By Rob Gillies, The Associated Press
TORONTO (AP) — Canadians on Monday mourned the shocking rampage that left at least 18 dead in rural communities across Nova Scotia, after a gunman disguised as a police officer opened fire on people hunkered down in their homes, setting houses ablaze in the deadliest mass shooting in the country’s history.
Officials said the suspect, identified as 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman, also died in the weekend attack. Police did not provide a motive for the killings.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police Chief Superintendent Chris Leather told a news conference Monday that police expect to find more victims once they are able to comb through all the crime scenes, some of which were left in smoldering ruins.
Leather said police teams were spread out at 16 crime scenes in central and northern Nova Scotia. He said some of the victims knew Wortman and some didn’t.
“We’re relatively confident we’ve identified all the crime scenes. However we have been unable to fully examine all the crime scenes,” Leather said. “We have had five structure fires, most of those being residences, and we believe there may be victims still within the remains of those homes which burnt to the ground.”
The dead included a policewoman. Another officer was wounded by gunfire and was recovering at home, Leather said.
“The 18 innocent lives lost will be remembered throughout Canada’s history,” Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said .
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted how close-knit Nova Scotia is.
“The vast majority of Nova Scotians will have a direct link with one or more of the victims. The entire province and country is grieving right now as we come to grips with something that is unimaginable,” Trudeau told an earlier news conference.
“The pandemic will prevent us from mourning together in person, but a vigil will be held virtually to celebrate the lives of the victims,” Trudeau said, adding it would take place Friday night through a Facebook group.
Trudeau asked the media to avoid mentioning the name of the assailant or showing his picture.
“Do not give this person the gift of infamy,” he said.
The 12-hour rampage began late Saturday in the rural town of Portapique, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Halifax, where police told residents overnight to lock their doors and stay in their basements. The town, like all of Canada, had been adhering to government advice to remain at home because of the coronavirus pandemic and most of the victims were inside their homes when the attack began.
Several bodies were later found inside and outside one house on Portapique Beach Road, the street where the suspect lived, authorities said.
Bodies were also found at several other locations within about a 50-kilometer (30-mile) area from the neighborhood where the shootings began, and authorities believe the shooter may have targeted his first victims but then began attacking randomly. At least four forensic vans were seen Monday morning entering the neighborhood where the shootings began.
Authorities said the suspected gunman wore a police uniform at one point and made his car look like a Royal Canadian Mounted Police cruiser.
“His ability to move around the province undetected was surely greatly benefited by the fact that he had a vehicle that looked identical in every way to a marked police car,” Leather said, adding that the gunman was also either wearing a police uniform or very good copy.
He said at one point the suspect was forced to abandon his car and then carjacked other cars to continue to “circulate around the province steps ahead of our investigators.”
Authorities believe he acted alone. RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said he was not well known to police and no note from the suspect has been found. She said police were still studying the crime scenes to determine what weapons were used.
According to his high school yearbook, Wortman long had a fascination with the Mounties.“Gabe’s future may including being an RCMP officer,” the yearbook profile said.
The dead officer was identified as Constable Heidi Stevenson, a mother of two and a 23-year veteran of the force.
Also among the dead was school teacher Lisa McCully, who worked at a local elementary school. Nova Scotia Teachers Union President President Paul Wozney said. “Our hearts are broken along with those of her colleagues and students at Debert Elementary,” he said.
Two health care workers at local nursing homes were also among those killed, according to Von Canada, a long term health care company, which identified them as Heather O’Brien, a licensed practical nurse, and Kristen Beaton, a continuing care assistant.
Wortman, who owned a denture practice in in the city of Dartmouth, near Halifax, lived part time in Portapique, according to residents of the town.
Police initially said Wortman had been arrested Sunday at a gas station in Enfield, outside Halifax, but later said he had died. It was not clear how, and they did not provide further details, although one police official said that there was an exchange of gunfire between the suspect and police at one point.
Wortman is listed as a denturist — a person who makes dentures — in the city of Dartmouth, near Halifax, according to the Denturist Society of Nova Scotia website. Atlantic Denture Clinic, the practice Wortman owned, was closed for the past month because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Leather, the police superintendent, said authorities were investigating whether the attack had anything to do with the coronavirus pandemic but no link has been found so far.
Mass shootings are relatively rare in Canada. The country overhauled its gun-control laws after gunman Marc Lepine killed 14 women and himself at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique college in 1989. Before this weekend’s rampage, that had been the country’s worst mass killing.
Trudeau said Monday his government would introduce further gun control legislation prohibiting military-style assault weapons, a measure that had already been planned before the coronavirus pandemic interrupted the current parliamentary session.