News / Toronto

Thrill kill theory may shed light on Toronto's 'ruthless murders'

“Thrill kill” is a label given to a murder that doesn’t make sense to most of us — a murder with no motive but the desire to kill someone, for the thrill of it.

According to a Toronto police theory, two people were shot to death and a third wounded in three “random acts of violence” last year. On Sept. 26, police arrested a group of six people and charged them all with first-degree murder.

Police described the alleged perpetrators as “ruthless,” and said the shootings followed a basic pattern: a group drives up and someone shoots.

The first random homicide victim, Daniel Davis, was talking to friends at Flemington Public School; the second, Marvin Engelbrecht, was walking a dog. The victim who survived, age 18 at the time, hasn’t been named. He was walking when a car pulled up, two people inside asked him some questions and one shot him, police said.

Marvin Engelbrecht, 24, was shot dead on the front steps of a Flemingdon Rd. address in October 2012. (Torstar News Service)

Marvin Engelbrecht, 24, was shot dead on the front steps of a Flemingdon Rd. address in October 2012. (Torstar News Service)

According to criminologist Jack Levin, a professor at Northeastern University, the allegations fit the pattern for thrill kills.

What is a thrill kill?

Typically, a group will be involved and there will be two motivations: first, the sadism of a leader or leaders; secondly, group bonding, Levin said.

“At least one of the perpetrators has a sadistic bent, that he satisfies by attacking vulnerable victims. The more that he inflicts pain and suffering and even death, the better he feels about himself,” Levin said.

The bonding motivation is akin to gang or fraternity initiation: an event becomes the glue that holds them together, even if the perpetrators aren’t part of a formal gang or group, he said.

“The perpetrators share a secret. They express their loyalty to one another and those who don’t go along are rejected. And that’s the last thing that teenagers and young adults want, to be rejected by their close friends,” said Levin.

While one or more in the group may have that sadistic bent, the rest don’t necessarily, but instead are pulled into murder by the “chemistry” of the group, he said.

Some kind of hate or discrimination often factors into how victims are chosen, said Levin.

“It makes it that much easier to inflict pain or take the life of someone they already consider to be subhuman.”

Thrill kill vs mass murder

Levin separates the motivation for a thrill kill from a mass murder, even though it seems just as senseless to the public.

A mass murder typically involves a need to get even with society, he said.

“Revenge tends to play an important role in many of these rampage shootings in public places, committed by strangers who don’t know their victims and are out to get even with humankind; or with all women — like Marc Lepine in Montreal,” he said.

The more randomly targeted the mass murder, the more likely the killer is psychotic, but thrill killers aren’t typically out of touch with reality.

“Their motivation comes out of an intense need to feel powerful,” he said. “They are typically individuals who grew up with a profound sense of powerlessness. They have been raised in a harsh and threatening environment, they may have been abused or neglected or tortured so they felt a total submission.”

Toronto police record

Although Homicide squad commander Greg McLane describes the three random killings as “ruthless,” he isn’t sure if they are “thrill kills.”

“It’s hard to say,” he said. “Sometimes we never know what’s in the mind of the offender when he steps out and kills somebody randomly like that. I would phrase it as they are serial predators. Their behaviour is serial in nature and they prey upon innocent people in the community where they work and live and it’s that simple.

“What it does for them, if it is a thrill kill, I really don’t know. I can’t answer that,” he said.

A mourner lays flowers at a vigil for murder victim Daniel Davis. (Torstar News Service)

A mourner lays flowers at a vigil for murder victim Daniel Davis. (Torstar News Service)


Understanding the motive of a murder can help ease fear in the public, according to top Toronto homicide detective Gary Giroux.

Giroux recently announced a public appeal for information that would help the police understand why an Eritrean woman was stabbed to death on her way home from work last fall.

At first, it seemed to be a random killing, but later police established that the victim, Nighisti Semret, knew her alleged killer, who in turn knew her schedule and waited for her on the street. Police have arrested a man who identified himself as Adonay Zekarias, who may have given a false name. Detectives are searching for an international connection and have sent his DNA profile to Interpol, but still don’t know the motive.

“Motive isn’t a particularly imperative element of a murder prosecution — unlike what you see and hear on television — it’s not necessary,” he said. “But it does help average members of the community understand why people kill other people. That element would be of assistance to the prosecution.”

It would be less concerning to the public that the murder wasn’t “random” and “that there wasn’t some crazy man going around stabbing and attacking random women on their way home,” he said. “I’m hoping the community is able to take some comfort in the fact that this was a terrible event, but it was a single, isolated event."

More on