The man behind the Yonge Street van attack

The Man Behind the Yonge Street Van Attack

As a teen, he was brutally bullied for his autism. He couldn’t connect with people, couldn’t find a job, even the army didn’t want him. That’s when he snapped, mowing down 26 people in broad daylight. The untold story of Alek Minassian, a year after the deadliest mass murder in Toronto history

| April 22, 2019
The man behind the Yonge Street van attack

When Alek Minassian was a kid, he dreamed of becoming a pilot. He wanted to reach out and touch the sky. But his parents doubted their son would ever achieve those heights. Minassian was different from other kids. He was quiet and sensitive, easily bothered and regularly bullied. He lived in a large two-storey house on Elmsley Drive in Richmond Hill with his parents and his older brother, Haig. His father, Vahe, had moved from Armenia to Canada and worked as a software developer for Rogers. His mom, Sona, was from Iran and had a job at Compugen, an IT company. Minassian was born on November 3, 1992, and attended Sixteenth Avenue Public School, just a few blocks from his home. From early on, it was clear he had special needs. Throughout elementary school, he threw temper tantrums in class and isolated himself from the other kids. One former classmate, who attended an after-school program with Minassian, says that at 10 years old he would hoard toys in the corner and scream when anyone approached to take them away.

By the time Minassian enrolled at Thornlea Secondary School, he’d been diagnosed with Asperger’s, now more commonly classified under autism spectrum disorder. He attended learning strategies classes and befriended the kids he met there. Minassian was the clown of the group, with a long, thin smile and deep-set dark eyes framed by slanting brows. Over lunch in the learning strategies classroom, he made his friends laugh, speaking in cartoonish accents and joking openly about having “ass burgers” syndrome. They talked about their favourite video games, and occasionally the conversation turned to girls they thought were cute, though Minassian never joined in on those discussions.

Outside of the special needs crowd, the students were less forgiving. Minassian had physical tics and occasionally made growling noises. The other kids nicknamed him Chewbacca, ridiculing him when he walked down the hallways, poking and prodding at him as he meowed or tried to bite them in response. Sometimes, students would cajole him into approaching the girls in his grade, the way you’d egg on a child. When the girls laughed or turned away, Minassian would whimper and recoil, his arms curling into himself. “I don’t like girls,” he whispered over and over like a mantra. “I don’t know if he realized he was being bullied,” one former classmate recalls. Another says Minassian told him his behaviour was all an act for attention. In the back pages of Thornlea’s yearbook, most students thanked their friends and families in blurbs next to their graduation photos. Minassian wrote nothing.

The man behind the Yonge Street van attack
Minassian lived with his parents and older brother at this house in Richmond Hill. Photograph by Daniel Neuhaus

His parents tried to provide him with extra support. His mom took him to Helpmate, a community services agency in Richmond Hill. As part of their life skills counselling, they trained Minassian for a summer job at his mom’s workplace, Compugen. He did photocopying, filing and shredding in the accounts payable department.

When Minassian was 15, his parents bought him his own computer. He became obsessed with Halo, the first-person shooter game where super-soldiers fight for interstellar domination. In Halo, every player starts with the same abilities—it’s an even playing field, which appealed to Minassian. He played late into the night with a handful of friends and strangers he met online. The Halo community was the perfect place for him. There were no fraught social cues he couldn’t interpret or laughter following him down hallways. He didn’t have to speak to other people, and he didn’t have to feel alone.

Minassian had a natural aptitude for computers, and pursued a computer programming diploma at Seneca’s campus at York University, not far from his Richmond Hill home. He did well in his classes, earning a coveted gig as a research assistant at Seneca’s Centre for Development of Open Technology, a position that could open doors into entry-level jobs at prestigious software companies like Red Hat and Mozilla.

Minassian’s classmates thought he was brilliant: he posted detailed coding lessons to class blogs to assist his fellow students and built his own Android app to help people find free parking spots. After a couple of years, he transferred to Seneca’s more demanding degree program for software development. Still, he struggled in professional settings. At one point, he took a job as a quality-assurance developer at Toogood Financial Systems, an investment software firm based in Richmond Hill. After six months, he was fired. He did a co-op placement with OMERS, but they didn’t invite him back to work full-time. He received support from teachers, from educational assistants, from his parents. He led a quiet life and worked hard. And yet it never seemed to be enough. Minassian thrived online but he couldn’t navigate the outside world.

The man behind the Yonge Street van attack
He was relentlessly teased in high school at Thornlea Secondary. Photograph by Daniel Neuhaus

In September 2017, Minassian left home for the first time. His parents encouraged him to join the army, so, one semester before he was due to complete his degree at Seneca, he quit school to enlist. He passed his entrance assessment, including an aptitude test, a medical exam, a fitness test and an interview, and reported for his first day of training at a military facility in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec—recruit number C23249161. To his fellow recruits, he seemed shy and withdrawn.

In a matter of days, it became clear that Minassian was the weak link in an otherwise strong platoon. Andrew Summerfield, his section leader, was concerned. Minassian never should have passed the entrance exam, Summerfield thought. He didn’t have the motor control to complete simple stopping drills: when the recruits were ordered to swing their right legs without moving their bodies, Minassian stumbled. His physical tics—hand to cheek, hand to ear, then hand to nose—were so pronounced that they distracted the other recruits in class. He seemed oblivious to the constraints of time, falling woefully behind in exercises. He even had trouble packing his kit, wandering around the drill hall aimlessly, unsure of what he needed. More than anything, Minassian seemed absent, locked in the confines of his mind. He usually sat alone, and always answered questions with monosyllabic indifference. He never made eye contact, looking down to the floor when he spoke. Summerfield knew Minassian never would have qualified for a civilian firearm licence—so why was he admitted to the armed forces as an infantry soldier?

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Within a few days, the other recruits were talking about Minassian behind his back, frustrated that he was making the platoon look bad. In the evenings, when the others would gather in the barracks to joke and commiserate, Minassian stayed in his bunk. He knew he didn’t fit in. Summerfield developed a system to help Minassian. Each morning, he would wake with the others at 5 a.m. and rush to complete his own tasks, making sure to leave himself enough time to help Minassian before inspection. There was something wrong nearly every day, and Minassian never seemed to understand why. He’d make his bed improperly, no matter how many times Summerfield showed him hospital corners. His uniform would be unkempt, or his clothes folded incorrectly in his kit. Summerfield was baffled. “It seemed like he didn’t understand the gravity of the situation he was in,” he says. Instructors barked orders at him, making him do one push-up for each loose thread on his uniform, or making the entire platoon do push-ups for Minassian’s mistakes.

By the second week of training, Summerfield was going to great lengths to get Minassian to complete the basic tasks that would keep his section off the instructors’ hit lists. He showed him how to shape his beret properly, suggesting that he shower with it on and let it dry on his head. “It was like when you trick kids into doing stuff,” he says.

 


Minassian had physical tics and occasionally made growling noises. His classmates ridiculed him and nicknamed him Chewbacca

 

By the third week, Minassian had come down with a strain of strep throat so common in basic training that recruits joke it’s unique to the forces. He went to the infirmary. When he didn’t come back, an instructor ordered Summerfield to go find him. He walked into the barracks and saw Minassian curled in his bed. “I don’t want to be here anymore,” he told Summerfield. “I want to go home.”

Sixteen days in, Minassian asked to be discharged. When he stood to leave, his fellow recruits breathed a collective sigh of relief. “It was in the back of our minds that giving this guy a firearm probably wouldn’t go well,” Summerfield says. He didn’t seem violent or angry—they just didn’t think he’d be able to learn how to use it properly.

That winter, Minassian returned to Seneca to complete his final semester. In one class, the students played two truths and a lie as an icebreaker. He mentioned he’d been in the army but left during training. When a fellow student asked why, Minassian told him it was because he didn’t get to use guns as often as he’d hoped. It didn’t sound like he was joking.

Minassian usually arrived early to class, and always by himself. He hovered on the outskirts of social groups, trying to befriend others in his program by asking them perfunctory questions about where they’d completed their co-ops or how they’d done on labs and tests. He’d interrupt his fellow students, not noticing if they were deep in conversation with someone else or reviewing their notes before a test. One student, who worked with Minassian on a project, says he always shook his hand, even when they met up to work. Another says he blinked rapidly, squeezing his eyes shut when he talked to other students or presented his work to the class. Once, in the back of a classroom, when conversation turned to women, the male students went around in a circle, declaring whether they were tit men or ass men. When it was Minassian’s turn, he looked off into the distance and shrugged. His classmates never thought much of his unusual behaviour. It was a computer programming course, and many of the students were a little eccentric, seeking refuge in the worlds they could inhabit onscreen.

That semester, Minassian turned his attention to finding work after graduation. He attended the college’s job fairs, collected business cards and applied to software development jobs at firms like Jonah Group, Evertz and Portable Intelligence. “He was going for it,” one classmate says. “It seemed like he was going to get a good job and do well and be useful.”

He canvassed his colleagues on how to nail interviews, asking for advice over Slack. One classmate agreed to review Minassian’s resumé, and he was surprised when Minassian pulled out several pages of detailed notes on his schooling and co-op positions. “You might want to get that down to a couple of pages,” his classmate suggested, and Minassian nodded. It seemed like he was doing everything right to find a place where he belonged.

He began to parrot his classmates’ behaviour. One guy had been friendly to him and invited him to join a private Slack channel for people in the program who seemed especially intelligent. When he ranted about the program’s shortcomings, Minassian joined in, repeating his friend’s words nearly verbatim, getting increasingly riled up with every point. When his classmate said he didn’t like how the teachers skimmed over dense material in class, Minassian agreed and ratcheted the conversation up. “Yeah, this is stupid! How are we supposed to learn this? This is complex stuff,” he’d say. “He might have been mirroring me because he wanted to be friends with me,” the classmate says. “No wonder he liked me. I treated him like a human being.”

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Toward the end of the semester, Minassian still hadn’t received a job offer, and his gentle demeanour began to fray. In mid-March, a fight broke out in the back of a classroom between him and another student. “Fuck you!” Minassian yelled at his classmate, before storming out of the room. Later, his classmates asked each other what was going on with Minassian. No one seemed to know what had happened.

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And then, on the morning of April 19, he posted a cryptic message on Slack. “Finally finished college. Fuck you all and good riddance.” His fellow students took it as a joke. “Hahahahah fuck you, good luck finding a job,” one classmate wrote back in jest. When a few days went by and Minassian hadn’t responded, the classmate reached out to him privately. “Hey, how’s it going, man?” he asked him on Sunday night. Minassian never wrote back.

No one knows exactly when or why Alek Minassian became involved in the online incel community. The term “incel” is widely credited to a Toronto woman in her 40s known only by her first name, Alana. In 1997, she was a student at Carleton University, struggling with dating, loneliness and insecurity. A self-described late bloomer, Alana determined that there must be others who shared her feelings. And so, in the fledgling days of the Internet, she started an all-text website—Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project—designed as a forum where people of all genders could talk about their difficulty forming intimate relationships. Participation skewed slightly male, but conversation in the early days was generally balanced and supportive. One couple who met on the forum even got married.

The incel movement grew, as Internet subcultures are wont to do, and in 2014, a man named Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista, California, sent a 141-page manifesto entitled My Twisted World to family and friends and posted a video on YouTube. “I’m 22 years old and I’m still a virgin,” he said. “Within those years, I’ve had to rot in loneliness. It’s not fair. You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it. I’m the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at all these obnoxious men instead of me, the supreme gentleman.” Then he went on a killing spree: he stabbed his two roommates and one of their friends, shot two women outside a sorority house and another man, and shot himself in the front seat of his black BMW.

 


Toward the end of the semester, Minassian’s gentle demeanour began to fray. He’d done everything right, yet he still hadn’t received any job offers

 

In the forums, incels celebrated. They called Rodger a hero, a saint, the Supreme Gentleman. Three years after the massacre, Reddit’s incel forum had 40,000 active members and there were dozens of copycat groups. Minassian reportedly began frequenting a 4chan forum called /r9k/, where self-described incels discuss abhorrent subjects like the merits of incest and how to sell women as slaves.

Participants in incel forums live in a world of absurd caricatures: they loathe the Chads, or attractive men who can get as many girls as they like, almost as much as they loathe the Stacys, the beautiful women they lust after, who only sleep with Chads. And then there are the crueller terms: roastie, shorthand for a woman whose labia have stretched from having sex with too many men; LDAR, or lie down and rot; femoid, the blanket term used to dehumanize women. Many sites, including Reddit, shut down incel forums for promoting violence and hate speech, but the groups are like a hydra: when one head is cut off, another springs up quickly in its place.

In early April last year, Minassian called Ryder Truck Rental, which has a location roughly halfway between his home on Elmsley Drive and the York campus. He wanted to reserve a van. He told the man on the other end of the line that he’d be finishing school soon, that he was moving and needed to transport his furniture. He read out a credit card number, required to cover the $400 deposit.

Two weeks later, at 12:30 p.m. on April 23, Minassian walked into the Ryder office. He wore black pants, a black hoodie and a royal-blue T-shirt. He passed his driver’s licence over the counter and repeated to the attendant that he’d be loading the van with furniture. He’d taken clippers to his hair, which was shorn unevenly with erratic bald patches. The attendant punched in Minassian’s licence number and ran the company’s standard background check. It came back clean. Minassian walked out into the parking lot, climbed into the van and turned the ignition. Then he clambered out and bolted back toward the street.

A sales rep in the parking lot watched him with curiosity. Minassian swung his head side to side as though he was looking for someone, then walked slowly back to where the van stood parked and running. “Do you need help?” she asked him as he neared the vehicle. “I have a weird question,” he said. “I’m used to newer cars. Can you show me how to put it in drive?” She nodded and climbed into the front seat. He looked nervous, she thought. His hands shook as he watched her pull the gearshift down.

He sat in the parking lot for 20 minutes. At some point, he posted a message to his Facebook profile. “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!” Then the parking lot gates slid open and Minassian drove away. The employees inside broke out laughing. It was the first time they’d seen a customer who didn’t know how to put a rental in drive.

Minassian made his way to Yonge Street. Just south of Finch, he mounted a curb, crashing into pedestrians and killing one person right away. He drove along the sidewalk for several blocks, plowing down poles and smashing bus shelters as passersby screamed and ran. Outside Mel Lastman Square, he struck another cluster of people, swerved from the sidewalk to the road and back again, then pulled a right onto Poyntz Avenue, south of Sheppard, 2.2 kilometres from where the deadly drive began.

On Poyntz Avenue, Minassian parked the van and stood outside, brandishing his phone like a gun. Constable Ken Lam was the first officer on the scene. “Kill me! Shoot me in the head!” Minassian shouted. Lam never flinched. He held out his gun and approached slowly until Minassian tossed his phone aside and fell to the ground, his face against the pavement. Seven minutes after police received the first 911 call, Minassian was in handcuffs.

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Minutes later, his Facebook post began to circulate. The Department of National Defence confirmed the military ID number in the post was Minassian’s. The next day, he was charged with 10 counts of murder and 13 counts of attempted murder. Police laid three more attempted murder charges a few weeks later.

In the weeks after the van attack, participants in the incel forums feverishly discussed the legitimacy of Minassian’s inceldom. They debated how many celebratory beers should be downed per woman who died. They gave him a name, too: Saint Alek.

Vahe and Sona Minassian learned of the attack on the news the day it happened, just like everybody else. They hired criminal lawyer Leo Adler, whose office is on that stretch of Yonge just south of Finch, to represent the family. At his son’s first court appearance, Vahe, his face lined and eyes sunken, made his way through a mob of reporters shouting around his police escort. “Do you have anything to say to the people of Toronto? Sir, do you have anything to say to the people of Toronto about your son?” He whispered, “I’m sorry.” Two months later, his parents sold their house on Elmsley for $1.4 million and moved away. Minassian is being held without bail at the Toronto South Detention Centre in Etobicoke and in November waived his right to a preliminary hearing. His trial is set for February 2020, and it’s likely that he will either plead guilty or not criminally responsible for the 26 charges he faces. Minassian, through his lawyer, declined interview requests for this story.

The man behind the Yonge Street van attack
When reporters asked Minassian’s father if he had anything to say to the people of Toronto, he just whispered “I’m sorry.” Photograph by Lars Hagberg/AFP/Getty Images

The 10 people who died at Yonge and Finch ranged in age from 22 to 94. Eight were women. There was Betty Forsyth, a nonagenarian who used to feed the birds and squirrels on her daily walks around the neighbourhood. Renuka Amarasingha, who was 45, worked for the Toronto District School Board and left behind a young son. Sohe Chung, a University of Toronto biology student, was on her way to the library, taking in the spring sunshine with her best friend, So Ra, who survived, but barely. All but one of the 26 victims in the attack were hit on the sidewalk as the van mounted curbs, mowing down the people in its path.

In the months since the attack, several victims have filed civil suits against Minassian and Ryder Truck Rental. Amir Kiumarsi, a chemistry professor at Ryerson, was one of the first people struck in the attack. The incident left him with a brain injury, spinal fractures, a pulmonary embolism, memory loss, vertigo, anxiety and depression. He’s asking for $6 million in aggravated and punitive damages, accusing both parties of negligence. Amaresh Tesfamariam, a nurse, sustained a spinal cord injury and brain damage. She can no longer move her body below her neck or breathe without a machine, and she says her career is over. She’s seeking $14 million. Catherine Riddell, who’s suing for $3.6 million, suffered a brain injury, a collapsed lung and fractures in her spine, ribs and pelvis. And the family of Anne Marie D’Amico, a 30-year-old woman who died in the attack, has filed a $1-million lawsuit, intending to donate any money they receive to the Anne Marie D’Amico Foundation, which supports women who are victims of violence.

Ryder refused to comment directly on the cases, but denied responsibility in a statement to Toronto Life. “All of us at Ryder remain deeply saddened by the loss of life and injuries resulting from the senseless and unforeseeable act,” it reads. “Mr. Minassian’s attack was his own premeditated and intentional act, using a properly rented Ryder vehicle as the instrument.” Minassian has responded with silence.

Minassian’s best friend from his learning strategies class at Thornlea Secondary, who requested that his name not appear in this article, first heard about the attack on the news. Later that day, Minassian’s old high school bullies started posting about the massacre in lengthy and dramatic Facebook threads. He’d seen Minassian just a couple of months before, and the pair had played RuneScape. It was one of Minassian’s favourites, a role-playing game in a fantasy world where players defeat monsters and complete difficult quests. What happened to you, my friend? he wondered.

Shortly before Christmas, that friend received a phone call from Minassian’s mom. She hoped he would speak to Alek on the phone in prison, and asked him in a soft, faltering voice not to talk about the van killings. His friend agreed, and made the call. They shot the shit like old times. Minassian told him he was bored, that there was nowhere for him to exercise. To pass the time, he was doing crossword puzzles. From his cell, where he lives alone, the man who once dreamed of being a pilot can’t even see the sky.


This story originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.

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