In the past decade, as the LGBTQ community in the U.S. became more aware of, and outraged about, continued attacks (including fatal ones) on transgender women of color, Canada was consumed with its own queer crisis: the disappearance of at least eight men who frequented Toronto’s closely knit Gay Village area—six of them immigrants and refugees from the Middle East or South Asia. Finally, in 2019, Bruce McArthur, a middle-aged white man, pled guilty to the murders of all eight men, whose remains he had buried on the grounds of a suburban landscaping job, and was sentenced to life in prison.
But what then emerged, as it had intermittently in recent past years, was outrage at the Toronto Police Service (TPS). It had long failed to connect so many obvious dots, to pursue a theory that many in the Gay Village had known in their guts for some time: That there was a serial killer afoot, one who preyed particularly on vulnerable, marginalized men whose disappearances would not cause too much social uproar.
Montreal-based Justin Ling, a longtime gay freelance journalist for outlets including Vice, The Guardian, and Canada’s Globe and Mail and National Post, stayed on the story for much of the past five years, continuing to run down leads and make connections among the murders even when the police were not. He is the author of 2020’s Missing From the Village: The Story of Serial Killer Bruce McArthur, the Search for Justice, and the System That Failed Toronto’s Queer Community (McClelland & Stewart, $24.95), a book version of his investigative work on the case and a deeper dive into why police dropped the ball for so long. It’s also an in-depth and loving look at Toronto’s diverse, international, and politically charged LGBTQ community—and at the lives shattered by the disappearances of McArthur’s victims.
Ling chatted with TheBody about his book.
Tim Murphy: Hi there, Justin, thanks for taking time to talk to us. So, the book came out last September, a year and a half after McArthur was sentenced to life in prison. How has the book been received, especially by those in the story?
Justin Ling: I think the response has been really good. I heard from nobody intimately involved with the story that they were surprised or upset with the details in there. The only thing was, in the days after the book came out, I ended up meeting with the first victim of Bruce McArthur in 2001 [who was assaulted but not murdered]. He’d turned down efforts on my part to talk when I was working on the book, so I worked from court documents and transcripts. So we met and chatted for hours, and he was not super happy how his character came off in the book, and rightfully so, because police said that he was a sex worker, whereas in fact he’d been out of the business for several years before [the incident]. He actually ended up working for the TPS after the assault because he was so upset about how TPS had treated him. But the assault did lead to McArthur being charged and banned from the Village for many years.
Murphy: How much of the narrative of the book was not in the various articles you wrote prior?
Ling: By the time I started the book, I’d published huge volumes of material on the case. But with a book, you can zoom out and zoom in more, and you can also bluntly state your own opinions. I learned a lot of stuff after I stopped writing stories on it, and even after I did a CBC podcast on it.
Murphy: So the book is very much about your own journalistic process as well as the murders themselves. How did you get turned onto the story and what was your own arc with covering it?
Ling: On a hot summer day in 2015, it dawned on me that I’d seen the story [of the first three murders to go public] two years prior, and it struck me that something was wrong. In Toronto in the summer of 2013, there was a ubiquitous feeling that a serial killer was targeting the [Gay] Village, and in that moment, the police were actually taking it seriously, coming out and saying that they had three linked cases. They put up posters and spoke a lot to LGBTQ media.
But then they shut down the investigation without so much as a press release. So, for me, in 2015, that sparked a five-year odyssey to learn what happened. Men were actually continuing to go missing, and the police weren’t really keeping track. So I made the effort to see if I could find out what led to those men disappearing. I didn’t think I was going to solve the murders, which I didn’t. But I wanted to show the absurdity of thinking that these men had just picked up and walked off—or, in the police’s words, had just “vacated their lives.” That underscored this assumption that they’d do that just because they were immigrants or refugees. “We think he may have gone back to [his home country]”—I heard that from police a thousand times.
Murphy: What was the arc of your own process?
Ling: It’s not as though I spent every waking moment on it. You can’t—especially as you hit roadblocks. But I never let it go. I was constantly going into pitch meetings in my newsroom to get people interested again in the case, to present new angles. That’s the mentality police forces need—to have a team of people who constantly go back to cases and don’t just let them sit in a folder. It was so frustrating to me that I, a freelancer, kept scratching at this story while TPS never went back to it between February 2014 and June 2017. In that time, there was nothing from them.
Murphy: What was the biggest turning point for you?
Ling: When I first started, the police would suggest I was being hysterical. Every officer said to me, “There’s no serial killer here.” I internalized that to the point where, in the days after Toronto Pride in 2017, when people started telling me that Andrew Kinsman had disappeared, I initially said, “Yeah, I don’t think there’s a connection. Andrew’s white, this looks different.” But after talking to more people, I thought, “Oh, shit—the likelihood of a connection here is really high.” Or perhaps, alternatively, that there was another killer out there.
Then, in the days after that, TPS announced another disappearance from April 17 that they’d never connected back [to the previous ones]. It was like a thunderclap. A town hall was organized, and it felt like the entire community was screaming in unison at the TPS. They’d sent a small contingent of officers to placate the crowd, and it went over so poorly.
But then the buzz dissipated again. TPS was actually working hard, but behind closed doors. That fall and winter, I thought, “They won’t solve this unless [the killer] kills someone else.” So when they actually arrested McArthur in January 2018, it was a huge relief.
Murphy: You were immersed in this very dark story for so long. What was it like for you emotionally?
Ling: There were definitely times when I had a good cry or took up smoking again. I’ve covered a lot of very unpleasant stories over my career. I was in lockdown when a gunman stormed Parliament in 2014. I have coping mechanisms. I’m doing OK. I don’t think I’ve experienced PTSD like colleagues of mine have after major stories.
But the families and friends of McArthur’s victims—they’ve experienced PTSD in very real terms. They don’t sleep well anymore, have had to leave their jobs due to physical pain, headaches, substance abuse. They’ve also been harassed by people in the media and true-crime fanatics. Some of them are still going through hell from documentary film crews that refuse to take no for an answer.
Murphy: So six of McArthur’s eight victims—at least the ones we know of—were refugees from the Middle East or South Asia, and Toronto is a very internationally diverse city with huge populations of immigrants and refugees from all over. And Canada generally has a reputation as being more welcoming to refugees and immigrants than the U.S. Is there anything particularly Torontonian, or Canadian, about this story? Most Americans don’t know a lot about the nuances of Canada, despite our proximity.
Ling: In many regards, there’s nothing unique. It could’ve happened in New York, Los Angeles—and, indeed, in the last 20 years, we’ve seen significant cases of violence against LGBTQ people, particularly trans women, throughout North America. What’s unique here is really how colossally the police screwed up and McArthur was able to go on killing for so long. I think more police departments everywhere need to look at these homicides and analyze if they could be the work of serial offenders.
But it’s true, Toronto is an incredibly multicultural city with a huge diversity of first-, second-, and third-generation refugees who’ve come in different waves fleeing different crises around the world—to an extent you don’t see in many other North American cities. And while Canada overall is pretty welcoming for LGBTQ refugees, it can still be hostile to those who don’t fit a certain profile. I’ve covered numerous cases of LGBTQ people being grilled by immigrant judges who don’t believe their stories and actually revictimize them. There was a case where a bisexual Ugandan woman was accused by a judge of lying about being assaulted for her sexuality—because she had a kid.
Murphy: You say in the book that you think the police and society in general see queer people as more disposable. Yet we do see the police working on the cases quite hard at times, and indeed, in the end, they did solve it, going so far as to completely upend a woman’s property to exhume and analyze human remains. So how specifically do you think that police did not measure up because of some kind of implicit bias toward the queer victims?
Ling: I think mainly in their decision to end the investigation in February 2014. After that, every single time someone was reported missing and the investigation was not linked back to the first three men was an absolute travesty. You would not have a situation in Toronto where affluent white women were disappearing and the case investigations were not linked. But with queer people, you’re just able to move on.
Murphy: Ultimately, what is the book about to you? What do you want people to take away from it?
Ling: I think it’s about the fact that we don’t have to accept deficiencies in policing. For too long, we’ve been accustomed to the idea that this is a fact of life, that people will disappear and get killed and that’s just how it is. But police forces are not some alien body we have no control over. They’re the products of political structures that we’ve created, that we can fix. This is not 1975 anymore. Queer people now have a level of political power. How many more cases before we finally stand up and say, “No, we’re not OK with you refusing to recruit queer officers, or using sex-work laws to make trans people’s lives more difficult?” This is well within our capabilities.
Murphy: But how do you square that desire to demand more of the police with the now widespread calls to defund or even abolish the police?
Ling: We do need to defund them in certain regards. We should not have a massively funded unit exist to harass peaceful protesters, but we should have more time, attention, and care spent on things like missing persons and mental health checks—maybe not staffed entirely by police.