News

What a British case says about alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur and police

The cases raise concerns about homophobia when it comes to how police deal with violence against LGBTQ people.

by Rachel Browne
Jul 6 2018, 5:00pm

via Met Police and Facebook

It will likely be years before anyone gets closure from the ongoing serial killer investigation in Toronto involving Bruce McArthur, who is alleged to have murdered eight men, most of whom had ties to the city’s Gay Village. But an eerily similar case of a convicted serial killer in the U.K. may provide insight into what the future has in store for Toronto, and points to persistent patterns when it comes to violence against marginalized people and responses by law enforcement around the world.

In 2016, British chef Stephen Port was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murders of four young gay men in their early 20s he drugged and raped before discarding their lifeless bodies near his flat in the Barking neighbourhood of east London. Gabriel Kovani, Daniel Whitworth, and Jack Taylor were found propped up in or around a church graveyard, and Anthony Walgate was left outside Port’s building. Luring his victims through online dating sites, Port has become known as “The Grindr Killer.”

The murders occurred over the course of 15 months — from 2014 to 2015. And at the time, families of the victims, a British LGBT online news outlet, and community leaders tried to convince police that the deaths were all connected and that a serial killer was at large. But their concerns were rebuffed for months, and police continued to view the deaths as non-suspicious, self-induced drug overdoses — not murders. It wasn’t until relatives of Port’s fourth victim started their own investigation into the deaths that police began to connect the dots, eventually bringing Port to justice.

“We felt from the beginning, it was just ‘another one’ and nothing was taken seriously,” Jack Taylor’s sister Donna told The Telegraph in 2016. She believes that her brother would still be alive if the police had acted sooner. “It's ridiculous. We had to fight from the beginning. We kept pushing for an investigation. It's frustrating as you're talking about someone's life.”

At Port’s trial, a commander from the Metropolitan Police homicide unit admitted: "The evidence we have heard at the trial of Stephen Port does identify that there were potentially missed opportunities."

Now, nearly two years after Port’s conviction, the victims’ families are awaiting a police watchdog probe by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) into 17 officers involved in the initial investigation by the Metropolitan Police. The final IOPC report, expected any day now, is predicted to be “damning,” and an inquest into all four deaths will take place next year. The families are also suing the police service for hundreds of thousands of pounds claiming, in part, that officers failed to link the deaths of Port’s victims due to homophobia.

Sign up for the VICE News Canada Newsletter to get the best of our content delivered to your inbox daily

In a phone interview with VICE News, the lawyer representing the victims’ families said that depending on the IOPC’s findings, the police could subject individual officers to disciplinary proceedings or fire them outright. On a broader level, it could bring about institutional changes to the police service as a whole.

“You come across individual police officers who may hold prejudicial views,” said Andy Petherbridge of Hudgell Solicitors from his office in London. “But given the amount of people within the Met that came into contact with Port or victims’ families, the wider question needs to be whether or not there are institutional failures within the Met, or there’s a system failure.”

“In their [the families’] view, if this had been four females who died, it would have been a different situation,” Petherbridge added.

"In their [the families’] view, if this had been four females who died, it would have been a different situation."

For the families, members of the LGBTQ+ community in the U.K., and criminologists, the Port case provides yet another example of how homophobia continues to taint police operations and the way these types of crimes are handled. It has also further strained the fragile relations between the police and members of the community.

The whole saga shares many similarities with the initial police investigation in Toronto into the disappearances of men from the gay village. Alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur currently faces first-degree murder in the deaths of eight men, most if not all of whom were gay or had ties to the village. McArthur was active on online dating sites and apps, but it’s unclear whether he used them to interact with the alleged murder victims, like in the Port case.

Dating as far back to 2010, many of these men had been reported to police as missing from the village. But up until McArthur was arrested earlier this year, the Toronto Police had for years dismissed concerns from the LGBTQ+ community, and families of the missing men, that a serial killer was targeting the community. Police task forces that operated for years looking into the disappearances hit dead ends. Community members pushed for a more rigorous investigation into the disappearances. A University of Toronto PhD student who researches serial killers contacted the Toronto Police in the summer of 2017 to alert them to her theory that a serial killer was preying on gay men in the city, but the police took no action on it.

In the wake of McArthur’s arrest in January, Toronto’s LGBTQ+ communities have slammed the way officers handled the initial investigation, and relations with the police are once again frayed. Many of McArthur’s alleged victims were men of colour and newcomers to Canada, something that advocates say amplified their lack of power and perhaps factored into how the media and law enforcement viewed their disappearances.

In March, an independent review into how the Toronto Police handled missing persons cases — although not including McArthur's alleged victims as the investigation is ongoing — was approved at the behest of the LGBTQ+ community and Toronto Mayor John Tory. Family members of at least one victim want a public inquiry into police actions during the investigations into the missing men.

David Wilson, a criminologist at Birmingham City University whose research has focused on serial killers around the world, has been following both the Port and McArthur cases, and says they both point to troubling missteps by police that are repeated around the world when it comes to serial murders.

“Whether we’re talking about the Canadian, British, or American police, they are usually very poor at identifying a link in series crime, especially serial murders,” Wilson told VICE News by phone. “This is even more marked when there are issues related to gender or sexuality or race. Whether we’re talking about the Port case or the current case in Toronto, the police have historically been homophobic.”

"Whether we’re talking about the Port case or the current case in Toronto, the police have historically been homophobic."

While places like Toronto, Sydney, and London are known for being “gay-friendly,” Wilson explained that subcultures within these places can be “quite difficult for often straight police officers to begin to comprehend and understand.”

“That also provides a mechanism for serial killers to be able to utilize for their particularly deadly ends,” he said. “If you look at victim groups of serial murderers, by and large, whether we are talking about North America or Western Europe, serial killers only target victims within groups of people. Those dominated by women, or sex workers, and Robert Pickton is the obvious example. There’s one group of men that’s targeted and those are gay men.”

He pointed to a number of British serial killers who have also targeted gay men since the 1970s, who he says got away with it for much longer than they should have. After each of those investigations and subsequent inquests, police vowed to change, but very little did, said Wilson, as displayed by the response to Stephen Port’s victims. And an important reason why history continues to repeat itself, he said, is the lack of representation of open and vocal LGBTQ+ officers.

“You then begin to see that homophobia provides a context in which some men who want to kill other men are able to achieve their objectives,” he continued. “That’s obviously very negative, but it’s also very positive as well because it tells us what we can do to reduce the incidence of serial murder in our community: simply to challenge and eradicate homophobia.”

Const. Danielle Bottineau has served as the Toronto Police’s LGBTQ liaison officer for several years and has been out as a gay woman in her job since she started nearly two decades ago.

“Within the scope of a policing institution, the comfort level of your sexual orientation or gender identity is still not there for people to be out,” she said. “I have a good story, but I know there’s several members who have come to me saying they don’t feel comfortable being out. Why is that? Because the reality is we work in a very male-dominated, heteronormative institution, which we’re trying to break down those barriers.”

“If members are still not feeling comfortable being out within the policing institution, we really need to take a step back and ask why that is. Prejudices and biases are coming into play,” she continued.

"If members are still not feeling comfortable being out within the policing institution, we really need to take a step back and ask why that is."

When it comes to external police relations with city’s gay community, Toronto has had many ups and downs over the years — Police Chief Mark Saunders recently apologized for the so-called “bathhouse raids” on night in 1981 when more than 250 gay men were arrested. Things have clearly hit a new low in the wake of the missing and murdered men from the Gay Village, and the way the McArthur investigation was handled at the outset.

“The reality is that it’s strained,” Bottineau told VICE News. “We have never been able to fully recover from any one conversation. But in saying that, it’s a work in progress … We need to start doing a better job when it comes to the marginalized and racialized members of our community.”

Bottineau explained that in December of 2017, about a month before McArthur was first arrested, she and another officer put together a “very aggressive outreach strategy” that involves connecting with LGBTQ+ community organizations including groups that work with queer refugees and people of colour. She said they are also in the midst of developing a way for community members to give feedback and check in with how changes are coming about.

“We’re asking not to go in and talk to them, but if they can provide space for us to come and listen to them,” she said. “We need to do a better job at listening to community members, to loved ones … We can go into those spaces and say we’re listening all we want, but if there’s nothing at the end of it for them to hold us accountable to, then it’s all for naught.”

Cover Image: Stephen Port and Bruce McArthur (Met Police and Facebook.)