22 killed in deadliest shooting rampage in Canadian history
A gunman disguised as a police officer shot people in their homes and set fires in a rampage across the Canadian province of Nova Scotia that killed 22 people on Saturday and Sunday, 18 and 19 April 2020, the deadliest such attack in the country’s history. Officials said on Sunday the suspected shooter was also dead. A police officer was among those killed. Several bodies were found inside and outside one home in the small, rural town of Portapique, about 60 miles (100 kilometres) north of Halifax, what police called the first scene. Bodies were also found at other locations. The assault began late on Saturday and authorities believe the shooter may have targeted his first victims but then began attacking randomly. Overnight, police began advising residents of the town, already on lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, to lock their doors and stay in their basements. Several homes in the area were set on fire as well. Police identified the man believed to be the shooter as Gabriel Wortman, aged 51, who was thought to live part-time in Portapique. Authorities said he wore a police uniform at one point and made his car look like a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) cruiser. There are 16 crime scenes spread over the northern half of Nova Scotia. A total of five structures were set on fire, though the exact sequence of events remains unclear.
Police first announced that they had arrested Wortman at a gas station in Enfield, outside Halifax but later said he had died. It was not clear how and they did not explain further. “This is one of the most senseless acts of violence in our province’s history,” said Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil.
RCMP spokesman Daniel Brien confirmed that 22 people had been killed in addition to the suspect. The dead officer was identified as Constable Heidi Stevenson, a mother of two and a 23-year veteran of the force. Another officer was also injured.
Nova Scotia’s police watchdog is investigating why two uniformed officers were shooting in the direction of a fire hall in Onslow being used as a place of refuge the morning of the shooting rampage. In a statement, Nova Scotia Serious Incident Response Team (SiRT) interim director Pat Curran said the team is investigating the discharge of firearms by two RCMP officers near the Onslow-Belmont Fire Hall about 10h30 on Sunday morning. “At this point we don’t what they were shooting at,” Curran said. “We do know that the shooter was not in that area at that time.”
The Onslow Belmont Fire Hall is located about 25 kilometres east of Portapique, Nova Scotia, where a gunman began his deadly rampage that spanned over 12 hours and killed at least 22 people. In a Facebook post, the Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade confirmed its building sustained “considerable damage” as a result of the situation. It also took one of the fire station’s trucks out of service.
“The hall was used to provide a place where residents could come take a break, register and get hotel and Red Cross information,” the fire brigade said in the post. The brigade said there was an RCMP officer and cruiser staged on its property to assist with evacuation registration.
They said multiple people were at the fire hall when the shots rang out. “Our video surveillance does not capture the shooters but does show two people resembling RCMP officers enter our property, one to the front and one to the rear,” the Facebook post said. “One of these people enters our hall at the front but no one sheltered inside the hall spoke with the people, person resembling the RCMP officer so we cannot confirm why they were there.” The statement, which has since been deleted, added that no one identified themselves as RCMP officers. “They left our property shortly after the gunfire,” the post concluded. “We have since been contacted by SiRT and are cooperating with their ongoing investigation. Fortunately, no one was physically injured.”
Mass shootings are relatively rare in Canada. The country overhauled its gun-control laws after gunman Marc Lepine killed 14 women and himself at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique College in 1989. Before this weekend’s rampage, that had been the country’s worst. It is now illegal to possess an unregistered handgun or any kind of rapid-fire weapon in Canada. The country also requires training, a personal risk assessment, two references, spousal notification and criminal record checks to purchase a weapon. “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,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a written news release.
While they believe the attack did not begin as random, police did not say what the initial motive was. RCMP Chief Superintendent Chris Leather said many of the victims did not know the shooter. “That fact that this individual had a uniform and a police car at his disposal certainly speaks to it not being a random act,” Leather said. He added that police believe he acted alone. Leather said they would investigate whether the attack had anything to do with the coronavirus pandemic but no link has been found thus far. At one point, there was an exchange of gunfire between the suspect and police, he said.
Late on Sunday morning, there were half a dozen police vehicles at the scene of the gas station where the suspect died. Yellow police tape surrounded the gas pumps and a large silver-coloured SUV was being investigated. Corporal Lisa Croteau, a spokeswoman with the provincial force, said police received a call about “a person with firearms” late on Saturday night and the investigation “evolved into an active shooting investigation.”
Nearly 12 hours after police received their first 911 call, the murder spree came to an end at a fuel station outside the town of Enfield, more than 50 miles from where the first victims were found. Jonathan Heffernan, a fire fighter at the Halifax international airport, had pulled in to refill his truck. Thanks to the coronavirus lockdown, the station, usually bustling on a Sunday morning, was largely empty but the quiet was soon punctured by an exchange of gunfire.
“I had no idea what was going on,” Heffernan said. “A guy was running around the corner of the building. He yelled to me that someone was shooting. We both hid behind my truck. We still had no idea what was happening. “I’ve been a fire fighter for 14 years. Absolutely the most terrified I have ever been.” The two hid behind Heffernan’s truck as heavily armed police swarmed the area and helicopters circled overhead. Ten minutes later, the two men were told they could safely come out of hiding. It wasn’t until later that Heffernan realised that he knew one of the victims: Tom Bagley, a volunteer fire fighter whose generosity and unflinching kindness were praised by friends and colleagues. “Learning that a former member of our fire family was also killed just added to the emotion,” said Heffernan.
Christine Mills, a resident of the area, said it had been a frightening night for the small town, with armed officers patrolling the streets. In the morning, helicopters flew overhead searching for the suspect. “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 lawmaker who represents the Portapique area in the Municipality of Colchester, said the quiet community has been shaken. “This is just an absolutely wonderful, peaceful quiet community and the idea that this could happen in our community is unbelievable,” Taggart said.
Mills also said that Wortman was known locally as someone who divided his time between a residence in Halifax and a residence in Portapique.
Sources: NTD, PBS, The Guardian, Canada’s National Observer and CBS News