Police in Toronto said they had arrested five people last night in connection with the murders of eight men, which they said looked liked an "internal cleansing" of a feared biker gang called the Bandidos.
The victims' bodies were found on Saturday stashed inside four vehicles that had been abandoned on a farm in a rural area in southwestern Ontario. The discovery marked the worst mass killing seen in Canada for almost a decade.
Officials confirmed that the victims had known one another and were all associated with the Bandidos, a Texas-based gang that sees itself as a rival to the much larger Hell's Angels. The victims had each suffered fatal gunshot wounds to the head, detectives said.
The announcement of the five arrests came after autopsies had been carried out on the eight men. Also yesterday, police searched a modest house belonging to a Bandidos member close to the site where the victims were found.
Speculation had already been widespread that the murders had been a gangland killing. Last night, it appeared as if almost the full membership of the Bandidos in Ontario had been wiped out.
"If it is confirmed that the eight bodies were all members of the Bandidos, you could say that someone decided to erase the Bandidos from the biker map," said Antonio Nicaso, an expert on organised crime in Toronto. Based in Texas, the Bandidos have 600 members worldwide, a fraction of the Angels' numbers.
South-western Ontario, along the shores of Lake Erie and bordering the United States outside Detroit, has been fought over by biker gangs for many years, in part because it is a corridor for drug trafficking from the US to Toronto. Bodies were found dumped in fields in 1994 and 1998 in the area after biker-gang killings.
"I can tell you that it's Bandidos that got killed," Edward Winterhalder told reporters. A former member of the gang himself, he has written a book about belonging to the group called Out in Bad Standings.
The Toronto chapter of the Hells Angels denied any involvement in the weekend slayings. "The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, or any of its members, are not involved in this crime in any way shape or form," the group said on its web site.
Shock at the slayings was voiced, meanwhile, by the Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty. "Obviously this is an extraordinary event in the annals of Ontario crime," he said, "I hope that it remains such a unique and extraordinary event."
Canadian police estimate there are about 1,200 members of biker gangs across the country, affiliated with the Angels, the Bandidos or the Outlaws. The President of an Ontario chapter of the Outlaws, Jeffrey LaBrash, was cut down by gunfire outside a strip club in London, Ontario near the scene of last weekend's murders in 1998.
While Ontario has seen its share of biker-related violence, Quebec is more closely associated with the gangs. Four years ago, police in Quebec arrested 150 people they said were associated with the Angels. In 2000, a reporter with the Journal de Montreal, who wrote about the gangs, was shot five times in the newspaper's parking lot. He survived.
People familiar with the world of the gangs said that the Bandidos have never done much to soften their tough-guy, anti-social image. Their slogan on their Canadian web site reads: "We are the people your parents warned you about."
"This is how they deal with disputes. They don't go to court. They don't print snotty lawyers' letters. This is what happens," commented Chris Mathers, a legal consultant and former undercover police officer. "It is shocking for it to happen all at one time."