Thursday, 02 June, 2022

Nova Scotia shooting: ‘They had no idea the hell they were going to face’

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Victims of the Canada’s largest mass shooting

Over the span of 12 hours, a gunman posing as a police officer went on a rampage across the province of Nova Scotia that became the most deadly shooting in Canadian history. Here’s what people swept up in the tragedy recall.

Dan Jenkins had plans to see his daughter Alanna on Sunday, but a text from a friend asking him if he’d spoken to her that morning alarmed him.

When she didn’t pick up the phone, he decided to hop in his car and check on her, driving an hour to her place in Glenholme. But when he got to the town, he was turned back by an RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) blockade. Meanwhile, his phone was being to be bombarded by text messages and calls from Alanna’s neighbours. There were fires, and possibly what sounded like an explosion.

He parked his car, and walked about a quarter-mile to some police vehicles, realising that something was very wrong. “I’m a dad. I’ve got to know where my little girl is,” he told them.

But it would be several days before he got confirmation that his daughter and her partner Sean McLeod had been killed by 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman, a denturist who had a clinic outside Halifax.

Their bodies were found in their home, which was completely burned to the ground, and coroners had to identify their remains. Their two Labrador retrievers also died, Mr Jenkins says. Later, Mr Jenkins would learn they were two of 22 victims, the largest mass shooting in Canadian history.

  • Virtual vigil for victims due to Covid-19
  • Death toll in Nova Scotia rises to 22

The victims included two frontline healthcare workers, an elementary school teacher and RCMP Constable Heidi Stevenson, a 23-year veteran of the RCMP and mother of two. All were adults, except for 17-year-old Emily Tuck, who was killed alongside her two parents.

The killings spanned the 12 hours it took police to chase Wortman from Glenholme all the way to Enfield, where he was shot and killed by police. With 16 different possible crime scenes across at least seven different towns in the province, the investigation involved over 25 different units within the RCMP as well as support from the Canadian Armed Forces.

The complexities of the case meant that it took several days to identify all the victims, and several more before the police could release a timeline, and there are still large gaps where Wortman’s whereabouts are unknown. All the while, Mr Jenkins was desperate to know what had happened to his daughter, but also afraid of what he might learn.

“There are things we want to find out and there are [other things] I don’t know if I want to find out,” Mr Jenkins told the BBC on Tuesday, before hearing the devastating news.

The carnage began on Saturday evening, in the seaside community of Portapique, about 50 km south of Glenholme. From there, police believe Wortman went on a rampage across the province before dying in a shoot-out with police.

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A photograph of Kristen Beaton at a memorial in Debert

Located on the Bay of Fundy, Portapique has a year-round population of just about 100 people, no sidewalks, no street lights, and is a popular spot for summer homes and weekenders looking for some relaxation. Local politician Tom Taggart says Portapique is “just a typical rural community” where people know their neighbours.

“These people woke up Saturday to sunshine, a spring day, in a beautiful, peaceful community,” he told the BBC. “They had no idea the hell they were going to face the next morning.”

Around 10:30pm, police got a report of gunshots in the area. But when they arrived, several bodies were found strewn across the lawns and along the road, and multiple homes were on fire. They also encountered a man who said he had been shot at from a passing police cruiser by a man in an RCMP uniform.

  • Police defend lack of emergency alert

Early into the investigation, police honed in on Wortman as a suspect. They heard that he had three replica police cruisers, both in Portapique and at his other residence in Halifax.

With Wortman’s own home on fire, they thought he may have committed suicide.

Believing it to be a limited crime scene, they cordoned off about a 2km-radius of Portapique, and told residents to stay indoors. Over the course of the night, they were able to locate all three vehicles, but were not able to find their suspect.

What they didn’t know is that there was a fourth vehicle – a detail that would haunt them in the days to come, as Wortman used the cover of the law to create confusion. Word of mouth travels fast in Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s smallest provinces with a population under one million, and news of the mayhem quickly spread.

Harry Sullivan, a reporter with the Saltwire Network based in Truro, wasn’t supposed to work that day. But the veteran journalist got in his car and headed to Portapique on Sunday morning. As he passed through the town of Debert, about halfway between his home and Portapique, he saw a police car driving “at a very high rate of speed with its red and blues flashing” in the opposite direction.

“I thought: Why are they going that way when the action is the other way?” he told the BBC.

As a journalist for over 40 years, Mr Sullivan says he’s “covered some pretty nasty stuff”, including the 1998 Swissair Flight 111 crash that killed all 229 passengers and crew. “I’ve never encountered anything like this,” he says.

Police are still trying to determine a motive, but they believe Wortman’s first victim was his girlfriend, who escaped after being assaulted by him sometime earlier on Saturday. Hiding in the woods overnight, she emerged around 6am Sunday morning after calling 911. She told police about the fourth car, and gave important details about what kinds of weapons Wortman may be carrying.

Nancy Hudson, who lived near Wortman in Portapique, told the National Post that Wortman was “very jovial” but that “he had another side”.

“He had an obsession with his girlfriend. Just being jealous about things with her. I think that’s where things got in the way,” she said. “She was a beautiful girl.”

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Police say they are searching the gunman’s properties

Wortman also appears to have had a longstanding interest in the RCMP, which is in charge of policing in the province. Several people have noted that Wortman told them that he liked to fix up decommissioned police vehicles, and a copy of his high school yearbook that has circulated on social media says “Gabe’s future may include being an RCMP officer”.

Believing to have located all of Wortman’s police replicas the night before, RCMP did not warn the public until 9:17 am Sunday that there was an active shooter impersonating a police officer.

Shortly after, RCMP began receiving calls about a shooter over 50km north of Portapique, in Glenholme. That is where Wortman is suspected of killing Alanna Jenkins and her partner Sean McCleod, as well as their neighbour Tom Bagley. Ms Jenkins and Mr McCleod were both correctional officers, and police say he knew two of those three victims.

Ms Jenkin’s father believes Mr Bagley had come over to check on the couple.

The suspect then went over to a friend’s home, dressed as a police officer and carrying a long gun. He banged on the door, but his friends did not let him in, and called the police instead. David Matthews says he was out walking with his wife near the highway in Wentworth near Glenholme around 9am when he nearly encountered Wortman himself.

“When we got halfway through the trail, I heard this pop. It was loud enough to be a shot. It wasn’t real close but it wasn’t real far,” he said. That pop, he now believes, was his neighbour, Lillian Hyslop, being shot. She had moved to the area just a few years ago with her husband.

They would often run into each other on walks, and Mr Matthews believes she was just getting her daily exercise. “She was out walking a day before,” he said. “I said be safe… you never think that that’s the end.”

In the hours between his killing spree in Glenholme and his final confrontation with police, Wortman was able to use the cover of his “very convincing” replica RCMP cruiser and authentic police uniform to cause even more destruction.

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Police tweeted that they believed a police car was being used by the gunman

“I’ve been a police officer for more than 30 years now, and I can’t imagine a more horrific set of circumstances than trying to search for someone who looks like you,” says Superintendent Darren Campbell, who was tasked with updating the media on Friday.

He says a witness saw someone who appeared to be an RCMP officer pull over a car in Debert, near Wentworth, and shoot the driver, before shooting another driver who passed by. These two victims were reportedly Heather O’Brien and Kristen Beaton, both frontline healthcare workers with the Victorian Order of Nurses who were out working with patients at the time of the attack.

Mrs Beaton’s husband told CTV News his wife was in the early stages of pregnancy, and they had watched reports of the shooting in Portapique on the news the night before.

“We woke up (Sunday) morning and we just assumed it was over,” Nick Beaton told CTV.

Wortman’s disguise would also lead to his tragic confrontation with Constable Heidi Stevenson and Constable Chad Morrison. As one of the many RCMP officers out on patrol that day, the two had agreed to meet up in Shubenacadie, about 50km south of Debert.

Const Morrison arrived at the meetup first, and when he saw another RCMP cruiser heading towards him, he assumed it was Const Stevenson. Instead, it was Wortman, who began firing his weapon. Wounded, Const. Morrison was able to drive away and escape, while Wortman headed north on the highway. That’s where he ran into Const Stevenson, who was driving south to meet Const Morrison.

Police say he crashed into Const Stevenson head-on, before shooting her and setting both their cars ablaze. Const Morrison has recovered from his injuries and is out of hospital. When a bystander, reportedly Halifax resident Joey Webber, stopped to help, Wortman shot him too, and stole his silver SUV.

About an hour after the showdown in Shubenacadie, and after killing one more victim, Wortman’s reign of terror would come to an end in a police shootout at a petrol station in Enfield, about 100km south from Portapique, where the crimes began. The tragedy has hit the province hard at a time when people are already under strain from coronavirus.

Restrictions on public gatherings mean that no mass vigil can be held, and funerals will be small.

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Much of the mourning is being done virtually, but there are also memorials springing up

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended a national online vigil on Friday evening, and locals are hoping to plan in-person memorials after the threat of the virus has passed. Mr Sullivan, the journalist who was called to the scene Sunday morning, says that since the shootings the entire community has rallied.

On sign posts and house windows, people have hung messages for the victims’ families reading “Nova Scotia strong” and “We will get over this”.

“While people are obviously hurting, we are also resilient and the overall mood that I am witnessing is one of pulling together to get through all this,” he says.

The support has not gone unnoticed by Mr Jenkins, whose daughter Alanna was killed. Seeing everybody’s window with a candle in it “tells you that you have a community that cares,” he says.

But knowing that his daughter Alanna was just one of many victims, and that his suffering is felt by “probably hundreds” of others is hard to bear.

“I wish it was just us grieving,” he says.

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