Before TTC subway attack, alleged stabber led troubled life

By Sarah Smellie and Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

Several years before he allegedly stabbed a 16-year-old stranger to death on a Toronto subway platform, Jordan O’Brien-Tobin already had a multitude of interactions with the justice system, many of them for increasingly violent offences, and struggled with mental health issues.

O’Brien-Tobin was also a young father and used to regularly check in on his daughter in Newfoundland, his former partner said, until he stopped communicating one day.

The 22-year-old man has been charged with first-degree murder in the killing last month of Gabriel Magalhaes, whose death sparked renewed concerns about safety on Toronto’s public transit system following a series of violent attacks.

But the profile that has emerged of O’Brien-Tobin has also re-focused attention on the challenges in responding to people in distress. Police have said he had no fixed address, and according to court documents in Newfoundland and Ontario, he had faced dozens of criminal charges before the attack.

One person who has shone a light on that issue is the victim’s mother, Andrea Magalhaes, who, in a CBC interview days after losing her son, said, “more needs to be done to help people in crisis.”

“We need more social services, more investment into physical and mental health,” she said.

Mother of suspect’s child opens up about his past troubles

The Canadian Press has exchanged a series of messages with a woman who said she had a child with O’Brien-Tobin before he left Newfoundland for Ontario in 2020.

The woman asked that her name be withheld to protect her young daughter. In addition to her account of their relationship, she provided screenshots of conversations that appeared to affirm her connection to O’Brien-Tobin, including a discussion about a baby’s health.

The woman said O’Brien-Tobin attempted suicide several times when they were together in 2019 but struggled to find help, including after landing in emergency rooms.

She said she last spoke to him over a year ago and that she was heartbroken when he stopped communicating.

“Little did I know what life was like,” she wrote in a direct message.

Until the communication stopped, O’Brien-Tobin had been in frequent contact, always asking after her and his daughter. “He always cared,” she said.

She said she was shocked when she saw that the “sweet” but troubled person she once knew had been charged with murder.

RELATED: Teen killed in Toronto subway station stabbing remembered as kind, good friend

O’Brien-Tobin’s criminal history detailed in court documents across two provinces is extensive, with dozens of charges in just a few years, and broadly indicates a progression from non-violent offences toward more serious crimes, including assault.

His criminal history in Newfoundland and Labrador includes dozens of convictions in St. John’s criminal court from 2018 to 2020, including theft, damaging property and other mischiefs.

He was wanted in the province on an outstanding warrant for violating parole at the time of the Toronto attack.

The charges in the TTC stabbing have not been tested in court, and The Canadian Press has been unable to reach a lawyer who represents him.

O’Brien-Tobin’s interactions with the legal system appeared to escalate in Ontario – court documents show more than 20 different accusations in 2021, including multiple alleged assaults, sexual assault, and harassment.

More charges and jail time followed in 2022, including assault with a box-cutter.

RELATED: 16-year-old stabbed to death in unprovoked attack at Keele station

An Ontario court also ordered that he enter a rehabilitation program, see a healthcare professional to identify the mental health issues he was facing and not discontinue his counselling without the approval of his probation officer.

O’Brien-Tobin’s encounters with the criminal justice system are striking, said University of Toronto Scarborough psychology professor Steve Joordens, because it is “atypical to have such a trail of misconduct and interactions with the legal system.”

“You would think there would be more follow-up and more assurance that he actually is either getting the treatment he needs or is no longer a danger to the public,” Joordens said in a phone interview.

“It seems like neither of those things happened. It seems he was almost looking for the legal system to somehow help him control behaviour that he can’t obviously control very well on his own.”

Calls to boost the social safety net and proposals to secure the Toronto Transit Commission have echoed across the city following Magalhaes’ death, especially as it heads toward a mayoral byelection on June 26.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said voters should disregard any candidate who wants to cut police spending.

“If people don’t feel safe walking down the street or on the TTC, nothing else matters,” Ford said last month.

Asked about prevention, Joordens noted the ongoing discussion about policing but said, “anybody that commits a random act against another human being, there’s a point in their life when they’ve become socially isolated for some reason.”

“They have sort of lost their empathy for fellow humans … because they feel like the fellow humans have lost the empathy for them as they feel socially disconnected.”

An expert in harm prevention could try to address those emotions, Joordens said.

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