They thought he was hiding

Kajendthiran Shanmuganathan knew from the moment he saw the photograph.

He’d first met the man on the grounds of a Sri Lankan elementary school. Years later, they shared arduous days aboard a rickety cargo ship on a perilous journey to Canada.

To much of the world, the man in the unsettling photograph — bearded, with unkempt hair, partially shut eyes and slightly parted lips — was nameless. As the image circulated for weeks on the news and in social media, he was known for the singular dark fact of when it was captured: after his death.

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Investigators had, reluctantly, released the image in a last resort effort to learn his name, believing he was yet another of Bruce McArthur’s victims. Word came through police sources that it was among a cache of photos of dead men found in McArthur’s possession. (Because of the nature of the photograph, the Star has chosen not to publish it.)

The unfolding investigation into the 66-year-old accused killer had already revealed the dismembered remains of men now believed to be his victims. They were buried in planters at a Toronto home linked to McArthur through his landscaping work. The release of the dead man’s photograph added another grisly dimension, his face symbolizing untold horror.

A notice of Kirushnakumar Kanagaratnam’s death has been placed on his street in Jaffna, Sri Lanka to guide mourners.   (SUTHAKARAN THANIGASALAM)

But to Shanmuganathan, it invoked memories of camping, playing cricket, volunteering in local temples in their coastal Sri Lankan hometown of Jaffna and seemingly endless days together on the MV Sun Sea ship as two young men among the nearly 500 Tamil asylum seekers landing on Canadian shores in 2010, and later, the time they spent imprisoned in a maximum detention facility in Vancouver.

When the man’s image flashed on the news just last week, he knew.

“It was Kirushnakumar.”

Days later, police would charge McArthur with an eighth count of first-degree murder in the death of Kirushnakumar Kanagaratnam, a Tamil-speaking refugee. He was never reported missing by his family because he was undocumented. They had assumed he’d gone into hiding.

Alongside a name, the dead man in the photograph now has a story.

At a quiet intersection on Kachcheri Nallur Rd., just past the railway trucks, there’s a large white banner on the wall outside a Jaffna district government building announcing Kanagaratnam’s death to the city. With the address of his family home and a prayer, it features an older image of him bordered by a wreath of golden ribbons.

In this photo, he has a moustache and goatee, not a beard. His eyes are open, lips pursed, hair neatly combed.

Inside his family home, a framed version has been placed at the centre of the living room on a table covered by a white sheet, surrounded by flower petals and candles. Family members and friends visit from all over the country, praying for a man they haven’t seen in eight years.

Every day, some 50 or 60 people arrive, most of them responding to his death on the news. They remember him as quiet, kind and charitable man, dutiful to his family and his faith.

Kirushnakumar Kanagaratnam (bottom right) seen here with his five siblings and cousin. He was the fourth child.   (SUTHAKARAN THANIGASALAM)

Born on April 2, 1978, Kanagaratnam was the fourth child of six siblings, four boys and two girls. Shanmuganathan said he was “an active kid,” always participating in community events and school functions. As he grew up, he worked in the family-run jewelry store.

Suthakaran Thanigasalam, Kanagaratnam’s maternal cousin in Jaffna, was the first to hear the news of his death from cousins in Toronto. Kanagaratnam had lived with them for a brief period, he told the Star.

He heard from them the night of April 13, on the eve of Tamil New Year’s Day. He and Kanagaratnam’s two older siblings didn’t tell his elderly parents until the following day.

Kanagaratnam Naarayanapillai, their 73-year-old father, has a critical heart condition; doctors say his heart is pumping blood with just twenty per cent of its strength. His mother, Santhanaladchumy Kanagaratnam, 69, suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes.

“We didn’t say he was killed and his cut body parts were found,” Thanigasalam told the Star. “We told them he died by accident, a van accident.”

When he finally told them the truth some hours later, both parents fainted. When they woke, they couldn’t talk, Thanigasalam said. “They were silent.”

In a video call from their home this week, Santhanaladchumy couldn’t speak about her son without breaking down in tears. She clasped her hand in prayer and then raised her palms to the air.

“Why am I alive?” she said in Tamil as Thanigasalam translated.

For Santhanaladchumy, the distinct devastation of the loss of a child is not new. Kanagaratnam’s youngest brother, Sureshkumar, was shot and killed in March 2007 during the civil war between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil fighters. The family stopped celebrating birthdays and are perpetually fearful of their safety.

Kirushnakumar Kanagaratnam’s father Kanagaratnam Naarayanapillai.   (SUTHAKARAN THANIGASALAM)

As war continued to ravage the country, that fear ultimately drove Kanagaratnam away. He didn’t tell his family he was leaving Sri Lanka. One day, in May 2010, he called his mother from Thailand.

Kanagaratnam told her he was going to Canada by ship. He was leaving in a week. He didn’t know how long the journey would take.

Four hundred and ninety-two Tamil asylum seekers boarded the MV Sun Sea. Kanagaratnam spent his days on the lower level of the ship alongside the other men, while women and children were higher up.

As the days stretched into weeks, passengers battled fatigue, thirst and hunger. They collected rainwater for tea and made rice soup from sea water. The roughly 100-day journey felt endless.

Kanagaratnam passed the time playing poker with friends, fellow passengers say. A music lover, he and fellow passengers formed an improvised band, using utensils as instruments and pounding out rhythms on nearby surfaces.

He shared the limited packaged food he brought on board and made jokes to lift their spirits. And he talked — predominantly about the personal tragedy he’d left behind, said Piranavan Thankavel, a fellow passenger and friend.

“When he’s in the ship, he always talk about his brother who died in war,” Thankavel told the Star.

The ordeal was far from over once the migrants arrived. The Sun Sea was intercepted by Canadian authorities off the coast of British Columbia on Aug. 13, 2010. Everyone on board was taken into custody to verify their identities and determine next steps.

The asylum seekers were looked at skeptically, with politicians warning that some among them were terrorists, human smugglers or traffickers. A poll after their arrival found that 60 per cent of Canadians believed the boat should have been turned back.

The first time he called Sri Lanka after arriving in Canada, Kanagaratnam told his family he had been warmly welcomed.   (SUTHAKARAN THANIGASALAM)

“It was national public bullying … calling them smugglers and terrorists,” said Syed Hussan, a member of No One is Illegal Toronto. The organization rallied around the ship’s passengers in the aftermath, holding demonstrations outside detention facilities where some of the passengers were held for as long as 18 months.

“Whoever came here on Sun Sea, they think we are different people. Canada thinks we are different people. But we are the same. We are human,” Thankavel said.

Kanagaratnam was initially held in the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre, though it’s not known for how long, or at what point he, alongside many other Sun Sea passengers, moved to Ontario, home to a large Tamil community.

The first time he called Sri Lanka after arriving in Canada, Kanagaratnam told his family he had been warmly welcomed.

“If he had any worries he would never tell us because his family was already sad and worried after losing (his brother),” Thanigasalam said.

Kanagaratam told his sister he was happy and instructed his mom to take care of her health and not worry about him. Once every two months, he sent them about $300.

In reality, he faced an increasingly isolated and precarious existence, working odd jobs as a cleaner or moving furniture. Friends said he moved around, at one point living in a rented space in Scarborough.

latives of the victim. Left to right: Krushnavathy Vasantharooban, sister, Santhanaladchumy Kanagaratnam, mother, Kanagaratnam Naarayanapillai, father, and Suthakaran Thanigasalam, cousin.   (SUTHAKARAN THANIGASALAM)

“He went wherever he could find a place to sleep,” said Sujantharaj Jeyaraj, who was also aboard the Sun Sea. “With no status, it’s very hard to live in this country.”

While the exact dates are unclear, Kanagaratnam was among the 107 Sun Sea passengers whose claims were rejected by the Immigration and Refugee Board and the 22 who received deportation orders. The rejection of his claim sent Kanagaratnam further underground, where he once again feared persecution; if the Canadian government deported him, he thought he would be sent back to Sri Lanka and killed.

He became depressed and talked only of the stress of the rejection.

“Once his refugee claim was rejected, he thought his life was gone,” Sasitharan Kulasegaram, a fellow Sri Lankan refugee.

The precariousness of his situation is how some who knew Kanagaratnam believe he may have come into contact with McArthur. Unlike the accused killer’s other victims, police this week said, Kanagaratnam does not have a direct connection to the Gay Village and multiple people told the Star they did not believe he was gay. The investigation is in the early stages.

Some members of the Tamil community say he may have been living on the streets surrounding the Church and Wellesley community. There is also speculation that Kanagaratnam could have encountered McArthur through one of his odd jobs, possibly a landscaping gig.

An old photo of Kirushnakumar Kanagaratnam. He was “an active kid,” always participating in community events and school functions. As he grew up, he worked in the family-run jewelry store.   (SUTHAKARAN THANIGASALAM)

The last time the family heard directly from Kanagaratnam was in August 2015. He reported little other than he was worried about his rejected refugee claim. According to court documents, police believe McArthur killed Kanagaratnam soon after, sometime between Sept. 3 and Dec. 14, 2015.

When he stopped contacting his friends and family, everyone thought he went in hiding.

“If I file a missing report, then the Canadian government will send him to Sri Lanka. That’s what we feared. That’s why we didn’t report,” said Thanigasalam, Kanagaratnam’s cousin.

In December 2017, his older brother posted a desperate message on Facebook, pleading for help to locate Kanagaratnam in Canada.

“He hasn’t made any contacts with the family in the past year,” he wrote. “If you know about this person, please (tell us) immediately.”

In Jaffna, their mother clung to the words proclaimed by a religious astrologer she had consulted months after she’d last heard her son’s voice. The astrologer told her he was still alive.

This week, after Toronto police contacted the family about his death, Kanagaratnam’s parents added a framed photograph of their son on a mantle in their home, already a memorial to the son they lost in 2007.

“I cannot (live) without both these children,” said Santhanaladchumy, Kanagaratnam’s mother. “I wanted to die before them.”

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