Amid the chaos that descended upon the rural Nova Scotia community of Portapique last weekend, police were unaware that 51-year-old gunman Gabriel Wortman owned an unlicensed vehicle that looked nearly identical to an RCMP cruiser.
This allowed Wortman to evade detection and may, according to the RCMP, have assisted him in escaping the perimeter they set up to prevent the shooter from moving to other parts of the province.
“It is possible that the suspect was able to leave the area before the initial response,” said RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell during a Friday morning press conference.
“I can’t imagine any more horrific set of circumstances when you’re trying to search for someone that looks like you.”
Wortman was identified as a possible suspect in multiple murders and fires soon after police responded to the first 911 call Saturday night reporting gunshots, Campbell said.
A man who was shot while driving in the immediate vicinity of the first killings — and who survived — told police the gunman was driving a vehicle that looked like a police car, he said.
Police visited Wortman’s home in the area and found it entirely engulfed in flames, Campbell said. At the home they also found two burning Ford Taurus vehicles, believed to be old police cars.
Campbell said a police background search revealed Wortman owned three “plated” Ford vehicles that were probably old police cars. In addition to the two vehicles burning outside Wortman’s Portapique home, police located the third licensed vehicle at Wortman’s Halifax residence.
At this point, Campbell said, officers responsible for the investigation believed they had located all of the police look-alike vehicles Wortman owned. The RCMP were also considering the possibility that Wortman had committed suicide and that his body was inside his burning home.
New witness provides key evidence
Police say Wortman’s murderous rampage, which began Saturday evening and ended Sunday morning, left 22 victims dead, including a 17-year-old girl and on-duty RCMP officer Heidi Stevenson.
Police are currently investigating 16 separate crime scenes spread out along a roughly 100-kilometre stretch of rural Nova Scotia.
As Global News reported Thursday, police located Wortman’s girlfriend hiding in the woods nearby his Portapique home around 7 a.m. Sunday.
The woman had been tied up and assaulted by Wortman the previous evening before escaping, Campbell said, which may have sparked the murderous spree.
“That could very well have been the catalyst to start the chain of events,” Campbell said.
“However, we’re not going to discount any possibility of any pre-planning at this time.”
The woman has served as a key witness in the investigation, police said, providing details and a photo of the unlicensed RCMP look-alike vehicle that Wortman used to facilitate his crimes. She also told police Wortman was likely dressed in an RCMP uniform and provided the names of family members he might target.
“The former partner is a critical witness,” Campbell said. “She is assisting us and she is identifying other avenues of investigation that we need to pursue.”
At 8:02 a.m. Sunday, shortly after discovering the girlfriend, RCMP sent out a tweet identifying Wortman as the suspect, adding that he was armed and dangerous.
Roughly one hour later, at 10:17 a.m., police tweeted a photo of the mock police vehicle Wortman was driving, plus the information that he was likely wearing a police uniform.
According to Nova Scotia premier Stephen McNeil, provincial emergency management staff tried to contact the RCMP multiple times Sunday morning about issuing an alert.
RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather said Wednesday that officers were in the process of crafting an alert to be sent out when Wortman was shot dead at 11:26 a.m. Sunday.
Who made the car?
On Friday, Campbell said police are still trying to determine where Wortmain obtained the mock vehicle he used in the rampage. RCMP are also looking for anyone who may have assisted Wortman or who can provide information about how he obtained his vehicles or pieces of authentic uniform.
Campbell said the RCMP have located the source of the materials used to produce the decals that were affixed to the side of Wortman’s look-alike police cruiser. They have not, however, determined who printed the decals or if someone assisted in adding them to the vehicle.
Police have also located the source of the lightbar that was placed on top of the look-alike cruiser, he said.
In terms of the uniform, several pieces of clothing Wortman was wearing were recovered, Campbell said. Some of these are parts of older uniforms issued by the RCMP, while one piece of clothing is from another police force.
Campbell did not elaborate on how Wortman came to possess these materials, adding that this is part of the ongoing investigation.
As for the firearms Wortman used, Campbell said he had access to a handgun, a shotgun and other long-barrel weapons. He also stole Stevenson’s sidearm after killing her.
The RCMP are investigating the origin of these weapons — having previously said Wortman did not hold a licence to own firearms in Canada — saying Friday that all but one of the guns he used are believed to have come from the United States.
Exactly how these weapons were transported between the U.S. and Canada is part of the ongoing “global investigation,” Campbell said.