One Month After the N.S. Shooting, Anger and Outrage Prompt a Lawsuit and a Call for a Public Inquiry
The Canadian flag is lowered outside RCMP headquarters in Dartmouth, N.S., where Const. Heidi Stevenson worked on April 19. By 11 a.m. the next day, 22 people would lose their lives in one of Canada’s deadliest mass shootings. Photo: Tim Krochak/AFP via Getty Images
Four weeks, 22 caskets and urns, and hundreds of shattered lives.
Saturday marks a month since a cold-blooded killer gunned down 22 people in rural Nova Scotia at 17 crime scenes and burned down seven homes, some of them with victims inside.
As N.S. RCMP continue to piece together where 51-year-old Dartmouth denturist Gabriel Wortman got his firearms, how he passed himself off as one of their own and evaded them for almost 13 hours, the heart has been ripped out of Colchester County, where all but three victims died.
That’s where Wortman had an upscale log home in the seaside community of Portapique, home to about 100 people year-round, who live on a private road leading off rural Highway 2 toward the cliffs overlooking the mud flats of Minas Basin at the head of the Bay of Fundy.
As news reports mount, details about the murderous rampage are emerging, from the domestic assault that ignited the attacks to the friendly fire incident at the Onslow Belmont Fire Hall and the cold-blooded murders of innocent people.
The chaotic night began just before 10:30 p.m. on April 18, when RCMP got a 911 call about shots fired in Portapique and ended almost 13 hours later when a member of the RCMP tactical unit shot the killer to death nearly 90 kilometres away at the Irving Big Stop gas station in Enfield.
The RCMP behavioural analysis unit will conduct a “psychological autopsy” on the killer, to gather “insights into why he committed the acts of violence,” police said in a May 11 statement. “This includes an analysis of his personality, past behaviour and how he related to others.”
Early on, police were unsure of the shooter’s motive, but at an April 24 news conference, they admitted it could have been triggered by a “significant” domestic assault. After the argument at the party, the couple went back to Wortman’s home, where police said the killer assaulted his girlfriend and restrained her, before she escaped and hid in the woods until 6 a.m. the next day. It wasn’t until she called 911 that police discovered he was driving a replica RCMP car, wearing an RCMP uniform and had several weapons, including “pistols and long guns.”
They said he didn’t have a criminal record, but news outlets uncovered an assault charge from October 2001, where he pleaded guilty to beating a 15-year-old male outside his Dartmouth denture clinic on Portland Road. After completing nine months probation and paying a $50 victim fee, the denturist received a conditional discharge, which is why he had no record.
But the victim, using his first name, Matthew, described a violent, unprovoked assault that began when a “half-drunk” Wortman came out of his building, yelling that the teen was too close to his business, and started punching him in the head. The man, now 34, said he was waiting near a bus stop for a ride.
Another man came around the corner and joined Wortman, hitting the teen with a crowbar. “Then the two men stomped on my head and all over my body,” Matthew told Global News on April 21.
In addition, Wortman’s father told Halifax’s Frank Magazine he called police about 10 years ago after his son threatened to come to Moncton and kill his parents. The man said his son also beat him up badly on a family trip to Cuba, but he didn’t report it to police.
Portapique neighbour John Hudson told Canadian Press the gunman was extremely jealous of his long-term girlfriend, whom he locked out of the house about 10 years ago after an argument and, at one point, took the tires off her car so she couldn’t leave.
When Hudson tried to get her clothes from the house, Wortman refused to let him in. “If you come in my house, I’m just telling you, I’ve got guns in here,'” he told Hudson.
Seven Nova Scotia feminists, advocates and experts who want to end femicide and violence against women called for an public inquiry “with a feminist analysis.”
“This information is important,” their April 24 letter read. “It tells us that hatred for women fuelled this act of mass murder, much appeared pre-planned.”
That’s when another former neighbour, Brenda Forbes, called two Truro, N.S. nurses who signed the letter and who run the human-rights organization called Persons Against Non-State Torture.
She told Jeanne Sarson and Linda McDonald her stories about Wortman abusing his girlfriend, which Forbes first recounted to the Halifax Examiner. Shortly after meeting Wortman when he moved to Portapique around 2004, Forbes said she and her husband, George, who worked for the Canadian Forces, concluded he was “a psychopath.”
“They weren’t even in that house for a year when (Wortman’s partner) ran over to my house one day saying that (he) was beating her up and she was scared. She wanted to hide somewhere because he had blocked her car with his truck so she couldn’t get out. But she managed to get away from the house.”
Forbes told her there were services for women experiencing domestic violence, but the woman refused, saying her boyfriend would kill her.
Forbes told CBC’s As It Happens that Wortman was a big drinker would get violent when he was drunk. She heard about another incident in 2013 through one of Wortman’s relatives, who was a good friend of hers. He and two other men saw Wortman hold his girlfriend down on the ground, screaming at her as he choked her.
Forbes called the RCMP, who stopped by to interview her and asked if the three witnesses were willing to testify. That’s when she told them her neighbour had a stockpile of illegal guns, and both she and her husband had seen them.
After calling the relative and putting him on speaker phone with the Mountie, “I said… ‘would you be willing to talk to the RCMP about what happened with her and the illegal weapons that Gabriel has?” And he said, “no way, because he’s already told me he’ll kill me, because he’s already told me that he’s killed people in the United States.”
The RCMP told her the only way they could do anything was if the girlfriend reported the abuse, and Forbes knew the woman would never do that. “(He) had her under his thumb. And I mean, literally. If her family came over, he would be right beside her. So she wouldn’t say anything to them about what happened at all.”
When Forbes told the girlfriend that Wortman had other women over when she was working in the city, she confronted him, and that’s when things got scary.
The denturist dragged his girlfriend to Forbes’s door, and when Forbes told him she was only telling the truth, he dragged her away again. After that, every day for four days, Wortman would stop his truck outside her house on his way by, get out and just stare at the house for about 30 minutes. As soon as her husband got back from work trip to Africa, she told him they were moving. In 2014 they went to Halifax, but Forbes still didn’t feel safe, so they moved out west three years later.
“I knew he was looking for me,” she said of the denturist, who lived above his business in Dartmouth. “And I was afraid if I go into a store in Halifax, and he showed up, what would I do?”
To this day she believes that Wortman killed the people who lived in her old house and burnt it down “because of me.”
“The laws have to change,” she told CBC. “If somebody gets, whether it be male or female, if they get assaulted, if they’re abused or whatever and somebody reports it for them because they’re too afraid to, it should be looked at right away.”
More details about the April 18 mass shooting emerged in Maclean’s magazine this week, when an unnamed police source briefed on the murders said after arguing at the party, the couple went to Wortman’s home where “they resolved the matter” and girlfriend went to bed. Later, the killer woke her up, assaulted her, put one hand in a handcuff, and shot at her to make her get into the backseat of one of his Ford Taurus replica police cars in the yard, where he had several containers of gasoline. When he left, she slipped out of the handcuff, climbed through the Plexiglas divider between the front and the back seats, and escaped into the woods, where she hid until calling 911 at 6 a.m. the next morning.
Forbes told RCMP in 2013 the denturist had shown her and her husband his weapons and, as members of the military, “we knew right away that there is no way that he would have got them here in Canada, number one, and he didn’t have an FAC (Firearms Acquisition Certificate).” George Forbes told the Canadian Press that Wortman showed him a cache in the garage, which included pistols and a rifle.
“He knew I had weapons, being in the military, so he was always one of those guys who had to show others that whatever they had, he had something better.”
Brenda also said their neighbour asked them if they could get him a gun and ammunition, a request George immediately shot down, saying it was illegal.
In their May 11 statement, RCMP said they the killer had two semi-automatic handguns and two semi-automatic rifles. One gun had indeed been obtained in Canada, but they believe he got the others in the U.S.
“The RCMP is working with the Canada Border Services Agency on the investigation on any cross-border or border-related elements. The calibre of the weapons is not being released, because determining where and how the gunman obtained the firearms is a central part of the investigation, and we use this detailed information to verify the credibility of some of the information we receive,” police said in their statement.
On May 1, in response to the N.S. mass shooting, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the federal government will ban 1,500 kinds of military “assault-style” weapons, including the M16, M4, AR-10 and AR-15 rifles.
“You don’t need a AR-15 to take down a deer,” he said.
At the same news conference, Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair said the firearms are becoming “more and more prevalent on the Canadian market,” and shooting rampages are being carried out by “evil people wielding powerful guns.” These weapons “belong on a battlefield and not on our streets.”
Trudeau noted that many historical mass shootings in Canada, including the 1989 murder of 14 women at École Polytechnique in Montreal, were committed with the guns.
Deputy Prime Minster Chyrstia Freeland said many victims of mass shootings are women and girls. “Femicide has long been a scourge in our society. We must stop it. In saying no to assault-style weapons, we are putting feminist ideas into practice. We are acting to ensure that our sisters, our mothers, our grandmothers our daughters – that all women who have been victimized, frightened, threatened, harmed, brutalized and killed by gun violence – have not suffered in vain.”
There will be a two-year amnesty on the guns, during which owners are not allowed to buy, sell, transport or use them. After that, the government said it buy back, at fair market value, all legally acquired guns covered under the ban, a promise that is expected to cost $600 million.
Police Under Investigation
After the chaos that ensued April 18 and April 19, RCMP referred two events to the province’s Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT), an independent police oversight body. The first was the April 19 shooting death of the suspect at the Enfield gas station by a member of the RCMP tactical unit, but the second is a curious incident at the Onslow Belmont Fire Hall that is a bit of a mystery.
Residents who live next door saw an RCMP car stop in the middle of the road in front of the hall about 10 a.m. Two officers got out and started shooting in the direction of Joy McCabe’s house. She told the Chronicle Herald newspaper that she had read about the shooting the night before on her Facebook, and immediately headed to her bedroom to hide because she thought the killer was outside.
She remembered hearing about five or six “pops,” and when she came back upstairs and looked out her window, she saw the two RCMP officers sheltered behind a wooden garbage bin and a man with a brush cut crouched down between two vehicles in the parking lot.
Fire chief Greg Muise said there were a number of firefighters in the hall, along with some members of the Colchester Regional emergency response team, but exactly who police were shooting at and why is unclear and he wouldn’t say any more because SIRT was investigating. By that time, the shooter had already left the area. Bullets holes remained in the fire hall wall, and the chief said the RCMP officers shot the windshield out of a fire truck, while another bullet hit a fender and one chipped the marble memorial to fallen firefighters out front.
The Maclean’s report said the firefighters and the emergency response team were inside readying the hall as a muster point for evacuees from Portapique when the shooting began. It said the RCMP officers were shooting at a Pictou County RCMP officer who was posted outside, next to his cruiser, to provide security.
“There was a horrible confusion for a nanosecond at the scene and the two officers who had stepped out at the car pointing firearms at this officer, discharged several rounds,” an unnamed source identified as “someone briefed on the shooting” told the magazine. “They missed killing him.”
The widower of Kristen Beaton, 33, a continuing care assistant for the Victorian Order of Nurses who was pulled over by the killer in his fake cop car and gunned down at the side of the highway near Debert, has filed a class action lawsuit against the gunman’s estate on behalf of the families of all the victims.
Nick Beaton, who lost not only his wife but their unborn child that day, has asked the courts to preserve the estate’s assets until the issue of damages is assessed.
“I understand everyone, including the RCMP, were victims of this man’s rampage,” Beaton said in a statement released by Truro firm Patterson Law. “I know this lawsuit won’t bring back any of those senselessly murdered; however, there must be accountability for this tragedy.”
His lawyer, Robert Pineo, acknowledged no amount of money could compensate the families for their monumental loss, but “we hope this class action will assist those individuals with some of the financial burden created by this tragedy.”
Beaton has been an outspoken critic of the RCMP’s decision to use Twitter to warn area residents the killer was on the loose, and not the province’s emergency cellphone alert, which had been used the week before to warn people to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19.
In a Facebook post on April 27, Beaton added a link to a news story where Premier Stephen MacNeil urged residents not to criticize the RCMP’s communication decisions, with this comment: “They are as responsible for my wife’s death as that low life I will not be silenced.”
Beaton has said the couple were in bed the morning of April 19 scrolling through Facebook posts about the killings 30 minutes away in Portapique, just before she left her husband and their young son Daxton to go see a client in Debert. By the time Nick texted her at 11 a.m. to warn her the killer was still on the loose and driving a police car, it was too late.
“I would not have let my wife leave … if I had that (cellphone) broadcast come across, that he was on the loose and he was driving an RCMP vehicle,” he told CBC.
Just three days after the tragedy, the Nova Scotia government and the Atlantic Canada Red Cross started a Stronger Together fund to provide immediate financial assistance to families like that of Joey Webber, 37, who was out running an errand near Shubenacadie on the morning of April 19 when he stopped by two police cars to see if anyone needed help. Webber, the sole breadwinner for his wife and two young daughters, was shot and the killer stole his car, which he used to drive to the Shubenacadie home of denturist Gina Goulet, his last victim.
That fund has now raised $1.5 million, but another million or more has been raised through individual GoFundMe accounts for the victims’ families. Kristen Beaton’s has raised $116,000 from 1,800 donors, for example; Joey Webber’s has more than $150,000 from 1,900 donors.
The pandemic has prevented many families from holding funerals due to social-distancing rules, but Nova Scotians and people the world over have found other ways to pay their respects. The daughters of Truro VON nurse Heather O’Neill, who was also pulled over by the gunman on the highway and shot, planted two flower gardens beside the road at the exact places – 100 metres apart – where the O’Neill and colleague Kristen Beaton were killed.
Colleagues of RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson, 47, who was shot by the killer in her cruiser on the road near Shubenacadie, believe she rammed the killer’s car in an effort to stop him, but paid for it with her life after he shot her and stole her gun. Tributes poured in from around the world for the slain RCMP officer, whose body was brought home to Cole Harbour on April 20, accompanied by a procession of police cars, where she lived with he husband Dean, a high school teacher, and children Ava, 11, and Connor, 13. On May 1, colleagues in police cars drove by a makeshift memorial by the side of the road near Shubenacadie where she was killed in a “last patrol.”
Nova Scotia fiddling superstar Natalie McMaster paid a moving tribute to 17-year-old Portapique resident Emily Tuck, who had posted her first video to the Nova Scotia Kitchen Party (COVID-19 edition) Facebook account playing the East Coast waltz called “In Memory of Herbie MacLeod.” Tuck was gunned down in the Portapique home she shared with her father, Aaron Tuck, and mother, Jolene Oliver. McMaster played a duet with Emily’s video, saying it was dedicated “to all the souls that lost their lives.”
Watch Natalie McMaster’s tribute below
One of the many heartbreaking stories from Portapique came from Tyler Blair, who told CTV News that his father, Greg Blair, 45, and stepmother Jaime Blair, 40, were in their home with their two young sons, aged 10 and 12, when Greg heard the killer yelling outside. When he went out to investigate, he was shot, and the younger boys told Tyler that Jaime took them into the bedroom to hide, but the killer shot their mother while they were hiding behind the bed. He then set fire to the house with the two boys inside.
They ran next door to Debert Elementary school teacher Lisa McCully’s house, who was also murdered when she went out to see what was going on, and the boys hid out in the basement of McCully’s home with her two children, staying on the phone with a 911 dispatcher until they were rescued.
A GoFundMe for the two Blair children, who are in Tyler’s care, raised more than $123,000 before it was shut down after scammers set up a fake GoFundMe page to try and divert donations from the real account.
On May 11, N.S. RCMP announced they are calling the shooting investigation Operation H-Strong, which is being led by the major crimes unit, with assistance from specialists across the country in digital forensics, crime analysis, forensic anthropology and weapons.
“There are many areas of investigation as we continue to piece together the gunman’s movements, possible motivation and whether he received assistance leading up to the incidents,” the statement said.