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The New New

Meet the Serial-Killer Whisperer

This woman has the world’s most comprehensive database on what makes serial killers tick

Illustration: Benedikt Luft

LLast 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.”

SSasha Marie Reid was born in Dryden, Ontario, a quiet, hockey-loving town of fewer than 6,000 people. Although she is the eldest of four siblings, Reid grew up rather isolated. Mostly, she spent her time alone, outside, exploring the expansive forest behind her family’s house. Pitch-black evenings, no streetlights, the sky covered in a sheet of stars — her countryside home felt removed from civilization. It was like a fable, she said. Even today, she misses her home, thinking of it as one of the few safe spaces she’s ever known. “The only reason I even decided to get a job was so I could, one day, try to buy my home back,” she said. Later, she wrote, it is “as if owning my home again will allow me to understand and correct the traumas of the past.”

In grade school, Reid became close with her neighbor, Chris. Chris’ mother, Teri-Lynn, was a witch and a practicing Wiccan, and she encouraged them in their burgeoning interest in monsters and the dark. Together, they played in the forest, watched classic horror films, wrote horror movie scripts, and talked about witches and witchcraft. Reid’s mother, a devout Christian, did not approve. When Reid was nine, Reid’s parents divorced. It was particularly traumatic for Reid. They both married other people, both of whom Reid deeply disliked. “I couldn’t stand either one of them,” she says. She felt rejected, powerless, and thrown out of her own family.

She and Chris drifted apart, and she began spending time with a group of middle school and high school students who she says were associated with small-time gangs and in and out of trouble. She characterizes them as mostly low-level criminals, but there were also, she says, some who would later go on to be convicted of serious offenses. Even though she knew they were a negative influence, she stayed with this friend group for the same reason she had been initially drawn to them: she understood them, and, she figured, they understood her. “The people I was hanging out with were people who were equally weird and equally hurt,” she said. “So they knew and there was a sense of comfort being able to be in a friend group that wouldn’t deny my pain, that wouldn’t deny the reality of that trauma and that suffering and that knew what it was like to not have any firm footing at all.”

Reid became interested in psychology. She began studying on her own, at Dryden’s town library. One text that would become foundational for her was Robert Hare’s Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, which she first read before high school. In it, Hare, a Canadian criminal psychologist, asks whether psychopaths are immoral, or, as he eventually concludes, whether they do not have a sense of morality at all. This means their often violent actions must be understood as neither good nor bad but simply actions that have arisen from their upbringing and environment. Christian Perring, now a psychology professor at Dowling College, who reviewed the book for Metapsychology, an online reviews journal, wrote that the book was far too sensationalized, likening it to an “episode of America’s Most Wanted.” But for a young girl struggling with a sense of powerlessness and confusion, the book was revelatory.

“For the very first time in my life, I moved away from this idea of monsters as imaginary to being able to understand that monsters are real,” she says. “Monsters are people. There are people who are monsters. That was an extraordinary thing to me.”

When Reid turned 18, she left Dryden to study psychology and mental health at the University of Toronto in Scarborough. Thereafter, she completed two master’s degrees: one in criminology and sociological studies and the other in applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto’s main campus in the Ontario capital. She worked for a summer at a maximum-security prison in a remote part of southern Ontario as a psychologist, conducting cognitive-behavioral therapy with inmates. She spent a spring in Nottingham, England, where she worked with Georgina Cosma — an associate professor at Nottingham Trent University who’s an expert in machine learning — on potential artificial intelligence applications to her database. She started her serial killer database around then, too, and about a year later, she began her missing persons database. This year, at 30, she is teaching courses at the nexus of law, society, and psychology at the University of Calgary, as she nears the completion of her PhD.

From the outside, it would seem like the details of Reid’s early life gave her an uncannily intuitive understanding of the makeup of serial killers: a fractured family, a deviant friend group, a rural and working-class upbringing, a sense of isolation and abandonment. When I asked her about it, she initially dismissed any parallels between her upbringing and that of many serial killers. But, later, she conceded that even if her childhood and their typical childhoods aren’t exactly the same, she nonetheless empathizes with them; or, at least, she sees beyond the desire to simply call them evil and strip serial killers of their humanity.

“I understand what it is to be afraid to go home,” she says. “I understand what it is to feel that no one loves you, and that there is no love in your world. I get what that means, and I guess that’s the one thing that kind of helps me. Because when I’m studying serial killers, when I hear people talking about them… I think that people really forget the role that trauma plays in long-term life outcomes. It’s not this abuse excuse. It’s not that you’re abused once and life just unravels, but it’s this complex accumulation.”

EEver since Ted Bundy was first arrested in 1975, computers have been central to serial killer investigations. In Bundy’s case, a computer-based cross-referencing of lists, including ones that aggregated the high school classmates of one of his victims (Lynda Healy), owners of Volkswagens, and people known to live in the areas near his killings, led to his arrest.

But even as computer technology has significantly progressed in subsequent years, the way law enforcement tries to catch serial killers has not kept pace. In 1983, the FBI launched the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, known as ViCAP, but with over 189 questions that investigators had to answer and input into the program (later trimmed to 95), it never became as widely used as intended.

Other technologies and algorithms have followed. In 1991, Kim Rossmo, a Vancouver policeman who became a professor of criminal justice at Texas State University, invented an algorithm to help predict where a serial killer might live based on where victims are found when compared to where suspects live; in 1992, Michael Aamodt, a professor of psychology at Radford University in Virginia, created the Radford Serial Killer Database, which provided demographic information on over 4,500 serial killers; and in 2015, Thomas Hargrove, a news-service journalist-turned-sleuth, created a nonprofit called the Murder Accountability Project, or MAP, which used an algorithm that accounted for the style, place, and time of killings as well as basic demographic information about the victims in order to narrow in on potential serial killers.

Yet, while all of these worked to provide more information to investigators and, in certain cases, to help narrow down a list of suspects, none of them could deal explicitly with the killers’ specific psychoses — how they thought, how they had developed, or, crucially, when they might next strike. To be able to understand the background of a serial killer is to begin to understand who he might have already killed and who he may soon kill.

“What drives the series of killings can only be truly understood in the context of the serial murderer’s experience of his life,” Candice A. Skrapec, a psychologist and criminologist at California State University, Fresno, wrote in a 2001 paper in Homicide Studies. “What has largely been neglected by researchers is the first-person, lived-meaning of killing a number of people over time.”

When it comes to serial killers — as with any homicide — the Holy Grail for law enforcement has always been to stop them before they strike. Reid believes it’s possible; however, she worries about an eventual Minority Report-style of policing that could spring from her algorithms. To start, though, she wants to stop active serial killers before they strike again, finding patterns in their first two or three kills that can lead to their apprehension.

“A lot of people, they look at things like very static traits, like, ‘Are they psychopaths, yes or no? Narcissist, yes or no?’” Reid says, pointing to a series of black-and-white photographs of serial killers that she has printed out and hung on her office wall at the University of Calgary, where she is currently an instructor. “They look at whether or not they were abused. Okay, that’s great. But in having a developmental-psych background, I understand it’s not enough just to know that a person was abused. At what time were they abused? How often were they abused? Who abused them? What type of abuse was it? Was it Mom? Was it Dad? There’s a trillion questions that come out of one factor. That’s why my database is so expansive. It’s because I’m asking those minute, little details. It’s not enough to know that a person was abused. You’ve got to know the how, the why — everything.”

With data on over 4,500 serial killers — and entirely complete data on 75 of them — Reid’s serial killer database currently includes nearly 600 variables for every killer, which covers almost every imaginable developmental trait or outlook the killers had. She tracks their development from even before birth with questions like: Was there prenatal exposure to drugs? To chemicals? Did Mom smoke? Was she particularly stressed? Then, there are questions of the birth itself: Was there a medical complication at birth? Any brain abnormalities? Then questions of childhood: Any head injuries? If so, at what age? Any physical deformities?

Many of these traits may seem to be related to physicality, but Reid is interested in their developmental implications. She points to the serial killer Gary Ridgway’s profile on her Excel sheet database that she’s now pulled up on her MacBook Air in her office. “Look,” she says, excitedly. “Low IQ. So that’s definitely a risk factor, but not for why a lot of people think. It’s a risk factor for making friends. Kids with lower IQs tend to have fewer friends because they don’t really know how to socially engage.” She goes quiet. “Sometimes they’re shunned, which is really sad.”

There are then questions of family: Were there parents separated? Divorced? If so, when? Did Dad have a stable job? Was he a criminal? What about Mom? Was she a housewife? Were they ever abandoned for a significant duration? What were the circumstances? Did they witness spousal abuse? Mom against Dad? Dad against Mom? Both? Then, there are questions of power: Did they ever apply to become a police officer? Were they successful? Any sexual fantasies?

“Look!” Reid says again, pointing to this data point, toggling between her online codebook and the Excel sheet. “Did the serial killer have sexual fantasies in his youth, yes or no? Look, look. That one started at six. Isn’t that incredible?” She reads down the line of data she and her undergraduate volunteers gathered from police reports, biographies, and archival research. “Age five, four, five, six, 11.”

Were they bullied? Did they bully others? Were they lonely? “Look at this, too,” she says. “Look at all these ones. Were they a loner? Poor things. They were.” She moves her finger across the screen. “Did they get along with their fellow students? Yes, no? Close peer group? One close friend? They might’ve been a loner, but if they had that one person, that usually helped a lot.”

In addition to the special attention she gives to the development of serial killers, Reid is also particularly stringent on who she counts as a serial killer. The FBI considers a person a serial killer if he or she has committed “two or more” homicides “in separate events.” For Reid’s definition, however, there must be three or more total murders (or two and an attempted murder), which must also be motivated by “personal gratification” and cannot be a response to a personal attack. The killer must also have killed after “conscious deliberation” and “planned forethought,” and the murders must be discreet events, not a one-time event where the killer murdered multiple people at once.

A central goal of her databases is to allow an investigator to narrow down a list of suspects and to predict where and when a serial killer might strike again. So, for instance, if non-college-educated, middle-aged Latina prostitutes from low-income families begin showing up with slit wrists across Chicago, regressing the relevant variables in the databases against one another would create an accurate characterization of the potential killer. Because serial killers aren’t always in police databases to begin with, the results of Reid’s regressions will rarely identify a single killer. A name and face won’t pop up like in an episode of CSI. Instead, a series of character traits and demographic possibilities of the killer, and potential locations and victim profiles of future killings would show up. From this, investigators can significantly narrow their search and hopefully stop subsequent murders.

“We can see childhood, adolescence, and adulthood factors occurring in sequence, and how they relate to later-life behaviors,” says David Keatley, a senior criminology lecturer at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, and an independent consultant on cold-case homicides, who has been helping Reid with the statistical side of her database. “This can then be run backwards. So when we come to a crime scene and see the display of behaviors, we can work backwards through our sequences to see the likely type of offender life-history.”

Now that Reid has such comprehensive datasets, the next step is to use machine learning in order to automatically find behavioral and characteristic patterns in serial killers. Reid is consulting with Cosma, with whom Reid worked in Nottingham, in order to find patterns in serial killer behaviors that have never before been thought of, and which could be automatically updated as she gains more data and as future serial killings occur.

“We can train machine-learning models to classify killers based on their behavioral characteristics and types of attacks,” Cosma says. “Sasha’s dataset has chronological data, which means it can be used to train machine-learning models to predict when the next attack is likely to happen.”

From here, the technology will only advance, but, with it, a variety of positive and negative outcomes will also begin to arise. There is, for instance, the possibility of the privatization of certain types of policing if, for instance, a Silicon Valley machine-learning company were to purchase the databases. Reid wants to avoid this. She wants to keep the use of her databases to a relatively small scope, at least at first, by selecting a single police department with a responsible track record and giving them her database and algorithms to use in their investigations.

Her caution in moving too quickly is probably merited, given the history of psychological profiling gone awry, stemming from mistakes made by armchair investigators and professionals alike.

“I don’t want to be the person who drives the police down the wrong path,” Reid says. “Profiles should only be used as a way to narrow down and focus. It’s never your first line of defense.”

BBruce McArthur was born in 1951, outside the pastoral town of Woodville, Ontario, about 150 miles northeast of Toronto. From his birth until he left to work as a traveling salesman after high school, he lived in a modest, redbrick bungalow, surrounded by prairies. He was quiet and well-groomed, and, as a few of his high school friends at Fenelon Falls Secondary attested, “prim and proper.” With a choice between a five-year academic program and a four-year arts and technical one at Fenelon, McArthur chose the latter. He went by the nickname “Snoppy,” according to his yearbook page. His preferred pastime was “a good argument” and while his ambition was “to be successful,” his probable future was vaguer: “Your guess is as good as mine.”

At Fenelon, he met and began dating a woman named Janice Campbell; after graduating, he married her. By 1986, he and Janice had bought a house in Oshawa, midway between Woodville and Toronto and had two children, a boy and a girl. He worked first as a travelling sock and underwear salesman for Stanfield’s and, later, for McGregor Hosiery & Socks, both garments manufacturers. While he was on the road and away from his family, he decided he would reveal his sexuality, telling his wife that he was gay just before his fiftieth birthday. By the late 1990s, he had left Janice and moved to Toronto.

In Toronto, he became stockier; he was five-foot-ten and around 220 pounds; his beard had turned white. The few friends he made jokingly called him “Santa.” Living on his own in the capital now, he launched a high-end, one-man landscaping business called Artistic Design, dealing mostly with clients in Toronto’s wealthier neighborhoods like Lawrence Park and Sunnybrook. He met and briefly dated Skanda Navaratnam in the Gay Village neighborhood. He seemed to like him enough that he also hired him on as a landscaper as he expanded Artistic Design in the late 1990s.

On Halloween of 2001, McArthur became entangled with the police for the first time. A prostitute he’d hired had called the police after blacking out. The prostitute said McArthur had come to his apartment around noon for an appointment but instead had bashed his head with a metal pipe. McArthur turned himself into the police, telling them, “I don’t know why I did it.” A year and a half later, in January 2003, McArthur assaulted another escort. This man brought forth legal charges, and McArthur was given a restraining order that forbid him from going near the Gay Village or hiring the services of any sex workers in Toronto. After the restraining order ran out, McArthur returned to the Gay Village and spent much of his time at the Black Eagle, a bar. He set up accounts on a variety of gay-dating apps, including Grindr, SCRUFF, Manjam, and SilverDaddies, and began frequently going out. At Black Eagle, he also met a man named Andrew Kinsman, who was tending bar, and convinced him to come work at Artistic Design, dating him briefly as well.

In 2010, Navaratnam went missing. A few months later, Abdulbasir Faizi met the same fate, and two years after that Hamid Kayhan followed suit. Selim Esen, a 44-year-old gay Turkish man was reported missing in April 2017. Then Kinsman went missing in June 2017.

It was at just after Kinsman’s disappearance that, in late July of last year, Reid was looking through her missing persons database and made her call to the police. She had never before called the police based on a finding in her databases. She didn’t yet have a perfect picture of the killer, but she felt that she at least had to alert the police to the fact that Toronto had a serial killer and describe to them what she thought he might be like.

On the phone, Reid identified herself as a psychologist and explained her databases and what she had found. The officer was cordial. He stayed on the phone with her for about half an hour. She explained that she believed there was a serial killer in Toronto and, she told him, the killer had likely murdered the aforementioned men. (None of this was yet public record. Even as late as January 17, 2018, the day before the police arrested McArthur, Hank Idsinga, the police officer who led the McArthur investigation, told me that the police had no evidence of a serial killer in the city. “It’s not as if I didn’t suspect a serial killer,” he had told Toronto Life. “But it would be reckless for me to announce without evidence, ‘Hey, we’ve had five murders. Maybe it’s a serial killer!’ That would incite panic, and there are potential legal implications, too.”)

During their phone call, Reid provided the officer with key traits of this potential serial killer to help law enforcement narrow down their search, if they indeed decided to make one. The killer would be a man, she told him, and he’d be working a blue-collar job, probably one like woodworking or landscaping; he’d live in Toronto, and the bodies would probably be somewhere that he could see them or have access to them; he would also probably be active within the gay community.

The officer didn’t feel like this was usable information. “We talked things out, but I think we both came to this standstill,” Reid says. “I was like, ‘I have this data,’ and he’s like, ‘Well, what can I do with it?’”

The police, frankly, were right to be skeptical. At that point — in July of last year — Reid’s dataset was less complete and her algorithms were slightly different. She also had made a significant error in her prediction. She assumed the serial killer would not be white. There was no personal, racial bias in this prediction, but her algorithm showed that serial killers tend to kill people of their own ethnicity.

Reid’s explanation to the police officer that there was a serial killer at all — and her almost perfectly accurate predictions of what he might be like — still made news, and a few small articles in the Canadian press began to appear. The response wasn’t all positive. She received dozens of emails castigating her for her supposed racism for predicting that the killer would be of Middle Eastern descent. She went out of her way to engage with the people emailing her, spending, by her estimate, a few hours every day sending emails and speaking over the telephone, trying to assure people who complained that it wasn’t any of her own bias and that she had meant no harm. But it also underscored something about her work: her data and algorithms, for all of the immense good they could do, could also do real harm.

McArthur was arrested and is currently facing trial on eight counts of murder. This outcome was, essentially, what Reid had expected.

Whether the police did or did not heed Reid’s advice is difficult to tell. (Idsinga said he had no record of any Toronto police officer speaking to Reid. “I have no reason to doubt Ms. Reid’s account or dispute it, but we have no record of it,” he told me.) Just three months later, they found someone with almost the exact profile that she had described, save for ethnicity. In October 2017, police found a red Dodge Caravan that McArthur had sold to a scrapyard for 150 Canadian dollars. Police discovered the blood of one of McArthur’s victims in the van and began tracking McArthur’s activities. In December, they obtained the warrants needed to enter his apartment without his knowledge and copied his laptop’s hard drive. In January, now increasingly suspicious that McArthur was the serial killer that Reid had alerted them to, the police found and sent a series of heavy, fiberglass garden planters to the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service for analysis, which they’d dug up from a yard in Leaside, where McArthur’s Artistic Design had earlier completed a landscaping project.

Kathy Gruspier, the forensic scientist who conducted the initial X-rays on the planters, saw something unusual in the scans. When she sawed them in half, she found one human head, multiple human torsos, and a variety of human limbs. In total, in just that one planter, Gruspier found remains from seven separate victims.

McArthur was arrested and is currently facing trial on eight counts of murder. (This July, police found another set of dismembered remains in a ravine behind the same Leaside house.) This outcome was, essentially, what Reid had expected.

WWhen I ask Reid if she would have been able to identify McArthur as a likely serial killer, even as far back as his childhood in Woodville, she responded wearily. “Absolutely nothing is a surprise in his development and I’m almost certain — although I don’t want to be, like, this hubristic kind of lady — but I have a very good inkling that his story is going to sound very, very similar to that of other serial killers.” Still, she cautions, she neither wants to imply that she can always tell who will grow up to become a serial killer from childhood development nor should police begin collecting huge amounts of psychological information on kids and running them through her algorithms. It’s better, she says, to use those findings to bolster therapy and mental health for young people. “The first line of defense should be dispatching clinicians to juvenile detention centers,” she says. “But I know the McArthur type. These guys are all different, but, in a lot of ways, psychologically, they’re all the same.”

McArthur had, true to form, grown up particularly lonely and being in the closet about his sexuality surely only added to his feeling of social isolation. For Reid herself, she had her friend Chris, but as they grew apart in their childhood, she became increasingly alone. Compounded with her parents’ divorce and her deteriorating home life, she says she’s surprised she survived her childhood. “It was not easy to deal with on my own,” she says.

Reid’s trauma has not abated with time. She still dreams of buying back her house, turning the lights on and having it become, once again, the fable-like place of light surrounded by a dark forest. But while she says she thinks about it every day, it is also a lasting trauma that has perhaps given her the key to understanding the developmental psychology of those who have suffered in their childhoods but not made it out like her.

“It’s still quite bad, and every single time that something from my safe zone fades away or gets changed, that’s an issue for me,” she says, as the light goes down in Calgary. “But that just makes me dive into my work even more. I guess, I’m like an artist in that way: My work gets better when bad things happen.”

A writer from the Pacific Northwest. Culture editor at WSJ.

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