PORTAPIQUE, Nova Scotia — A man disguised as a Canadian Mountie wreaked havoc across rural Nova Scotia overnight Saturday, leaving a path littered with bodies at more than a dozen crime scenes in what has been called the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history.
Included among the 19 dead are Constable Heidi Stevenson, of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the alleged gunman, identified by authorities as Gabriel Wortman, 51, of Portapique.
“Today is a devastating day for Nova Scotia, and it will remain etched in the minds of many for years to come,” Cpl. Lisa Croteau, a public information officer for the RCMP’s Nova Scotia branch, said Sunday in a statement. “What has unfolded overnight and into this morning is incomprehensible and many families are experiencing the loss of a loved one.”
Little has been said publicly about Wortman’s cause of death, but Chris Leather, chief superintendent of the RCMP, said during a Monday morning news conference that multiple referrals regarding his death have been made to the RCMP’s Serious Incident Response Team, or SIRT, which investigates officer-involved fatalities.
Photos obtained by The Associated Press show heavily-armed RCMP officers surrounding one or more vehicles at the Enfield gas station where the massacre ended. Other photos showed what appeared to be crime scene technicians standing around the vehicles and later, removing a body from the area in a body bag.
Leather said at Monday’s news conference, held via video and teleconference, that all the dead are adults. Some of the victims were known to Wortman, while others appeared to have been targeted at random.
Wortman’s motives are unknown.
“I know that this is a challenging time for Nova Scotians and that there are still many unanswered questions,” Leather said. “I want to reassure you that we are working hard to find out as much information as possible in the days and weeks to come.
“We will be in this for months to come, I am sure.”
Watch the entire news conference by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police below, courtesy of the Global News.
Leather said the death toll from the massacre is expected to rise in the coming days as each of the crime scenes is thoroughly investigated. A total of 16 scenes had been identified as of Monday along a 60-mile stretch from Portapique to Enfield.
“We’re relatively confident we’ve identified all the crime scenes,” Leather said. “However, we have been unable to fully examine all the crime scenes because, for instance, we have had five structure fires, most of those being residences, and we believe there may be victims still within the remains of those homes which burnt to the ground.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to the nation Monday from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, where he and his family have been self-isolating due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Trudeau’s wife was diagnosed with the illness last month and has since recovered.
Trudeau said the entire nation was jolted from the “common cause” of stemming the pandemic’s spread by the “senseless violence and tragedy” that took place in Nova Scotia.
“This happened in small towns,” Trudeau said. “(They) are places where people have deep roots, places where people know their neighbors and look out for one another.”
The massacre began in Portapique, which in the offseason boasts a population of about 100 people. The gunman moved east to Truro before heading south through Milford and ending up in Enfield.
“There, everyone knows a Mountie because they’re everything from police officers to social workers to teen counselors,” Trudeau said of the communities affected. “Now these communities are in mourning, and Canada is in mourning with them.”
Such a tragedy should never have occurred, Trudeau said.
“Violence of any kind has no place in Canada,” the prime minister said. “We stand with you, we grieve with you and you can count on our government’s full support during this incredibly painful time.”
The prime minister stressed that social distancing due to COVID-19 would make the aftermath of the massacre even more difficult for those who are hurting.
“The pandemic will prevent us from mourning together in person, but a vigil will be held virtually to celebrate the lives of the victims,” Trudeau said.
The vigil is being scheduled for Friday night via Facebook, he said.
The RCMP Nova Scotia’s Twitter feed gives a glimpse into the mass shooting spree, which began Saturday night in Portapique, which is located about 80 miles north of Halifax. The first tweet, posted at 9:32 p.m., described the initial incident as a “firearms complaint” in the area of Portapique Beach Road, Bay Shore Road and Five Houses Road.
Residents were advised to avoid the area and stay home with their doors locked.
Authorities later said multiple bodies were found both inside and outside a home on Portapique Beach Road, the same street on which Wortman’s home was located, according to The Associated Press.
Investigators believe the victims killed there may have been specifically targeted. As the gunman worked his way from that area, the shootings may have become random.
By 6 a.m. Sunday, authorities on Twitter were calling the incident an ongoing active shooter situation.
“Residents in the area, stay inside your homes & lock your doors,” the tweet said. “Call 911 if there is anyone on your property. You may not see the police but we are there with you #Portapique.”
About 50 minutes later, RCMP officials tweeted Wortman’s name and photo, identifying him as the suspect in the shootings, which by that point had claimed several victims.
“He is considered armed & dangerous. If you see him, call 911,” the tweet said. “DO NOT approach. He’s described as a white man, bald, 6’2-6’3 with green eyes.”
About an hour later, there was a sighting of Wortman in the area of Glenholme. A few minutes later, authorities tweeted that he was then in the area of Central Onslow and Debert -- and driving “a vehicle that may resemble what appears to be an RCMP vehicle & may be wearing what appears to be an RCMP uniform.”
A second tweet around the same time showed the vehicle itself, although it was not immediately clear the circumstances through which authorities obtained the image.
“Gabriel Wortman may be driving what appears to be an RCMP vehicle & may be wearing an RCMP uniform. There's 1 difference btwn his car and our RCMP vehicles: the car #,” the tweet said. “The suspect's car is 28B11, behind rear passenger window. If you see 28B11 call 911 immediately.”
About an hour later, RCMP officials tweeted that Wortman had been spotted traveling south on Highway 102 in the Brookfield area. He had already passed through Truro and was about 20 miles north of Milford, where the third spate of shootings would take place.
“To clarify, the suspect in our active shooter investigation, Gabriel Wortman, is NOT employed by the RCMP but he may be wearing an RCMP uniform,” one tweet from authorities said. “He is considered armed and dangerous. If you see him, do NOT approach and call 911 immediately.”
At the point authorities reported him near Brookfield, he was still believed to driving the mock Mountie cruiser. Two minutes later, however, authorities updated that information.
“Gabriel Wortman, suspect in active shooter investigation, now believed to be driving small silver Chevrolet SUV,” the tweet said. “Travelling southbound on Hwy #102 from #Brookfield area If seen, call 911.”
It was not immediately clear where Wortman ditched the fake police cruiser but Leather said Monday that the car was discovered at the scene where Stevenson was slain. It and a second vehicle were engulfed in flames when they and Stevenson were discovered.
A short time later, the small silver SUV was confirmed to be a silver Chevy Tracker, according to police. By that time, Wortman had made it to Milford.
About 15 minutes later, RCMP officials reported that Wortman was in custody and said more information would be released when available.
The AP reported that authorities initially indicated Wortman had been arrested at the Enfield gas station where the rampage ended, but they later said he had died.
Leather said Monday the uniform and mock cruiser showed that the attack was not a spur of the moment, random act.
“His ability to move around the province undetected was surely greatly benefited by the fact that he had a vehicle that looked identical in every way to a marked police car,” the superintendent said.
Authorities were still trying to determine if Wortman’s uniform was real or an uncannily accurate copy.
The AP reported that Wortman’s high school yearbook profile focused on his desire to become a policeman.
“Gabe’s future may include being an RCMP officer,” the profile stated, according to the news agency.
That report appeared to be backed by a Twitter user who posted an image of the yearbook page. The woman said her mother was a high school classmate of Wortman’s.
Instead of going into law enforcement, residents of Portapique told media outlets that Wortman became a denturist. He owned a denture practice in Dartmouth, near Halifax, and lived in Portapique part-time, the AP said.
In 2014, Wortman was interviewed by a reporter after he donated a new set of dentures to a Halifax cancer survivor who lost her teeth during treatment. See video of that story below, courtesy of CTV News.
Besides Stevenson, a longtime veteran of the RCMP, about half of those killed by Wortman had been publicly identified as of Monday morning.
“Constable Stevenson died protecting others,” Trudeau said Monday. “She was answering the call of duty, something she had done every day when she went to work for 23 years.”
Croteau indicated Sunday that the grief among those who knew the Mountie is palpable.
“Earlier this afternoon, I met with Heidi’s family and there are no words to describe their pain,” Croteau said. “Two children have lost their mother and a husband, his wife. Parents lost their daughter and countless others lost an incredible friend and colleague.”
CBC News reported that the others killed in the mass shooting include a family of three, an elementary school teacher and a neighbor in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Aaron Tuck, 45, and Jolene Oliver, 40, were killed alongside their daughter, Emily Tuck, 17, at their Portapique home, the news agency said. Oliver’s sister, Tammy Oliver-McCurdie, said the couple, who had been together for two decades, always stuck together.
“No matter how hard it was, they always stayed together,” Oliver-McCurdie said. “They always focused on family and staying together. There were times when they literally had nothing, but they always stuck together.
“At least they died together.”
Emily Tuck, who was a few weeks away from her high school graduation, played the violin and was deciding between two very different career paths -- music or welding. The love of welding came from working with her dad, who was a mechanic, her aunt said.
“She didn’t even get to live her life,” Oliver-McCurdie said. “She had so much potential. So much love, so smart, so caring, so humble.”
Also killed in Portapique was Lisa McCully, a teacher at Debert Elementary School. The exact circumstances of her killing were unclear.
“She was somebody who taught from the heart,” Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney said in a statement. “She taught her kids not just the curriculum but teaching about virtues and personal qualities.”
Sean McLeod and Alanna Jenkins, both Correctional Service Canada employees, lived in West Wentworth, about 30 miles from Portapique. It was at their home that they were killed early Sunday morning.
CBC News reported that a neighbor called 911 to report gunfire and an explosion around 8 a.m. that day.
Another neighbor, Tom Bagley, happened to be passing by the scene. Bagley, who was a former airport firefighter, was shot and killed.
“This beautiful soul was taken from me so unnecessarily. I can’t even comprehend it,” Bagley’s daughter, Charlene Bagley, wrote on Facebook. “He died trying to help, which if you knew him, you knew that was just who he was all the time.
“I know he meant something to so many people.”
Prior to the weekend’s massacre, the most deadly mass shooting in Canada, where such crimes are extremely rare, was in 1989 at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique college, where gunman Marc Lepine killed 14 women before turning his gun on himself. Lepine, 25, reportedly had a hatred of women.
According to the AP, the Montreal mass killing prompted an overhaul of Canada’s gun laws which saw the banning of military-style assault weapons.
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