Nine of the 22 Nova Scotians killed in a horrifying 13-hour stretch of violence last week died in fires set by the gunman, police said Tuesday.
The spree, which stretched across 16 crime scenes, came to an end when the gunman was killed by police in a chance encounter at a Nova Scotia gas station. Among his victims were two health care workers, a retired firefighter, a teacher, a 17-year-old musician, a RCMP officer, and more. It is the deadliest mass killing in Canadian history.
Nova Scotia RCMP Superintendent Darren Campbell gave the most detailed police account of what happened so far in a Tuesday press conference. Campbell revealed that Gabriel Wortman escaped Portapique, a small town 120 kilometers north of Halifax, through a field in his replica RCMP car after the initial murders Saturday night. The gunman then drove 26 kilometres to an industrial area in Debert at 11:12 p.m. Saturday evening where he spent the rest of the night. Police had previously not publicly accounted for where the gunman was overnight.
Campbell said Wortman’s targets ranged “from associates to business partners to family members” as well as random victims he didn’t know. Police say they aren’t expecting to find any more victims. Wortman was armed with several semi-automatic handguns and rifles during the killing spree. Police have not yet said how he got those firearms.
“What I can say is that there does appear to be a weapon that can be described as a (military-style assault rifle),” said Campbell when asked about witnesses who said they saw Wortman with a long rifle. The incident began with violence against a partner. An incident between the killer and his longtime girlfriend, which began at a party near their Portapique home, escalated to Wortman assaulting her and tying her up. She escaped and fled to the woods, hiding there overnight. During this time the gunman killed several people in Portapique before leaving the area.
Following several 911 calls about gunshots in Portapique, police went to the area. Here RCMP officers found seven locations with victims and several homes engulfed in flames. RCMP set up two perimeters in the area but did not encounter the gunman. When dawn broke, around 7 a.m., they found the escaped woman who told them the gunman was wearing a police uniform and driving a replica police cruiser.
Unbeknownst to police, early Sunday morning, the killer had left the Derbert location to carry on the bloodshed. He traveled north to a home of people he knew, killed them and lit their home on fire. He also killed a retired firefighter who had walked to the property to investigate the blaze. He left and began driving south where he killed a woman out for her morning walk in the small community of Glenholme. From there he went to the home of people he knew but wasn’t successful in killing them, when they wouldn’t come outside. After this, he pulled over two vehicles, one after the other, and killed both drivers. He left and headed back to Debert where he had spent the evening.
Leaving this area, the gunman traveled south where he briefly stopped and changed his clothes. Wortman continued to drive on a highway and soon encountered a police officer. Constable Chad Morrison thought the gunman’s car was another on-duty RCMP officer, and the killer pulled up to Morrison’s cruiser and opened fire on the officer, hitting him several times. The RCMP officer survived and drove himself to a local hospital. The killer continued driving and eventually encountered Const. Heidi Stevenson who “engaged” the gunman. The authentic and replica police cruisers crashed head-on and the killer shot Stevenson several times, killing her. He stole Stevenson’s pistol, lit the two cars on fire, and carried on.
The killer then encountered a passerby, shot and killed him, and stole his silver Chevy Tracker. From here, he then went to a home of a woman he knew, entered it, killed the woman inside, changed his clothes and stole her red Mazda-3. He drove about 22 kilometres stopped to fill up the vehicle in nearby Enfield but, by chance, an unmarked police cruiser was also at the gas station filling up. RCMP say the gunman went to fire on the officers but an officer shot him first. Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team is investigating RCMP’s killing of Wortman.
Campbell said the investigation has shown that Wortman, a wealthy denturist who owned two clinics in the province, obtained the replica police vehicle in 2019 and equipped it with a lightbar and decals himself. RCMP said they couldn’t go into details for how Wortman obtained the decals but did say the police force had made progress in that area of the investigation. Campbell said Wortman had obtained multiple authentic police vehicles through auctions previously and that he was an avid collector of police memorabilia.
“At this time the priority areas are how the gunman obtained the equipment he used and the gunman’s movements before the 18th and 19th,” said Campbell. “We also want to determine if anyone had any knowledge of the gunman's plan, if any, and if they had assisted him in any way.”
“We are looking at the origins ‘[of the weapons] coming from inside and outside this country,” he said later.
Campbell said that the gunman was related to several retired RCMP officers but that there is “no indication that a former member of the RCMP provided assistance to the gunman or had provided them with any police equipment.” Campbell confirmed that investigators had spoken to officials in the United States during their investigation but did not clarify why.
RCMP say they have identified 435 witnesses and they’ve interviewed half of them. Police expect the witness list to grow and say Nova Scotians have been making use of a tip line. Campbell said he regretted using the term “catalyst” in a past press conference to describe the domestic violence that began the gunman’s spree.
“I want to be very clear that violence against women is real and it exists and I don’t want to be misunderstood that the victim had any blame of what occurred to transpired on those awful days,” said Campbell.
Campbell said investigators have interviewed witnesses who outlined past cases of domestic violence by Wortman.
The RCMP have been criticized for their handling of the murder spree, especially for not requesting an emergency alert to send province wide.. Some loved ones of the victims have said an alert could have saved lives—especially those who Wortman killed randomly during his spree. A close friend of Lillian Hyslop, the woman killed out for her morning walk, believes her friend would still be around if police only had better communication.
"If we were all given that security alert for Northern Nova Scotians to lock your doors, she would have been home," Heather Matthews told the CBC . "She would have been safe in her house. She wouldn't have gone out for a walk."
RCMP have said an emergency alert was in the works but was held up due to poor internal communication and bureaucracy. Several law professors and journalists have called for a public inquiry into the RCMP’s handling of the killing spree.
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