This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
A man dressed in a police uniform and driving a replica cop cruiser preyed on Nova Scotians’ trust of the police as he committed the worst mass killing in modern Canadian history.
So far, the RCMP has confirmed the killing spree committed by Gabriel Wortman has claimed at least 19 lives. Nova Scotia RCMP Chief Superintendent Chris Leather told media at a press conference Monday afternoon that he could not rule out more victims being found and that RCMP is investigating 16 scenes connected to the rampage, which stretch roughly 100 kilometers [62 miles] over small communities and the highway.
“We are relatively confident we’ve identified all the crime scenes, however we haven’t been able to fully examine the crime scenes,” said Leather. “For instance, we’ve had five structure fires, most of those being residences, we believe there may be victims among those homes which burned to the ground.”
Leather said that the killings seem, “at least in part, very random in nature.” He also added that the death toll may rise in the coming days. Leather said that the mock police car was first reported to them early on Saturday evening but wasn’t discovered until Cst. Stevenson was killed.
“That vehicle was one of the two that was fully engulfed in flames” said Leather. “We don’t know the origin of the uniforms but we have reason to believe that they were either actual uniforms or very good facsimiles.
“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 police car,” he added later.
Wortman’s spree began on Saturday night when police responded to a firearms call in the small town of Portapique, roughly 125 kilometers [77 miles] north of Halifax. When they arrived they found multiple casualties but no sign of the shooter. Wortman’s spree would continue for over 12 hours before finally ending in a hail of gunfire outside an Enfield gas station.
Leather said that all the victims were adults and that some of the victims were known to Wortmon but would not specify what the relationships were. Leather said that after the replica police vehicle was destroyed Wortman was able to get a citizen’s vehicle—which police identified as a silver Chevy Tracer—that he used to get around. How Wortman got that vehicle is currently under investigation.
Wortman was shot dead by police mid-day Sunday at a gas station 35 kilometers [21 miles] north of Halifax, ending hours of terror.
The victims include Cst Heidi Stevenson, a 23-year-veteran of the Nova Scotia RCMP; Jamie Blair and Greg Blair; Jolene Oliver, Emily Tuck and Aaron Tuck; teacher Lisa McCully; and Heather O’Brien, a nurse from Truro, N.S.
“I want everyone to remember how kind she was. How much she loved being a nurse,” wrote a loved one on Facebook of O’Brien. “The way her eyes sparkled when she talked to her grandchildren and the way she just loved Christmas. Let those things define her. Not the horrible way she died.”
The identities of the other victims have yet to be released or confirmed. Police said that Cst Chad Morrison, an 11-year veteran of the police force is at home recovering from gunshot wounds.
The Globe and Mail spoke to one man who knew Wortman who said the man showed up to his house and pounded on the door with a rifle in hand. The man and his wife hid until Wortman left. “He came here to kill me, there’s no question about that,” the man told the newspaper.
Details on Wortman and a possible motive for the killings are sparse. At a press conference on Sunday evening, RCMP Chief Superintendent Chris Leather said this indicates at least some level of premeditation.
“The fact that this individual had a uniform and a police car at his disposal speaks to this not being a random act,” said Leather.
Who was the shooter?
Not much is known about why Wortman committed Canada’s worst mass killing of the modern age.
We know he worked as a denturist, and he owned multiple properties, including in Portapique, where the rampage started. We know that the man who was dressed as a police officer as he killed his victims was seemingly obsessed with policing. We have a brief biography of where he grew up and went to school. We also know a little about what he was like over the years. However, the people who know him best or could somehow shed some light on one of the darkest days in Canadian history have either not come forward or were among the now 17 victims.
Here is what we know so far.
Wortman ran two dental clinics, one in Halifax and one in Dartmouth. The clinics by all accounts seemed to be successful and made Wortman well off but were closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The clinics have now been taped off by police. Neighbors told the Globe and Mail that Wortman struggled with alcohol abuse.
Wortman appears to hail from Riverview, New Brunswick which is a small town of 20,000 just outside of Moncton. He graduated from Riverview High School in 1986 and Wortman attended the University of New Brunswick. The Globe and Mail have reported that Wortman initially was studying to be a mortician in university but eventually switched his focus to dentures. One friend, comedian Candy Palmater, said she was inseparable from Wortman in university and that people used to pick on him.
“Gabriel always had a sadness about him, but I was so shocked to hear that he’d hurt other people,” Candy Palmater told the Chronicle Herald. “I don’t know what his later adult life was like, but I can tell you that at university, people weren’t nice to him.”
Several people have described him as being someone obsessed with the RCMP. One former client of his wrote on Facebook, in a now-deleted post, that Wortman showed him a police car he restored and how he had a uniform to go with it. A man who lived near Wortman said that his home in Portapique was a “shrine” to the RCMP when speaking to the Globe and Mail.
“He was one of those freaky guys, he was really into police memorabilia,” Nathan Staples said.
In another deleted Facebook post, another former client wrote that Wortman told him that he buys old RCMP vehicles and restores them as a hobby and that he had multiple replicas at his home. A yearbook photo of Wortman, that’s been widely circulated on social media, reads “Gabe’s future may include being an RCMP officer.”
‘Everyone knows a Mountie’
In a press conference Monday, Trudeau gave his respects to those killed by Wortman.
“We were jolted from that common cause by the senseless violence and tragedy in Nova Scotia. A gunman claimed the lives of at least 18 people, among them a woman in uniform whose job it is to protect lives even if it endangers her own,” said Trudeau. “(Cst. Stevenson) died protecting others. She was answering the call of duty—something she had done every day she went to work for 23 years.”
Trudeau said public vigils honoring the victims cannot be held publicly because they would break physical distancing measures currently in place to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, a virtual vigil will be held at 7 p.m. on Friday. It will be accessible through a Colchester community page.
“This happened in small towns—places where people have deep roots and look out for one another. Everyone knows a Mountie because they are officers, social workers, or teen counselors,” Trudeau added.
The attack has eclipsed the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique massacre as the deadliest mass killing in modern Canadian history.
—With files from Anya Zoledziowski