On 18 April, Gabriel Wortman assaulted his girlfriend who then fled into woods near their house in Portapique, Canada. What followed was 13 hours of terror as the 51-year-old denturist went on the rampage, leaving 22 people dead in the country’s worst mass shooting and a spate of arson attacks.
Prior to Wortman’s attack, the country’s worst mass shooting had been when Marc Lepine shot 14 women before committing suicide at the Ecole Polytechnique College, Montreal, in 1989. Lepine’s attack led to massive changes in the country’s gun control laws that regulate everything from having a gun in a casino to the type of license required to own a rifle.
Death Toll Rises
Initially, authorities said that Wortman, who wore a police officer’s uniform and had disguised his car as a police vehicle, had shot and killed 18 people. However, the death toll rose after police found human remains in some of the homes that the killer had set ablaze.
Wortman did not limit himself to Portapique, where he killed 13 people. He led police on a chase across Nova Scotia, going on to kill four people in Wentworth, two in Debert, and three in Shubenacadie. According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Wortman knew some of his victims and targeted them deliberately, while others appear to have been random. Among the dead were a firefighter, a nurse, a police officer, and a teacher.
No Provincial Alert
While Wortman carried out his attacks, police warned residents in the Portapique neighbourhood to lock their doors and to go into their basements. Most people were already at home due to the shelter in place advisory relating to the current health crisis.
However, authorities did not extend that warning to the wider province. Resident David Matthews and his wife were out walking on the Sunday morning when they heard gunfire. They only realised something was wrong when, after returning home, they received phone calls from friends who warned them that the shooter was in their neighbourhood. Matthews told reporters that he believes the police warning should have gone out to the entire province.
Cheryl Maloney is another Shubenacadie resident whose life likely was spared by a message from her son. Maloney, who lives close to where Wortman killed Gina Goulet, is a regular walker.
Maloney would probably have been outdoors that morning if it had not been for her son’s message warning her to not leave her house because the killer, dressed as a police officer, was near her street. She also told reporters that she would have appreciated a provincial warning.
Angelic Grandparents Mourned
Justin Zahl is mourning his grandparents John Zahl and Elizabeth Joanne Thomas, whom he described as angelic, who are missing and presumed dead. According to reports, Zahl said he frantically tried to contact police for information about his grandparents after he saw images of their burn-out log cabin in Portapique. Their cars were parked outside the smouldering ruins.
The police confirmed that human remains had been recovered. However, they could not confirm that the remains were those of Zahl’s grandparents. According to Zahl, his grandparents were originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and had retired to Nova Scotia in 2017. He added that the couple had been like parents to him and his brother.
A Problematic Individual
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said that the police were not familiar with Wortman, and that they were still trying to determine what weapons he had used. The authorities also believe he acted alone, although it is unclear how he managed to obtain a police uniform.
According to RCMP superintendent Darren Campbell, Wortman was a problematic individual. He explained that the police had learned that several individuals had problems with Wortman in the past. He added that another sign of the killer’s troubled character was his assault of his girlfriend, which appears to have been the start of his rampage.
Campbell’s observations were confirmed by John Hudson, who knew Wortman for 18 years. He claimed to have seen Wortman acting in controlling, jealous ways toward his girlfriend. He also said that the denturist had threatened him, and that he had purchased used police vehicles on auction.
According to Hudson, Wortman locked his girlfriend out of their Portapique house after a drunken argument at a bonfire party. The denturist allegedly also had removed the tyres from her car to prevent her leaving. Hudson added that, when he tried to retrieve the woman’s clothing from the house, Wortman refused him entry and said that he had guns.