Last weekend’s frenzy of shooting and arson in Nova Scotia began after the killer “significantly” assaulted a woman with whom he’d been in a relationship—an incident police say could have spurred the deadly frenzy. While the woman was able to escape and hide in the nearby woods overnight, the shooter spent more than 13 hours terrorizing six communities, leaving 22 people dead.
On Friday morning, RCMP released a detailed timeline of events, revealing there was an approximately seven-hour gap during which they lost track of the gunman, and that they are still looking for information about what happened during that time.
RCMP first responded to reports of gunshots at a home in Portapique, N.S. at 10:26 p.m. local time on Saturday night, said Supt. Darren Campbell, support services officer for the RCMP in Nova Scotia. After assaulting the woman in Portapique, the killer, Gabriel Wortman, then set off on what is understood to be the worst mass murder in Canadian history.
“It was a significant incident, it was a significant assault, and this female did manage to escape and that could very well have been the catalyst to start the chain of events,” Campbell told reporters in the Mounties’ most comprehensive and specific briefing to date on the horrific episode. “However, we’re not excluding the possibility that there was any premeditated planning.”
That woman became a key witness for the RCMP, letting them know at about 6:30 a.m. on Sunday that the suspect had a replica RCMP cruiser and was dressed as an officer.
“That was an advantage that the suspect had on the police, that he had on the public, that he had on every person he encountered through the course of his rampage,” said Campbell.
While there are still many unanswered questions, RCMP officials divulged previously unknown details about the shooting, and answered outstanding concerns about their handling of the crisis—including their decision to rely on social media to spread warnings about the killer. The force has faced criticism for not employing a provincial text alert to let residents know what was happening. Campbell says he recognizes the complaints.
“I empathize, and I hear the families of those victims,” Campbell said. “They have every right to ask those questions, they have every right to be angry. Public trust, [is] so important and it’s not something that is gained easily. It takes a lot of work, and it can be lost very easily.”
Officers knew that the shooter had three former police vehicles registered with licence plates. They found two such vehicles—so-called “police-package” Ford Tauruses—on fire at his residence in Portapique, and one parked at a residence in the Halifax Regional Municipality. But it was only after the suspect’s girlfriend tipped police off they learned of the existence of a fourth police-replica vehicle, Campbell said.
Still, it was another three hours before they used social media to let the public know the killer was thought to be driving an authentic-looking RCMP car and dressed in a police uniform. That delay arose partly from their confusion over the general area in which they thought Wortman to be, Campbell suggested.
They had set up a perimeter of about four square kilometres in the Portapique area. At the time, said Campbell, they did not believe Wortman had gotten beyond it. Overnight, they worked to track the suspect, while dealing with more than five structure and car fires in the Portapique area, including the suspect’s own home. Thirteen people were killed in the Portapique area, alone.
They now acknowledge he likely breached their perimeter: “[There was a vehicle] seen leaving through a field,” Campbell said in response to reporters questions. “That very well could have been the suspect leaving the area. That information, as I understand it, was not known at the time.”
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What is now known is that he ultimately travelled north to the Wentworth area, and at around 9:35 a.m. Sunday, killed two men and one woman while setting a house on fire. RCMP say they’re not sure what the suspect did in the more than seven-hour gap between the first incidents in Portapique, and when he next surfaced.
Not long after, he killed a woman out for a walk, leaving her by the roadside. He then travelled south to Debert at 10:08 a.m., where he used his replica RCMP cruiser to pull over a driver, and shot them. He repeated that, killing another driver in their vehicle, before continuing on.
Travelling south down Highway 224, the suspect found Constable Chad Morrison, who was waiting to meet Constable Heidi Stevenson. Believing the replica RCMP vehicle to be Stevenson, Morrison allowed it to pull up next to him—only to have the gunman open fire.
Morrison was injured, but was able to drive away, and radioed for other officers. That’s when Stevenson saw the gunman driving the replica car on Highway 2. She crashed her cruiser head on with it, but Wortman escaped his car to shoot and kill Stevenson, before taking her weapons and bullet magazines and continuing on his spree. He killed a passer-by who had stopped to help and drove off in that person’s SUV.
He drove on down Highway 224, past Shubenacadie, to the home of woman he knew, Gina Goulet, whom he killed. At her home, RCMP said, he switched out of his police uniform, leaving the pieces behind and taking her car, RCMP said.
Wortman was seen with three other weapons, a handgun and long guns, though RCMP have said they don’t believe he had a firearms licence. “We’ve been able to trace one of those weapons back to Canada,” said Campbell. RCMP believe the other two guns were obtained in the United States. How the suspect brought them into Canada is part of the ongoing investigation.
The onslaught ended at 11:26 a.m. Sunday, when the suspect was shot dead by officers who encountered him at a gas station in Enfield. In total, the gunman travelled more than 130 kilometres, and left 16 crime scenes in his wake.