Maroon Ayoub was still in bed when he received a message from an online friend who went by the username "Menhaz."
Through bleary eyes, he read the private message on Discord, a chat app aimed at gamers, and it shook him to his core.
“I just slaughtered my entire family, and will most likely spend the rest of my life in jail if I manage to survive,” the Menhaz account wrote. “I hope I made you laugh at one point or another, I hope you remember the good times. I will miss you all.”
“Nani [Japanese for 'what'],” Ayoub replied. “I just woke up.”
“I’m sorry,” responded his online friend. “Do you want the pics?”
The Menhaz account then sent Ayoub a collection of photos which allegedly depicted his family members lying dead on the ground, covered in blood, with their throats cut. Online acquaintances of both Ayoub and the Menhaz account received similar messages.
It was an utterly shocking moment for a group of friends built around one of the most niche things imaginable: a private server for Perfect World, a Chinese massively multiplayer game launched in 2005. The acquaintances had congregated in the game server, called Perfect World Void, and its discussion forums for years.
This unlikely group of gamers were, for the moment, the only people in the world privy to a quadruple homicide in progress. It's an impossible situation: What can a group of friends who have never met, and who don't know each other's real names, do when faced with a possible murder spree?
They decided to act, Ayoub told VICE, working to track the person behind the Menhaz account's real-world address and alerting police.
Several hours later, in the afternoon on July 28, police attended a home in Markham, Ontario for a wellness check. Once there, they found a disturbing scene. Inside the house were the bodies of 21-year-old Malesa Zaman, 59-year-old Moniruz Zaman, 50-year-old Momotaz Begum, and 70-year-old Firoza Begum. Police arrested a 23-year-old man named Menhaz Zaman at the scene and charged him with four counts of first-degree murder.
Police say they received information that spurred them to conduct the check-in, but wouldn't clarify what that information was nor would they confirm any of VICE’s information. A police spokesperson told VICE that since Zaman is already in custody, there is no public safety risk. The police are being careful with what they publicly confirm so as not to taint a future case against him. (The courts have not tested the charges against Zaman, nor established that he operated the Menhaz accounts on Discord and the PWV server and forums, so VICE will be referring to Menhaz Zaman as "Zaman" and the account which contacted the gamers as "Menhaz.")
While we can't know what really happened inside that bloody Markham home, the gamers who say they were unwittingly thrust into the middle of the grisly crime have come forward to share their version of events.
The following account is built from interviews with several gamers involved, who shared screenshots from the night in question with VICE.
The members of the Perfect World Void (PWV) community had engaged with the Menhaz account for a long time, some for over half a decade. Several players who spoke to VICE considered him a good friend, and they played and conversed online almost every day.
They knew a bit about him: he was a Canadian who said he was attending university, he loved gaming, and often he would be playing when they logged in and still going at it when they logged off. The person they only knew as "Menhaz" played as an elf priest in the game, a class known to be good at both supporting and offensive capabilities. Players who spent time with him said he enjoyed taking on other players in one-on-one battles.
"When he started saying he would kill his family, I think most people like me just thought of it as another weird dark joke."
Friends of the Menhaz account described him as a troll. For the most part, the trolling was light-hearted, they said, but that changed over the last year. He told them that he was a former Muslim, and he began to deride his former religion and use racial slurs. He began talking about killing himself and his family as early as March, according to chat logs that VICE has seen, a disturbing development that PWV players considered a bad joke.
This is the internet, after all; people threaten to kill other people, and worse, every single day online. Often, this kind of provocation is veiled in layers of internet-bred irony and may be brushed off as humor—until it explodes into terrifying reality.
“In the last months his humour became extremely dark over time, he talked about suicide a lot but, to me at least, he all made it seem like a dark joke,” one PWV acquaintance who didn’t want to be named said. “When he started saying he would kill his family, I think most people like me just thought of it as another weird dark joke. Even when he attached a date to when he would do the gruesome act, I just thought he wanted to make it even darker and then troll everyone on the date he said.”
The Menhaz account’s actions became so extreme that on July 11 he was banned from the PWV server for what one moderator described as “racist statements he repeatedly made.” Another longtime online friend said that on July 25—the Thursday before the murders—the Menhaz account said in a group chat his life was about to end because someone had tipped off the authorities regarding some sort of plan that he had hatched.
“Thursday's when he got to a group chat and just said ‘I'm here just have fun’ and posted random pictures from the game,” said the friend. “Then randomly he said that his life was going to end. He said somebody snitched on him so he has to do it as soon as possible.”
Despite earlier provocations, nobody realized what "it" meant, or the grisly drama that they were about to be drawn into.
After that, the Menhaz account went quiet. One PWV member—who did not want to be named, and whom we'll call "John"—noticed this, and on Saturday wrote to him in a small group chat to check up on him. It was around 10 PM EST on Saturday, the evening before the bodies of the slain Zaman family were discovered by police in Markham, and the long night was just beginning.
The Menhaz account told John in a Discord message that he had killed his family, and sent graphic pictures of two women on the ground covered in blood.
“Deep down I knew it was real but I still couldn’t believe [it], I thought he was kidding,” John said. Perhaps, he hoped, his online acquaintance was simply engaging in yet another distasteful troll—more elaborate than before, sure, but could one of their own have really committed such a vicious act?
Disturbed, John went to a Discord chat for Perfect World Void players and asked for people to check if the photos could be found deep in the recesses of the internet. The group searched in vain to find photos of the slain family elsewhere, until the Menhaz account violently snuffed out any remaining doubt.
The Menhaz account said he was going to kill his sister and then sent a picture of a dead woman. To verify that it was his family that he had slain, the account shared a photo of the family together, while they were alive, cutting what appeared to be a birthday cake.
He then told John and others that he was “waiting for his dad to come home to kill him." He said he would be home in “about an hour.”
This was a decisive moment. Not only did they believe the murders were real, but they were ongoing—and there was a ticking clock until the next death.
Needing to do something, John made a chat room on Discord and added the Menhaz account's friends and PWV users who were known to be Canadians.
“I just added whoever was active and I felt could help,” John said. “We tried to reach someone who lived in Canada or can contact the police.”
Soon after, the Menhaz account sent a picture of an older man with his throat slit.
“We tried to save his dad but we couldn’t reach the police in time," John said.
With four people now presumably dead, the Menhaz account began to message numerous people with a similar messages, including to Ayoub, starting with “I just slaughtered my entire family…”
In later messages to Ayoub, the Menhaz account said that he started mass-sharing the images because, deep down, “parts of me wants it to spread faster so I get caught faster and this purgatory I’m in ends.”
Once Ayoub got online after receiving the disturbing messages, he was added to John’s group. “I was immediately contacted by one player who started the conversation with ‘Menhaz committed murder,’ he then added me to a group that contained four other players who were trying to contact the police, but hadn't much information about Menhaz's location,” Ayoub said. Eventually, the group would grow to 10 or so people.
With the Menhaz account claiming that their entire family was dead, the gamers worried that their online acquaintance's spree might not be over. In one set of screenshots shared with VICE, he was asked, “what are you going to do now?” and one of the things he answered with was “go see my girlfriend."
The group dedicated themselves to finding an IP address connected to the Menhaz account. An IP address is a unique identifier for internet-connected devices that can give an indication of their geographic location. If they could find it and connect it to a home address, they might have a shot at alerting the police to the location of their online acquaintance.
Thinking that yet another life may hang in the balance, they continued to converse with the Menhaz account and keep him busy. The Menhaz account kept talking, but he wouldn’t give out his address.
VICE has seen numerous screenshots of these conversations. In them, the Menhaz account talks about having planned the murders for three years and, at one point discusses moving the bodies to different locations in the house so they will photograph better. “Maybe one last group picture,” the Menhaz account wrote.
Finding someone's address online in a short amount of time is an incredibly difficult task. IP addresses can be red herrings, especially if someone is using software such as a VPN—which routes internet traffic through a server in a location other than the user's—or simply logging on using a coffee shop's Wi-Fi.
The team made slow progress, and at times had false finishes. At one point, a PWV administrator pulled an IP address connected to the Menhaz account on the PWV forums. The group thought they had him, but it was an address from New Brunswick; one of the group members knew he didn’t live in that province. Nevertheless, they kept going.
“I lost track of time,” John said. “We pulled up some IP addresses but they were wrong.”
The search eventually paid off. A contingent of the group decided that they might glean information from the Skype account linked to their online friend. It was a good bet. From this account they were able to find an IP address and that indicated he was in the Greater Toronto area. For one member of this team, a user who went by the name Bianca, this upped the stakes. Not only was the person behind the Menhaz account based in Canada, but he was damn close to her.
“Around 3 AM that same night I couldn't sleep,” Bianca said. “This happened only 12 kilometres from me so I became anxious. Earlier that day about one AM he was saying he was going to go visit his ex-girlfriend and we all thought he was going to kill her or something."
“So that motivated me to get the right address.”
An IP address can help identify a users' geographic location, but it's inexact. Imagine trying to call the police in a different country and explaining that you're a person from the internet who thinks someone, whose real name you don't know, just committed a quadruple homicide somewhere in their town. The PWV group knew they needed more.
But they caught a break: After the murders, the Menhaz account began asking for his acquaintances' email addresses so he could send them money via PayPal.
“Just because you’re a good fren [sic] I wanna give you money because I won’t need it where I’m going,” wrote the Menhaz account to one of his friends. “Gave lots of people money already.”
"I did this because I don’t want my parents to feel the shame of having a son like me."
Bianca looked up previous payments coming from Menhaz's PayPal account and found a home address that lined up with the information gleaned from their IP address search. Finally, they'd located a home address connected to the Menhaz account.
John said he believes the whole process took about four to five hours. Bianca contacted police early Sunday morning, she said, and gave them the information.
"I managed to sleep at six AM after calling cops sometime between three and five," she said. "I came back online around 11 AM and [later on in the day] noticed that articles were starting to show up about him getting arrested and was relieved."
At 3 P.M. on Sunday afternoon, police attended the Zaman house where they found four bodies and arrested Menhaz Zaman.
When police finally arrived, the Menhaz account ended his conversation with John simply. “Police are here,” he wrote. “Goodbye.”
On Monday, police laid four charges of first-degree murder against Menhaz Zaman.
In the aftermath, the PWV community is trying to take stock of what happened and at what point Menhaz's trolling should have been seen as outright warning signs of the alleged violence to come.
“It's very fucked up,” one friend told us. “Really made me think about how different everyone can be from what they portray on a game.”
In messages sent to the group on the night of the alleged murders, the Menhaz account explained that his family thought that he was in university. In reality, he was living a lie.
“I started skipping university the first year I entered; it was for mechanical engineering,” reads one of the longer explanations the Menhaz account sent an acquaintance. “Believe me if I could rewind time I would, but after failing half my subjects, I had to repeat my courses. It is here in the second semester I started getting depressed, became an atheist, and ultimately created this plan. So for three years I’ve been telling my parents I go to university, when I was actually hanging out the mall four days a week. The mall is on the same route. I told my parents that my classes weren’t that long, so I would just chill at the mall from 8 am to 1 pm, while also going to the community gym."
He told his family that he was graduating on July 28th, the Menhaz account explained, and that he had to do something before his deception was discovered.
He implied that he killed his family so that they wouldn’t find out how “worthless” he was. He repeatedly referred to himself as “subhuman,” and said he killed his family rather than himself because he was an atheist and scared of death.
“I did this because I don’t want my parents to feel the shame of having a son like me," the account continued. "I chose to kill them instead of me out of cowardliness, due to me being an atheist and believing this is the only life we get. I know it might sound confusing but what’s done is done and what had been planned has been concluded.”
Days removed from that terrible night, some people in the group who worked to alert police are still experiencing this trauma. One person said that they are unable to eat, and others said they have trouble sleeping. Some who just spoke to the Menhaz account during the ordeal said that they wish they did more.
“I should have maybe [paid] more attention to what he said on Thursday,” one long-time friend from the forum said. “I might have had a chance to stop this.”
None of the charges against Menhaz Zaman have been proven in court. His first court appearance will be August 2nd.
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on VICE CA.