Nova Scotia RCMP have confirmed an additional four victims of the weekend killing spree, bringing the total death toll to 22 in what is now one of the deadliest massacres in Canadian history.
Officials say it could take months to unravel the lone suspect’s violent path across the province as they continue to probe 16 different crime scenes, including five structure fires where police have found human remains.
“The investigative team is focused on learning more about this very tragic situation, including accurate victim information and whether others may have aided the suspect,” the RCMP said in an email update Tuesday afternoon.
For families with missing loved ones, the lack of clear answers is agonizing.
“If that is my parents in the house… that’s all I want to know,” Justin Zahl said during an interview with CTV’s Your Morning Tuesday.
“Just confirm my suspicions.”
It wasn’t until Monday afternoon that Zahl learned his parents’ house was one of the crime scenes involved in the investigation after it was burned to the ground. He believes his parents, John Zahl and Elizabeth Joanne Thomas, were inside.
Zahl, who last heard from his mother around 6 p.m. Saturday night, says he is left searching for dental records to hand over to RCMP as he awaits news.
“It may take a week or so until they figure out the identities of who was in the house,” Zahl told CTV Atlantic. “I want to put my faith in the system, but right now it’s really hard to.”
Police said they searched for the suspect for about 12 hours from late Saturday night into Sunday morning, as he travelled more than 150 kilometres along rural roads and highways, killing at least 22 victims and torching properties and police vehicles. Victims have been located in the communities of Portapique, Wentworth, Debert, Shubenacadie/Milford and Enfield.
All of the victims were adults, police said, except for a 17-year-old girl who has been identified as Emily Tuck, a young fiddler who had been using music to help her family through isolation during COVID-19.
A 23-year veteran of the RCMP, a teacher, a nurse, and a retired firefighter are also among the victims. Kristen Beaton, a continuing care assistant who advocated for more personal protective equipment for frontline health-care workers battling COVID-19, was pregnant when she was killed on the side of the road. Her husband told CTV News that they planned to tell their family sometime this week.
The shooter knew some of the victims and those individuals “were targeted,” the RCMP said, while other victims were not known to him. The RCMP said it will not be providing more details on those relationships.
The suspect, identified as 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman, was killed Sunday after police intercepted him near a gas station. He was wearing an authentic police uniform and driving a vehicle that resembled a police cruiser. Investigators are now looking into how he obtained such a vehicle.
CTV News has learned that Wortman was convicted of assault in 2002. According to court documents, he was ordered to undergo counselling for anger management and banned from possessing firearms, explosives and any prohibited weapon for nine months. He was also ordered to pay a fine and received a conditional discharge.
Others were injured in the shooting, including a police officer and members of the public, but they have not released more details on their injuries.
Questions have been raised about why Nova Scotians did not receive emergency alerts to their phones while the attacker was still out on the loose. The alert system issued Amber Alerts and, more recently, has provided important updates on COVID-19.
Instead, the RCMP issued warnings on Twitter and Facebook.
Some Nova Scotians who learned of the rampage Saturday night said they assumed the suspect was apprehended by Sunday morning. In fact, it wasn’t until around 12 p.m. that the attacker was located and killed.
“This was an unprecedented event and as soon as we learned that the suspect was possibly in a replica police cruiser and wearing what appeared to be an RCMP uniform, we immediately informed the public,” the RCMP said in a release Tuesday.
“Nova Scotians can rest assured that the RCMP is committed to keeping the public informed and instructing Nova Scotians on how to protect themselves from threats to public safety.”
CTV News public safety analyst Chris Lewis told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday that, despite the RCMP’s resources and expertise, the breadth of this investigation is unlike anything they’ve encountered.
“They still don’t know how many bodies are actually in those fire scenes, which is horrendous. Others where there are numerous gunshots, vehicles burned… they’re into cadaver dogs, forensic officers on their hands and knees looking for evidence,” Lewis explained.
“It’s a mind-boggling process.”
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair urged Canadians to be patient and wait for accurate information to be released from authorities, noting that the victim’s families deserve answers.
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Though Lewis notes Canadians may never know why such a vicious attack took place, he says a large part of the investigation will focus on piecing together what might have triggered the attacks.
“There certainly is some indication that there were some triggers along the way,” he said.
“[Police will] investigate his entire background, his relationships to all the various victims… where did the guns come from… his whole psychological, personal profile, internet use and notes he may have kept to try to understand why this person did what he did.”
During a media briefing Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the tragedy reinforces the need for gun control legislation.
“We’re now looking for right way and right moment to bring it forward,” Trudeau said without making a specific promise on the timeline of the legislation.
Trudeau’s Liberals campaigned on a promise to ban assault rifles, which they said in their platform are “designed to inflict mass casualties and have no place in Canada.” The plan would include a buyback program for all military-style assault rifles purchased legally in Canada.
Police have not said what kind of weapon Wortman used or whether it was legally obtained.
With a file from Rachel Aiello
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