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The Nova Scotia Killings Demand an Inquiry. Politicians Won’t Call One

The province is haunted by unanswered questions about what could have been done to stop Gabriel Wortman.

Michael Harris 2 Jun

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly-awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

In Nova Scotia, already under the pall of COVID-19, April was indeed the cruellest month.

Gabriel Wortman, the millionaire denturist from Portapique, played the Grim Reaper to deadly effect. In a 13-hour killing spree on the evening of April 18 and the morning of April 19, he murdered 22 people and wounded three others. It was the largest mass-killing in Canadian history.

Some of Wortman’s victims were known to him, others were chosen at random — like the Victorian Order of Nurses employees he shot after pulling over their cars while they were driving to work. One of those workers, Kristen Beaton, was pregnant.

Diabolically, Wortman carried out his slaughter disguised as a policeman — RCMP uniform, a clever replica of an RCMP cruiser — and armed to the teeth. The last thing any of his victims could have expected was that this fake Mountie was on a mission of bullets and burning and that a symbol of trust and safety would be the last thing they saw in life.

The camera crews are gone now. The hearts and prayers phase of the atrocity is over and the story has now moved into the familiar territory of “healing” — an amalgam of trying to understand the unspeakable and trying to carry on despite it.

Portapique is now affixed to a long list of places where the Devil dropped his calling card in human form — Columbine, Las Vegas, Aurora, Colorado, Colorado, Sandy Hook, Parkland, and L’Ecole Polytechnique.

How does a community and a province get over the appearance in their midst of a fiend out of a Stephen King novel?

For some people, eradicating Wortman’s memory is the answer.

Just as Mount Cashel Orphanage was razed after the horrors against its resident children were revealed, the killer’s burned out house in Portapique has been bulldozed. Other properties he set ablaze have also been turned into empty lots.

“Getting these properties cleaned up will help some [and] take those reminders away,” Tom Taggart told CTV. He is a councillor for the Municipality of Colchester, which includes Portapique. “I don’t want to say they’re going to return to normal, because I’m not sure that will ever happen.”

Everyone you meet in Nova Scotia these days has a private way of assessing what happened here. One man told me that he would never trust an RCMP officer again. “If they ever try to pull me over, I won’t stop. Who knows, right? They have to come up with new protocols after this thing.”

Joy Saunders, age 101, is walking around the block in her South Shore neighbourhood to raise money for VON Canada. She knows that the double whammy of COVID-19 and Wortman’s hideous crimes has changed everything in rural Nova Scotia. Mourners couldn’t hold proper funerals, and the province is a no-hug zone thanks to the pandemic. And this is a very huggy place.

“The world is upside down. I’m old and can’t do anything, so I decided to raise money for the VON by walking around the block,” she told me. “Maybe if we try, we can come out of this with a better world,” she said, walking poles in hand. Saunders raised $50,000 for the cause before a fall temporarily sidelined her.

As this horror story turned into a “whydunnit,” a lot of people have privately expressed an almost biblical view of Gabriel Wortman. The human heart is dark, who can know it? Evil as inscrutable.

That view has some professional support. There have been multiple media reports from experts who think it is mostly futile to pursue why Wortman decided to become a horseman of the apocalypse. Dr. William Reid, a forensic psychiatrist from Texas, told CBC that the search for motive was “a fool’s errand.”

Two forensic psychiatrists, Dr. Ronald Pies and Dr. James Knoll, offered a similar view on the futility and danger of public speculation about motives.

In an article they wrote for the Psychiatric Times in 2018, "Beyond Motives in Mass Shootings," the doctors argue that publicly obsessing about motive amounts to “catnip” for unstable “wannabe shooters,” who may want to one-up the previous killer. They also noted that it rarely yields information that might reduce the likelihood of future shootings.

But the authors pointed out one exception to their skepticism about obsessing over the motives of mass murderers. A full psychological autopsy of the shooter can be useful, they wrote. And that is exactly what the RCMP has decided to conduct in Nova Scotia, using its behavioural analysis unit, reinforced wth resources from across the country.

The “autopsy” will include extensive outreach to people who knew Wortman, potentially relevant incidents from his younger days and his relationship with women. The shooter began his rampage by tying up and beating his girlfriend, who managed to escape and flee into nearby woods. Wortman returned to the party they had attended earlier that night and shot and killed seven people — the flashpoint of his deadly rage.

Given the monstrousness of Wortman’s crimes, and the complexity of what happened during his 13-hour rampage, is a psychological autopsy by the RCMP enough?

For 33 law professors in Nova Scotia, the answer is a resounding no. In an open letter to Premier Stephen McNeil they demanded that the province order an independent public inquiry into the mass shooting. They are backed up by several relatives of Wortman’s victims.

So far, McNeil has refused, arguing that it is a federal matter, since Ottawa oversees the RCMP. As fig leaves go, that is pretty pathetic.

And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has refused to commit to a federal inquiry.

Elaine Craig, an associate professor at Dalhousie University, called the Premier’s position “an abdication of both moral and legal responsibility.” She and her colleagues at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law want an inquiry with broad terms of reference, including a critical review of the procedures and decisions employed during the shootings.

The huge question surrounding the police response to Wortman’s rampage is inescapable: why didn’t the RCMP issue a provincewide emergency alert that an active shooter was out there?

That remains a mystery.

Shortly after 10 p.m. on April 18, authorities received multiple 911 calls about shots fired and buildings on fire in the vicinity of Orchard Beach Drive in Portapique. When they responded a few minutes later, they were told by witnesses that a man in a police car had shot at them when they rushed to assist at the fire scene.

A redacted information to obtain a search warrant prepared by the RCMP says two witnesses reported that a man who appeared to be an RCMP officer sitting in a police car at the scene of a fire had followed them and started shooting at them. One witness was injured but the pair got away. Minutes later they met the first real RCMP officer arriving at the scene and told him what had happened. Officers ultimately found 13 victims at seven separate locations in Portapique.

At 10:35 p.m. a witness saw what is believed to be the gunman in a police car leaving the area through a field.

At 11:32 p.m. the RCMP put out a tweet informing the public that they had responded to a firearms complaint in the area and advised people to stay inside and lock their doors.

The RCMP were given more details by Wortman’s girlfriend around 6:30 a.m. when she emerged form her hiding place in the woods. She confirmed that Wortman was dressed as a police officer, heavily armed and driving a replica RCMP cruiser.

But it was not until 10:17 a.m. that the RCMP told the public, again via a tweet, that the active killer was wearing an police uniform.

There was no provincewide emergency alert on Nova Scotia’s system.

That tweet was issued 12 hours after police received the first reports and a little over an hour before the ordeal ended.

Bottom line? Nine more people were killed after the initial massacre in Portapique.

Wortman was shot dead by a member of the RCMP’s Emergency Response Team. The officer happened to stop for gas at the same Irving Big Stop in Enfield, Nova Scotia, nearly 100 kilometres from where his killing spree had begun.

The RCMP attributed this inexplicable failure to alert the public to “lags” in communications between the provincial government and police. There is no national RCMP protocol for using the emergency alert system.

The husband of one of Wortman’s victims said that the failure to send out that alert cost his wife her life.

“I would not have let my wife leave... if I had that broadcast come across, that he was on the loose and he was driving an RCMP vehicle,” Nick Beaton told CBC’s As It Happens. Ironically, there had been an emergency alert to remind people to practise social distancing because of COVID-19.

If there is a public inquiry into this mass shooting, a key witness would be Brenda Forbes.

Forbes, a former neighbour of Wortman’s, called the RCMP in 2013 with an ominous warning. She said that her neighbour was a dangerous man who beat his girlfriend, threatened others and had a cache of what she believed to be illegal weapons. Both she and her husband were in the military and knew guns. They were both convinced that Wortman’s guns didn’t have firearms acquisition certificates.

The RCMP say they can find no record of any complaint from Forbes.

After Wortman had personally threatened her, Forbes became so afraid of him that she and her husband decided to move. Six years after they left, Wortman returned to that same house and murdered everyone inside.

Any public inquiry would have to answer a sea of red-flag questions.

How could he illegally amass so many weapons, none of which were licensed?

How could he acquire an authentic RCMP uniform and four former police vehicles at auctions without raising some suspicions about why he was collecting them?

What explanation could there be for Wortman’s application of look-alike RCMP decals to one of the former RCMP vehicles he owned?

Why didn’t the force investigate possible weapons violations reported to them by at least one witness, especially since Wortman was charged with assault in 2001? He pleaded guilty on Oct. 7, 2002, and received a conditional discharge pending nine months of probation.

The conditions attached to his probation included taking anger management programs and not possessing “any firearm, cross-bow, prohibited weapon, restricted weapon, prohibited device, any kind of ammunition or explosive substance, or all such things.”

In June 2010 Wortman was investigated for “uttering death threats” to his parents. It was known he had several guns. The file was closed without any charges.

A May 2011 tip to Truro, N.S., police said that Wortman “stated he wants to kill a cop.” He was apparently upset at the way police had investigated a break-and-enter complaint he had made at one of his properties. The tip included the information that Wortman possessed several long guns and a handgun which he carried to work.

And how did Wortman get away with abusing his girlfriend for so long, given that at least one witness claims that she made an official complaint and received a visit by the RCMP?

Maybe that’s why the Dalhousie law professors want a broad public inquiry that looks at factors such as domestic violence that may have contributed to Wortman’s rampage.

While McNeil continues to argue that Ottawa has the constitutional responsibility for oversight of the RCMP, the lawyers point out that the province is responsible for policing and the administration of justice. For his part, Trudeau continues to avoid the question of whether Ottawa will call a public inquiry, pointing out that the RCMP investigation into the matter is ongoing.

So is the pain in Nova Scotia. The flags may be flying high again outside the Dayspring fire department, but hearts here are still at half mast.

And that’s where they will be until the public gets some answers.  [Tyee]

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