By Eric Thomas, AFP/Montreal
Investigators yesterday scoured crime scenes from the worst mass shooting in Canadian history to determine why a dental worker with no criminal past killed at least 18 people.
The gunman, identified by police as 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman, began his rampage on Saturday night in the seaside village of Portapique, Nova Scotia, dying 14 hours later in a hail of police gunfire 100km away outside Halifax.
“Just how could this happen, we may never know why,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a news conference yesterday.
“But we do know this: no one man’s action can build a wall between us and a better day, no matter how evil, how thoughtless, or how destructive.”
The death toll, initially put at 16, rose to 18 yesterday, Trudeau said, with police warning that more bodies could be found.
Among the victims were a veteran constable with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a nurse, an elementary school teacher and a retired firefighter.
“This happened in small towns — in Portapique, Truro, Milford and Enfield — places where people have deep roots, places where people know their neighbors and look out for one another,” Trudeau said.
He evoked communities in mourning and said the whole of Canada was “mourning with them.”
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil told public broadcaster CBC the investigation and the grieving process would be “complicated” by the coronavirus pandemic.
A “virtual vigil” has been planned for Friday.
Forensic investigators fanned out to multiple “chaotic” crime scenes across the province that is home to Canada’s Atlantic navy fleet.
“It’s going to be a while before all these scenes are processed properly,” said RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki.
After the first gunshots rang out in Portapique, where the gunman owned two properties, police found casualties inside and outside a home and also responded to a series of fires.
Neighbors told The Globe and Mail newspaper that Wortman set fire to homes and shot residents as they ran out.
At least some of the victims did not appear to be known to the shooter.
“It’s too early to tell what the motivation was,” said RCMP Superintendent Chris Leather. “It appears to be, at least in part, very random in nature.”
An acquaintance said Wortman drove to his house in a mock squad car, wearing police uniform, and banged on the door clutching a rifle and a pistol.
“He came here to kill me,” said the man, who hid with his wife and called the police.
“He wasn’t killing enemies, he was killing his friends,” he said.
“He was trying to beat down our door. It was beyond terrifying.”
Police said Wortman, still posing as a policeman, later stopped a vehicle near Debert and shot the occupants.
Constable Heidi Stevenson, a 23-year veteran of the force and a married mother-of-two, died at the scene.
A male officer was taken to hospital with non-life-threatening wounds.
“A monster murdered my mother today,” Darcy Dobson wrote in a Facebook post about victim Heather O’Brien, a nurse in Truro.
“At 9.59am (on Sunday) she sent her last text message to our family group chat. By 10.15 she was gone. She drove down the same street in the same town she drives through every single day. She was kind. She was beautiful. She didn’t deserve any of this.”
An RCMP tactical team, a dog unit and officers from other police agencies eventually caught up with Wortman — who had swapped cars — at a gas station in Enfield, near Halifax airport.
Leather said the gunman exchanged fire with police, who “were involved in terminating the threat.”
He said police would be investigating if there was any connection to the coronavirus, which forced the closure of all non-essential businesses.
“That certainly is an aspect that we will look at, we’ll examine, but we have not yet determined if there is any link to the Covid-19 crisis,” he said.
Media reports said the shooter was a denturist with clinics in Halifax and Dartmouth that were closed as part of the pandemic lockdown.
Wortman was also reportedly obsessed with policing, having refurbished several old squad cars, and struggled with alcoholism.
“He was one of those freaky guys, he was really into police memorabilia,” Nathan Staples, who once sought to buy one of the vehicles, told the Globe and Mail, describing Wortman’s home as a “shrine” to the RCMP.
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