Seven minutes. It’s the time it takes to grab a coffee and find a park bench, or pause to catch up with a neighbour, or pay a lunch tab and head out into a sunny day. In seven minutes on April 23, a man driving a rented cargo van struck more than two dozen pedestrians on a north Toronto sidewalk, and left everyone asking why.
That one broken human could destroy so many lives is a difficult thing to accept. As Toronto struggles to make sense of what happened, the killer’s motive has been the subject of much speculation.
In the weeks since the Toronto van attack, Alek Minassian, the 25-year-old man now facing 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder, has been cast as a symbol of toxic masculinity, a “disturbed individual attempting to exorcize private demons” and a “random loon.”
Was Minassian a true believer in the misogynist incel movement referenced in a screed posted to his Facebook account shortly before the van attack, or a vulnerable mind who fell under the influence of hateful online message boards? Or was he something else entirely?
Minassian appeared in a north Toronto court by video link Thursday, wearing an orange jumpsuit. Tall and wan with buzzed hair and dark stubble, he stood blinking at the camera, arms at his sides. He said nothing. The charges against him have not been proven in court. His lawyer, Boris Bytensky, told reporters that it is too early to discuss a plea.
This is an evolving portrait of Alek Minassian, a socially awkward software developer and failed military recruit who appeared to have health challenges, a knack for computer programming and few close friends. A man who, weeks ago, was finishing up a semester at college, and is now charged in Toronto’s worst mass murder in history — an attack no one seemed to believe him capable of.
The Minassian family lives in a two-storey red brick house on a tree-lined street in the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill, near sprawling green parks, well-ranked public schools and the David Dunlap Observatory.
Vahe Minassian and Sona Minassian purchased the home on Elmsley Dr. two decades ago for $330,000, according to property records.
Born on Nov. 3, 1992, Minassian grew up in the home with his parents and a brother, neighbours said. His father is a senior manager of software development at Rogers and an alumnus of the University of Toronto, according to his LinkedIn profile. Sona Minassian is on leave from her job at Compugen, an IT service provider, “for obvious reasons,” a company spokesperson told Metroland Media.
Neighbours said the Minassians kept to themselves, but that their private nature wasn’t unusual in a suburban middle-class neighbourhood of busy families.
“We are a very quiet, self-contained community,” said Wesley Mack, 77, who lives nearby. “People are busy with their lives. We see each other come and go, but we are not a block party kind of community.”
Though he doesn’t know the family well, Mack observed that Minassian seemed to have trouble making eye contact on his solitary neighbourhood walks, and that he appeared to require extra care and attention from his parents. Mack said it was clear that Minassian had special needs. “It’s a family that has struggled with this situation for a long time,” he said.
“I feel compassion for them, as I do for all who have suffered through this thing,” Mack said. “I’m not isolating them and saying they’re hurting more than anyone else. Obviously there’s tremendous hurt and suffering on the part of many people who were affected by this.”
“As a parent, if I try to put myself in their shoes, there’d be an immediate feeling of isolation, I would feel that people were condemning me as a parent for not being able to take care of this situation, to monitor this situation, if my child were involved in it,” Mack said.
The parents appeared to run into challenges trying to address their child’s health issues. In 2009, the Richmond Hill Liberal quoted Sona Minassian speaking of a son who was living with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism that has since been reclassified as autism spectrum disorder. The mother said her son relied on Helpmate, a social service community program whose lack of funding at the time threatened to shutter it.
“My son would spend afternoons working with Helpmate,” she said. “They were sensitive to his needs.”
As a child, Minassian attended Sixteenth Avenue Public School, a few blocks from his home. Shannon Goel, 25, told the Star after the van attack that she remembered Minassian from her Grade 5 class as a child who was prone to tantrums and acting out.
At Thornlea Secondary School, housed in a squat brick building south of Highway 407 in Thornhill, Minassian was in a special education class called “learning strategies,” according to students who knew him. High school classmates described Minassian as an awkward young man with notable physical tics who appeared to have special needs stemming from a disability. Some former classmates expressed surprise at the idea that Minassian could even operate a vehicle, let alone allegedly steer one that caused so much destruction.
Will Cornish, 25, who attended Thornlea during Minassian’s time there, said he was shocked by what police were alleging. “I was stunned,” he said. “I was like, how the f— did he get a van? A, who would rent it to him? B, can he even drive? Based on what I knew about him, I didn’t think he could drive. I assumed that he stole it.”
In high school, Minassian would fidget and twitch, tap his head, hug his arms around his body, meow like a cat, sometimes spit on himself and repeat the phrase, “I’m afraid of girls,” Cornish and other classmates said.
Hearing news reports describing his behaviour, some people with first-hand knowledge about autism said the tics sounded like self-regulating actions typical of the disorder.
“We call it ‘stimming,’ ” said Kyle Echakowitz, 20, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s but uses the term “autistic.”
“They are self-stimulating, self-regulatory behaviours that we do to basically manage internal noise, being overwhelmed by your own thoughts, sensory issues, touch,” Echakowitz said.
Echakowitz attended Thornlea at the same time as Minassian. He was in Grade 9 when Minassian was in Grade 12, but does not remember him. Echakowitz is worried about the negative image the van attack has cast on people with autism.
Experts have stressed that people on the autism spectrum are no more likely to be violent than the general population. Toronto autism agencies were so concerned that the disorder would be unfairly connected to the van attack that they released a joint statement on April 27, cautioning against making the link “without acknowledging that this is a rare and specific circumstance” and “that there are most likely multiple factors that led … to such a heinous action.”
“Individuals with autism are not violent, but there are rare exceptions,” Dr. Kevin Stoddart, director of the Redpath Centre, said in the statement, which stressed that his clinical practice with people on the autism spectrum who become involved with the law “reveals a lack of appropriate supports and failure to recognize an impending mental health crisis.”
“Our mental health system is woefully inadequate to address the burgeoning needs of Canadians living with autism and mental illness,” he said.
The experts said this is especially true for people transitioning from high school or postsecondary education to the workforce.
While some who knew Minassian in high school believed he had a severe social or mental disability, college classmates described him as a nervous yet bright student and a fast learner who had a knack for computer programming.
Minassian graduated from Thornlea and began studying at Seneca College in North York, where he was a student for seven years, from 2011 to 2018, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Joseph Pham, a 25-year-old computer programming and analysis student at Seneca, sat beside Minassian in a course called “parallel programming fundamentals,” from January to April this year.
The course curriculum includes a project that requires a group presentation. While initially working with a group, Minassian ended up presenting his project alone — not due to group dynamics, as far as Pham was aware, but because some students ended up dropping the class.
“His speech was articulate, he presented at a good pace, he spoke really slow but he was articulate in what he was saying,” Pham said. “He didn’t have any cue cards or anything. He knew what he was talking about.”
Pham got the impression that Minassian was comfortable with the material, but not with being the focus of attention. He said Minassian stared at the back of the room and didn’t make eye contact.
A recruiter who interviewed Minassian for a job in 2016 later described him as “the best hire we never hired,” Metroland Media reported after the attack. The recruiter was impressed with Minassian’s technical knowledge and skills.
Metroland obtained a 2017 copy of Minassian’s resumé, which said he studied software development at Seneca. Minassian listed volunteer work that included tree planting, “food bank” and sorting and filing client applications at Helpmate.
Minassian held several jobs — as a quality assurance developer, a software developer working on a wine shopping application and a co-op student employed in the IT department at the Ontario municipal employees’ pension plan, the resumé said. In 2016, he worked for five months at Toogood Financial Systems in Thornhill, but was let go, the company’s chief operating officer told Metroland.
Soon after, Minassian signed up for the military. The Department of National Defence confirmed he was a Canadian Armed Forces recruit between August and October last year. To become a recruit, he would have had to successfully complete online applications, aptitude testing, a medical examination and an interview. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said after the attack that no red flags were raised during his recruitment.
Minassian struggled during basic training at the Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., and quit after 16 days.
“He wasn’t very good at taking direction,” fellow recruit Andrew Summerfield told CBC News. “There was a lot of disciplinary action put towards Alek because he wouldn’t understand something and they’d want him to do it, and then he wouldn’t do it right.”
Summerfield said it appeared Minassian “had some sort of condition,” but never shared what it was with members of their platoon.
In military training, “you have to adapt to a different way of being and for good reason,” a defence department source told the Star. “It wasn’t for him.”
Minassian returned to college. One of the students who worked briefly on the group presentation with Minassian last semester before dropping the class said Minassian was “super-nervous all the time, but extremely bright.”
“Working with him was very cordial and businesslike,” the student said. “He understood how to be a responsible group member.”
The student, who did not want their name associated with Minassian, said that on April 19, a few days before the attack, Minassian sent a message to former group members on a chat app. The student shared a screen capture of the message attributed to Minassian. The Star could not independently verify that he sent it.
“Finally finished college,” the message said. “F— you all and good riddance.”
When the seven-minute attack on Yonge St. was over, the man who exited the white van said he wanted to die.
“Kill me,” he shouted to Toronto police Const. Ken Lam, their encounter captured in a video recorded by a witness.
The suspect’s behaviour would feed speculation about his health. He held his arms out as if he had a weapon, but Lam did not shoot. The suspect brought his hand to his hip pocket, then snapped his arm back out like he was pulling a gun.
“Get down,” Lam said.
“I have a gun in my pocket,” the suspect shouted. “Shoot me in the head.”
The cop called his bluff and the suspect surrendered. Police later said a cellphone was seized after the arrest.
As news of the attack spread and Minassian was publicly identified as the suspect, reporters unearthed a disturbing message posted to his Facebook page around the time of the attack: “Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4chan please. C23249161. The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”
“Incels” are an online subculture of men who are “involuntarily celibate” and frustrated by their inability to find romantic relationships or sex. In their world, “Chads and Stacys” are people who have no issues finding sexual partners. Some incels idolize Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old California man who killed six people and himself in 2014 after recording a YouTube video vowing “revenge against humanity,” especially the women who rejected him.
Eight women and two men were killed in the van attack. The victims ranged in age from 22 to 94. Police said they are reviewing video footage to determine whether the van was steered intentionally toward women. Investigators have not released information about an alleged motive. Many questions remain unanswered.
A Facebook spokesperson verified the post as authentic. Toronto police could not confirm whether Minassian wrote it, but a military source told the Star that the number cited — C23249161 — was his military service number. Police said they are investigating all aspects of his online activity.
People who call themselves incels feel “despair, depression, frustration and a loss of confidence” when they fail to have successful sexual relationships, researchers from Georgia State University concluded in a 2001 study of members of an online incel community — the majority of whom were young, white and male. Since the study, which looked at an early and somewhat more innocent community of incels, the movement has grown with internet availability and the popularity of social media, and has become increasingly extreme and hateful.
After the attack, a user on one forum popular with incels — Incels.me — changed his avatar to a picture of Minassian and wrote: “The incel revolution has begun.” A forum administrator later wrote a message saying that Minassian has never posted on Incels.me and “as far as we are concerned, no one on the forum heard of him before these latest news.” The administrator said being an incel has “no relation” to violence or misogyny, but the dark corners of the internet where incels gather are full of hateful messages and threats of violence toward women.
Dr. Jessica Jones, a professor of psychiatry at Queen’s University who specializes in autism spectrum disorders, said that while people on the spectrum are no more likely to commit violent crimes than anyone else, they are, generally, more vulnerable to influence.
They tend to have trouble interpreting the intent of others in conversation, along with a black-and-white thinking style that leads them to struggle with the conflicting messages we receive in day-to-day life, Jones said.
“This difficulty with social navigation and reading others — especially when we tend to say one thing, do another and mean something else — can influence individuals with ASD to seek out others who are less ambiguous in their social communication, either positive or negative,” she said.
Susceptible to isolation and social withdrawal, people with autism sometimes gravitate to the internet “for a way of connecting to others without the confusion of our ‘social puzzle’ in the real world,” Jones said.
“Unfortunately, they can also be exploited for their vulnerability in not reading the true motivation of their audience.”
Dr. Michael Seto, director of forensic mental health research at the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group, said that in the aftermath of devastating and high-profile acts of violence he is often asked to comment on what might be going on inside the mind of a killer. Seto did not want to speculate on Minassian, but spoke generally about why he believes the public turns to mental illness in the wake of unfathomable acts of violence.
“My sense is that mental illness kind of quickly becomes on the plate as a possible explanation because the behaviour seems so bizarre or irrational that people think there can’t be any rational explanation for it,” Seto said. “A rational explanation would be anger, jealousy money — those are explanations people can get their heads around.”
When people with serious mental illness do commit violent crimes, they tend to make the news, Seto said. People remember those stories, Seto said, “and so they think there is a strong link between mental illness and serious violence,” which is not true. The Royal Ottawa’s research with the National Trajectory Project on mentally disordered offenders has found that serious violence is rare, Seto said. “But it makes the news because it’s so horrifying it’s hard to turn your attention away from it.
“Even if someone does have a mental illness, it doesn’t automatically mean the mental illness explains the violence.”
It’s fair to wonder about an accused person’s mental state, he said, but not to jump to conclusions.
Outside the north Toronto courthouse where Minassian appeared by video link Thursday, his lawyer spoke to reporters but would not discuss his client’s state of mind.
“There’s been speculation about all sorts of things in the media and I don’t wish to either lend credence or dispute or refute any of those things,” Bytensky said. “It will come out in the courtroom.”
Bytensky, who is representing Minassian with co-counsel Breese Davies, would not discuss Minassian’s feelings toward women, or whether he will have a mental health fitness assessment.
Asked about how Minassian and his parents are holding up, Bytensky said this is not the time to talk about them. “This is still a grieving period for the city,” he said. “We have many victims of this offence, there are many families that are grieving for those lives lost. Our thoughts, and the Minassian family’s thoughts, are with them, and we’d like to keep the focus … in the right place.”
Minassian’s parents have not spoken publicly. The morning after the attack, his father sat among a throng of reporters in court, wearing a black sweater and a pained expression. He sat in silence during the proceedings, and went largely unnoticed by the 50 or more local and international journalists who’d come to see his son. He watched his son enter the courtroom wearing a white jumpsuit, hands cuffed behind his back.
Alek Minassian spoke to give his name, delivering it quickly, as if in a military training exercise. Asked if he understood the court order barring him from having contact with the injured victims, he replied with a sharp “yes.”
Afterward, four Toronto police officers escorted the grey-haired father out of the courthouse, creating a circle around him as a pack of TV cameras and reporters pressed close, the questions coming from all sides.
“Do you have anything to say to the people of Toronto?” one reporter asked. “Sir, do you have anything to say to the people of Toronto about your son?”
The father inched toward his car, the cameras following during his slow march through the parking lot. His every breath and movement seemed to take great effort.
An ABC News reporter from New York peppered him with questions, “Is your son sick, sir? Is your son mentally ill? Is there anything you would like to say to the victims? You were crying in court, sir. Can you at least tell us what you’re feeling right now please?”
Another reporter asked, “Why do you think this happened?”
The father got in his car and drove away, looking utterly destroyed.
While it is impossible to know what Minassian’s parents are feeling, Peter Rodger, the father of 22-year-old California mass killer Elliot Rodger, has described his experience as a “reverse nightmare situation.”
“When you go to sleep normally, you have a nightmare and you wake up and oh, everything is OK,” Peter Rodger said in a 2014 interview with Barbara Walters. “Now I go to sleep, I might have a nice dream, and then I wake up and slowly the truth of what happened dawns on me. And that is that my son was a mass murderer.”
Rodger said he had no idea his son was capable of murder. “This is the American horror story, or the world’s horror story … when you have somebody who on the outside is one thing and on the inside is something completely different, and you don’t see it.”