TORONTO — RCMP say at least 18 people, including one of their veteran officers, are the victims of a mass killing in Nova Scotia, making it the worst in Canadian history.
But police warn the death toll could rise as investigators unravel the extent of the suspect’s violent path across the province Saturday night and into Sunday.
The suspect, who at one point in his rampage wore a police uniform and drove a car made to look like an RCMP cruiser, is also dead following the incident, bringing the death count to 19.
It is known that he shot some of his victims.
In a news conference in Dartmouth, N.S. on Sunday, investigators related the enormity of the incident.
“Today is a devastating day for Nova Scotia and it will remain etched in the minds of many for years to come,” said commanding RCMP officer Lee Bergerman.
“What has unfolded overnight and into this morning is incomprehensible and many families are experiencing the loss of a loved one.”
Police confirmed that Const. Heidi Stevenson, a 23-year veteran of the Nova Scotia RCMP, died Sunday morning while responding to the active shooter incident.
“Heidi answered the call of duty and lost her life while protecting those she served,” said Bergerman. “Two children have lost their mother and a husband has lost his wife. Parents have lost their daughter and countless others lost an incredible friend and colleague.”
A male RCMP officer was also taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. His identity has not been released.
“He and his family will be supported and we will be alongside him as he begins his road to recovery,” said Bergerman.
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.”
The death toll surpasses that of the 14 victims killed in the 1989 Polytechnique massacre in Montreal.
But police are warning their investigation could lead to finding more victims because the suspect travelled across the province in a prolonged attack that appear to be “at least in part, very random in nature,” said RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather during a news conference Sunday evening.
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.”
SEVERAL PEOPLE FOUND DEAD AT PORTAPIQUE HOME
Leather said police first responded to a residence in Portapique, N.S. late Saturday evening after receiving several 911 calls about an active shooter.
When officers arrived, Leather said they found “several casualties” inside and outside of the home.
“This was a very quickly evolving situation and a chaotic scene,” said Leather, the criminal operations officer for Nova Scotia RCMP.
Officers secured the area in Portapique, which is approximately 130 km north of Halifax and 40 km west of Truro, and started searching for the suspect, but they were unable to locate him. Shaken residents of the rural area, already in lockdown because of the pandemic, were told to lock their doors and stay inside.
Leather said the search for the suspect led to several sites in the area, including structures that were on fire.
“The search continued overnight and into the morning,” said Leather. “This morning we actively sought out the suspect through multiple communities throughout Nova Scotia.”
Police provided updates on Twitter overnight and into Sunday morning as they tracked the suspect across the province. Police confirmed that they were responding to an “active shooter situation,” and asked residents to remain in their homes with their doors locked.
They also revealed that the suspect may have been dressed as an RCMP officer in a lookalike RCMP vehicle.
Investigators first released the suspect’s identity before 9 a.m. Sunday. They said 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman was considered armed and dangerous and warned that he should not be approached.
SUSPECT TRAVELLED IN VEHICLE RESEMBLING RCMP CRUISER
Police said that, at one point, the suspect was driving what appeared to be an RCMP vehicle and wearing an RCMP uniform — though he was not an RCMP officer.
Leather said the fact that Wortman had an RCMP uniform and a vehicle resembling a police cruiser indicates that the incident may have been planned.
“That’s an important element of the investigation,” said Leather. “The fact that this individual had a police car and a uniform at his disposal certainly speaks to it not being a random act.”
They later said he was driving a silver Chevrolet Tracker.
Police continued to track Wortman across the province, warning the public about sightings in Glenholme, Debert, Brookfield and Milford.
VICTIMS WERE ‘SCATTERED ACROSS THE PROVINCE’
Leather said the investigation involves “multiple crime scenes” and that there are victims “scattered across the province.”
“There are several locations across the province where persons have been killed.”
He said investigators believe the sole suspect is believed to be responsible for the killings.
“He alone moved across the northern part of the province and committed, it would appear, several homicides,” said Leather.
He didn’t specify where the crime scenes are located, saying the investigation is in the early stages. He also said it’s possible police could learn about additional crime scenes and victims in the coming days.
“Some of these crime scenes we’ve not even begun to process … it is an ongoing investigation that could reveal additional details in the coming days,” said Leather.
“The investigation continues into areas that we’ve not yet explored across the province.”
In Shubenacadie, N.S., there were several burned-out vehicles, which appeared to be police cruisers, along the highway. Witnesses also reported hearing between seven and 10 gunshots.
“I hear the shots and I look out and … there’s a guy running back-and-forth up beside the, what looks to be a police vehicle,” recalled one witness at the scene. “Then after a short bit I saw fire.”
Leather confirmed that Wortman did exchange gunfire with police at one point during the chase, but wouldn’t say where.
SUSPECT SHOT AND KILLED IN ENFIELD
Officers eventually tracked Wortman to the Irving gas station and Big Stop restaurant in Enfield, N.S., about 90 kilometres away from Portapique, where he was shot and killed late Sunday morning.
Leather wouldn’t confirm that Wortman was shot by police, but he did say “officers were involved in terminating the threat.”
He also confirmed that Nova Scotia’s Serious Incident Response Team — which investigates serious incidents involving police — is investigating the man’s death.
Witnesses heard gunshots, saw body on the ground
A truck driver from Ontario told CTV News he had stopped at the Irving for a shower and breakfast when he heard an employee shouting.
“She goes, ‘Oh my God, lock the doors, he’s here! And I peek out of the window and I saw some RCMP vehicles and there was four or five uniforms with guns,” said Tom Nurani.
Witnesses told CTV News they saw RCMP vehicles on scene, heard multiple gunshots, and saw a body on the ground.
“All I could hear was gunshots and my wife, I thought I was going to call 911, because she was going into panic, it scared her so bad,” said Glen Hines, who was driving by the Irving when he saw the Emergency Response Team arrive.
“There was multiple, like probably between five or 10 (gunshots). It was steady,” recalled Deon Wells, who lives nearby.
The Nova Scotia Teachers Union issued a statement Sunday that said a teacher at Debert Elementary, Lisa McCully, was among the dead.
She was known by colleagues and students “not only as a passionate teacher but as a shining love in their lives.”
The statement, signed by president Paul Wozney, also said that Dean Stevenson, husband to the RCMP officer who was killed, teaches at Cole Harbour District High School.
“We know that there are many others who died last night whose families are struggling to process what has happened,” Wozney wrote. “Their lives are no less precious. They are our neighbours and friends. Their children are our students. We hurt with you all too.”
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. Portapique’s population numbers about 100 in the summer months, but swells to about 250 during summer cottage season.
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. “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.”
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.
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.
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.
With files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter, Michael Tutton and Jim Bronskill.
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