A man wearing a police uniform went on a shooting rampage in Nova Scotia province on Sunday, killing 16 people in the deadliest such attack in Canada in 30 years. Officials said the suspected shooter was also dead.
A police officer was among the dead. Several bodies were found inside and outside one home in the small, rural town of Portapique, about 55 miles north of Halifax — what police called the first scene. Bodies were also found at other locations.
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.
The suspect was identified as Gabriel Wortman, 51, who was thought to live part-time in Portapique. Authorities said he disguised himself as a police officer in uniform at one point and made his car look like a Royal Canadian Mounted Police cruiser. Authorities believe he may have targeted his first victims but then began attacking randomly.
Police first announced that they had arrested Wortman at a gas station in Enfield, outside Halifax, but later said he had died. It was unclear 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 16 people had been killed, as had the shooter. He said he could not rule out that the death toll could still rise. Already, that makes it one of the worst shootings in Canadian history.
Mass shootings are relatively rare in Canada. The country overhauled its gun-control laws after such a shooting in 1989, when gunman Marc Lepine killed 14 women and himself at a Montreal college, Ecole Polytechnique. Before this weekend’s rampage, that had been the country’s worst mass shooting.
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 statement.
While they believe the attack did not begin as a random one, police did not say what the initial motive was. RCMP Chief Supt. 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 Sunday morning, there were half a dozen police vehicles at the gas station where the suspect died. Yellow police tape surrounded the gas pumps, and a large silver-colored SUV was under investigation.
Cpl. Lisa Croteau, a spokeswoman with the provincial force, said police received a call about “a person with firearms” around 10:30 p.m. Saturday and the investigation “evolved into an active shooting investigation.”
“My heart goes out to everyone affected in what is a terrible situation,” Trudeau said.
Christine Mills, a resident of Portapique, said it was a frightening night for the small town, with armed officers patrolling the streets. In the morning, helicopters flew overhead searching for the shooter.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” Mills said, “because you don’t know if somebody has lost their mind and is going to beat in your front door.”
Tom Taggart, a lawmaker who represents the Portapique area in the municipality of Colchester, said the quiet community had 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 by phone from his home in Bass River.
A Gabriel Wortman is listed as a denturist — a dental professional who provides denture care — in Dartmouth, according to the Denturist Society of Nova Scotia website. A suspect photo issued by the RCMP matches video of a man being interviewed about dentures by CTV Atlantic in 2014.
Mills said Wortman was known locally as a denturist who divided his time between a residence in Halifax and a residence in Portapique.
Taggart said he didn’t know Wortman well but spoke to him a few times when he telephoned about municipal issues.
Taggart described knowing Wortman’s “lovely big home” on Portapique Beach Road. He said Wortman owned a few other properties.