Toronto spa killer pleads guilty to murder in deadly sword attack, cites van attacker as 'inspiration'

·4 min read
Terror charges against the accused were added in the months after the February 2020 killing of 24-year-old Ashley Noell Arzaga, a receptionist at the Crown Spa in Toronto's west end. (CBC - image credit)
Terror charges against the accused were added in the months after the February 2020 killing of 24-year-old Ashley Noell Arzaga, a receptionist at the Crown Spa in Toronto's west end. (CBC - image credit)

The man behind an incel-inspired attack at a Toronto massage parlour two years ago has pleaded guilty to charges of murder and attempted murder — citing the man responsible for the city's deadly van attack as "inspiration."

The accused, who was 17 at the time of the killing, cannot be named under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. Now 20, he made his plea at Ontario Superior Court before Justice Suhail Akhtar on Wednesday morning, where court heard he had been thinking of carrying out his violent actions for months.

Slumped forward with his head down, the accused spoke softly as he replied, "Yes," to the judge, who explained that pleading guilty would waive his rights to a trial and an appeal.

When his charges were read aloud, he answered plainly, "Guilty," to both.

Asked why he identified as an incel, the teen told police in a statement, "You don't choose to become an incel. You are born one."

The plea does not cover the associated terror charges against the accused, which were added in the months after the February 2020 killing of 24-year-old Ashley Noell Arzaga and stabbing of another man and woman at the Crown Spa in the city's west end.

Arzaga suffered at least 42 sharp-force injuries, including 15 defensive wounds, according to an agreed statement of facts.

The case is believed to mark the first time terror charges have ever been laid in connection with an act fuelled by incel ideology. The van attack killer, Alek Minassian, was never charged with terrorism. The judge who found him guilty noted that he mentioned in some interviews that he tied his actions to incel ideology for notoriety.

Michael Cole/CBC
Michael Cole/CBC

Woman grabbed sword from man, ending attack

Incel ideology or involuntary celibacy began as an online misogynistic subculture and is commonly characterized by a hatred or blame against women for an inability to find a romantic or sexual partner. The term gained widespread attention in 2018 when a man who posted about a so-called "incel rebellion" drove a van down a sidewalk in Toronto, killing 10 people and injuring 16 others.

According to an agreed statement of facts, the woman who survived the attack managed to seize a nearly half-metre-long sword from the attacker after she had been stabbed repeatedly, and turned the weapon on the man, stabbing him in the back and ending the rampage.

As he attacked her, the teen told her, "Die, die, die," calling her a "stupid whore."

After stabbing the man, the woman then managed to go to a neighbouring business and asked someone inside to call police.

Court was shown a 20-minute compilation of surveillance video in which the young man was seen stabbing Arzaga, the massage parlour's receptionist, to death. The footage begins with the teen leaving his home on foot less than two kilometres away from the spa and showed in graphic detail the moment when he pulled out the sword, killing Arzaga.

Family members and loved ones of the victims were visibly emotional, hugging one another as the scenes played on large screens in the courtroom.

CBC News spoke with the woman who survived, who said she hoped the judge gave the accused the maximum sentence given the evidence against him. The woman cannot be named as her identity is protected under a publication ban.

Asked what it was like to see the surveillance video, she replied, "I've seen it a few times already. I'm strong."

The woman said she expected being in the same room as the attacker would be "a lot harder than it was," adding she was grateful for all the support she has received.

'My life is ruined,' says attacker

Court heard the accused was found with a hand-written note following the attack, reading: "Long live the rebellion of the incels."

As for why he was carrying the note, he told police, "I wanted everyone to find it. I wanted the world to know that people like us exist and it's not really fair."

Court also heard the sword used as the murder weapon was inscribed with the words "thot slayer" — "thot" being a derogatory term used against women.

When one of the responding paramedics asked him what happened, court heard he replied that he'd "wanted to kill everyone in the building and I'm happy I got one."

The accused said did not remember making that statement but did not dispute saying it.

In his statement to police, the then-teen told police said he did not expect to be alive at the end of the day and thought police would have killed him.

"It wasn't worth it. My life is ruined now," he said.

He also noted he was scared of how other inmates might treat him behind bars.

A judge will now determine if the accused's actions meet the bar of terrorist activity.

The Criminal Code defines terrorism as an act carried out "for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause" meant to intimidate the public by causing or attempting to cause death or serious bodily harm through violence, endangering health and safety, or disrupting an essential service.

Crown prosecutors are pushing for an adult sentence, while the defence is arguing the actions were not terrorism and is seeking a youth sentence.