Who killed the prof?
Police have admitted to David Buller's family the investigation into the gay
lecturer's murder has gone nowhere, despite the fact he was stabbed to death in
a crowded U of T building
David Buller, a University of Toronto professor and artist, was stabbed to
death in his office seven months ago.
Some say it was the desperate deed of a heartbroken lover. Others are convinced
it was a cowardly act of homophobia. Maybe a disgruntled student or a jealous
co-worker. Others have even suggested it was one of the male prostitutes he was
known to hire.
David Buller, a fine arts professor at the University of Toronto who used the
Internet to showcase his homoerotic paintings, may have even invited his killer
to sit down and chat just moments before being stabbed seven times and left for
dead on his office floor.
It has been seven months since a cleaning lady stumbled upon the professor's
body, but the investigation into his murder is still little more than a
collection of unsubstantiated theories and wild guesses.
Toronto Police have few solid leads, despite having interviewed nearly 200
potential witnesses. Officers have told Mr. Buller's family the case may never
"It's unimaginable, but it's very possible," said Karyn Sandlos, Mr. Buller's
niece. "I may have to go to my grave without knowing what happened."
Despite the boldness of the crime -- the 50-year-old was slain in the middle of
a January afternoon while hundreds of people roamed through the building --
detectives have been unable to garner any meaningful clues or pinpoint any
"This is the kind of thing that keeps you awake at night," Ms. Sandlos said.
"It could be a stranger, it could be someone we know, it could be someone in
our midst, it could be someone we've never heard of."
Was the killer punishing Mr. Buller for his homoerotic artwork? Did a scorned
lover or an enraged student want revenge?
"You have to live with all these possibilities," she said. "You can drive
yourself crazy just thinking about it."
Mr. Buller, an unassuming man remembered for his modesty, grew up in
Willowdale, a conservative neighbourhood in Toronto's north end. He didn't tell
anyone until he was an adult, but those close to the aspiring artist had always
suspected he was gay.
"It was really rather funny when he told me," said Patricia Wilde, who grew up
down the street from Mr. Buller. "I'd known it my whole life."
A gifted painter, Mr. Buller went on to graduate from the Ontario College of
Art in 1973, eventually earning a Master's degree in fine art from Concordia
University in Montreal. Throughout that time, many of his abstract paintings
managed to land on the walls of various Toronto art galleries.
Chances are, he would have blossomed into a prominent figure in the Canadian
art scene had he not met David Rifat at an exhibition opening in 1985. Mr.
Rifat, then the associate chairman of U of T's fine arts department, asked the
emerging painter to apply for a lecturing position.
"I was very impressed with his enthusiasm and his knowledge," Mr. Rifat
remembered. "He was bright and fresh and seemed to have a zest for life."
The original offer was for a one-year position, but that eventually evolved
into a full-time job as a senior lecturer, a position that Mr. Buller held for
the next 15 years.
"He took his responsibilities at the university very seriously," said long-time
friend Andrew Ward, who lived with Mr. Buller in the late 1980s. "He put his
own artwork in the background in order to focus on his students."
Many of Mr. Buller's nights were spent helping the young artists in his class,
but he managed to reserve a few evenings for his own abstract art.
One of his last series of paintings, dubbed Strip, contain photographs of
nearly naked men -- Mr. Buller described them as "homoerotic icons" --
juxtaposed against other well known images.
Although only a small part of his work dabbled in such erotic undertones, the
paintings fuelled speculation that the murderer was a violent homophobe looking
to make a statement.
That was the theory most people latched on to at the beginning of the
investigation, but many of Mr. Buller's family and friends have since
questioned it. It's just too easy to assume, they say, that he was murdered
because he was gay.
Just before 2 p.m. on Jan. 18, the day Mr. Buller was murdered, about 150
people were gathered on the first floor of the Connaught Medical Sciences
Building, a gothic structure on Spadina Crescent, to say goodbye to a long-time
Dozens of people at the going-away party have told police they recall hearing
an argument coming from the floor above them -- in the direction of Mr.
Buller's office -- followed by a succession of loud footsteps.
But not one person saw anybody suspicious.
"How the hell could the person get in there, get out of the University of
Toronto and leave nothing," asked Betty Lou Sandlos, Mr. Buller's sister. "I
just don't understand that. It's beyond my comprehension."
That is why many people have dismissed the possibility that the murder was a
random act of gay-bashing. The person had to have known his way around. Maybe
he was even supposed to be there.
"Everybody plays detective," Mr. Ward said.
"And I don't think I would be out of line to say that I do believe it is
somehow university-related. I don't think everything was great at the
His theory is easier to believe after visiting the crime scene. Anyone who
wanted to leave Mr. Buller's corner office could have chosen a number of
different escape routes.
The killer could have fled down the main set of stairs that lead to the front
door. Another set of steps lead to a smaller door on the east side of the
There are also two emergency exits -- one that leads to the roof; the other
back downstairs -- but neither of the alarms were triggered that afternoon.
"It would be very difficult for someone to get in and out of that building
without being seen," Mr. Ward said.
Unless, of course, the killer knew exactly how to get out. Or he didn't leave
The problem with this theory is the difficulty of pinning down a motive.
Colleagues willing to talk about the case say Mr. Buller worked extremely well
with his fellow professors. His students loved him even more.
"They treated him more as a friend than someone from a different generation who
was their teacher," said Michael Alstad, who displayed Mr. Buller's work on his
virtual gallery, www.year01.com.
Toronto Police detectives, who did not return repeated phone calls, have even
questioned a former student who once had a disagreement with Mr. Buller, but
they assure the family he was not involved.
They have no reason to believe any of the 200 people they have interviewed were
involved, either. Which leaves the family to grapple with another theory. Maybe
the murderer was a friend of Mr. Buller about whom nobody else knew.
David Buller lived his life in compartments. His work life rarely overlapped
with his family life, and his family life did not often extend to his social
"David pocketed people," Ms. Wilde said. "He would have never thought of
putting us all together in one room."
As a result, Mr. Buller's family has had to come to grips with some secret
aspects of his life. The quiet artist and teacher occasionally hired male
"There was a side of David I really didn't know," his sister said. "There was a
part of his gay life that I really didn't know."
Mrs. Sandlos said her brother would often date different men, but it would
usually extend no further than a simple cup of coffee. Her theory is the killer
was one of those dates, somebody who didn't like the idea of being brushed off.
"I have a feeling it may have been a love affair gone wrong," she said.
What makes that theory difficult to accept is that Mr. Buller was not the type
to tell just anybody where he worked. His best friends had never even toured
his part of the campus.
"I didn't even know where David's office was," said Ms. Wilde, who knew Mr.
Buller since the two were young children. "That was work and that was
Since the murder, David Buller's office and the two that surrounded it have
been torn down to make room for a studio. A person who looks close enough can
still see the lines in the hardwood floor that outlined where the office once
was, where someone stabbed Mr. Buller in the back of the shoulder, turned him
around, and slashed him six more times in the chest.
The cleaning lady who discovered the professor's body the morning after the
murder no longer works at the university. The memories were too much to bear.
"A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any other invention in
human history, with the possible exception of handguns and tequila." - Mitch
Hanging on the wall that ran parallel to Mr. Buller's desk are two strips of
cloth stitched together, a piece of art meant to signify a healing wound.
Nearby bulletin boards still display a photo of the slain professor, asking
anyone with information to call police at (416) 808-7416.
Standing beside the room where her uncle lost his life, Karyn Sandlos refuses
to rule out any possibilities.
"I'm prepared to be surprised," she said. "We've racked our brains."
David Buller's last painting, which depicts a bare-chested man, contains the
phrase "History counsels patience." It is ironic, Ms. Sandlos said, because it
is as if her uncle left the painting as a message to them. Be patient, and over
time, the truth will reveal itself.
"Maybe one night the person will have too many drinks and let something out,"
Ms. Wilde said.
Maybe something more than just another theory.