Marginalized, exposed and vulnerable:

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How the 1970’s “Bag Murders” in Manhattan’s leather scene parallel the 2017 “Gay Village Slayings” in Toronto.

Alleged Serial Killer, Bruce McArthur

“The only way you’ll prosecute a murder these days is if you got a guy downtown signing a confession!”

These are among the first words spoken in the 1980 movie Cruising, starring Al Pacino as Steve Burns, a detective ordered to go undercover in New York City’s underground gay scene in the late 1970’s. His target: a meticulous psychopath who’s scouring popular cruising spots then viciously butchering his prey after sex. The film is loosely based on the actual grisly murders that played out in Manhattan from 1978-1979, known as “The Bag Murders.”

Scene from movie Cruising

“Did you read about the killings?” Detective Steve Burns’ neighbour asks him over lunch.
“Homo killer on the prowl! It’s the talk of every gay bar in town!”

The story spread like wildfire as gay men in their late 20’s were being hunted and murdered, one after the other, but solid evidence leading to a suspect proved scarce. The New York City Police Department grew desperate as criticism of how they were handling the case inflated and the pressure to catch the killer brought out systemic homophobia; the marginalized gay community was either wrongfully accused or left exposed to the mercy of a maniac.

In the 1970’s, the only way for gay men to safely meet one another for sexual gratification was in the city’s underground gay circuit – sex positive parties inside fetish and leather gay bars. They were private and exclusive and hidden. Today, while the leather scene is still popular, single gay men are more easily accessible on social apps like Grindr, Scruff, and the more sexually adventurous BBRT (Bareback Real Time), an online equivalent to the hardcore BDSM parties of the 1970’s and 80’s.

In Cruising, Detective Steve Burns finds a shadowy character named Stuart Richards responsible for the heinous crimes. Off-screen, the homicides of six gay men in Greenwich Village is believed to have been carried out by Paul Bateson, an American x-ray technician who was only convicted of murder after a seventh man (film critic Addison Verrill, 36) was found relentlessly beaten and stabbed to death in his flat. The murder leads police to Bateson and once in custody, he boasts of killing, dismembering, bagging and then dumping six other men in the Hudson River. Despite confessing, he was never legally charged with the murders, and they technically remain unsolved. Some of the victims are unidentified to this very day.

Similarly, in Toronto, when three men went missing in the Church & Wellesley Village from 2010-2012, residents and visitors raised an eyebrow. Three Middle Eastern men, all in their forties and fifties, vanished after a night out at a local gay bar. See a pattern?

The Toronto Police Service labelled the investigation “Project Houston,” but years went by without any leads. Rumours began circulating within the community that the three missing men were targeted by a local serial killer, but no evidence of this has ever surfaced until now. On Monday, January 29, 2018, Toronto Police revealed that one of the three missing men’s skeletal remains were found in large planters at one of the properties connected to McArthur. Two other men were identified, as well, bringing the number of known victims to five.

A resident in Toronto’s LGBT community who wishes to simply go by “AS,” exclusively tells us that Torontonian Bruce McArthur, 66, “was a regular at [local bar name we chose not to name] since it’s opening back in November of ‘94. He seemed to target mostly ethnic men with facial hair. I was one of them.”

The details are jarring: “Bruce used to offer me rides in his van to my place, which was nearby, but I declined each time. It would’ve been silly to accept!” AS says. “He would be parked in his van at the gas station on Wellesley at Jarvis, waiting to talk to me. He wanted to know when the two of us would get together. I wasn’t really interested in him.”

AS also recalls seeing McArthur with two of the three missing men from the Project Houston investigation in 2011-2012, the last years either of them was seen.

Since the early 2010’s, the number of missing men (and women) from Toronto’s Church & Wellesley Village has more than doubled. The news of more missing/murdered persons has caused a rippling uproar of anger and paranoia, and the community wants their concerns to be taken more seriously.

The Toronto Police Service denounced the possibility of a serial killer for eight full years. It wasn’t until after they came across evidence connecting Bruce McArthur to two of the missing men from 2017 – and now three more including one from 2012’s “Project Houston” – that they withdrew their statement and acknowledged Toronto was exposed to a serial killer.

As of Monday, January 29, 2018, McArthur is being charged with five counts of first-degree murder. All five victims have been identified, and though some people have found closure, the death toll is expected to grow as a catalogue of victims and future targets was recovered from McArthur’s Thorncliffe Park residential building in Toronto.

It’s public knowledge that McArthur frequented the dating site and apps Scruff – back in the 1970’s, police would have to go undercover in the bars to catch a predator. Now they go undercover online and rely on the community’s tips and leads, should they take them with anything other than a grain of salt.

Nobody knows how the rest of the “Gay Village Slayings” will play out, but anyone engaging in hookups can never be too careful. There is no shame in the game, but sexual prowess in the gay community has always come with possible threats like these.

Alleged Serial Killer, Bruce McArthur, was occasionally employed as a local mall Santa in Toronto

When the evil that lurks in safe space comes from the inside, you just never know who you’re rubbing elbows with.