other criminality through other countries and through Canada. A lot of people ended up being arrested because of the involvement of this investigation.
Laura: Because of your wide-ranging experience with that, maybe there’s some tips for other police departments who are working internationally. What does that bring up?
Steve: Yeah, I mean, it always makes sense to make connections whether it’s in your local area, within a larger area, within the United States, Canada, North America, and as well as Europe. As far as you can go. If you can make contacts, because it’s far easier if you can call someone up that you know and you have a personal relationship and you can talk to them and tell them what you have, see if they have anything within their cases as well. We’ve had a number of cases lately where we’ve been doing them. We’ve been able to contact people within certain jurisdictions and have them go through their events for us to see if anything matches up. That’s the best way to cover things often to make sure that nothing’s missed.
Laura: Those are good tips, because I’m sure it gets complicated when you’re looking across borders.
Steve: Oh absolutely. All of these investigations get complicated and there’s so much to them and you don’t want to miss that one thing that may lead you to who knows what? Something else big.
Laura: And in this case, you actually had a suspect who pled guilty. It sounds like, McArthur then pled guilty to eight counts.
Steve: He did. He’ll never get out of jail in Canada. He’ll be in jail for the rest of his life. He’s not a young man, and I just don’t see him ever getting out of jail now.
Laura: For viewers who don’t know about the case, it sounds like a lot of his victims really knew him and trusted him explicitly. What did you find out as you were learning more?
Steve: As we’ve stated before, people didn’t see this side of Bruce McArthur. He was kind of the guy that played Santa. He was the friendly landscaper. He was everybody’s friend in the community. There were some red flags in some of his relationships, but I mean, most of these people had relationships with him, whether that be a personal relationship or a sexual relationship, and in the end, Mr. McArthur killed them.
Laura: It’s hard to imagine that. I believe there were some properties too where you discovered bodies and the owners of the properties had no idea. What was that like for them? How did you manage that?
Steve: Yeah, I can’t even imagine what it was like for them. They were obviously helping Mr. McArthur out with his landscaping business allowing him access to their properties for whatever he needed and in the end, they find bodies put into their planters and buried on their property and they were great about it. They were very helpful with the police, even though everything they were going through, they always helped out anyway they possibly could, and I can’t imagine what they had to go through with that thinking their friend, someone they were trying to help out, and this is how they were repaid with murdered people being placed on their properties.
Laura: Wow, and the team that investigated worked very closely with the families throughout this. Do you have any tips for how to do that? That must be incredibly difficult.
Steve: Yeah, obviously as police officers, we have to do everything we can to assist the families who are going through something like this, but one of the things that we do is bring in professional help. Professional social workers. People that are trained in this sort of thing – in grief training, and they’re able to come in and help these families and help them through the entire process through the grief that they’re feeling immediately all the way to the court process. So that’s a huge tip is to always bring in the professionals.
Laura: This was a huge, huge, case. Looking back on your career, have you seen anything like this?
Steve: I haven’t seen anything to this magnitude, no, and not involving this many victims. I haven’t seen anything that matches up to this at all.
Laura: It’s really remarkable that you were able to take all of those different pieces and come to the conclusion that you did.
Steve: Yeah, it shows amazing teamwork with everyone that was involved. It shows amazing advances with science that we have now, the DNA testing, the ability to match up bone fragments. It’s an amazing process and everybody worked seamlessly. Worked together and seamlessly to make sure that everybody was recovered and returned to their families as best they could be.
Laura: That’s something that I really appreciate seeing at the symposium is that everyone really does pull together from different disciplines to make sure there is justice.
Steve: Yeah, I mean if you don’t have that, if you don’t have the teamwork, and you don’t have the ability to bring in all these experts in these fields, I mean, as you know, you just struggle in trying to bring finality to these cases and the teamwork is just so huge and having the experts come in and provide us with this information and everybody working together to do their own little piece. It’s the only way to do it.
Laura: Well we really do appreciate hearing about that. Shifting gears a little bit, you know, you have decades of experience. Are there any cases that stand out that may be of interest to this audience?
Steve: There’s two cases that really stick out to me. One is when I was in the bank robbery section and it’s called the Vaulter Bandit. So, it was 21 robberies throughout Canada and the person would come in, he’d vault the counters, he’d go to the safe and collect himself large amounts of money and then would seemingly disappear and poof, and we wouldn’t see him again until eight months, a year, two years down the road when another robbery would occur. This occurred over a number of years. We were having a hard time figuring out… Because no one knew this person. Even though he was slightly cover himself, nobody knew him. Then we were lucky enough in one robbery, he actually moved one of the bait packs that set off a GPS timer, so he knew he was in trouble, so he’d come in dressed as a construction worker and he actually dropped one of his pens into the vault and he’d shut the vault door, he came back trying to get it open, but had to leave, and we were able to take that pen and use it for DNA. There was nothing in Canada, but we were actually able to get a hit out of the US. So, he had been doing bank robberies in the US previously in Georgia and Florida, and he had actually spent time in a federal penitentiary in Florida, and he had got out. He actually fled and he was wanted within the US on a parole violation, and what he had done is his mother had French citizenship, so he moved to France. So, he was actually flying in from France to do robberies in Canada and taking the money back to France and living the life up in the French Alps. It was an unbelievable case, and we were able to identify him, but the problem is that when he’s in France, France doesn’t extradite his citizens, so now we had to do a bunch of tracking warrants and follow him all through Europe until he actually left the French border. So, we were lucky enough at one point, he was going to a resort in the northern part of France and he had two choices: he could have stayed in France, which would have been longer, or he could cross into Switzerland over a bridge, and as soon as he crossed over, we had people waiting to arrest him. So we arrested him and extradited him from Switzerland, brought him back, and when we were on the plane, he even tried to fake a heart attack over French airspace to try to force the plane to land in Paris so he couldn’t be extradited. We were able to push the plane over to London. He was faking the whole thing and then he threw a fit and wouldn’t get back on the plane. It was a whole process, but we ended up getting him back here and he was convicted to 17 years in jail for it.
Laura: Ok, unbelievable. That is remarkable work to think that a forgotten pen, first of all, in a vault, and then to be able to track him and pick him up in Switzerland and then the heart attack. Has anyone made a move about this yet?
Steve: No, and that’s the thing. I’m surprised that nobody’s picked up on it, because it is almost exactly like following a movie script, but that’s exactly what it was. So, there was that case, and then obviously, the case of Christine Jessop, a nine-year-old girl in Ontario in the 80s that went missing, and she was found sexually assaulted and deceased. It was 36 years and we hadn’t been able to identify the offender and we were able to use genetic genealogy to identify the offender. The interesting thing about this case is someone was able wrongfully convicted for her murder, and then he was acquitted through DNA evidence when it came in in the 90s. He was finally acquitted and we were able to use genetic genealogy and the process to identify the true offender and completely exonerate the person who was wrongfully convicted.
Laura: That is remarkable. Genetic genealogy has been in the news so much. Is that the first time it’s been used in Canada?
Steve: It was used a couple of other times in Canada, but that was the first time that it was actually brought to the forefront and it was brought out in the media and we actually said this is what we utilized and this is the actual offender. So, we were able to bring that through the media to bring a spotlight onto genetic genealogy, and lucky enough, our provincial government, the Solicitor General’s Office in Ontario, has now provided us with $1.5 million grant to proceed with genetic genealogy in Toronto and the surrounding areas in Ontario.
Laura: That is remarkable. That really gives you a lot of latitude to move that forward. What was the public reaction when this first came out?
Steve: Well this was obviously a case that was very close to people’s hearts in Ontario, and when this first came out, people were amazed that we were actually able to, after all these years, identify the person that was responsible for killing Christine. It was obviously a terrible situation whenever a child goes missing, but to have a child murdered, sexually assaulted, people were just astonished that we were able to do that. And then, of course, on the other side, you do have some people that come forward and are worried about people’s rights involved in the genetic genealogy. But we use a process in Toronto where we’re very strict on what we do and how we do it, so we have no interest in breaching anybody’s rights that isn’t willing to help out with police investigations.
Laura: Your approach has been very interesting to read about for me, and the fact that you also started a missing person’s unit. Did the McArthur case, the first case that we were talking about, did that play into that?
Steve: It did. So, we actually had a judicial review to see if we missed anything with the missing persons, and it was determined that the judge came back with 151 recommendations and we’re in the process of implementing all those 151 recommendations now. There was a push to start a missing persons unit at that time, but it’s really helpful for us now and we’ve developed the unit with eight detective constables, 1 detective, we’re getting a second detective, and we also have a clerk, and research analysts. It’s become quite a big unit and we’re becoming a lot more proactive. So, we’re going out on any missing person where there’s any thoughts that there may be foul play or there may be something going on. We’re now deploying into the divisions throughout the city to help out with the missing persons cases.
Laura: That must mean a lot to a large police service like yours that covers such a great area.
Steve: Yeah, we have about 4,000 missing persons a year. I mean, some of those leave and come back. Some of them are willfully missing, so they just want to go out and start a new life somewhere else. But, we still have to track these people down to make sure that they’re alright and they’re doing this on their own free will, so there’s a lot of processes to it, and as we discussed before, there’s a million reasons why someone will go missing. Some of their own volition, some on someone else’s volition, some with criminality to it, so we have to be very conscious of all these different reasons why someone goes missing, and our missing persons unit now is phenomenal. The job they’re doing is amazing and it’s cutting edge on what they’re bringing in.
Laura: 4,000 is a lot to investigate in a year. So, that’s saying something. Wow.
Steve: Yeah, and we do leave most of those cases with the divisional detectives, but we are always there to help and anything that hits a certain threshold, we will move in and take that case over, but we are going out and making sure that the detectives have all the support that they need in the community to bring these people back as quickly as possible.
Laura: Boy, having a specialized unit, not everyone has that, so that’s remarkable.
Steve: Yes, and having it under the homicide umbrella allows it that if it does go criminal, we’ve got the homicide investigators right next to the missing persons. And we also have a lot of historical missing persons, so we have our cold case unit that works in tandem with the missing persons unit as well. So it’s a great system where everyone works together and we come to the best possible solution that we can.
Laura: We are very lucky to have you speaking at our 33rd ISHI this year, so we so appreciate it. Is there anything that we missed or anything else that you want to talk about before we wrap up?
Steve: I don’t think so. I think we covered a lot of topics and most of the stuff that we want to talk about, so I don’t think there’s anything we’re forgetting.
Laura: I think then my only question for you is since it’s so early in the process and it’s your first year here, why did you feel it was important to come and speak with us?
Steve: Well I was offered the chance to come down and speak. I’ve known about ISHI for a few years, and I’ve always wanted to come down. We just haven’t, obviously through Covid, been able to make that connection, but I’m able to come next year, and hopefully we’re able to bring back some of our investigators next year – some of our missing persons investigators and some of our homicide or homicide cold case investigators. I think I’ll bring a larger contingent next year. That would be amazing.
Laura: We would love that and we’re so glad you’re here and in person. Thank you so much.
Steve: Thank you for offering me the opportunity.
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