At least 16 people are dead, including an RCMP officer, after a rampage in rural Nova Scotia that is the worst mass shooting in Canadian history.
Also dead is the shooter, 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman, who was killed by police around noon on Sunday.
The RCMP have identified the slain officer as Constable Heidi Stevenson, a 23-year member of the force.
“Today is a devastating day for Nova Scotia, and it will remain etched in the minds of many in the years to come,” said Nova Scotia RCMP Commanding Officer Lee Bergerman on Sunday. “What has unfolded overnight and into this morning is incomprehensible.”
She said the impact of the incident would “extend from one side of the province to the other.”
The number of victims in the rampage surpasses the shooting at École Polytechnique that killed 14 and injured 14 others in 1989.
The first gunshots were fired late Saturday night, in the tiny beach village of Portapique, about 40 kilometres west of Truro. The last shots came 14 hours later and about 90 kilometres away, in the parking lot of an Irving Big Stop gas station in the community of Enfield.
In the tense and devastating hours that passed between, people both connected and unconnected to the shooter were killed in a rampage that left the province littered with crime scenes.
Mr. Wortman, the man who has been identified by police as the killer, was a denturist from Dartmouth.
Among the victims that have been identified include Lisa McCully, a teacher.
“This is so hard to write but many of you will want to know. Our hearts are broken today as we attempt to accept the loss of my sister, Lisa McCully, who was one of the victims of the mass shooting in Portapique last night,” her sister, Jenny Kierstead wrote on Facebook. “Our condolences go out to the other family members who are affected by this tragedy.”
Constable Stevenson, who was from Nova Scotia, had two children, age 10 and 13. She previously worked as a media spokesperson for the province.
“Heidi answered the call of duty, and lost her life while protecting those she served,” Commanding Officer Bergerman said.
The series of events began at about 10 p.m. on Saturday night, when RCMP began receiving multiple calls about shots being fired at a home in Portapique, a quiet beach community of about 100 people where the suspect owned two large properties.
Chief Superintendent Chris Leather said RCMP officers arrived to find “several casualties” inside and outside the home, but did not find the suspect, who was later identified as Mr. Wortman.
At 11:32 p.m., RCMP tweeted that officers were responding to a firearms complaint in the area, and advised residents to remain inside with the doors locked. While officers descended on the scene, a series of fires broke out around the community, and later, at homes about 40 kilometres north.
“This was a very quickly evolving situation and a chaotic scene,” Chief Supt. Leather said.
Neighbours told The Globe that Mr. Wortman set fire to his home and several buildings on the property, and shot people when they ran out of their homes.
After the initial scene, Chief Supt. Leather says police secured the area, while multiple police units responded, including specialized tactical teams, police dog units and additional support from other police agencies, such as the Halifax Regional Police Service.
Christine Mills, who has lived in Portapique for 25 years, said she awoke in the middle of the night and saw two vehicles on a nearby road leading to the beach, and later learned from her sister the police were responding to an active shooter.
“The RCMP were here all through the night,” she said. “They had their rifles out all through the morning.”
RCMP continued pursuing Mr. Wortman for hours, following a series of crime scenes that Chief Supt. Leather says were “scattered across the province,” and which police are still working to piece together.
“It’s going to be a while before all these scenes are processed properly,” she said.
By Sunday morning, RCMP had announced that there was an active shooter on the loose, advising people to stay inside and call police if they saw anyone in their property. They soon identified the suspect publicly as Mr. Wortman, warning the public that there were already “multiple victims” and that Mr. Wortman should be considered armed and dangerous.
At 10:17 a.m., RCMP announced that Mr. Wortman might be dressed in an RCMP uniform, and driving a copy of an RCMP cruiser.
Neighbours say Mr. Wortman owned a successful denture clinic in Dartmouth, and had a strong interest in RCMP and RCMP memorabilia. They said Mr. Wortman was well-off but appeared to them to struggle with alcohol, and that his business had been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chief Supt. Leather said the role the current pandemic crisis had, if any, in the rampage will be examined during the investigation. He said he is not aware of Mr. Wortman having a history of violence, or extremist political views, and that there did not appear to be any commonality to the victims. RCMP say some of the victims do not appear to have been known to Mr. Wortman.
“It is too early to tell what the motivation was,” he said. “It appears to be, at least in part, very random in nature.”
An acquaintance of Mr. Wortman, who owns an excavating company down the road from the Hidden Hilltop Family Campground in Glenholme, about 20 kilometres away from Portapique, says Mr. Wortman drove up to his house in a police cruiser Sunday morning, dressed in a full police uniform and vest, and was clutching a rifle and a pistol, and pounding on the door.
“He came here to kill me,” the man said. “There’s no question about that.”
The man said he considered Mr. Wortman a friendly acquaintance, and that the pair had bonded over a love of motorcycles the previous summer, but hadn’t spoken in ten months. The man said he called police, and he and his wife hid until the shooter left.
“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 sources told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Wortman, still posing as an officer, stopped a vehicle on a rural road outside the town of Debert and shot the occupants. The Globe is not identifying the names of the sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The mock police car was then abandoned at some point Sunday morning, and police then began looking for a small silver Chevrolet SUV. Witnesses in Shubenacadie reported seeing two burning police vehicles near Highway 102, one of the province’s main arteries. Witnesses told The Globe that Constable Stevenson was killed at that scene, and a second officer was injured. RCMP have described that officer’s injuries as non-life-threatening.
Paula Hanrahan says she was on her way home Sunday around lunchtime when she saw police cars blocking her road in Enfield, and noticed more than a dozen police officers – some in plainclothes, some in green uniforms – clustered in the Irving Big Stop gas station. She says one officer was standing on top of an SUV, with his rifle pointed.
She says the officers yelled for her to move, and she realized the scene was connected to the shootings she’d heard about on the news.
“It’s just such a tragedy,” she said.
Mr. Wortman was killed by RCMP at the scene.
RCMP Chief Supt. Leather says the Serious Incident Response Team will be investigating the circumstances of Mr. Wortman’s death, as RCMP were involved in “terminating the threat.” Chief Supt. Leather says Mr. Wortman is believed to have been the only suspect in the killings, and the rampage is “believed to be one person, moving along across the province and committed several homicides.”
Names of the victims were still emerging late Sunday, and in some cases, people were still waiting to find out about their loved ones in Portapique.
Jon Farrington posted a picture of his parents, Dawn and Frank Madsen, on Facebook, “This is my parents.. they live on the street of where the mass shootings took place today in Portapique Nova Scotia. Our family has not heard from them as the phones go right to answering machines right away which is not normal! If any of my friends know anyone or have families in that area please share as we are looking for answers. We pray they are ok and just don’t have cell service.”
He later added that his parent’s house had been burned down, and people began writing condolences.
Commissioner Lucki said officers are also working “feverishly” to contact the next of kin of the victims.
She said she is not aware of any kind of note or explanation, for the violence. She could not confirm the identities of any of the victims, including how many of them Mr. Wortman may have known personally.
“There’s just so many victims right now, and it’s difficult to say,” she said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau began his daily news conference by touching on the shooting in Portapique, and later released a statement saying he was saddened by the senseless violence, and the loss of Constable Stevenson.
“Our hearts go out to the people who have lost loved ones, and to the RCMP family mourning a fallen officer…,” the statement read.
“As a country, in moments like these, we come together to support one another. Together we will mourn with the families of the victims, and help them get through this difficult time.”
GREG MERCER, LINDSAY JONES,
JANA G. PRUDEN, LAURA STONE
AND MOLLY HAYES, HALIFAX
The Globe and Mail, April 19, 2020