A Muslim family out for a Sunday walk at dusk were intentionally run down by the driver of a speeding truck who targeted the family because of their faith, London, Ont. police said — a “hate-motivated killing” the city’s mayor called an act of mass murder.
At 8:40 p.m. on a clear and warm night, a black pickup truck driven by a lone man mounted the curb of a busy London intersection and struck a family of five as they waited to cross the street.
The driver sped off, leaving a scene of chaos and tragedy.
Four members of the same family were killed, ranging in age from a 15-year-old girl to a 74-year-old woman. One woman died at the scene, near the intersection of Hyde Park Road and South Carriage Road, while the others died in hospital.
Of those struck just one family member survived, a nine-year-old boy who is in serious but non-life-threatening condition.
Just hours into the investigation, police called the deaths both horrific and “intentional” — a swift declaration that’s prompted grief and fear for Muslims in London and across Canada.
On Monday, London Police announced four first-degree murder charges against Nathaniel Veltman, 20, who was arrested five minutes later, seven kilometres away from the scene. He also faces one count of attempted murder.
“Investigators believe that this was an intentional act and that the victims were targeted because of their Islamic faith,” police said in a statement. “There is evidence that this was a planned, premeditated act, motivated by hate.”
Veltman, who is from London, appeared in court Monday. There is no known connection between Veltman and the victims, police said.
London police will be working with the RCMP on possible terrorism charges, Det.-Supt. Paul Waight told reporters.
Waight said Veltman had previous contact with police but “nothing of a very serious nature” and did not have any past criminal convictions. He would not comment on whether the suspect confessed to targeting Muslims, saying he could not get into specific evidence.
“As far as the investigation has shown, so far, we don’t know of his membership in any specific hate group,” Waight said.
At the time of his arrest, the suspect was wearing a “vest that appeared to be like body armour,” Waight said.
Paige Martin, who witnessed the aftermath of the crash at an intersection near her home, told The Canadian Press said she couldn’t stop thinking about the victims. Martin said she had been stopped at a red light minutes earlier at around 8:30 p.m. when the Dodge Ram pickup flew past her. She said her car shook.
“I can’t get the sound of the screams out of my head,” Martin said.
Relatives have asked that the names of the victims not yet be released, police said.
As Muslims in London and across the country grieve and call for the accused to face “the fullest extent of the law,” the community is forced to grapple with the ever-present fear of being targets for violence.
The community is facing two devastating tragedies: the deaths and severe injury of members of a school family and the loss of a community’s sense of safety, said Dr. Hassan Mostafa, a board member of the Islamic school attended by the injured boy, a Grade 3 student, in a Zoom town hall Monday evening.
“The sense of safety and security that our families, and our students and our community has, has been shattered,” he said.
“It just totally numbs you,” said Shahina Siddiqui, executive director of the Islamic Social Services Association. “I wonder if our women are safe. Can we walk down the street with our children anymore, those of us who are visibly Muslim, or brown, or wearing cultural clothing?”
In a statement, London Mayor Ed Holder decried the deaths as “an act of mass murder perpetrated against Muslims, against Londoners, and rooted in unspeakable hatred.”
The National Council of Canadian Muslims called on authorities to “prosecute the attacker to the fullest extent of the law” for a “terrorist attack on Canadian soil.”
“This loss of a family, the loss of a child in our community because of Islamophobia — this is a sorrow that will run deep for a long time,” said Mustafa Farooq, the head of the NCCM, in a statement Monday evening.
“But let that sorrow be the ground where we stand for justice, and stand for change.”
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the federal agency responsible for investigating domestic national security threats, said it could not confirm or deny any potential investigation Monday evening.
But Jessica Davis, a former CSIS analyst and president of Insight Threat Intelligence, told the Star that national security agencies are likely scouring the driver’s internet footprint for any sense of his motivation.
“The big thing is, of course, potentially anybody who may have known about it or maybe involved in it, to run down the possibility of other people who might do the same thing,” Davis said.
Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said in an interview Monday that the decision by the London Police Services to quickly state there was evidence the deaths were hate-motivated “offered a model as to how to deal with horrible hate crimes.”
“We have not had the same kind of response from other police services,” Farber said, noting last year’s slaying of 58-year-old Mohamed-Aslim Zafis outside a Toronto mosque has still not been designated a hate crime or terrorist act.
Farber called the killings “absolutely horrifying.” It’s a “worst nightmare” when people “are targeted for the colour of their skin, or for (the) God that they pray to, and someone believes that they shouldn’t live,” Farber said.
In a statement Monday afternoon, Premier Doug Ford said Islamophobia has no place in Ontario and “justice must be served for the horrific act of hatred that took place in London.”
“These heinous acts of violence must stop,” the premier said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “horrified” by the “act of hatred.”
“To the Muslim community in London and to Muslims across the country, know that we stand with you,” Trudeau said in a statement.
“Islamophobia has no place in any of our communities. This hate is insidious and despicable — and it must stop.”
But Siddiqui, who counsels victims of hate crimes, said the Canadian government has been too slow to act to address Islamophobia, particularly online, even after a 27-year-old man massacred six people and injured six more at a Quebec City mosque in 2017.
“After what happened at the Quebec mosque we thought hopefully never again. But I said even then, the way we have unleashed hate and Islamophobia, there will be more victims,” she said. “I know what our community will go through, it’s like over and over again, it’s the recycling of our triggers, of our trauma, our pain.”
Human rights advocate and author Amira Elghawaby said that it is too early to know how the police came to the conclusion the killings were hate-motivated, but what is clear is that hate is thriving online.
“It has real-life consequences in our country. We only need to look at the Quebec City mosque massacre, we only need to look at the rise in attacks against Asian Canadians and other forms of hatred,” she said.
“Just as hate crimes are message crimes, society has a responsibility to counter those messages with a strong one of its own, and that is that hate will not be tolerated, there are consequences, and that we are going to do everything we can to drive it out of our community.”
London Police have asked anyone with information to call 519-661-5515 ext. 5842 or anonymously at 1-800-222-TIPS.
Police also provided community support resources. Victim Services of Middlesex London can be reached at 226-678-4631 and Muslim Resource Centre for Social Support and Integration: 519-672-6000 ext. 309.
With files from The Canadian Press
Alyshah Hasham is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and court for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alysanmati
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