A missing piece of a puzzle found earlier this year cracked a 16-year cold case and led police to an alleged serial killer of three Toronto prostitutes.
Peter Dale MacDonald, 52, was being held in connection with the murder of a woman in Windsor when he was brought to Toronto to face three first-degree murder charges in the strangulations of three women in the 1990s.
He appeared at Old City Hall court Thursday morning and is awaiting trial for the 2000 murder of a Windsor woman, while serving a life sentence for strangling a man in his Parkdale home that same year.
The charges relate to the 1994 slayings of Julieanne Middleton, 23, and Virginia Lee Coote, 33, and the 1997 killing of Darlene McNeill, 35.
All three victims were prostitutes who worked in Parkdale. Police said the women worked the streets to feed their drug addictions. They were murdered in the area and dumped in Lake Ontario near Sunnyside swimming pool.
The cold case investigation was named Project Breakwall because of the strip of shoreline where their bodies were found.
“Peter MacDonald’s name had surfaced in 1994,” said Det. Sgt. Steve Ryan, head of the Toronto police cold case squad.
“We had new evidence (uncovered) within the last six to seven months, along with old evidence,” Ryan added, not wanting to reveal what that key piece was.
He did say MacDonald was living and working in Toronto at the time the women were murdered.
Announcing police had arrested a serial killer, Staff Insp. Mark Saunders said: “Today’s investigation took just over 16 years in putting pieces of the puzzle together to reach this conclusion.”
Saunders, the officer in charge of the homicide unit, which the cold case squad falls under, added: “There was never a moment that the Toronto police service took this investigation lightly. We put a tremendous amount of resource into this case.”
Police first set up a task force to investigate the connection between the murders of the three women nine days after MacNeill’s body was pulled from the Lake behind the Canadian Legion branch on Lake Shore Blvd. W. Oct. 29, 1997.
In 1994 the body of Middleton washed up on the beach at the nearby Sunnyside pool July 7 and Coote’s body was found along the same shore Oct. 28.
All three had been choked to death before their bodies were dumped in the lake.
Following the announcement of the task force a vigil in Parkdale was organized by the Sex Workers’ Alliance of Toronto to raise awareness of the dangers prostitutes face on the street.
Ryan said the families of the murdered women had been notified of MacDonald’s arrest.
“The families were relieved, as you would expect. They are able to begin their closure process. We’ve (all) got a long road ahead still to go,” he said.
Described in 2004 as a drifter with a “horrendous” record when he was sentenced to life in prison with no hope of parole for 13 years, MacDonald strangled James Campbell, 63, in the retiree’s Parkdale apartment after the pair drank and had consensual sex April 28, 2000.
Originally from Prince Edward Island, MacDonald’s record up until then included robbery with violence, assault and forcible confinement which Madam Justice Gloria Epstein pointed out was a pattern of “persistence aggressive behavior.”
In January that same year Windsor police had charged MacDonald with second-degree murder in the death of Michelle Charette, 40, who had been strangled and her half-naked body dumped in a field.
Charges in that case had been withdrawn earlier due to inconclusive DNA testing, but further evidence led to MacDonald being re-arrested in the murder for which he was awaiting trial when Toronto police charged him in the Project Breakwall murders.
MacDonald was also a suspect in the 1988 slaying of Byron Carr, a 36-year-old Charlottetown, P.E.I. teacher, but never charged in that killing.
Det.-Sgt. Steve Ryan, head of the Toronto police cold case squad, told a news conference that the arrest came as “the culmination of 16 years of hard “We need evidence that will allow us to make a charge,” he said. “We’ve come up with an extra piece that has allowed us to lay charges.”
Ryan would not elaborate on what that evidence is.