Canada’s worst mass shooting last weekend, which claimed the lives of 22 victims and that of the gunman, may have been triggered by an argument between the gunman and his girlfriend, the country’s national police force said Friday.
Speaking at a press conference in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, on Canada’s Atlantic Coast, officials with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) provided a detailed account of the events that have shocked the country and have made international headlines.
“To call this a tragedy is an understatement,” RCMP Superintendent Darren Campbell, adding that three people were also injured during the rampage. “Some of those who lost their lives did so while trying to save others. They are heroes.”
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Campbell confirmed that the events that precipitated the deadly shooting spree and a series of arsons began in the late evening of April 18 when the gunman assaulted a woman he was in a relationship with “over a course of a period of time.”
Police have identified the gunman as Gabriel Wortman, a 51-year-old denturist with a penchant for rebuilding replica police cruisers and collecting police uniforms and other police paraphernalia.
The woman, who police did not identify due to privacy concerns, managed to escape Wortman and hid in the woods behind her house in Portapique, a small seaside town with fewer than 100 permanent residents, 130 kilometres north of provincial capital of Halifax.
“That could very well have been the catalyst to start the chain of events, however, we’re not going to discount any possibility of any pre-planning at this time,” Campbell said.
Police have not found any lists of victims prepared by Wortman and some of his victims were complete strangers, Campbell said.
Police received the first 911 call about shots fired in Portapique at 10:26 p.m., Campbell said.
When officers arrived at the scene, they encountered one of the injured survivors who told them he was shot at from a passing vehicle. Several houses were already on fire, including Wortman’s own house and garage, as well as three cars in the driveway, two of which were replica police cruisers.
As they went house to house to clear and evacuate the area, police discovered several victims of the gunman on the road.
But it wasn’t until around 6:30 in the morning on Sunday, when Wortman’s girlfriend emerged from her hiding that police got a crucial tip from her.
“This included the fact that he was in possession of a fully marked and equipped replica vehicle and was wearing a police uniform,” Campbell said.
And Wortman had several firearms that included pistols and long guns, the woman told police.
Campbell said one of the Wortman’s guns was traced to Canada, while others are believed to have come from the U.S. Because the matter is under investigation, Campbell said he could not provide more details about the firearms and how Wortman obtained them.
The second cluster of victims was discovered more than 12 hours after RCMP officers arrived in Portapique, when police began receiving a second series of 911 calls in an area more than 60 kilometres away.
The investigation found that the gunman attended a residence on Hunter Rd. in the Glenholme area, where he killed two men and a woman and set residence on fire, Campbell said.
At least two of the victims here were known to the gunman.
Then Wortman travelled to a residence on Hwy 4 in Glenholme.
“He knocked on the door and awoke the residents. He was known to the occupants. They identified him to 911 call takers and said he was driving a police vehicle and carrying a long gun,” Campbell said.
“They didn’t answer the door and he left.”
Wortman continued southbound on Hwy 4 from Glenholme to the Wentworth area.
There he shot a woman who was out walking and continued south towards Debert.
At that point he encountered two people driving their vehicles.
“A witness described that he pulled over one of the vehicles and shot one of the occupants,” Campbell said. “He continued driving down the same road, encountered a second vehicle and shot and killed that female victim.”
During this second series of events, from the timing of the first call on Hunter Road to the last incident, Wortman had travelled a distance of about 44 kilometers, Cambell said.
The third cluster of shootings involved two RCMP officers and a civilian victim.
Cst. Chad Morrison and Cst. Heidi Stevenson were communicating over their police radio and had arranged to meet at the intersection of Hwy 2 and Hwy 224, Campbell said.
Morrison was waiting for Stevenson when what appeared to be a marked RCMP vehicle approached him. As they had prearranged to meet at that location, Morrison thought the vehicle was Stevenson driving up for the meet, Campbell said.
The approaching police vehicle was actually driven by Wortman.
“The gunman pulled up beside Cst. Morrison and immediately opened fire,” Campbell said. “Cst. Morrison received several gunshot wounds and began to retreat from the area, driving his vehicle away from the scene.”
He notified other officers and dispatch that he was shot and was seeking emergency medical attention, Campbell said.
During that time, Stevenson was nearby in that area, believed to be driving northbound on Hwy 2 while the gunman was travelling southbound on Hwy 2, he said.
“At that point, both vehicles collided head on. Cst. Heidi Stevenson engaged the gunman. The gunman took Cst. Stevenson’s life,” Campbell said.
He also took Stevenson’s gun and spare ammunition magazines, he added.
A passerby stopped and was also fatally shot by the gunman. Wortman then set on fire both Stevenson’s police car and his own replica police cruiser, which was no longer drivable.
He left the scene, driving south on Hwy 224 in the passerby’s car, which was described as a silver SUV, Campbell said.
Wortman drove south on Hwy 224 for a short distance and entered a home on the east side of Hwy 224. The house belonged to a woman that Wortman knew. He shot and killed her, Campbell said.
He then removed his police uniform and transferred his weapons to the woman’s car, which was a red Mazda 3.
From there Wortman drove south on HWY 224, coming to the Big Stop Irving in Enfield.
“While he was at the gas pumps, one of our tactical resources came into the gas station to refuel their vehicle,” Campbell said. “When the officer exited the vehicle, there was an encounter and the gunman was shot and killed by police at 11:26 a.m.”
Nova Scotia RCMP continue to ask for anyone who has information about any of these incidents to contact them, Campbell said.
“We are looking for photos, videos, and any other material that may help,” Campbell said. “No piece of information is too small, and if you have information we would like to hear from you.”