We may never know why Riya Rajkumar died. That needs to change, domestic violence experts say

Original article: Toronto Star  |  March 9, 2019  |  Alyshah Hasham, Courts Reporter and May Warren, Staff Reporter

Weeks after he was accused of the Valentine’s Day killing of his daughter Riya, the first-degree murder charge against Roopesh Rajkumar was officially withdrawn in a Brampton courtroom.

Rajkumar, who died in hospital on Feb. 20 of a self-inflicted gunshot, will never stand trial. The evidence from the police investigation will not be made public. He will never be more than the alleged killer of his child, a forever 11-year-old with a toothy grin who loved Drake and red nail polish.

Many unanswered questions remain about the death of Riya Rajkumar. Was the police response appropriate? Where did her father obtain a gun? Did he show warning signs, including a history of domestic violence? What motive, if any, did he have?

These questions may never be publicly answered, as is often the case following a murder-suicide — but some experts in domestic violence prevention argue they should be so other children can be protected in the future.

“It is important, in all these cases, for there to be a thorough investigation into who knew what when. It’s not a finger-pointing exercise, it’s not looking to lay blame. A society needs to be involved in trying to figure out how to prevent a tragedy under similar circumstances in the future,” said Peter Jaffe, the director of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children at Western University.

“Murder-suicides are on the front page and then no one ever talks about them again,” he said.

Murder-suicides are investigated by police in the same way as when the suspect is alive — but charges are not laid. When the investigation is completed, the case is closed, said Peel Regional Police spokesperson Sgt. Matthew Bertram.

“The public release of information regarding a homicide is done through the trial process. Because this case will not be heard in court, there will not be a public presentation of any evidence obtained or gathered,” Bertram said.

The investigation into Roopesh Rajkumar is ongoing. So far, the only public information about him comes from sparse court documents laying out his criminal history. It includes three previous assault charges that did not result in criminal convictions, two of which, in 2004 and 2008, were cases of alleged domestic assault against a family member or partner.

While there is no automatic public review, report or inquest that comes from murder-suicides in Ontario, the Rajkumar case may be examined by the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, which has a mandate that covers homicides of a child committed by the parent’s partner or ex-partner from an intimate relationship. The regional coroner notifies the committee of qualifying cases and the committee issues annual reports, including recommendations aimed at preventing future deaths, to institutions including the police, Children’s Aid Societies, government departments and professional organizations.

The reports briefly summarize the domestic homicide, but do not include identifying details. The recommendations are not legally binding.

The process can take years, though murder-suicide reviews are often done faster, since the committee does not have to wait for the end of a trial. Still, by the time the reports are posted, interest has often faded.

The audience is mostly people who are already working in the field, says Nneka MacGregor, executive director of WomenatthecentrE, a non-profit created by and for women who have survived gender-based violence.

There’s no “public reckoning,” she said. “There has to be a better way to shine a light.”

Meanwhile, the burden often rests on the victim’s family and friends to publicly advocate for changes or accountability.

“There should be more public information because at the end of the day you want to hold institutions accountable … what policies and practices need to be put in place?” Jaffe said. “Unless there is a trial or an inquest we don’t get that information.”

Murder-suicides are rare. The victims are most often women and girls. The Ontario Provincial Police has investigated 24 murder-suicides between 2010 and 2018. Peel Police investigated six. Including the Danforth mass shooting, there were at least four in the Greater Toronto Area last year. All but the Danforth shooting involved a man who killed his current or former partner, then himself, according to police.

The Danforth shooting is also the only case that will result in a public report from police, due to “compelling public interest” and the absence of a trial, said Toronto police spokesperson Meaghan Gray. Typically in murder-suicide cases police will put out a press release that briefly describes what occurred and states that police are not looking for any other suspects. The relationship between the individuals is not usually described.

There has been one homicide this year in Toronto that police have concluded was a murder-suicide — the death of Lorraine Kerubo Ogoti, 30, who was found stabbed to death in an apartment in January. Her boyfriend, 40-year-old Mowlid Hassan, was found dead outside the building.

These killings fit a pattern found by researchers at Statistics Canada, who in 2013 examined 344 murder-suicides between 2001 and 2011 — 6 per cent of all homicides during that time. In just over three-quarters of them, the victim and accused were part of the same family. More than half of the incidents involved a man killing a current or former spouse. The study found 95 per cent of the accused were men.

It is even more rare for a parent to kill their child and then themselves. Fifty-two of the cases researched by Statistics Canada involved children — most killed by a parent or step-parent.

Thirty-seven children were killed in 14 incidents in Canada between 2010 and 2015 in circumstances where there was a history of domestic violence against a partner, or the killer was motivated by revenge against a current or former partner, according to a report from the Canadian Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative. (That number excludes cases in which the child was physically or sexually abused by a parent).

Of the 16 accused, nine died by suicide and three attempted it. Almost all of the children who were killed were the child or step-child of the accused.

The motive is often linked to revenge against a partner, Jaffe said. “The abuser is losing control of their intimate partner and the way to do most harm is to kill her child – the most horrific punishment for a parent,” he said. Sometimes, in cases where there the perpetrator has depression, the accused may claim to be saving the child or protecting them from a future with the other parent and possibly a new step-parent.

It remains unclear what, if any, motive 41-year-old Roopesh Rajkumar had.

Court documents and transcripts obtained by the Toronto Star from more than a decade ago show he was accused of two prior incidents of domestic violence, in 2004 and 2008.

In June 2008, when Riya was just 4 months old, court transcripts show Roopesh Rajkumar was supposed to pick her up on the ground floor of her mother’s Mississauga apartment building for a visit.

Instead, the girl’s mother Mohanie Ramdin later said in court, he showed up at the door of her apartment. The pair then got into an argument about an air conditioner, during which she alleged he pushed her. The two were relationship that at the time of the incident, but had never lived together, Ramdin said.

Rajkumar was charged with assault and mischief in relation to damage to the air conditioner. The charges were dismissed in April 2009.

Ramdin, who also goes by the name Priya, did not respond to a request to speak with the Star about the incident.

Rajkumar was also charged with uttering a threat to cause bodily harm and assault on his sister, Nadia Rajkumar, in October 2004. According to a transcript of court proceedings, the charges were withdrawn on March 1, 2005, when he entered into a peace bond agreeing to stay away from his sister and his mother for one year and not have any weapons.

He also paid $1,000, which he would have had to refund the court if he breached those conditions.

When contacted by the Star, Nadia Rajkumar declined to comment about the case.

According to the Department of Justice website, people can obtain peace bonds from court when a defendant appears likely to commit an offence “but there are no reasonable grounds to believe that an offence has actually been committed.”

A court may impose conditions designed to prevent the defendant from harming others as part of a peace bond. They are often used in domestic violence cases.

While domestic violence is typically understood as involving an intimate partner or former partner, it can also include siblings, parents and children.

Roopesh Rajkumar was also charged with assault in 2015 against a man. Both men were working as drivers for trucking companies at the time, according to a court transcript. He entered into a peace bond later that year, paying $500 and agreeing keep the peace and be of good behaviour.

Without a trial, it’s hard to know if there were any warning signs, or what the system could have done to better protect Riya Rajkumar.

But in general, there needs to be more attention paid to the risks and harms children face in situations of domestic violence, Jaffe said. Children may also be at an elevated risk of harm during a high-risk period for their mother, such as during as a separation or a custody dispute, and when other risk factors including serious depression are present.

Front-line professionals — police, judges, teachers, children’s aid workers — have to be trained to be aware of impacts on and risks to children from domestic violence, he said. There also need to be treatment programs for abusers that include parenting skills.

“This type of femicide is part of a bigger conversation around violence against women, and the problem is that society doesn’t take violence against women seriously,” MacGregor said of Riya Rajkumar’s death.

She’s careful to warn against victim-blaming, noting the girl’s mother didn’t do anything wrong, but said society also needs to be held accountable as well as perpetrators.

“The best way we can acknowledge Riya’s life and make it meaningful is to educate, is to talk about it,” she said.

“Today it is Riya’s life, tomorrow God forbid it’s someone that you know.”

If you or someone you know needs help you can call the Assaulted Women's Helpline:

1-866-863-0511 (Toll Free)

1-866-863-7868 (TTY)

416-863-0511 (Toronto)