A man driving a pickup truck jumped a curb in Canada’s Ontario province and slammed into a Muslim family, killing four members and seriously wounding another in what police described as a targeted anti-Islamic hate crime.
A 20-year-old man wearing a vest “like body armor” fled the scene of the carnage Sunday evening, but was arrested at a mall about four miles from the intersection in London, Ontario, Detective Superintendent Paul Waight said Monday.
Nathaniel Veltman, of London, faces four counts of first-degree murder. Police said he did not know the victims.
“There is evidence that this was a planned, premeditated act, motivated by hate. It is believed that these victims were targeted because they were Muslim,” Waight told reporters, noting that the suspect’s social media postings were reviewed by police, AFP reported.
He said investigators had not determined if the suspect was a member of any specific hate group — and added that police were working with federal authorities to see about potential terrorism charges.
The family issued a statement identifying the victims as Salman Afzal, 46, his wife Madiha, 44, their daughter Yumna, 15, and a 74-year-old grandmother whose name was withheld.
The hospitalized boy was identified as Fayez.
“Everyone who knew Salman and the rest of the Afzal family know the model family they were as Muslims, Canadians and Pakistanis,” the statement said.
“They worked extremely hard in their fields and excelled. Their children were top students in their school and connected strongly with their spiritual identity,” it added.
Salman was a physiotherapist and cricket enthusiast and Madiha was working on a PhD in civil engineering at Western University, according to an online fundraising account. Their daughter was finishing ninth grade, and the grandmother was a “pillar” of the family, it said.
The family said the public must stand against hate and Islamophobia.
“This young man who committed this act of terror was influenced by a group that he associated with, and the rest of the community must take a strong stand against this, from the highest levels in our government to every member of the community,” they said in the statement.
The five family members were walking together along a sidewalk at about 8:40 p.m. Sunday when the black vehicle “mounted the curb and struck” them as they waited to cross the intersection, police said.
Mayor Ed Holder called the incident “an act of mass murder perpetuated against Muslims. It was rooted in unspeakable hatred.”
Police Chief Stephen Williams also said “there is no tolerance in this community who are motivated by hate target others with violence.”
Paige Martin, a nearby resident who witnessed the aftermath of the deadly crash, said she was stopped at a red light when a large pickup roared past her. She said her vehicle shook from the force.
“I was shaken up, thinking it was an erratic driver,″ Martin said, adding that she soon came upon the gruesome, chaotic scene at the intersection
First responders soon arrived to help, a police officer performed chest compressions on one person and three other people lying on the ground.
Several drivers also got out of their vehicles to help.
“I can’t get the sound of the screams out of my head,” Martin said. “My heart is just so broken for them.”
Family friend Zahid Khan said the victims had immigrated from Pakistan 14 years ago and were dedicated, decent and generous members of the London Muslim Mosque.
“They were just out for their walk that they would go out for every day,” Khan said through tears near the site. “I just wanted to see.”
Qazi Khalil said he saw the family, who lived nearby, on Thursday when they were out for a walk.
“This has totally destroyed me from the inside. I can’t really come to terms they were no longer here,” Khalil said.
Holder said flags would be lowered for three days in the city, which he said has 30,000 to 40,000 Muslims among its more than 400,000 residents.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a tweet: “To the Muslim community in London and to Muslims across the country, know that we stand with you.
“Islamophobia has no place in any of our communities. This hate is insidious and despicable — and it must stop,” he added.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims said in a statement it was “beyond horrified and demands justice” for the victims, who were just “out for a walk” on a warm spring evening.
“This is a terrorist attack on Canadian soil and must be treated as such,” council President Mustafa Farooq told Radio Canada, according to AFP.
The Muslim Association of Canada also called on authorities to “prosecute this horrific attack as an act of hate and terrorism.”
“Hate and Islamophobia have NO place in Ontario,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said in a tweet. “These heinous acts of violence must stop.”
The attack brought back painful memories of a Quebec City mosque mass shooting in January 2017 when a 27-year-old white supremacist opened fire on worshippers, killing six men and seriously wounding five others.
At the time, before the New Zealand mosque shootings in March 2019, it was the worst-ever attack on Muslims in the West.
The shooter, Alexandre Bissonette, was sentenced to 40 years in prison, but that was lowered on appeal, and the Supreme Court is now reviewing his punishment.
On April 23, 2018, a 28-year-old man plowed a rented van into pedestrians, killing 10 people.
Before that attack, Alek Minassian posted on Facebook a reference to an online community of “involuntary celibates” whose sexual frustrations led them to embrace a misogynist ideology.
Minassian was found guilty in March of murdering the 10 and trying to kill 16 others. He will be sentenced in January 2022.