In the days before he was charged in what police say was a premeditated, hate-motivated attack on a Muslim family in London, the alleged killer was known as a quiet guy who kept to himself and worked at a plant in small-town Strathroy, Ont.
The image is almost a caricature of early reaction when someone is accused of extremist violence, with people expressing shock that someone they know could be accused of such an act — and it misses the point, according to terrorism researchers.
“It’s impossible to know what someone is doing all the time. Frequently, (when) kids are getting radicalized they have no idea until the FBI bursts through their door,” said Seneca College professor Mubin Shaikh, a former counterterrorism operative who worked with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP.
“People are learning to keep quiet … They’re reluctant to be as vocal,” Shaikh added.
“Yeah, on the one hand it does matter because people who express (hatred) openly, we need to watch for it and interdict it. But also keeping in mind that not everybody shows it.
“Terrorists, they don’t all advertise their plans to everybody.”
Shaikh has little doubt that police already have evidence about the motivations of the accused, 20-year-old Nathaniel (Nate) Veltman. But until that information is made public, any attempt to make sense of the horrific events in London Sunday night will ultimately be unsatisfying.
How he came to be behind the wheel of a newly purchased black Dodge Ram — allegedly using the pickup truck to deliberately strike and kill a family waiting to cross the street Sunday night — is a question those who knew Veltman are now asking, alongside police investigators probing the 20-year-old man’s past.
Moments before he was arrested — five minutes after Sunday night’s attack and just a block away from the London Muslim Mosque — Veltman was seen wearing body armour and a military style helmet, witnesses said. Stopping his truck in an empty mall parking lot, Veltman yelled to a nearby taxi driver to call police, telling him to record his arrest; he then laughed as he was arrested, according to the owner of the taxi company.
People who knew Veltman from his high school days in Strathroy or worked with him at Gray Ridge Egg Farms were surprised at the news he was the man allegedly behind the wheel.
“I’m beyond shocked. Shocked is an understatement, like I am completely broken,” said Arman Moradpourian, who worked with Veltman at Gray Ridge’s Strathroy plant from about 2015 to 2018, and remembered him as someone who was a “devout” Christian who had been home schooled until he was 16.
Veltman now faces four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Salman Afzaal, 46, Madiha Salman, 44, Yumna Salman, 15, and Talat Afzaal, 74. He is also accused of attempting to murder nine-year-old Fayez, the sole surviving family member, who was injured in the attack.
London police have called the crime an intentional act and said the victims “were targeted because of their Islamic faith.” Investigators say there is evidence this was “a planned, premeditated act, motivated by hate.”
But police have not revealed what information led them to conclude — less than 24 hours after the attack — that the murders were motivated by hate, including whether Veltman confessed to targeting Muslim people. Police said on Monday that they didn’t know of Veltman’s membership in any specific hate group.
In an interview with Global News Wednesday, London’s police chief said it was “pretty clear from the investigation that occurred immediately at the scene” that the crime was hate-motivated.
“So without getting into the details of what evidence came from all that, we were fairly comfortable at an early stage attributing this to being a hate-motivated crime, and as I indicated, this family was targeted because of their Islamic faith,” said Chief Stephen Williams in an interview with the network.
Veltman himself sought to summon police in the immediate aftermath of the murders, asking a driver from the Yellow London Taxi company to call 911, according to Hasan Savehilaghi, who owns the company and spoke directly to the driver after the incident.
According to Savehilaghi, whose account was first reported by the London Free Press, the taxi driver, a Muslim man in his 50s, was parked and taking a coffee break when Veltman pulled up near the bright yellow cab and began aggressively yelling profanities at the taxi driver, asking him to call the police because he killed somebody.
The driver noticed the front of the pickup truck was badly damaged and appeared to have blood on it, according to Savehilaghi.
The cab driver immediately called 911 and, while on the phone, waved down a police car passing on the main road. According to Savehilaghi, the cab driver said Veltman — who was wearing what appeared to be a military helmet and body armour — was laughing the whole time.
As police officers arrived and arrested Veltman, he seemed to be chanting a slogan but the cab driver couldn’t make out the words. Veltman asked the cab driver to record the arrest as he was put on the ground and handcuffed, but the driver did not.
The cab driver gave a statement to the police and has been off work since, Savehilaghi said. He praised the driver’s quick actions in a terrifying moment, noting: “It’s not easy to control your emotions in a situation like that.”
On Tuesday afternoon, a police van could be seen parked outside a downtown London address, where documents show Veltman lived at the time of the attack. Former classmates say he was a student at Fanshawe College, which has a nearby campus, and had previously gone to high school in nearby Strathroy, Ont., about a half-hour west.
Veltman had just last month obtained financing to purchase a 2016 Dodge Ram, according to publicly available documents. Witness Alex Lapcevich told the Star the truck had tinted windows and a bull bar modification, like a police car.
Moradpourian, Veltman’s co-worker, is half Iranian and was raised Muslim. He said Veltman was aware of his ancestry and religious beliefs. He never discriminated against him or expressed any hateful beliefs — “he never judged me whatsoever,” Moradpourian said. He said Veltman never showed any predilection for violence in their time working together.
Two acquaintances told the Star that they never heard him express hatred for Muslim people or any other minority group.
“The only strange thing about him was that he would come off as depressed and he would isolate himself and then he would just vanish from social media,” one former classmate, who requested the Star protect their identity, said.
“Then he would just randomly text me like six months later and be like ‘hey, how are you?’ ” the former classmate said.
Veltman is scheduled to appear in court Thursday morning.
Alyshah Hasham is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and court for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alysanmati
Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing for the Star. Reach her by email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis
Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier