LONDON, Ont. - A Muslim family of five out for an evening early summer stroll were mowed down by a driver in an "act of mass murder," the mayor of London, Ont., said on Monday.
The deadly attack on Sunday evening, denounced as terrorism by one Muslim group, left four of them dead and a boy with serious injuries, police said.
"Words fail on a day as dark as this but still words matter," Mayor Ed Holder said. "This was an act of mass murder perpetrated against Muslims, against Londoners, and rooted in unspeakable hatred."
A 20-year-old man from London was arrested in the parking lot of a mall seven kilometres away. He now faces four counts of first-degree murder and one of attempted murder, police said.
Police Chief Steve Williams, who said relatives had asked no names be released, identified the four victims as a 74-year-old woman, a 46-year-old man, a 44-year-old woman and a 15-year-old girl. A nine-year-old boy was in hospital in serious condition.
"We believe that this was an intentional act and that the victims of this horrific incident were targeted … because of their Islamic faith," Williams said. "All of the victims in this matter are members of the same family."
Det. Supt. Paul Waight said the family was waiting to cross the road at an intersection on a dry, clear day in the city's northwest end when a black pickup mounted the curb, struck them, then sped off.
Police identified the accused as Nathaniel Veltman. They did not say how they knew he was at the mall or explain the circumstances of the arrest.
No one answered at Veltman’s apartment, which sits above a downtown tea shop and next to the police force’s foot patrol office, on Monday afternoon.
One woman, Paige Martin, who witnessed the aftermath of the crash at an intersection near her home, said she couldn't stop thinking about the victims.
“I can’t get the sound of the screams out of my head,” Martin said.
Martin said she had been stopped at a red light minutes earlier at around 8:30 p.m. when the Dodge Ram pickup flew past her. She said her car shook.
“I was shaken up thinking it was an erratic driver,” Martin said.
She said the scene was gruesome: First responders were in full sprint, and a police officer was performing chest compressions on one person and three others were down on the ground. A few dozen people were on the sidewalk, and several drivers got out of their cars to help.
From her apartment, Martin said she could see the scene, watching an official drape a sheet over a body at about midnight.
Police said one woman died at the scene. The second woman, the man and the teen died in hospital. The child was expected to survive. Autopsies were scheduled for Tuesday.
A small, makeshift memorial of flowers sprang near the site of the crash Tuesday evening.
Kay Habib, whose family came to Canada from Pakistan, showed up with her husband and 13-year-old daughter to express their love for the family, who they did not know.
"It’s just unimaginable,” she said as she hugged her daughter. "It's scary to think that could have been us, or anyone from our community, just because of our skin or our clothes."
A fundraising webpage said the dead father was a physiotherapist and cricket enthusiast, while his "brilliant" wife was working on her PhD in civil engineering at Western University. Their daughter was finishing Grade 9, while her grandmother was a "pillar" of the family, the page said.
Zahid Khan, a family friend, said the three generations of victims comprised the grandmother, father, mother and teenage daughter. The family had immigrated from Pakistan 14 years ago and were dedicated, decent and generous members of the London Muslim Mosque, he said.
“When I came to Canada, I came to London and bought a house and he was the first person I saw and came over with a jug of water and glasses,” Khan said, through tears near the crash site. "They were just out for their walk that they would go out for every day. I just wanted to see.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted he was saddened to learn of the killing, posting "This condemnable act of terrorism reveals the growing Islamophobia in Western countries. Islamophobia needs to be countered holistically by the international community."
The London mosque, where the victims were regulars, was quiet on Monday but several police officers were stationed outside.
“It’s scary and there’s a bit of anger as well,” said mosque spokesman Nawaz Tahir. “We really have to deal with Islamophobia, it’s real. To see a family wiped out like that is just devastating.”
He urged the community to come together and called for "greater acts of love" as a way to help stamp out hate.
Qazi Khalil said he saw the family last Thursday when they were out for their nightly walk. They lived close to each other and would get together on holidays, he said.
“This has totally destroyed me from the inside,” Khalil said. “I can’t really come to the terms they were no longer here.”
The National Council of Canadian Muslims said it was beyond horrified, saying Muslims in Canada have become all too familiar with the violence of Islamophobia.
"This is a terrorist attack on Canadian soil, and should be treated as such,” said council head Mustafa Farooq. "We call on the government to prosecute the attacker to the fullest extent of the law, including considering terrorist charges."
The RCMP said it was giving full support to London police but had no further comment.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on social media he was horrified by the news and expressed solidarity with relatives of those terrorized by the "act of hatred," as well as sympathy for the injured child.
"To the Muslim community in London and to Muslims across the country, know that we stand with you," Trudeau said. "Islamophobia has no place in any of our communities. This hate is insidious and despicable, and it must stop."
In a statement, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair called the attack "an horrific act of Islamophobia" and said federal resources are available to assist London police in their investigation, if they require it.
New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh called the incident "an act of Islamophobia and terror," in a tweet.
Williams acknowledged the tragedy might stoke fear and anxiety, especially among Muslims or others targeted by hate, and tried to reassure them.
"There is no tolerance in this community for individuals who, motivated by hate, target others with violence," Williams said.
About a dozen police officers searched the crash scene on Monday as they combed the area looking for evidence. Blue markers on the ground dotted the intersection and officers were performing line searches for several hundred metres in the field next to the sidewalk.
Police were asking anyone with possible information about the incident to contact them.
Holder said flags would be lowered for three days.
_ With files from Colin Perkel in Toronto.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2021.