By DAN BILEFSKY and IAN AUSTEN
TORONTO – The man identified as the van driver who traumatized Toronto was a socially troubled computer studies graduate who briefly joined Canada’s military last year and posted a hostile message toward women on Facebook moments before his deadly rampage, according to accounts by police and his acquaintances on Tuesday.
The suspect, Alek Minassian, 25, was charged in a Toronto court with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder one day after the van rampage along the sidewalk of a busy Toronto street.
Police have said that Minassian, a resident of the Richmond Hill suburb of Toronto, appeared to have intentionally struck the victims in what was likely to count as Canada’s deadliest vehicular assault. Government officials have said the attack did not appear to be an act of terrorism but have not ruled it out.
The rampage shattered a peaceful Monday afternoon when a white Ryder rental van roared down Yonge Street, a main Toronto thoroughfare, and plowed into pedestrians along a nearly 1-mile stretch. Ten people were killed by the van, which police said Minassian had rented that morning.
Detective Sgt. Graham Gibson of the Toronto police said 14 people were hurt – not 15 as authorities had earlier reported – with wounds ranging from “scrapes and bruises to terrible injuries.” He declined to specify the genders of the victims.
The driver stopped the van on a sidewalk and engaged in a tense standoff with the police, claiming to be armed and daring officers to shoot him in the head. He surrendered seven minutes after police received the first emergency call.
While police did not disclose a motive for the rampage, interviews with former acquaintances of Minassian, witnesses and others, and his now-deleted Facebook account, portray him as a troubled young man who harbored resentments toward women, had a penchant for computer programming and appeared determined to die.
Former classmates who knew him at Thornlea Secondary School in Thornhill, a Toronto suburb, said Minassian had displayed extreme social awkwardness.
“He was an odd guy, and hardly mixed with other students,” said Ari Blaff, a former high school classmate who is now a graduate student in international relations at the University of Toronto. “He had several tics and would sometimes grab the top of his shirt and spit on it, meow in the hallways and say, ‘I am afraid of girls.’ It was like a mantra.”
Minassian did not express strong ideological views or harass women, Blaff said, but he was isolated and others privately made fun of him.
“He was a loner and had few friends,” Blaff said.
Josh Kirstein, who took a photography class with Minassian in high school and works in the mental health field, said Minassian had difficulty communicating and expressed fear that women could hurt him. “He would cower and avoid eye contact when he saw a girl,” he said. “He would shut down completely.” Kirstein added, “I never saw him have a normal conversation.”
Other signs of sympathy for misogyny appeared on Minassian’s Facebook account.
In a posting that Gibson said the suspect had made minutes before the van rampage, the account praised Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in a May 2014 rampage in Isla Vista, California, before shooting himself.
Rodger had posted a YouTube video describing his rage that women had rejected him and that he was a virgin at age 22.
The Facebook posting by Minassian praised “incels,” or involuntary celibates, a term used in a Reddit group where men vented frustrations that tipped into misogyny.
“The Incel Rebellion has already begun!,” the posting stated. “We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”
Rodger had referred to men who are successful with women as “Chads” and to the unattainable women who rejected him as “Stacys.” Rodger had also called himself an “incel.”
Last November, Reddit banned a community dedicated to “incels,” which had 40,000 members, and had included posts lauding the rape of women. Some posts were titled “all women are sluts” and “reasons why women are the embodiment of evil.”
Minassian’s Facebook account has been suspended, but the company confirmed in an email the authenticity of the posting.
Minassian recently graduated from a computer studies program at Seneca College in North York, a Toronto suburb, where he had studied for about seven years.
While he appeared to be skilled at computers, he did not take to military life. The Canadian Department of National Defense said in a statement that Minassian joined the armed forces on Aug. 23 of last year and quit two months later, after 16 days of basic training.
While Canadian officials were not characterizing the van rampage as terrorism, it raised fears about Toronto’s vulnerability to a terrorist attack. The scene evoked memories of deadly vehicle rampages carried out by extremists in a number of major Western cities in recent years, including New York; London; Stockholm; Berlin; Barcelona, Spain; and Nice, France.
At the court hearing Tuesday, Judge Stephen Weisberg asked Minassian whether he understood a court order not to contact any survivors. “Yes,” he replied in a clear and loud voice.
He was dressed in a white jumpsuit with his hands cuffed behind his back. Seven uniformed police officers surrounded him in the hearing room.
Minassian was represented at the hearing by a court-appointed lawyer with whom he had an extended, whispered conversation from a prisoners’ box.
He was being held without bail and the next hearing is on May 10. It is unclear when he will enter a plea.
Witness accounts and amateur cellphone videos that captured the Toronto rampage and the suspect’s arrest showed a sequence of horrific scenes.
David Alce, a 53-year-old network engineer, was waiting at a traffic light at Yonge Street and Finch Avenue on his way to the park to enjoy a sunny day off when he saw a white van careening across the intersection.
Around 1:20 p.m., Alce said, his initial disbelief turned to shock and then horror as the speeding van cut through the intersection, mounted the curb and began to swerve and mow people down. Alce saw the driver ram four people, he said, and then another four. One woman was thrown several feet into the air. A man was hit midsection before falling. Another was smashed in the head. The van made a roaring sound.
“At first I thought the driver was having a heart attack before I realized what was happening,” Alce said.
“I watched the car for a good two blocks,” he said. “I didn’t see the driver’s face. There was a loud bang as he hit the curb. There was confusion. Some people tended to the wounded. Others were on their cellphones. One woman was sobbing uncontrollably on the corner.”
Alce went to see whether he could help, rolling over some of the victims to determine whether they were alive and administering CPR.
Alce, an Ottawa native, said he moved to Toronto about 20 years ago, drawn by the city’s peaceful atmosphere and lack of crime. He said the attack had destroyed the innocence of a multicultural humanistic city.
“This is the first time I have seen something this horrific,” he said. “It is a loss of innocence. Toronto is peaceful. That is why I love it here.”
Other Torontonians, still in shock, were adamant that the city would quickly recover. On Tuesday morning, commuters heading to work were, hunched over newspapers. “Carnage in Toronto,” said the front-page headline of The Globe and Mail.
As well-wishers continued to gather at an impromptu memorial near the scene of the attack, hazardous material cleanup teams wearing respirators and jump suits were using absorbent powder to remove bloodstains from the sidewalk.
Nancy Brooks, 56, who works in human resources for the Ontario government, often jogs through the area where the episode occurred. She said that in Canada, which prides itself on diversity and a spirit of tolerance, it was particularly jarring.
“This is not something that happens here,” she said. “We always think we are insulated from this kind of thing. We like to think we are like Switzerland.”