This undated photo from Facebook shows Bruce McArthur. Picture: Facebook/The Canadian Press via AP

Ottawa - A Canadian landscaper on Tuesday pleaded guilty to the premeditated murders of eight men with links to Toronto's gay community and the mutilation of their bodies, most of them chopped up and hidden in planters.

The plea entered by Bruce McArthur, 67, was a surprise - he had been scheduled to stand trial next year.

He now faces the likelihood of life in prison. A sentencing hearing is scheduled to start on February 4.

The case shocked all of Canada, and especially the gay community. It sparked a massive investigation in Toronto, the country's largest city, at dozens of properties where McArthur had worked.

"Bruce McArthur has pled guilty," Homicide Detective David Dickinson told reporters outside the courtroom. "It's the right outcome."

"Unfortunately, we can never bring these men back. But I'm hoping we can start bringing closure to the families and the communities," he said, describing the "long and traumatic process" to bring McArthur to justice.

McArthur was arrested in January 2018. 

Body parts of seven of the victims were found hidden inside large planters that McArthur stored at a client's home in midtown Toronto.

The remains of an eighth victim were later discovered in a ravine behind the property.

The victims in the case were McArthur's former lover, two Afghan immigrants, two refugees from Sri Lanka and another from Iran, a Turkish national, and a homeless sex worker.

All went missing from 2010 to 2017.

Karen Fraser - the owner of the home where McArthur stored his planters, and who had casually met two of the victims - said she is "haunted" by the case.

"Terrible things were done," she said. "To me, he's evil."

McArthur first came under suspicion in September 2017 in connection with the disappearance of his lover Andrew Kinsman, but police at first rejected suggestions that a serial killer was prowling Toronto's Gay Village neighborhood.

Last January, police made a quick decision to enter McArthur's apartment and arrest him when they saw a young man enter his home. Police found the man tied up on a bed, but unharmed.

Detective Sergeant Hank Idsinga, the lead investigator, has said the forensic probe into the killings was Toronto's largest ever -- excavations or searches were carried out at more than 75 properties in the Toronto area.

Police also looked at 15 cold cases dating back to 1975 for possible links to the accused, but Idsinga has said he does not believe more victims will be uncovered.

Many, including investigators, expressed relief that the case would not go to trial, sparing family and friends of the victims from having to hear the gruesome details of McArthur's crimes.

The investigation, however, will continue into the foreseeable future, said Dickinson.

AFP