At least 16 people were killed in a shooting rampage and manhunt in rural Nova Scotia, police said Sunday, the deadliest such attack in Canadian history.
Lee Bergerman, assistant commissioner for the Nova Scotia RCMP, called it a “devastating day” that will “remain etched in the minds of many for years to come.”
She identified the officer as Constable Heidi Stevenson, a mother of two. A male officer, whose name was not released, suffered injuries that were not life-threatening.
Police identified the suspect as Gabriel Wortman, 51.
Chris Leather, chief superintendent for the Nova Scotia RCMP, said it was “too early” to determine a motive. He said the victims appeared to have been targeted at “random” — some appeared not to have had a relationship with Wortman.
Leather said officers responding to multiple 911 calls Saturday night arrived at a Portapique residence to find a “chaotic” scene, with several casualties inside and outside of the home. In a tweet shortly after 10:30 p.m., police asked people to stay in their homes and lock their doors.
Police issued similar warnings Sunday morning. They identified Wortman as the suspect and tweeted out a photograph and description; at one point, they warned he might be wearing what appeared to be an RCMP uniform and driving what appeared to be an RCMP cruiser. They said he was not a member of the RCMP.
Leather said the vehicle was believed to be a mock-up made to look like an RCMP cruiser. The investigation involves crime scenes at multiple sites across the province, including structures that were on fire, he said.
#Colchester: Gabriel Wortman may be driving what appears to be an RCMP vehicle & may be wearing an RCMP uniform. There's 1 difference btwn his car and our RCMP vehicles: the car #. The suspect's car is 28B11, behind rear passenger window. If you see 28B11 call 911 immediately. pic.twitter.com/yyeOeBt8Ui— RCMP, Nova Scotia (@RCMPNS) April 19, 2020
Police searched for Wortman for hours. Leather said gunfire was exchanged with police officers “at one point over the course of the evening.”
Police said Wortman was taken into custody late Sunday morning at a gas station in Enfield, some 57 miles south of Portapique. Later police said he had died but did not say how. The matter has been turned over to the Serious Incident Response Team, which investigates police actions.
Brian Sauvé, president of a union that represents about 20,000 RCMP officers, said “our hearts are heavy with grief and sadness today as we have lost one of our own.”
Gun ownership is relatively common in Canada; the country ranked fifth in a 2018 global survey of civilian firearms per capita. But mass shootings are rarer than in the neighboring United States. A gunman fatally shot 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989.
Shootings of police also are unusual. Two police officers were among four people shot dead in Fredericton, New Brunswick, in 2018. Three RCMP officers were killed and two were injured in a shooting in Moncton, New Brunswick, in 2014.
More than 2.1 million people have been issued licenses to possess and acquire firearms in Canada, according to the most recent RCMP data. In Nova Scotia, which has a population of more than 923,000, there were 76,180 such licenses issued.
A spate of gun violence in recent years has fueled an increasingly divisive debate over gun control, largely pitting city dwellers, who tend to favor more restrictions, against those in rural Canada. Canada’s constitution does not guarantee citizens a right to bear arms.
During the election campaign last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to ban and buy back legally purchased “military-style assault rifles.” He also said he would work with Canada’s provinces and territories to give municipalities the ability to “further restrict or ban handguns.”
Trudeau said Sunday that his heart went out to “everyone affected in what is a terrible situation.”
Nova Scotia declared a state of emergency last month to fight the spread of the coronavirus. Public gatherings have been limited to five people, and nonessential businesses, schools, casinos and provincial parks are closed. Residents who flout social distancing rules face fines.
51-year-old Gabriel Wortman is the suspect in our active shooter investigation in #Portapique. There are several victims. He is considered armed & dangerous. If you see him, call 911. DO NOT approach. He’s described as a white man, bald, 6’2-6’3 with green eyes. pic.twitter.com/Y2nJNULlkn— RCMP, Nova Scotia (@RCMPNS) April 19, 2020
“I never imagined when I went to bed last night that I would wake up to the horrific news that an active shooter was on the loose in Nova Scotia,” Premier Stephen McNeil told reporters. “This is one of the most senseless acts of violence in our province’s history.”
The waterside community of Portapique is about 80 miles from Halifax, the provincial capital. Tom Taggart, a Colchester municipal council member who represents the area, described it as a small, rural community with many cottages. Roughly 100 people live in the area, but during the summer the population can grow to as many as 250.
“We’ve sat around here thanking our lucky stars that we live in such a beautiful, safe, rural community during the pandemic,” Taggart said. “Then we wake up this morning to this situation.”
He said residents are “shocked and devastated.”
“It’s the kind of place where people come to live because they feel safe and secure,” he said. “People’s lives changed here today.”