Last year, in late-July, Sasha Reid went to her desk in her apartment just outside Toronto. Her cat, Giz, hopped onto her lap. It was late, and the sun had already gone down. She booted up her champagne-colored MacBook Air and began searching through recent police reports from Canada, looking for people who had been reported missing for more than 72 hours, which is when most law enforcement agencies open cases.
Reid, a 30-year-old criminologist and developmental psychologist who’s finishing her PhD at the University of Toronto, has been collecting information on missing persons for more than two years. She’s amassed an in-depth database of thousands of them — drawing from official Search and Rescue (SAR) reports, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) database, collecting tips from crime-beat journalists as well as from friends and family of those missing — in order to obtain the age, ethnicity, demographic, and geographical information of victims. For some of this data collection, she’s delegated research responsibilities to 13 volunteer undergraduates at the University of Toronto. Often, she cross-references this database with another database that she’s been working on for closer to four years — her “serial killer” database — which includes up to 600 variables on the behavioral and psychological development of every known serial killer since the fifteenth century, making it the most complete database on the developmental traits of serial killers in existence.
That night in July, while updating her missing persons database, Reid came across a curious pattern. Looking at Ontario police records, she found and entered data on Skandaraj “Skanda” Navaratnam, a thin 40-year-old refugee from Sri Lanka with black hair and sunken brown eyes, who had disappeared in September 2010, and had been last seen leaving a nightclub in Toronto’s gay district. Later in the evening, Reid found and logged Majeed “Hamid” Kayhan, a 58-year-old man who’d come to Toronto from Afghanistan and had also disappeared years earlier, in October 2012, also in Toronto’s gay district. When, later in the evening, she came across Abdulbasir Faizi, a 42-year-old, also from Afghanistan, who had disappeared in December 2010 in Toronto, Reid became particularly suspicious. All were middle-aged men, probably gay, and from a similar geographic area with a similar physical appearance — all had either beards or goatees and brown or black hair. And yet, while they’d been missing for between five and seven years, the police neither had much information on them nor had they linked them together.
“After I saw three — three was enough for me,” Reid recalls. Immediately, she suspected a serial killer. “Having spent years just looking at patterns and studying serial killers, obviously, you come to realize that with clusters like this, more often than not, it’s something worth looking into.” She began a search through her serial killer database. “Okay, who’s targeting gay men?” she remembers asking herself. “There aren’t a whole lot.” More than just finding out who was targeting gay men though, she wanted to know who was targeting marginalized communities.
It was now pitch black outside, but Reid continued to work. While most of the current literature in the specialist criminology niche of serial killers is focused on identifying a serial killer’s static traits, like ethnicity or IQ, or biomarkers, like physical illnesses or disorders, Reid is primarily interested in behavioral and psychological development: Who suffered a childhood trauma, a divorce, or abuse? Who acted out violently? With sexual deviance? To what end? Whose childhood bedroom had lead paint on the walls? Who had a brain injury? What kind? Asthma? Did it make it harder for them to play sports and therefore to make friends? How did they treat the family cat?
Tracking their development, Reid says, is an essential tool for identifying serial killers. Future serial killers, she claims, tend to already be having intensely violent and sexual thoughts by the age of eight. By the age of twelve, they’re often a legitimate risk to themselves and to others. People, of course, change, and paths can shift. “Human development doesn’t just go along this one line,” she says. “Every single millimeter there’s a different route to go down.”
“For the very first time in my life, I moved away from this idea of monsters as imaginary… Monsters are people… That was an extraordinary thing to me.”
In the case of the missing men in Toronto, Reid realized that their similarities in circumstance of disappearance, in sexual orientation, in ethnicity, and physical appearance, pointed toward a serial killer who had a specific psychological animus.
She looked through her serial killer database, positing that the killer would probably be male (about 85 percent of apprehended serial killers are), but she also figured that he would be involved in the gay community (although perhaps not openly gay) given that the victims were gay. She assumed he would probably live in Toronto and would be familiar with the city’s Gay Village, as that’s where the disappearances occurred. She supposed he would have a blue-collar job, likely one with the tools and likely one that provided him access to the skill sets needed for effectively dismembering and a place to hide bodies. And, crucially, she believed the killer would have the developmental profile of someone who would feel compelled to kill middle-aged gay men of color.
Never before had she called the police based on a finding in her databases. But this was different.
“At that point,” she says. “I called the police.”