Gabriel Wortman, a 51-year-old denturist from Dartmouth, N.S., committed mass murder last weekend while wearing an authentic police uniform and driving a “very real look-alike” police car.
His impersonation of a police officer, which is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison, allowed him to “circulate around the province, steps ahead of our investigators,” said RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather during a Monday afternoon press conference.
“We can say that his ability to move around the province undetected was surely greatly benefited by the fact that he had a vehicle that looked identical in every way to a marked police car,” Leather said.
Between Saturday evening and Sunday morning, Wortman went on a rampage, setting fires, shooting and killing at least 22 people, including a 17-year-old girl and on-duty RCMP officer Heidi Stevenson.
Police say they are investigating 16 separate crime scenes spread out across a roughly 100-kilometre stretch of rural Nova Scotia.
The RCMP has not explained the origin of the uniform Wortman was wearing, which they described as “authentic,” nor have they said how it came to be in his possession.
History of collecting police gear
Former clients of Wortman’s denture clinic have described his affinity for buying and refurbishing old police cars.
Halifax resident Blaize Jones confirmed to Global News that he was a client of Wortman’s clinic and that he had discussed fixing up old police cars.
“He did talk about buying used vehicles from the auction in Nova Scotia,” Jones said in a Facebook message.
Billy Swiminer said Wortman made his dentures in January and that he described buying police cars at an auction.
“He showed me pics of a cruiser that he redid,” Swiminer wrote. “It’s exactly like an actual RCMP police car, and he has the uniform to go with it!”
But owning or possessing police equipment — whether real or a very good replica — isn’t itself a crime, said Toronto criminal defence lawyer Daniel Brown.
Neither is the reproduction of police symbols or decals, he said, such as those found on the vehicle that RCMP said Wortman was driving.
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“People put a lot of trust in the police,” Brown said. “Someone can abuse that trust by acting as if they are a police officer.”
According to Canada’s Criminal Code, it is an offence for a person to “falsely represent” themself to be a police officer. This could be done with or without the aid of a uniform, Brown said.
It’s also a crime when someone uses police equipment, such as a badge, vehicle or article of clothing, in a way that is “likely to cause persons to believe” they are a police officer, he said.
“Somebody might not pull over their vehicle on the side of a highway to a random stranger, but they may feel as though they’re obligated to if it was a police officer pulling them over,” he said.
Brown believes the shooter likely committed both forms of this offence.
He does not, however, believe the Criminal Code should be expanded to prohibit simple ownership or possession of police uniforms and vehicles, such as those Wortman had, adding that there are legitimate uses for this type of equipment, including for TV, movies and collectors.
Still, he said, impersonating a police officer or misusing police equipment is a crime with the potential to create serious harm.
“In many cases, there is a legal obligation to co-operate with the police,” Brown said. “People have a civic duty, where they believe that if the police are asking for help, they need to help.
“Of course, if someone isn’t the police, they can do significant damage If they’re pretending to be a police officer and they’re not.”
Tweet about police car
The first public notification that Wortman was impersonating a police officer was sent out over Twitter by the RCMP at 10:17 a.m. Sunday, approximately 12 hours after police responded to a weapons complaint in Portapique, N.S., where they discovered the first of Wortman’s victims.
The post said Wortman “may be driving what appears to be an RCMP vehicle and may be wearing an RCMP uniform.” It also included a photo of the vehicle, along with a description of how to tell it apart from other police cars.
Roughly one hour later, police sent out another tweet confirming that Wortman was not an employee of the RCMP and that he was considered armed and dangerous.
Global News asked the RCMP how it obtained the photo of the vehicle Wortman was reportedly driving — which appeared to be parked inside a garage at the time the picture was taken — and whether the person who provided the picture helped Wortman alter the vehicle or was under investigation.
The RCMP did not respond to these questions, but in an update released Tuesday evening, they said how they obtained the photo was part of their ongoing investigation.
“For a mass murderer to cover that much ground, and undetected, is really remarkable,” said Michael Arntfield, a criminologist at Western University.
“Part of the reason he was able to remain undetected is, of course, this very convincing facsimile police vehicle and the uniform that he was wearing.”
Arntfield also wonders if someone “unwittingly” helped Wortman create the replica vehicle he was driving and what, if any, questions were asked about why such a convincing look-alike was needed.
“This is custom work. This is not something you just DIY,” he said.
— With files from Global News’ Andrew Russell and Stewart Bell.