A snowy walk takes former Toronto police homicide detective Rolf Prisor back to Colonel Samuel Smith Park in the city’s west end, the place that two decades ago was the epicentre of a desperate search for answers.
The partial remains of five-year-old Farah Khan were discovered at the park and Prisor was the lead detective who helped solve the case. The little girl’s father and stepmother were later convicted of her murder.
But the case might never have been solved if not for an extraordinary news conference and an attentive kindergarten teacher.
On Dec. 7, 1999, a woman walking her dog noticed a couple burying something among the rocks along Lake Ontario. When they left, she went over and looked inside a bag they had tried to conceal.
“She opened it up and immediately she saw the hand, the forearm,” recalled Prisor.
Shortly after that discovery, Prisor, who at the time worked in the homicide squad, got a call. He said he was told about body parts being found in the park, but what he discovered when he arrived on the scene shocked him — something that haunts him to this day. The body parts were that of a child.
“They appear to be those of a child between the ages of four to twelve,” said Prisor, talking about the case in an interview with Global News.
“And there are indications the body parts were obviously dismembered. And it appears they were done with some precision.
“It’s an obvious shock … even to a seasoned homicide investigator.”
Police discovered more bags and more remains, but there wasn’t enough to identify the young victim. There was no surveillance footage and a canvass of local schools and daycares for any missing children came up empty.
Standing with me in the park twenty years later, Prisor talked about the gnawing worry the case was slipping away from him.
“There were some very dark days. I remember meeting with the media and in a dejected way saying, ‘We’re not successful today and we haven’t found anything,'” he recalled.
As the Global News crime reporter at the time, I was among the media at the park day after day, reporting on the stalled case as police became increasingly frustrated.
Investigators realized they must try something different. In the hope of generating a lead from the public, they held a press conference and Ontario’s deputy chief coroner Jim Cairns revealed a sickening image — an X-ray of a child’s severed forearm.
I was in the room that day and remember a shudder going through the assembled media. It was shocking and it still is.
Cairns said DNA testing showed the limb was from a girl who was between four and six years of age, and likely of South Asian descent. He then read a list of countries considered to be South Asian, including India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
On that very day at Second Street Elementary School, not far from Colonel Samuel Smith Park, kindergarten teacher Heather Cartwright heard the news. Coincidentally, a pair of police officers were at the school on an unrelated matter. She told them about one of her young students who recently returned to Pakistan with her family to look after an ailing grandmother.
Cartwright kept some of the girls things, including a crucial finger painting. It was the break police needed.
“The prints that were found on the artwork matched the fingerprints of the remains, specifically the left middle finger,” said Prisor.
“This was a huge, huge break for us because now we identified her finally.”
During the interview, Prisor stopped and his eyes welled while remembering the development.
“That was emotional,” he said.
Within a week, police arrested and charged Mohammad Khan, Farah’s father, and Kaneez Fatima, Farah’s stepmother, with her murder.
With the pair in custody at a local police station, Prisor and his team had a problem. News media, myself included, were camped outside. So Prisor decided on a ruse, dressing up a pair of police officers as the suspects and taking them away in a car in full view of the cameras.
Speaking about it 20 years later, Prisor had a reminder.
“I apologized to the media afterwards, but that was the only way for us to do that, Alan,” he said.
Police wanted the media gone so no one was watching when they took Mohammad to another park far north of the waterfront. There, Mohammad led police down a steep embankment to a wooded area where he had placed Farah’s head under a rock. He had brought in there in a knapsack, travelling on a city bus.
With Farah’s identity now published in news reports, a terrible realization went through Omar Farouk, president of the International Muslims Association in Rexdale.
“We have seen her,” he said his members told him.
Farah had been to the mosque with her father and stepmother. Members remembered seeing her at a breakfast.
“So we got involved,” said Farouk.
The association arranged for Farah’s birth mother, Shahida Jabeen, to come to Canada for Farah’s funeral. Jabeen had given up custody of her young daughter in the hope she would find a better life in Canada. Now, she would be coming herself for a terrible reason.
Once in Toronto, Jabeen stayed with Khalid Usman, who was still a Markham city councillor.
“She came to my house and met my family … We had a hard time actually speaking to her because she was in such despair,” remembered Usman.
“She was jolted by this tragedy.”
Back at the International Muslims Organization, Farouk remembered the day of the funeral where thousands came to pay their respects.
“I can recall seeing passersby standing, showing respect to Farah. It was like the moment Toronto stood still,” he said.
In 2003, after long procedural delays, Mohammad was convicted of first-degree murder. He remains in prison.
Kaneez was convicted of second-degree murder. Reportedly she was granted day parole, but Corrections Canada would not comment when asked for information by Global News.
During the trial, Mohammad’s defence claimed he killed Farah in a fit of rage after she was caught stealing cookies. Prisor said he has other theories about a life insurance policy in Pakistan, but he was never able to prove those theories.
Farah is buried at Beechwood Cemetery in Vaughan. Her gravestone, donated by the cemetery, is just a small and simple plaque with the words, “In memory of Farah Khan.”
But despite the decades, she has not been forgotten. Whenever he’s at the cemetery for a funeral, Farouk said he stops by.
“I always make the effort to go see visit Farah and make a special prayer for her,” he said.
Prisor said he knows Farah’s birthday off the top of his head.
“I celebrate her milestone birthdays, just like personally,” he said.
Farah would have been 25 on Feb. 4, 2019.
“It’s a case we’ll never forget,” Prisor said.
“The impact is lasting until our last days. It’ll always be there.”