The suspect in the Toronto van attack was a man who travelled through the world with two identities: One as a socially awkward student who rarely spoke, barely functioned and had difficulty controlling tics, and another as an expert-level whiz who could lead classmates through the intricacies of computer chips.
Police Chief Mark Saunders identified the suspect in a vehicle attack that killed at least 10 people and injured 15 as Alek Minassian, 25, of Richmond Hill, Ont. He was not previously known to police.
An Alek Minassian was known to his former classmates in high school and over seven or eight years at Seneca College as a man with no known religious or political affiliations or strong views on anything, nor a penchant for violence.
Their accounts up to a few years ago describe a man some former classmates believed could never learn how to drive, let alone carry out an attack.
At least three former classmates said he appeared to suffer from a social disability. A couple also said he seemed friendly and never had serious conflicts.
Bystanders captured the moment one police officer arrested a suspect after a white van ran over dozens of pedestrians on Yonge Street between Finch Avenue East and Sheppard Avenue East in Toronto.
One classmate, who worked on a project with him at Seneca in 2015, described Mr. Minassian as someone with a significant social or mental disability who had a hard time speaking to people, difficulty under pressure, and constant physical tics where he shook his hands and tapped his head.
The man, who did not want to be identified, expressed disbelief that Mr. Minassian would even be capable of renting and piloting an automobile. He said, when he knew him, Mr. Minassian didn’t drive, and didn’t know how a steering wheel worked.
The man said in a text conversation that he did not believe the attack would be politically motivated, saying he suspects his former classmate got into an accident, overreacted and panicked, asking police to shoot him in a video captured on the street by a bystander. The man said he heard that Mr. Minassian could code well.
One Seneca student in computer studies said Mr. Minassian had graduated from the program just last week. The student shared with The Globe and Mail a message Mr. Minassian sent to the group “out of the blue” on April 19 telling off his classmates. He added that he believed Mr. Minassian was at Seneca for seven years because he held down several software development jobs.
Saying he did not want to be publicly identified as an associate of a suspected killer because he is currently being interviewed for summer internships, this Seneca student added that he didn’t think Mr. Minassian had lined up any work after college.
The student said the Mr. Minassian he knew of never showed any signs of extremism or of subscribing to any particular religious or ideological persuasion – he was just a somewhat socially awkward young man who was good with computers.
A government source suggested that the suspect is not likely linked to terrorism since the RCMP integrated national security enforcement team has not been called in to investigate.
The RCMP was called in after Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent was run over in Quebec by Martin Couture-Rouleau in October, 2014, because in that case the unit knew he was radicalized. They also investigated the Parliament Hill attack that took place a few days later.
The student looking for internships said the Mr. Minassian who attended his school was a whiz with working with specialized computer chips known as graphical processing units. These chips have traditionally been used to help process images, but can also have other applications where they give computers a lot more processing power.
The student said he wouldn’t describe Mr. Minassian as a loner, exactly, because he would converse when necessary. But, he added, he didn’t interact well.
This student said he spent much of Monday trying to tell whether his friend was the same person who surfaced in videos of the post-attack arrest. He said the portion of an eyewitness video where the suspect pointed at a police officer with an object was the man he knew. The movements fit with the man he knew, he said, although the bald head was something new.
On Monday night police cordoned off a Richmond Hill home property records show belong to Vahe and Sona Minassian. Officers first arrived around 3:30 p.m., neighbours said. A Haig Minassian, three years older than Alek Minassian, has also listed the address as home in bankruptcy records.
In 2009, Sona Minassian was quoted in a story in the Richmond Hill Liberal lamenting that her son, who suffered from a form of autism called Asperger syndrome, was at risk of losing access to a special program called Helpmate that assisted the teen to “work though his cognitive barriers and prepare him for the workplace.”
“My son would spend afternoons working with Helpmate. They were sensitive to his needs and now he has a job at Compugen here in town,” she said, referring to an IT company in Richmond Hill.
“He was able to take the experience provided by Helpmate and apply it. This kind of service for my son wasn’t available elsewhere. I am convinced that if we didn’t have Helpmate, my son would not have had such an opportunity.”
The article did not mention the name of the son.
The Globe and Mail, April 23, 2018