For four seconds, Nathaniel Veltman pressed the accelerator pedal, launching his pickup truck into a Muslim family of five out for an evening stroll in London, Ontario, killing four of them. The only survivor was a 9-year-old boy.
The jury, after less than a day of deliberation, found Mr. Veltman, 22, guilty of four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder involving the boy in the June 2021 attack.
Mr. Veltman was also charged with terrorism, and jurors heard extensive evidence about his fixation with white supremacist ideologies. But under Canadian law, jurors are not expected to reach a verdict on that charge, which will be decided later by a judge.
According to the government agency that prosecutes federal crimes, this case represents the first time in Canada that terrorism charges have been applied to a far-right extremism case.
Mr. Veltman’s sentencing date will be set in December and a judge will determine whether he is guilty of terrorism. A first-degree murder conviction carries an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years.
Following the verdict, Christopher Hicks, Mr Veltman’s lawyer, said his client was “in shock” because of the long prison sentence awaiting him.
Mr. Veltman confessed to police that he believed the victims he hit were Muslim because of the clothes they were wearing and that is why he turned his truck at them, prosecutors said during the 10-week trial.
Veltman had become obsessed with white supremacist ideology, prosecutors said, even writing his own manifesto titled “A White Awakening,” which he completed five days before mowing down pedestrians.
“His attack was, in Mr. Veltman’s mind, in his own words, terrorism,” a prosecutor, Fraser Ball, said during his closing argument Wednesday.
“It was intended to convey a brutal message,” Ball told jurors, adding: “It was important to him that his actions inspire other white nationalists. It was important to him that his brutal message wasn’t just an idle threat from someone trapped in prison.”
Veltman had also searched online for information about a white supremacist attacker in Christchurch, New Zealand, who killed 51 people in an attack on two mosques in 2019, prosecutors said.
The trial took place in Windsor, Ontario, just across the street from Detroit, after the judge in the case, Justice Renee Pomerance of the Ontario Superior Court, ruled that it should not take place in London, which is halfway between Toronto and Detroit.
Similar rulings have been issued when a judge is concerned about jury bias, although Judge Pomerance’s reasons for the decision are protected by a publication ban.
Mr Veltman’s lawyers did not argue that their client had broken into the Muslim family, but argued that he had acted impulsively after consuming psilocybin, popularly known as magic mushrooms, several hours before the attack.
He also had mental health problems and struggled “with the urge or obsession to hit the accelerator,” Judge Pomerance told jurors during his closing instructions, summarizing the evidence presented during the trial.
The Afzaal family were strangers to Mr. Veltman, then a 20-year-old working in an egg processing plant in London, a university city of more than half a million residents surrounded by farmland.
Mr. Veltman passed the Afzaals near a busy intersection and made a U-turn to hit them, prosecutors said.
Three generations of the family were killed: the youngest was 15-year-old Yumnah Afzaal. Her parents, Salman Afzaal, 46, a physiotherapist, and Madiha Salman, 44, a PhD candidate in civil engineering, died along with Mr Afzaal’s mother, Talat Afzaal. 74.
Mr Veltman ran from the crash, running red lights until he was arrested in the car park of a nearby shopping centre. He was wearing a bulletproof vest, a helmet and a T-shirt with the crusader’s cross, a symbol that has various interpretations in Christianity, but has also been adopted by far-right extremists.
In a recording of an emergency call played to the jury, Mr Veltman told a taxi driver who had called the emergency services that he had committed the attack and wanted to be arrested.
“Mr. Veltman was many things at the scene of his arrest, even by his own testimony: very disrespectful to the police, very rude and arrogant, but not depressed, not tormented or despondent,” Mr. Ball said during his closing argument. . “The adrenaline was through the roof, the excitement. Mr. Veltman smiled the smile of a man who had just done exactly what he had been planning for months.
Jurors also watched a video of Mr. Veltman’s confession to a detective in a police interrogation room, where he appeared relaxed, prosecutors said.
Mr. Veltman, who testified in his defense, said that a day before the deadly attack, he had gone to Toronto, about two hours east, and had been overcome by the urge to kill Muslims, but in the end he didn’t he pursued.
Legal experts said prosecutors’ decision to pursue terrorism charges marks a significant shift in how some acts of violence are classified.
“For years we only understood terrorism to come from those inspired by Islam, so this is a recognition that there are multiple forms of terrorism that pose risks in the Canadian context,” said Barbara Perry, professor and director of the Center on Bias , Hate and Extremism at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa.
The attack shocked Canadians and came during a time of restrictions on gatherings to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The provincial government has temporarily lifted an order to allow thousands of people to gather for a memorial, attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“The lasting pain, trauma and irreplaceable void left by the loss of multiple generations has pierced us deeply,” Tabinda Bukhari, Madiha Salman’s mother, told reporters outside the courtroom after the verdict. “Their loss, and our pain, will always remain palpable.”