TORONTO, ONT – A gunman acted alone in waging a weekend rampage that killed at least 22 people across northern and central Nova Scotia, Canadian police said Wednesday as they faced mounting criticism over not issuing a public emergency alert for the province.
Chief Supt. Chris Leather of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said investigators were still trying to determine whether anyone assisted the gunman leading up to the incident, but had determined he carried out the attack himself while disguised as a police officer in a vehicle marked to seem like a patrol car.
Authorities said the suspect, identified as 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman, was shot to death at a gas station at 11:26 a.m. Sunday — about 13 hours after the first 911 call came in late Saturday.
Leather said that as the initial attack was underway in the rural town of Portapique, police warned residents 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 homes when attacked.
But no wider warning was issued, and questions emerged about why a public emergency alert was not sent province-wide through a system recently used to advise people to maintain social distancing. Police provided Twitter updates, but no alert that would have automatically popped up on cellphones.
There are now 16 crime scenes in five different rural communities throughout northern and central Nova Scotia. Officials have not given a motive for the killings.
Leather said it wasn’t until about about 8 a.m. Sunday that authorities learned that the shooter was wearing a police uniform and driving a vehicle that looked like a patrol car. Leather said they are investigating whether he pulled drivers over and executed them after his initial attack in his home community of Portapique where he set fires to homes and shot a number of people.
Leather said Nova Scotia's Emergency Management Office contacted the RCMP at 10:15 a.m. Sunday to ask about sending an emergency message to cellphones and televisions in the province. He said police were crafting a message when the suspect was killed almost two hours later.
The U.S. consulate in Halifax emailed alerts to its citizens warning of the danger at a time when the RCMP was using Twitter to communicate the news.
“I’m very satisfied with the messaging,” Leather said.
Residents of some of the five communities where the killer struck have said they would have changed their behavior had an alert been sent.
Several bodies were found inside and outside one house on Portapique Beach Road, police said. Bodies were also found in four other communities, and authorities believe the shooter may have targeted his first victims but then began attacking randomly as he drove around.
Clinton Ellison was visiting his father’s home in Portapique with his brother when the gunshots and fires began late Saturday. He said his brother, Corrie, went to help with one of the homes on fire. After a while he went to look for his brother with a flashlight.
“I could see a body laying up the side the road. As I got closer I could see it was my brother. I got one more step closer and I could see blood and he wasn’t moving. I shut my flashlight off and turned around and ran and I ran for my life in the dark,” Ellison told Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
He said at one point he spotted a flashlight and fearing it was the shooter he ran into the woods and hid for hours, all the while hearing gunshots and explosions from the fires in the community.
“I was hiding in the woods for about for four hours staring up into the sky, freezing to death, looking for red flashing lights that never came,” Ellison told CBC. “It took hours. People were in there burning to death and dying and it took hours for a response. That’s not right."
He said a police armored car finally picked him up and he saw lots of officers as he left the community. But he feels they failed to do their job.
“They were all standing around when people were dying,” Ellison said. “You shouldn’t be wearing the uniform if you don’t have the guts to go in there and save peoples lives."
Leather said police were in the community contrary to what Ellison said.
“While that fellow may not have thought police were in the vicinity, there were a large number in Portapique,” Leather said.
Ellison said he can barely function and is scarred for life. He returned to the community Wednesday to pick up his vehicle and said it’s a trail of destruction with numerous burned out homes and cars
“It’s horrible. It’s something right out of a horror movie, worse than a horror movie. This is real life and it took our friends and family,” he said.