It wasn’t until Gabriel Wortman’s girlfriend emerged after hiding in the woods all night that Nova Scotia RCMP learned key details about the gunman who eventually killed 22 people last weekend on a rampage that spanned 100 kilometres.
Nearly a week after the massacre, which started Saturday night and ended Sunday morning, RCMP provided a more detailed account of what took place. Supt. Darren Campbell, Officer in Charge of Support Services for Nova Scotia RCMP, said it started with a “significant assault” against the shooter's girlfriend.
Campbell said when she emerged from the woods, around 6:30 a.m. Sunday, she told police that Wortman, 51, had a fourth police replica car—the cops had already accounted for three, two of which were burning on his Portapique property and another at his Halifax residence. She also provided a photo of the replica car the gunman was driving around in during his rampage.
Campbell said the fact that police thought all of the shooter's cars were accounted for (prior to speaking with his girlfriend), and that they had already secured the Portapique area, factored into their decision not to issue a province-wide emergency alert.
Campbell said the murders took place in three main clusters—the first in Portapique on Saturday night, the second in the areas of Wentworth, Glenholme, and Debert; and the third in Shubenacadie, Milford and Enfield.
He said Portapique, where 13 victims were killed, is a “quiet and peaceful community” and stressed that the details have been put together with the “benefit of hindsight.”
While he wouldn’t speculate on the shooter’s motive, Campbell noted “there seems to be a trail of individuals who had problems with Mr. Wortman.”
After the gunman assaulted his girlfriend and she fled into the woods, Campbell said police received a 911 call about a shooting in the area; they arrived on scene just before 10:30 p.m. They found a man leaving the area who’d been shot by a man in a police vehicle driving past him. That victim said there was only one way in and out of the community and said that the car had been heading towards the beach.
When several police units arrived in Portapique, they found seven locations where people were dead, and several homes “engulfed in flames.”
Campbell said that’s when the police critical emergency response team set up and established a perimeter in the area and started checking homes for victims and survivors. He said fairly early on they learned that Wortman was a suspect, but it was only after interviewing his girlfriend that they confirmed he had another police replica vehicle and a police uniform and was in possession of a pistol and long guns.
Campbell said the investigation is still looking into how the gunman accessed the cop cars and uniform as well as his weapons.
“I can’t imagine any more horrific set of circumstances (than) when you’re trying to search someone that looks like you,” Campbell said. “That was an obvious advantage the suspect had on the police.”
More than 12 hours after the initial shootings, police began receiving a second series of 911 calls, Campebll said.
He said the gunman went to a home on Hunter Road in Wentworth, 42 kilometers north of Portapique, where he killed two men and one woman and set a home on fire at around 9:35 a.m. on Sunday. He knew two of them. He then travelled to a home in the Glenholme area and knocked on the door of two residents who knew him; they didn’t answer the door.
Corrections officers Sean McLeod, 44, and Alanna Jenkins, 36, were killed in their home on Hunter Road, as was their neighbour, Tom Bagley, a volunteer firefighter who went to check on them when he saw their house was on fire.
The gunman also encountered a woman out walking and shot her on the roadside, according to Campbell. Lillian Hyslop, an avid hiker, was out for her morning walk that day when she was shot dead.
After that, the killer headed to Debert where he pulled over two vehicles, one a little after the other, and shot their respective drivers.
On Sunday morning, Const. Chad Morrison had planned to meet Const. Heidi Stevenson at Highway 2 and Highway 224.
According to Campbell, Morrison saw a police car approaching him and thought it was Stevenson. But it was the shooter, who “immediately began opening fire.” Morrison drove away wounded from several gunshots and radioed that he was heading to get treatment.
The killer continued southbound on Highway 2, while Stevenson was driving northbound.
“Both vehicles collided head on,” Campbell said. He said Stevenson engaged the gunman, but he killed her and took her pistol and magazine.
Then he shot and killed a passerby and stole her silver SUV, a Chevy Tracker.
Afterwards, he entered a home on the east side of Highway 224, where he shot and killed a woman he knew and transferred his weapons to her car, a red Mazda 3.
He stopped to fill up gas in Enfield where he was spotted by a cop in an unmarked cruiser who shot and killed him at around 11:30 a.m.
Campbell said it’s possible that the gunman moved beyond the perimeter in Portapique before police set up there. He said there was a vehicle seen leaving through a field, which may have been the suspect.
He said he doesn’t know what the gunman was doing overnight, before he started his second killing spree Sunday morning.
He said there are at least three survivors but there could be more.
Clinton Ellison’s brother, Corrie Ellison, 42, was shot dead on the road in Portapique near a burning home. Clinton told the CBC that he hid in the woods for four hours after finding his brother dead and being “hunted” by the gunman.
“I hid in the woods for about four hours staring up at the sky, freezing to death, looking for red flashing lights that never came,” he said. “People were in there burning to death and dying. It took hours for a response? That’s not right.”
He said an emergency alert would have let him know what was going on while in hiding, and could have saved lives.
In response to the criticism, Campbell said family members of victims “have every right to ask those questions; they have every right to be angry.”
The shooting, Canada’s worst in modern history, once again raises the issue of misogyny-motivated murder.
When asked if the gunman's assault of his girlfriend and her subsequent escape could have "set off this series of events," Campbell said it's a possibility.
"That could have been a catalyst to this," he replied. "However we're open to all possibilities and we're not excluding the possibility that there was any premeditated planning."
The man who murdered 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989 said he hated feminists. The Toronto van attacker spoke of an “incel rebellion,” a term referencing men who identify as being involuntarily celibate, before killing 10 people in 2018.
Leighann Burns, an Ottawa-based family lawyer who works with survivors of violence, said police need to be more forthcoming when talking about violence against women. She said the École Polytechnique killings were, for a long time, written off as the acts of a lone madman.
In Friday’s press conference, Campbell only confirmed the assault victim was the gunman’s partner when asked by a journalist.
“We have to start honestly looking at theses cases and acknowledging that male violence against women is a hugely destructive force in the world,” Burns said.
She said Ontario’s solicitor general used to release detailed data about every domestic-violence-related 911 call and the response, but they stopped doing that in the mid-1990s, which makes it hard to assess where the gaps are.
Burns said women in rural communities who are in abusive relationships face specific challenges, such as a lack of housing and transportation options. Police can also take a long time to respond to calls because there can be limited officers covering a large area of land.
Burns described the 87,000 annual intentional homicides of women around the world as a “pandemic.”
Going forward, she said we have to learn from this “horrific event.”
“We have to remember the people that were gravely harmed and killed in this but we also have to take this opportunity to change the future.”