A gunman who drove a mock-up police car killed at least 16 people including a female constable in a shooting rampage across Nova Scotia, Canadian federal police said Sunday, the worst case of its kind in the country’s history.
The shooter, identified as Gabriel Wortman, 51, was shot dead by officers after a 12-hour manhunt across the eastern province ended Sunday morning.
Among the victims was a veteran female constable with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which also handles municipal and provincial law enforcement in the province.
Police said the suspect had been on the run since Saturday night, when officers were alerted to shots fired in the town of Portapique, around 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Halifax.
Gun violence in Canada is far less frequent than in the neighboring United States, and weapons more strictly controlled, but the killings were the country’s worst ever, exceeding the toll in 1989 when a gunman murdered 14 female students at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique.
“This is one of the most senseless acts of violence in our province’s history,” said Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil.
Public broadcaster CBC quoted RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki as saying police know of at least 16 victims, besides the shooter.
“What has unfolded overnight and into this morning is incomprehensible and many families are experiencing the loss of a loved one,” Nova Scotia RCMP commanding officer, Assistant Commissioner Lee Bergerman, wrote on the force’s local Facebook page.
Bergerman said the dead included Constable Heidi Stevenson, a 23-year veteran of the force.
In addition to Stevenson, a mother of two, a male officer was injured and was in the hospital with non-life threatening injuries, Bergerman said.
The National Post newspaper said another victim was an elementary school teacher, citing a Facebook post from the woman’s sister.
Several victims were discovered both outside and inside a house in Portapique, sparking the manhunt through multiple communities, police said.
“The search for the suspect ended this morning when the suspect was located. And I can confirm that he is deceased,” RCMP Chief Superintendent Chris Leather told a press conference.
Leather said that at one point, the suspect appeared to be wearing part of a police uniform and was driving a vehicle made to look like an RCMP cruiser.
RCMP tweeted several times that he was not an officer and warned he was considered “armed and dangerous.”
“The initial search for the suspect led to multiple sites in the area, including structures that were on fire,” Leather told the news conference.
He said: “There are several locations across the province where persons have been killed.”
Leather said the gunman had exchanged fire with police at one point.
“Our officers were involved in terminating the threat,” he said, adding that the independent Serious Incident Response Team (SiRT), which probes certain incidents involving the province’s police, was now handling that part of the investigation.
SiRT said in a statement that a confrontation had occurred in Enfield, which is near Halifax airport, “resulting in officers discharging their firearms. The suspect was found to be deceased at the scene.”
Police said they had no indication of a motive and that the killer had acted alone.
“We believe it to be one person who’s responsible for all the killings and that he alone moved across the northern part of the province and committed, it would appear, several homicides,” said Leather.
Several of the victims did not appear to be related to the shooter, he said, but added that the “the fact that this individual had a uniform and a police car at his disposal certainly speaks to it not being a random act.”
Leather said police would be investigating if there was any connection to the coronavirus, which has seen non-essential businesses closed under measures to combat the pandemic.
“That certainly is an aspect that we will look at, we’ll examine, but we have not yet determined if there is any link to the COVID-19 crisis,” he said.
Media reports said the shooter was a denturist with clinics in Halifax and Dartmouth. Dentists in Nova Scotia have been ordered to close unless needed for emergency procedures.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement that he “was saddened to learn about the senseless violence in Nova Scotia,” and he hoped for a full recovery of the wounded.
The National Post quoted Tom Taggart, a councilor who represents Portapique in the Municipality of Colchester, as saying the community was devastated.
He described the community as a “subdivision in the woods where people have acre lots along the shore,” and where Wortman owned three properties.
“It’s absolutely unbelievable this could happen in our community. I never dreamt this would happen here,” Taggart said.
Image: Members of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police tactical unit confer after a suspect in a deadly shooting rampage was neutralized at the Big Stop near Elmsdale, Nova Scotia. (AFP / Tim Krochak)