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After Tess Richey

By on January 8, 2018

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In the waking hours of November 25, Tess Richey walked through the Church and Wellesley neighbourhood after spending a Friday night out. At 22 years old, Richey was doing what many people her age would do on a night off: partying with friends. Friday nights are a rare opportunity for twenty-somethings to go out, enjoy bars or restaurants, and end the night with a plentitude of selfies for the memory book.
Richey’s night, however, did not end this way. After leaving Crews & Tangos drag bar, a popular hangout for students and young people, she was last seen somewhere near the intersection of Church Street and Wellesley Street with a man. A couple of days later, a day before her 23rd birthday, she was found dead in an alley near Dundonald Street. Police reported her death was caused by “neck compression.”

Although the Toronto Police Service (TPS) investigated her disappearance, her body was discovered by her mother, Christine Hermeston, who had come to the city in search of her daughter. In a now-deleted post on Facebook, Hermeston wrote that “No mother should find their own child,” and derided the police for not checking the area more thoroughly.

The case drew heavy attention from the media and public in the aftermath of her death. According to media reports, Richey was found less than fifty feet — around fifteen meters — from where she was reported missing, raising questions about the effectiveness of the law enforcement investigation.

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A GROWING TREND

Richey’s disappearance and subsequent death is the most recent case in an expanding list of similar stories. A local resident, Dani Rose, created a map of eleven people who have gone missing in the neighbourhood since September 2010. The Varsity has compiled and updated Rose’s research into a chart detailing their names, ages, area they went missing, date they went missing, and their current status.

According to the data Rose assembled, the average age of those who have gone missing is 39 — with the youngest being 22 and the oldest 59.

Some cases go as far back as nearly eight years ago, but most listed in the map are recent, with eight occurring in 2017. All of the reported cases occurred in and around Church and Wellesley. Rose told the CBC that there is a “growing sense of fear walking alone” in the neighbourhood.

What makes these disappearances and deaths stand out especially is that they appear to be targeting members of Toronto’s LGBTQ+ community.

Alloura Wells, who was a transgender woman, was reported missing near the Village and eventually found dead in a ravine in Rosedale. The police faced criticism for not taking Wells’ case seriously because of her gender identity, her status as a sex worker, and because she was homeless for a number of years.

The earliest cases on the list — Skandaraj Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi, and Majeed Kayhan — also attracted public scrutiny. All three men were members of the LGBTQ+ community, were people of colour, and went missing in the same neighbourhood within a four-block radius. Initially thought to be isolated cases, the police eventually connected their cases in 2013 and set up a task force named Project Houston to investigate, but came up with nothing. After more than five years, their disappearances still remain a mystery.

Richey’s case renewed interest in the expanding list of missing people and deaths in the Village. The first three people who went missing, and now the most recent eight, suggest that the loved neighbourhood is perhaps under siege from an unknown force, connected or not.

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STORY OF A VILLAGE

The Church and Wellesley Village has long been known as a vibrant community in downtown Toronto. It is seen as a place where people are free to be themselves and enjoy the nightlife of multiple bars, clubs, and restaurants.

For decades, the area was known as a space for LGBTQ+ people. At first, the Village was an underground scene for primarily gay men who frequented bars and bathhouses. Over time, the neighbourhood expanded to include queer book shops, cafes, and a community centre for all those in the LGBTQ+ community.

Today, Church and Wellesley is at the heart of the city’s gay community, hosting a variety of events and businesses geared towards queer people, including Toronto’s annual Pride Festival. U of T students in particular are often in the area: many live there or spend time with friends in the Village.

Now, when people search the Church and Wellesley area online they no longer see welcoming signs, but instead words like “missing,” “serial killer,” or “disappearances.”

Many Torontonians have been responding to the disappearances by posting supportive messages online or in the neighbourhood. While there is an underlying fear, there’s also a palpable sense of community in the neighbourhood.

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LAW ENFORCEMENT EFFORTS

The TPS and its officers are central to the missing persons cases in the area. After Richey’s body was found metres from where she was reported missing, the detectives on the case were placed under review by the Professional Standards unit of the city’s police force, investigating how they handled the disappearance-turned-homicide.

I asked the police service about Tess Richey, Alloura Wells, and the process of determining how seriously officers take incoming calls. Detective Barry Radford declined to discuss Richey’s case, however, as it was an ongoing homicide investigation.

Responding to the recent Toronto Star article, which reported that Wells’ case was “not a high priority” because of her homeless status, Radford said that homelessness can at times be “a factor in determining the seriousness of the report.” Radford highlighted that homelessness raises concerns such as where to begin the search, how reliable the information is surrounding their last whereabouts, and other factors such as current weather conditions and a person’s mental state, history, and health.

Radford also said, “Timing/addressing/following up on a call for service is dependent on the type/seriousness of the call and to a certain extent the availability of officers to respond.” According to Radford, the TPS’s Communications Centre prioritizes certain calls, using the examples of “a child gone missing or not come home from school vs a chronic runaway teenager who lives at a group home,” to illustrate.

I also spoke with Michael Munroe, Associate Director of Campus Police at U of T, to determine how the university would operate if the string of disappearances spread to campus, considering the cases thus far have occurred a block away from UTSG.

“Campus Police always works hand-in-hand with the Toronto Police Service … They would send information to us, we would pass information to them, they would pass information to us,” Munroe remarked. “Just to ensure everybody was aware of the situation, what could we do to help prevent anybody from being attacked?”

Munroe also mentioned a hallmark of Campus Police operations: the Travel Safer program. This program allows students, faculty, and staff to request a member of Campus Police to accompany them between university buildings and public transit stops. “The Travel Safer program has been in place for well over 20 years … It’s been very successful.” He continued, “I think it’s a great initiative to ensure safety on our campus.”

Since the rise in disappearances in their neighbourhood, the Church and Wellesley Neighbourhood Association (CWNA) is instituting a similar project called Safe Walk. Andrew Horberry, CWNA President, told Buzzfeed News that they’ve “had about 60, 75, perhaps 80 people put their hands up and say, ‘I’d like to be involved in some way.’ They’re all new volunteers to us.” The plan would allow someone to either physically accompany a person requesting the service, or be continuously on the phone until they reach their destination.

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A COMMUNITY REACTS

The local community’s reactions to the string of disappearances and deaths range from sadness to anger, empathy to shock, and compassion to warning. Heather Abela, a fourth year student at U of T, lives near the Church and Wellesley area.

“I find it all very sad and disturbing,” she said, also mentioning that she has “noticed people in the Village have been getting more and more nervous since Andrew Kinsman disappeared back in June.” It was not uncommon for people to see posters of Kinsman around the neighbourhood at the time.

“I don’t think the cases are all connected. I don’t think there is a single serial killer responsible for all the cases,” Abela remarked. However, she believes that “the cases of the three men who went missing in 2010-2012 are definitely connected,” referring to Navaratnam, Faizi, and Kayhan.

Abela also observed that this connection “speaks to the larger systemic issues of misogyny, transmisogyny, and homophobia, that leads to people targeting them, seeing their lives as disposable, and the police being slow to respond, [may be] due to the type of community it is or the victim’s background … The cases aren’t connected, but in a way, they are related.”

With regards to Richey’s case, Abela argued that the officers failed in their duties. “They wouldn’t have been able to save her life but they could’ve prevented a lot of undue harm on her mother and her family.”

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Last December, U of T student and Toronto Star reporter Jenna Moon wrote an opinion piece detailing the similarities of the lifestyle of Richey with her and other young people across the city. “I have passed the intersection where Tess Richey went missing more times than I can count,” Moon wrote. “I have never met her, but it’s easy enough to see myself as her — I’m just a year older, and we frequent the same bars.”

Given the recent disappearances, it is unclear what the future holds for the safety of those in Church and Wellesley Village. Despite this, the community is standing strong together.