It’s early days in the investigation of alleged Toronto serial killer Bruce McArthur, but already comparisons are being made to other notorious murderers, including Jeffrey Dahmer, Robert Pickton, and John Wayne Gacy.
McArthur, 66, a landscaper, has so far been charged with five counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Selim Esen, 44, Andrew Kinsman, 49, Majeed Kayhan, 58, Soroush Mahmudi, 50, and Dean Lisowick, 47. McArthur is gay and several of his alleged victims as well as many of the men still missing had been known to frequent Toronto’s gay village.
Police believe there are more victims—though they have “no idea” how many more—and said Monday that they discovered remains belonging to three individuals in large planters at job sites McArthur worked on as a landscaper.
Kinsman had a sexual relationship with McArthur, police said, and went missing from the gay village, where he was an active community member, last June. Police said Esen also had a relationship with him but they couldn’t specify the nature of it; he disappeared last April from around Yonge and Bloor, not far from the village. Kayhan 58, was also a regular in the village, which is where he met McArthur. According to the Globe and Mail, he pursued a romantic relationship with the landscaper. He went missing in October 2012. Police would not elaborate on the relationship between McArthur and Mahmudi, who went missing from Scarborough in 2015. Police said Lisowick was likely killed between May 2016 and July 2017—Lisowick was not reported missing and stayed in the city’s homeless shelters periodically. The Globe reported that he was a sex worker.
History of violence
Sasha Reid, a PhD candidate in developmental psychology at the University of Toronto and specialist on serial homicide, told VICE one aspect of McArthur’s case that stands out is his 2003 assault conviction for beating a man with a metal pipe.
“In my research, almost 80 percent of serial killers I’ve studied had a prior conviction for assault or sexual violence,” she said. Pickton was charged with attempted murder in 1998 after he stabbed and nearly killed a female sex worker who escaped his farm.
“Nobody wakes up one day and is a serial killer,” added Jooyoung Lee, an associate professor of sociology at the U of T who also researches serial killers. There’s a gradual process, he said, “where initially people engage in fantasy behaviours, where they begin to think about harming others and they begin to experiment and flirt with the idea that they might actually do it.”
Over time, he said, the impulse becomes so strong, the killer will act on it.
Lee told VICE what struck him about the McArthur case is how long members of the LGBT community have been raising a flag about missing men, while police were seemingly slow to address those concerns.
“Police for a number of months openly downplayed the fact that there was a serial killer,” he said.
He said serial killers are generally smart opportunists who know that if they killed someone from a marginalized group “it’s very unlikely to get the same kind of police and media attention that a missing white woman’s case would get.”
Robert Pickton preyed on women who were mainly sex workers or drug users in the Downtown Eastside, which is in part why many believe he was allowed to operate for decades without being caught.
“Often times, if you go back in time, people in these communities have been saying something is amiss for years and it’s only later that people put the pieces together,” Lee said.
Storing bodies nearby
Reid noted how McArthur allegedly buried bodies in planters at properties he worked on around the city. She said that’s a behaviour serial killers are drawn to, for a variety of reasons.
“There’s a spiritual connection between them and the body,” she explained. “They might consume the body, they might take sexual pleasure out of consuming the body, eating it.”
In the later years of his crime spree, Dahmer was known to keep body parts of his victims in his home. Ted Bundy, who killed at least 30 women in the 1970s, was known to revisit the places his victims were buried, sometimes to have sex with their remains.
Reid said another reason for keeping bodies close by is for protection against getting caught—keeping a body in your home allows you to control who would potentially have access to it. Gacy, a serial killer who preyed on more than 30 men and boys in the Chicago area, would stash his victims in the crawl space of his home, where police eventually recovered 26 bodies.
As for the question everyone is wondering—why these killers commit such horrendous acts—Reid said generally speaking, these are people who are hyperreactive to stress, or fear, or insult.
“When they encounter that, they overreact with fatal violence,” she said. “This is why some victims of serial killers are able to escape… they played the game right for that person at that time.”
Police have not yet stated whether or not McArthur’s alleged crimes were sexual in nature. But on the face of it, some aspects of the case seem reminiscent of Dahmer, who raped, murdered, dismembered, and cannibalized young boys and men—primarily black and Asian men—and sometimes performed sex acts with their bodies afterward.
According to the Globe, McArthur had a penchant for rough sexual encounters, and several media reports say police found a young man tied to his bed when they arrested him earlier this month.
Lee said Dennis Rader, also known as the BTK Killer which stands for blind-torture-kill, had vivid fantasies of bondage.
“He wanted to tie people up and would even tie himself up and use strangulation as a way of killing his victims.”
But he said he would be very hesitant to make any generalizations about people into BDSM and killers.
“Ted Bundy wasn’t necessarily into BDSM,” he said. “He said he enjoyed that rush of feeling like god. The thing that’s getting some serial killers off is the idea that they have absolute control over another human being.”
McArthur’s age appears to buck the trend found with most serial killers, Reid said.
“This guy is old for his category,” she said. “Most serial killers who are sexually driven start probably in their late teens, early 20s and then continue on throughout their 30s.” However, the investigation could still reveal that McArthur’s alleged crime spree started a long time ago. The allegations also suggest that McArthur may have “gone dormant” for a period of time.
Reid said other serial killers have taken long breaks too, including Lonnie Franklin Jr., who was nicknamed the “Grim Sleeper” because he appeared to stop killing people between 1988 and 2002. She said a break can be triggered by a killer finding a job, spouse, or something else in their lives that gives them a sense of power.
Both Reid and Lee said it’s not really all that weird that McArthur was a local mall Santa Claus. Gacy was a clown who would dress up for charity events and kids’ parties.
“When [people] encounter the idea of serial killer, they imagine a monster,” said Reid. “That person is still a human being and what they have is a very normal life usually… They just have this part of them, this world that they inhabit, that is a little bit evil.”
Follow Manisha on Twitter.