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‘A last resort’: Toronto police reluctantly release photo of dead man in Bruce McArthur investigation

TORONTO — The photograph looks instantly odd — a lifeless face with mostly closed eyes — and realizing it is, in fact, a photo of a dead man, a suspected victim of a man who may be Canada’s most recent prolific serial killer, forces a sombre and ghoulish shiver.
At a Monday press conference, Toronto police homicide Det-Sgt. Hank Idsinga said investigators were taking the unusual step of releasing the photo of a corpse because all other means of identifying the mystery man were unsuccessful.
“I do not want to release this picture and am doing so as a last resort,” Idsinga said. “I’ve never done this. I do it with great hesitation.”
It is not unprecedented for police, but it is increasingly rare and considered a last resort. It is not without risk, including the shock and trauma it may cause the man’s family, if they see and recognize the face.
The stakes in this case, however, are high.
If police do link the dead man in the photo to Bruce McArthur, he could become the seventh alleged victim of the accused serial killer. McArthur, 66, of Toronto, has been charged with six counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Andrew Kinsman, Selim Esen, Soroush Mahmudi, Dean Lisowick, Majeed Kayhan and Skandaraj Navaratnam.
The more the public was told of the photo on Monday, the more gruesome it became.
The man was already dead when it was taken, Idsinga confirmed. He admitted the image of the man had been enhanced and altered to “remove artifacts,” he said.
He repeatedly refused to say where the photo came from during his plea for the public’s help in identifying him.
“We need to put a name to this face and bring closure to this man’s loved ones,” he said.
According to a National Post analysis, it appears that police were working to modify the photo between Feb. 19 and Feb. 22. There were many adjustments: the digital photo eraser tool — used to delete elements from an image — was used 56 times; the smudge tool which blends and blurs parts of an image was used 76 times; other image altering tools were used dozens of more time.
The release was not without controversy.
Some critics on social media felt it was insulting and an indignity to the victim. Police were “tone deaf” to the LGBTQ community and said to display “zero sensitivity.”
Haran Vijayanathan, executive director for the Alliance for South Asian AIDS prevention, said he was shocked when he first saw the photo but came to realize its sombre utility.
“Somebody’s family or friends needs to know who that is and if you have no record or any way of identifying the individual, then you have no other choice,” Vijayanathan said. “At least some kind of closure can come from it.” He was unable to identify the man, struggling to even determine his race.
Nicki Ward, a Toronto LGBTQ advocate, said everyone she’s spoken to in the community thinks the man looks “eerily familiar,” but also unknown. She also understood the need to release it.
“There is no good way to discover somebody you love has passed away,” said Ward. Releasing the photo may not have been necessary if police had developed more grassroots sources in the community — those familiar with its homeless members and sex workers, she said.
There has already been dissatisfaction in the photographic record of the high-profile case.
Many people, used to the U.S. convention of releasing mug shots of people after arrest, complain the media use photos of McArthur showing him smiling and looking pleasant. It is uncommon for police in Canada to release mug shots unless there is an investigative need, partly because of the prejudicial effect it could have on future members of a jury.
However, with Lisowick, an alleged victim of McArthur, police released a mug shot that appeared to be taken after he was beaten. Ward herself provided the media with a smiling photo of Lisowick. Other victim photos are of varying quality and clarity.
And now one possible victim’s only known photo shows him dead.
“One of the criticisms in the community has been that this (alleged) monster is shown at home with a smile on his face and the victims are made to look like criminals,” said Ward.
Former police detectives said turning to the public to help identify remains through a photo is a last resort but a useful way to solve important mysteries.
The photos were traditionally referred to as “slab photos” because they are often taken of a body in the morgue.
“There comes a time when you’ve exhausted all your investigative leads in trying to find out who this person is and you’re left with no other choice,” said Mike Davis, a former Toronto police officer who retired in 2005 after 17 years on the homicide squad.
“Especially in something of this magnitude, when you’re dealing with a fellow who’s been charged with six homicides already.”
He said investigators expect to be criticized when they push to move a case forward: “Police are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, especially these days.”
Tom Klatt, also a former veteran Toronto homicide detective and who, like Davis, works on cases as a private investigator, said the need to release such photos has declined because advances in science and technology — such as DNA and computer databases — leave fewer unidentified remains.
“I think the police are doing a very thorough job and they’re down to the short strokes — there is not much more they can do to identify this individual other than seek the public’s help,” said Klatt.
“Sometimes we don’t have a choice, sometimes we have to use a morbid picture to garner the public attention to help.”

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