TORONTO – A man accused of mowing down five members of the same family with a black pickup truck in an Ontario city on Sunday, killing four and seriously injuring a 9-year-old boy, targeted them because they were Muslim, police said Monday, in what the city’s mayor branded an act of “mass murder.”
Police said the victims, who were struck while waiting to cross an intersection on a sunny and clear Sunday evening in London, Ontario, included a 74-year-old woman, a 46-year-old man, a 44-year-old woman and a 15-year-old girl. The 9-year-old boy is in the hospital with serious but not life-threatening injuries.
Police said family members had requested that their names not be released.
“Based on information collected during the course of the investigation, we believe that this was an intentional act and that the victims of this horrific incident were targeted,” London Police Chief Steve Williams told reporters on Monday. “We believe the victims were targeted because of their Islamic faith.”
Detective Superintendent Paul Waight said police on Sunday arrested the suspect, Nathaniel Veltman, in a mall parking lot four miles from where the attack occurred “wearing a vest that appeared to be like body armor.” The 20-year-old was charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.
Police are in contact with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police about whether terrorism charges should be pursued, Waight said.
London Mayor Ed Holder ordered flags outside the city hall to be lowered for three days of mourning.
“Let me be clear: This was an act of mass murder, perpetrated against Muslims – against Londoners – and rooted in unspeakable hatred,” he said. “The magnitude of such hatred can make one question who we are as a city, and who we are as Londoners.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a tweet that he was “horrified” by the news.
“To the Muslim community in London and to Muslims across the country, know that we stand with you,” he wrote. “Islamophobia has no place in any of our communities. This hate is insidious and despicable – and it must stop.”
Waight said that there is no known connection between Veltman and the family. He declined to say whether Veltman, a London resident, had confessed to targeting Muslims. So far, Waight said, police do not know of his membership “in any specific hate group.”
Paige Martin, a resident of the city roughly 120 miles southwest of Toronto, told local media that she was returning from getting gas when she came upon a scene of “chaos” in the “seemingly mostly quiet neighborhood.”
“There was people everywhere and running, just citizens trying to direct the emergency vehicles where to go,” she said. “There was a lot of pointing and screaming and arms waving. It was just absolutely like something out of – that you never want to see.”
In an April report, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the country’s national intelligence agency, warned that the coronavirus pandemic had “exacerbated xenophobic and anti-authority narratives.” It cited “ideologically motivated violent extremism,” which includes racially motivated violence, as a growing threat.
Nawaz Tahir, a London lawyer, told reporters that the “horror” of the attack is “unfathomable.”
He pointed to recent examples of Islamophobia-motivated violence, including a shooting at a Quebec City mosque in 2017 that left six dead and scores injured. Justice François Huot of the Quebec Superior Court said at a sentencing hearing that the gunman was motivated by a “visceral hatred toward Muslims.”
“We must confront and stamp out Islamophobia and Islamophobic violence,” Tahir said. “Not tomorrow. Today. For the sake of our children, our families, our communities.”