NOVA SCOTIA — The deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history started Saturday night with a domestic argument between a Nova Scotia denture maker and his girlfriend, authorities allege.
More than 12 hours later, accused shooter Gabriel Wortman, 51, was dead, killed in a shootout with Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers more than 60 miles and 16 crime scenes away from where the rampage began.
A total of 22 others were dead, including RCMP Constable Heidi Stevenson, and three people were injured. One of the injured was apparently Wortman’s girlfriend, who authorities credit with helping to solidify him as a suspect as the manhunt was underway.
Wortman spent a large portion of the rampage dressed as an RCMP officer and driving a mock police cruiser. The cruiser was not real but authorities have said the Mountie uniform was authentic, CBC News reported.
Investigators have not said how Wortman obtained the uniform, the news agency said.
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.
Thus far, Wortman’s motive remains unclear. Police officials have said he had no criminal history beyond a 2001 assault case.
CBC News reported Friday that Wortman and his uncle had recently had a financial dispute over a property in Portapique, a tiny rural community where Wortman lived part-time, according to neighbors.
Wortman owned a denture practice in Dartmouth, near Halifax.
The Portapique property was bought by one of the victims of the weekend massacre, the news agency reported.
Superintendent Darren Campbell, support services officer for the RCMP in Nova Scotia, on Friday gave the public a rundown of what took place overnight Saturday and into Sunday morning. Campbell described the killings as taking place in three clusters.
A domestic disturbance turns deadly
The first cluster of incidents, which included several arson fires, took place in Portapique.
“What we learned as part of the investigation is that on April 18, before the first call came in, there was an assault between the gunman and a person known to him in Portapique,” Campbell said, according to a transcript of the news conference. “The victim managed to escape from the gunman and hid overnight in the woods.”
CBC News identified that first victim as Wortman’s girlfriend. It was not clear what the alleged assault against her entailed or what the argument was about.
Several countries across the globe have reported a surge in domestic violence incidents as people self-isolate to quell the spread of COVID-19, the deadly illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
At some point after Wortman’s alleged domestic dispute, a call came in about gunfire in the area of Portapique Beach Road, where Wortman lived.
Officers who responded to the call found a man with a gunshot wound driving away.
“The victim indicated a vehicle drove by him while he was driving and the shot came from the passing vehicle,” Campbell said.
As additional officers arrived as backup, several people were found lying dead in the roadways. Campbell called several of the victims “true heroes” who died trying to help one another.
“In total there were over seven locations where people were found deceased,” Campbell said. “Many of the deceased were discovered while responding (RCMP) members were checking homes for victims and/or suspects.”
Investigators began trying to identify the shooter. It was at that point that Wortman’s name came up as a potential suspect.
“The possible suspect’s home and garages were fully engulfed in flames,” Campbell said. “Two police vehicles, as well as a third vehicle, were also burning on the property.
“We also learned that the gunman was in possession of a pistol and long-barreled weapons. He was also known to own several vehicles that looked like police vehicles.”
RCMP set up perimeters and brought out emergency response teams, police dogs and a helicopter to aid in the search.
Unbeknownst to authorities at the time, Wortman was dressed as a RCMP officer and driving a fake cruiser nearly identical to the official cars Mounties drive. The disguise allowed him to move freely through rural Nova Scotia and beyond the search locations.
Around 6:30 a.m. Sunday, Wortman’s girlfriend emerged from the woods where she had been hiding since placing her 911 call, Campbell said. The woman offered eye-opening information.
“This included the fact that (Wortman) was in possession of a fully marked and equipped replica vehicle and was wearing a police uniform,” Campbell said. “He was in possession of several firearms that included pistols and long guns.”
By that point, Wortman was far outside the search perimeter, CBC News reported.
Police posted a photo of the vehicle on Twitter, which they used throughout the massacre to inform the public of what was happening.
A second cluster
RCMP investigators next found the accused shooter on their radar about 12 hours after the massacre began in Portapique, when a second series of 911 calls came in from nearly 40 miles away in Glenholme.
There, Wortman allegedly went to two different homes at which he was known to the residents, Campbell said. At the first house, he killed two men and a woman and set the home on fire.
He then went to the second home and knocked on the door.
“They identified him to 911 call takers and said he was driving a police vehicle and carrying a long gun,” Campbell said. “They didn't answer the door and he left.”
Authorities allege Wortman drove south from Glenholme to the Wentworth area, where he spotted a woman walking along the road and shot her, Campbell said. Following that shooting, he came upon two separate drivers.
See footage from some of the scenes below, courtesy of CBC News.
Wortman appeared to use the mock RCMP vehicle to his advantage in getting close to his alleged victims.
“A witness described that he pulled over one of the vehicles and shot one of the occupants,” Campbell said. “He continued driving down the same road, encountered a second vehicle and shot and killed that female victim.”
The second cluster of killings spanned about 37 miles across the communities of Wentworth, Glenholme and Debert. In the community of Millbrook, security video obtained by CBC News shows Wortman pull into a roadside parking area and get out of the fake cruiser.
He calmly removed his jacket and dons a yellow reflective vest over his uniform before getting back in the car and continuing his journey.
Watch the security video below, courtesy of CBC News.
A tragic misidentification
The third cluster of killings began about 15 minutes later at the intersection of Highway 2 and Highway 224 in Shubenacadie, just over 40 miles from where the mass shooting began.
Campbell told the media the intersection is where Stevenson, who was on the lookout for the accused shooter, had agreed to meet with a colleague, Constable Chad Morrison. Morrison was already there, waiting for Stevenson, when he saw what he believed to be a real police cruiser approaching.
“As they had prearranged to meet at that location, Constable Morrison thought the vehicle was Constable Stevenson,” Campbell said. “The approaching police vehicle was actually driven by the gunman.
Wortman pulled up beside Morrison’s patrol car and opened fire, striking the constable multiple times, according to authorities. Morrison retreated from the area, calling in the shooting over his radio and telling dispatchers he was en route to an emergency room, where he was treated and later released.
Meanwhile, Stevenson was driving north on Highway 2 toward the scene and Wortman was traveling south, Campbell said.
“At that point, both vehicles collided head-on,” Campbell said. “Constable Heidi Stevenson engaged the gunman. The gunman took Constable Stevenson’s life. He also took Constable Stevenson’s gun and mags.”
After killing Stevenson, Wortman shot a passing driver in a silver SUV, which was described as a Chevrolet Tracker, authorities said. Investigators said the gunman set Stevenson’s car and his own replica cruiser on fire before fleeing in the SUV.
Eric Fisher, a resident near the shooting scene, told CBC News he went to his kitchen window when he heard gunfire. He saw the crashed police cars and saw a man in black pants and a khaki shirt walk toward Stevenson’s cruiser with a gun.
The man fired several times, Fisher said. As the silver SUV approached, Fisher said he stepped away to call 911.
When he returned to the window, both cruisers were on fire and the SUV was gone, he told CBC News.
Cellphone camera footage from witnesses captured the heavy black smoke pouring from the two vehicles, which appear to be on an on-ramp of the highway. Armed tactical officers can be seen searching for the gunman as Stevenson is dragged behind an armored vehicle for cover.
According to authorities, Wortman drove south on Highway 224, where he went to the home of a woman he knew. There, he fatally shot the woman.
“The gunman then removed the police clothing he was wearing and transferred his weapons to the female victim's vehicle, which was a red Mazda 3,” Campbell said.
The carnage and the manhunt for the suspect came to an end at a gas station in Enfield, about 10 miles from where Stevenson was slain.
“While he was at the gas pumps, one of our tactical resources came into the gas station to refuel their vehicle,” Campbell said. “When the officer exited the vehicle, there was an encounter and the gunman was shot and killed by police at 11:26 a.m.”
Wortman, who was not licensed to carry firearms in Canada, is believed to have acted alone, authorities said. They continue to investigate how he obtained the replica police cruiser and the authentic RCMP uniform.