Canadians on Monday mourned the shocking rampage that left at least 18 dead in rural communities across Nova Scotia, after a gunman disguised as a police officer opened fire on people hunkered down in their homes, setting houses ablaze in the deadliest mass shooting in the country’s history.
Officials said the suspect, identified as 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman, also died in the weekend attack. Police did not provide a motive for the killings.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police Chief Superintendent Chris Leather told a news conference Monday that police expect there to be more victims once they are able to comb through all the crime scenes, some of which were left in smoldering ruins. He said some of the victims knew Wortman and some didn’t.
Leather said police teams were spread out at 16 crime scenes in central and northern Nova Scotia.
“We’re relatively confident we’ve identified all the crime scenes. However we have unable to fully examine all the crime scenes,” Leather said. “We have had five structure fires, most of those being residences, and we believe there may be victims still within the remains of those homes which burnt to the ground.”
The dead included a policewoman. Another officer was wounded by gunfire and was recovering at home, Leather said.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted how close-knit Nova Scotia is.
“The vast majority of Nova Scotians will have a direct link with one or more of the victims. The entire province and country is grieving right now as we come to grips with something that is unimaginable,” Trudeau told an earlier news conference.
“The pandemic will prevent us from mourning together in person, but a vigil will be held virtually to celebrate the lives of the victims,” Trudeau said, adding it would take place Friday night through a Facebook group.
Trudeau asked the media to avoid mentioning the name of the assailant or showing his picture.
“Do not give this person the gift of infamy,” he said.
The rampage began late Saturday in the rural town of Portapique, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Halifax, where police told residents overnight to lock their doors and stay in their basements. The town, like all of Canada, had been adhering to government advice to remain at home because of the coronavirus pandemic and most of the victims were inside their homes when the attack began.
Several bodies were later found inside and outside one house on Portapique Beach Road, the street where the suspect lived, authorities said.
Bodies were also found at several other locations within about a 50-kilometer (30-mile) area from the neighborhood where the shootings began, and authorities believe the shooter may have targeted his first victims but then began attacking randomly. At least four white forensic vans were seen Monday morning entering the neighborhood where the shootings began.
Authorities said the suspected gunman wore a police uniform at one point and made his car look like a Royal Canadian Mounted Police cruiser.
“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, adding that authorities believe he acted alone.
According to his high school yearbook, Wortman long had a fascination with the Mounties.“Gabe’s future may including being an RCMP officer,” the yearbook profile said.
The dead officer was identified as Constable Heidi Stevenson, a mother of two and a 23-year veteran of the force.
Also among the dead was school teacher Lisa McCully, who worked at a local elementary school. Nova Scotia Teachers Union President Paul Wozney said. “Our hearts are broken along with those of her colleagues and students at Debert Elementary,” he said.
Two health care workers at local nursing homes were also among those killed, according to Von Canada, a long term health care company, which identified them as Heather O’Brien, a licensed practical nurse, and Kristen Beaton, a continuing care assistant.
Wortman, who owned a denture practice in the city of Dartmouth, near Halifax, lived part-time in Portapique, according to residents of the town.
Police initially said Wortman had been arrested Sunday at a gas station in Enfield, outside Halifax, but later said he had died. It was not clear how, and they did not provide further details, although one police official said that there was an exchange of gunfire between the suspect and police at one point.
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. He said he didn’t know Wortman well, but spoke to him a few times when he phoned about municipal issues and described knowing Wortman’s “lovely big home” on Portapique Beach Road.
Wortman is listed as a denturist — a person who makes dentures — in the city of Dartmouth, near Halifax, according to the Denturist Society of Nova Scotia website. Atlantic Denture Clinic, the practice Wortman owned, was closed for the past month because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Leather, the police superintendent, said authorities were investigating whether the attack had anything to do with the coronavirus pandemic but no link has been found so far.
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 mass killing.
It is 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.
A van attack two years ago in Toronto left 10 people dead and 16 wounded. The suspect, who drove his van on a busy Toronto sidewalk, said he carried out the attack in retribution for years of sexual rejection and ridicule by women and is awaiting trial.
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