PORTAPIQUE: RCMP say 17 people are dead, including one of their officers, after a man who at one point wore a police uniform and drove a mock-up cruiser went on a rampage across northern Nova Scotia in one of the deadliest killing sprees in Canadian history.
Police said Sunday night the suspected shooter, 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman, was killed after being intercepted by officers in Enfield, N.S.
Const. Heidi Stevenson, a 23-year member of the force and mother of two, was identified as the officer killed. A male officer suffered non-life threatening injuries.
“Our hearts are heavy with grief and sadness today as we have lost one of our own,” said Brian Sauve, president of the union representing RCMP officers.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki confirmed to The Canadian Press late Sunday that the death toll had risen to 16, plus the shooter, which surpasses the 14 victims killed in the 1989 Polytechnique massacre in Montreal.
RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather earlier told an evening news conference that “in excess of 10 people” had been killed.” Leather said it was hard to specify the exact number of victims, ”because as we’re standing here, the investigation continues into areas that we have not yet explored across the province.”
He said the killings appear to be, “at least in part, very random in nature.”
The first reports of an active shooter came from Portapique, a community that shaken residents described as a quiet place to live that attracts cottagers from Halifax in summer months.
Lee Bergerman, commanding officer for the RCMP in Nova Scotia, said the day’s events have left many families in mourning. “The impact of this incident will extend from one end of the province to the other,” she said.
The incident began with a firearms complaint late Saturday night from Portapique, about 40 kilometres west of Truro, where frightened residents witnessed police filling the streets and were advised to lock their homes and stay in their basements.
Leather confirmed that officers responded to a multiple 911 calls Saturday night. Upon arrival, they found “several casualties” inside and outside a Portapique residence, he said, but they could not locate the suspect. He added there were “multiple sites in the area including structures that were on fire.”
By late Sunday morning, the suspect was stopped about 90 kilometres away in Enfield, a scene that was surrounded by a half dozen police vehicles. Yellow police tape surrounded the gas pumps, and a large silver-coloured SUV was being investigated by police.
A body was seen lying at the gas station. Police would not comment on whether it was Wortman.
Premier Stephen McNeil offered condolences to “families of the victims” and called the incident “one of the most senseless acts of violence in our province’s history.”
“I never imagined when I went to bed last night that I would wake up to the horrific news that an active shooter was on the loose in Nova Scotia,” McNeil said in Halifax.
“Words cannot console the families affected by what has transpired over the last 24 hours.”
Through the morning, police updates about the active shooter investigation included warnings that Wortman was considered dangerous and may have been dressed as an RCMP officer in a lookalike RCMP vehicle.
Leather said this detail would be an important part of the investigation.
“The fact that this individual had a uniform and a police car at his disposal certainly speaks to it not being a random act,” he said.
A Gabriel Wortman is listed as a denturist in Dartmouth, according to the Denturist Society of Nova Scotia website. A suspect photo issued by the RCMP matches video footage of a man being interviewed about dentures by CTV Atlantic in 2014. Some Portapique residents who spoke with the The Canadian Press said they knew him in passing as a part-time resident who divided time between the Halifax area and his properties in the community.
David George Crockett, who lives a three-minute drive from Portapique Beach Road, the area where the first 911 calls originated, said Wortman once fixed his teeth at his home in Portapique.
“I’m very surprised,” Crockett said in a brief interview outside his rural home as the sun was setting. “I never thought he would do something like that.”
“From what I knew of him, he was quiet, gentle and very easy to talk to …. He was very nice. He kidded around a little bit. He seemed normal, not like someone who would do something like this.”
Crockett said the horrific news that more than 10 people had been killed left him feeling overwhelmed, given the stress he and his family was already feeling because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s very depressing to see someone do something like this.”
A little farther down the rural road, another neighbour said he and Wortman were friends until the two had a falling out over a piece of nearby property.
The neighbour, who declined to give his name, said Wortman had burned an old shed that contained some property that belonged to the neighbour. The man said he was too overcome with emotion to say more about his relationship with Wortman or what might have motivated his rampage.
Lifelong Portapique resident Peter Hodge, 65, woke up at 1:30 a.m. and saw lights so bright, he thought it was a fire. He then realized that the bright lights were from “probably upwards of 14 police cars in the community.”
Christine Mills, another resident, said it had been a frightening night for the community, which was suddenly filled with armed officers patrolling the streets. In the morning, helicopters flew overhead searching for the suspect.
She said she was fearful the shooter might have gone through the woods and attempted to enter her home.
“It’s nerve-wracking because you don’t know if somebody has lost their mind and is going to beat in your front door,” she said.
Tom Taggart, a councillor who represents the Portapique area in the Municipality of Colchester, said the quiet community is in shock.
“This is just an absolutely wonderful, peaceful quiet community, and the idea that this could happen in our community is unbelievable,” Taggart said by phone from his home in Bass River, about three kilometres away from Portapique.
Mills said police officers walked through the community with their guns drawn through the night, and helicopters had been flying over homes on Sunday morning.
Taggart said he didn’t know Wortman well, but spoke to him a few times when he telephoned about municipal issues, and described knowing Wortman’s “lovely big home” on Portapique Beach Road.
Police publicly identified Wortman about nine hours after an initial tweet around midnight asking people to avoid the Portapique area and stay indoors as officers responded to a firearms complaint.
Cpl. Lisa Croteau, public information officer with the Nova Scotia force, said the police received a call about “a person with firearms” at around 10:30 p.m. on Saturday and the investigation “evolved into an active shooting investigation.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commented on the situation during his morning press conference focusing on the COVID-19 crisis.
“My heart goes out to everyone affected in what is a terrible situation,” he said. “I want to thank the police for their hard work and people for co-operating with authorities.”
With files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter, Michael Tutton and Jim Bronskill.
By Michael MacDonald
The Canadian Press