Blue Line

How one of Canada’s worst mass killings unfolded across northern Nova Scotia

April 24, 2020  By The Canadian Press

HALIFAX — The first thing Malcolm Ryan noticed were the fires.

Ryan, 81, looked out his bedroom window at about 11:15 p.m. Saturday and across the Portapique River, where he saw a wharf and, further down the shoreline, a small cabin engulfed in flames on the property of Gabriel Wortman, whose home overlooks a marshy area of Cobequid Bay.

“It was absolutely ablaze,” Ryan told The Canadian Press. “His home wasn’t on fire, it was just the jetty and the A-frame.”

Investigators are still piecing together how Wortman blazed a path of destruction across central and northern Nova Scotia last weekend, killing 22.

While police have not publicly identified the victims nor provided a full timeline, it is possible to begin to piece together what happened through witness accounts, police statements and the updates they provided on Twitter in real time.

The deadly rampage took place over 16 crimes scenes, beginning in the quiet cottage community of Portapique and ending a little more than 12 hours later at a gas station in Enfield, N.S., where the suspect died in a confrontation with RCMP.

The events began just before 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, when Nova Scotia RCMP received a call about a person with a firearm in the area of Portapique Beach Road, in the community about 40 kilometres west of Truro.

Officers arriving on scene found a chaotic and horrifying scene, with “multiple casualties” both inside and outside of a home, but no sign of the shooter, RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather would later say. A first Twitter message went out, asking the public to stay inside.

A search of the area revealed “additional victims and several structure fires.”

Audio recordings of first responders provide a glimpse of their frantic attempts to help the victims found amid the burning homes.

On one of the recordings, stored on the Broadcastify website, a first responder dispatched to the scene tells the dispatcher they can see something burning in the distance. As police locate victims, calls for ambulances begin to multiply.

“It’s very vague what’s going on down there but there is for sure multiple patients down there,” says a paramedic. In an 11:20 p.m. call, the dispatcher says of the suspect: “No, they don’t know if they’ve caught him.”

Clinton Ellison told CBC news he heard a gunshot and saw the glow of a fire some time after 10 p.m., and his brother Corrie went out to investigate. When he went to look for him, Clinton Ellison found his brother’s body laying on a dark road.

Ellison told the news network he ran into the woods to avoid a bobbing flashlight, and spent the next several hours lying on the freezing ground, listening to the sound of gunshots and crackling fires in an experience he said was “worse than a horror movie.”

In the hours that followed, frightened residents locked their doors and peered out at a parade of police sirens and armed officers swarming the quiet town, as fires glowed eerily in the windless sky.

Among the early victims were Wortman’s neighbours, Jolene Oliver, who was turning 40 this year, her husband Aaron Tuck, 45, and their 17-year-old daughter Emily.

Oliver’s sister, Tammy Oliver-McCurdie, said she learned Sunday evening that the family had been found dead in their Portapique home. She said it was a small comfort to know that the close trio died together.

“No matter how much they went through in life they always stayed tougher, and there was times that they had nothing,” she said in a phone call from Alberta.

Also killed in the Portapique area were Greg and Jamie Blair, who ran a natural gas and propane sales and installation business and had two young children, Peter and Joy Bond and Lisa McCully, an elementary school teacher. Justin Zahl, said the house of his parents, Elizabeth Joanne Thomas and John Zahl, burned down and he is awaiting confirmation of their deaths.

Early Sunday between 7 and 8 a.m., RCMP received information that the suspect had escaped the police perimeter. Thanks to a “key witness,” they learned he was wearing an authentic RCMP uniform and driving a replica RCMP car, Leather said, although that information was not made public until after 10 a.m.

At 8 a.m., the RCMP began what was to become a series of Twitter messages, warning of an “active shooter” situation and telling residents to remain in their homes.

“You may not see the police, but we are there with you,” they said on Twitter.

But on Sunday morning the killer shifted some 40 kilometres northeast to a quiet rural road in Wentworth, N.S., when police received a call about a possible female victim on Highway 4 at around 9:30 a.m.

David and Heather Matthews were out for a stroll in a wooded valley in Wentworth at around 9:20 a.m. on Sunday morning when the couple heard a “pop,” which they said sounded like it could be a gunshot, or perhaps just a car backfiring.

Shortly after the Matthews returned home, their phone started ringing with warnings from friends that there was an active shooter on the loose in the neighbourhood. They later learned that a neighbour and fellow walker, Lillian Hyslop, was gunned down that morning on a road nearby.

In Wentworth, the gunman also killed prison guard couple Sean McLeod and Alanna Jenkins. Another victim, Tom Bagley, died as he walked towards a burning house to try to help, his daughter Charlene Bagley said.

Throughout the morning, RCMP provided updated on the suspect’s location as they tracked him through the Glenholme, Central Onslow and Debert areas outside Truro. Leather would later say the killer’s police uniform and vehicle helped him avoid detection and stay steps ahead.

At 9:59 a.m., Heather O’Brien, a nurse from the Truro, N.S. area, sent her last text message to a family group chat before getting in her car. By 10:15 she was gone, her daughter Darcy Dobson said.

“She drove down the same street in the same town she drives through every single day,” said Dobson, who asked that her mother be remembered for her kindness, dedication to work, and love of holidays and her grandchildren rather than the tragedy.

Kristen Beaton, another nurse who worked for the same organization as O’Brien, was also a victim in the area at around the same time.

By 11 a.m. the suspect had turned south from Truro, heading down Highway 102 towards Halifax, according to the RCMP.

It was in the Shubenacadie area, late Sunday morning, when the suspect had a confrontation with Const. Heidi Stevenson, a 23-year veteran of the RCMP and mother of two.

While what happened there is the subject of a separate investigation, onlookers took photographs and video that show what looked like two RCMP vehicles on fire and a body on the ground.

By the time it ended, two cars were engulfed in flames, including the suspect’s mock cruiser, the RCMP said, and Stevenson was dead in the line of duty.

Joey Webber, who had gone on a family errand toward Shubenacadie was a victim from the area, as was 54-year-old cancer survivor Gina Goulet, who worked as a denturist — the same field as the gunman.

Soon after, police said Wortman, now driving a silver SUV, was heading through Milford.

They caught up with him at a gas station in Enfield, N.S., at around 11:25 a.m. A confrontation followed, with officers firing at the suspect, who was later declared dead.

Police have said it will take time to unravel the complex details of one of Canada’s worst mass murders. For now, they haven’t elaborated on the suspect’s motive, other than to say that some of the killings appeared to be targeted, while others seemed random.

They have set up a tip line, asking anyone with details on what happened to call.

— Morgan Lowrie, with files from Michael MacDonald, Holly McKenzie-Sutter, Michael Tutton and Adina Bresge

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 23, 2020.

News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc., 2020

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