2017 hasn’t been a particularly good time to be a queer person in Toronto.
I mean, there is still significant division within the community over the demands made by Black Lives Matter in the 2016 Pride Parade, with Pride out roughly $1.3 million this year via lost sponsorship and lowered attendance. Hanlan’s Point, a popular and historically significant gay recreation spot, was closed for most of the summer after record rainfall in the spring washed most of the beach away. And the Church-Wellesley Village has seen an increase in crime, with many small business owners growing increasingly frustrated with a lack of police presence.
I’ve been reluctant to humour gossip within the community, or to jump to conclusions about the whereabouts of these individuals. I’ve definitely been reluctant to assume that any of these cases are connected. In an era of wall-to-wall network procedurals and the fetishization of serial murder, everyone believes that they are an expert on criminal behaviour. Social media only makes this worse by arming individuals with a platform on which to spread misinformation, debate morbid details, or to turn real human trauma into an online game of Clue. “Well, of course there’s a serial killer! This is just like that episode of My Favorite Murder! Or, wait, Hannibal? You get it.”
And even with the complex relationship that the gay community has with local law enforcement, I have been confident that the police are on top of things. (Perhaps that is naive, I know.) In the media, Toronto Police have taken a firm stance on the cases, and are ready to dispel rumours. They set up a specific task force and are armed with information on the cases that is inaccessible to the public. They are the experts, and so I trust them.
And, hell, this is post-gay marriage Canada and a post-Rob Ford Toronto! The Prime Minister of Canada, the Premier of Ontario and the Mayor of Toronto walked together in the Pride Parade! We just received an apology from the government for decades of systemic oppression. This wasn’t like when drag queens were egged in the seventies, or the bathhouse raids occurred in the eighties, or when AIDS ravaged the community in the nineties. This is an era where we are considered equal citizens in the eyes of the law, free from stigma. No need to panic.
Or so I thought, up until the last week.
More people have disappeared within the community, and two have been found dead. In particular, the handling of the Tess Richey case has been deeply troubling, and in comparison to the other missing person cases, the police have a ton of information at their disposal. Something isn’t right.
THE FACTS: Media reported that Richey and a close friend left a local gay bar intoxicated, and met up with two strangers. They were together until about 3am, when the friend left to catch a streetcar. Richey was apparently with one of these individuals until somewhere between 4 and 5am. Then she disappeared. But she left behind a trail of information via apps, including her FitBit and a 4am missed ride from an Uber. Her mother even had a last address from the family’s shared Uber account – 50 Dundonald Street, near the intersection of Dundonald and Church Street.
And yet the police didn’t find her body. Her mother did, five days later in an external stairwell that is visible from the road and two houses down from her last known location. Visible from the road. As in, even a superficial search of the area would have revealed Richey’s location. No one bothered to look. And after Richey’s mother located her daughter’s body, the police prematurely declared it death by “misadventure” within the press. Richey hadn’t been robbed. She had been intoxicated, and fallen down the stairs at a construction site. Case closed.
Except that wasn’t the case at all. A post-mortem determined that Richey had died of compression to the neck. She had been murdered, and the case was being taken over by the homicide division. They had been wrong.
Soon after her death was declared a homicide, the Toronto Sun and National Post ran stories about Richey’s alleged history as an escort and her job as a waitress at a local strip bar, seemingly shifting the narrative away from innocence and assigning blame to the victim. Official statements from the police have also been defensive rather than assured. They defend the methods used in the initial search for Richey, and remain incredibly vague about who exactly located the body. And Richey’s family has been quite vocal, criticizing the biased media coverage and challenging the police work on the case.
The handling of the Richey case has been a nightmare of ineptitude that doesn’t make the Toronto Police look very good at a time when the Church-Wellesley community is on edge. The neighbourhood should already be on their radar after multiple disappearances and heightened criminal activity just across the street from where Richey was found. Less than a week before her disappearance, news circulated that the village was getting four dedicated neighbourhood police officers to improve relations between law enforcement and the community. The neighbourhood should already be a priority.
But instead, there’s a general sense that the police aren’t really doing anything to help, and that the systemic homophobia present in the force is alive and well, despite claims to the contrary. That for all of the political talking points and flag waving, queer people are still at risk and no one really cares.
It also shines an uncomfortable light on the previous cases, and reignites recent controversies:
Did the police mishandle the disappearances of Skandaraj Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi and Majeed Kayhan?
Is something being actively done in the Andrew Kinsman and Selim Esen cases?
What about the discovery of Alloura Wells, and the disappearance of other queer people in the community?
Are these slights the result of friction between the queer community and a police force still angry over the Black Lives Matter protest?
Is there a serial killer (or killers) stalking the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood, and are people still at risk? And does the community need to take action in order to prevent more missing people?
In the gay village last night, police cars were parked on every corner, with officers walking the beat and speaking to local business owners. There is a clear attempt by the force to establish a visible presence, whether that be to locate those responsible for Richey’s murder or to deter future crime and protect citizens.
But no one is feeling much safer.