Nearly eight months after one of Canada’s worst mass shootings, many important questions remain unanswered, and family and friends of the victims are struggling to deal with the memories.
On the night of April 18, Gabriel Wortman went on a 13-hour killing spree, murdering 22 people and leaving a trail of charred wreckage and traumatized people in his wake.
It started in the tiny hamlet of Portapique, N.S., about 130 kilometres north of Halifax. Leon Joudry was there on that terrible night.
“Never will make sense to me. It’s just unbelievable what happened. But it happened,“ he told Global News.
Joudry had gone to bed early. Before he fell asleep, he’d heard a sound that in hindsight, sounded like gunfire. But he dozed off. When he awoke around four in the morning, 13 of his neighbours were dead.
“I lost my friends,” Joudry says. “I woke up to a horror show. I’ll never get over it.”
RCMP have said the murderous rampage began with a domestic dispute between Wortman and his common-law partner, Lisa Banfield. From there, they say, Wortman set fire to two of his own properties and went on the hunt.
Among his first victims were Greg and Jamie Blair. Greg’s son Tyler says Wortman didn’t know his father well, but knew there were weapons in the Blair house.
“He knew dad was a big hunter,” says Tyler. “He had lots of rifles and that could have threw a stick into his whole plan.”
It’s believed Wortman killed the Blairs around 10 p.m. Their two youngest sons, aged 10 and 12, hid, undetected by the killer. When they realized Wortman was trying to burn their house down, they escaped, and ran to the nearby house of a neighbour, Lisa McCully.
McCully was a much-loved local school teacher and mother of two. Her sister Jenny Kierstead remembers her energy and devotion to children.
“Her kids were everything, being a mom was one of her lifelong goals,” says Kierstead. “She was so dynamic and involved, passionate and protective, constantly coming up with new and creative ideas. If other parents wanted their children to spend time with anyone, it was Lisa.”
Earlier that evening, McCully had taken a walk on the beach in Portapique with a glass of wine. She sent her sister a photo of her glass. It was the last time Kierstead heard from her.
One of Wortman’s properties was across the road from McCully’s house. After he set it on fire, McCully saw the flames and called 911. She saw a car that looked like an RCMP cruiser, and a man dressed like an RCMP officer approaching. It turned out to be Wortman, dressed as an RCMP officer. He shot and killed her.
“There are moments when it’s just really intense,” Kierstead says of her sister’s death. “There’s so much pain.”
After Wortman left, the Blair kids arrived from next door. Together with McCully’s son and daughter, the four kids hid together in the basement, called 911, and spoke with a dispatcher for more than two hours, waiting for help to arrive.
Amid the chaos of that night, Kierstead says she is grateful the RCMP protected the children.
“To know that the RCMP surrounded Lisa’s house to ensure the safety of the children is so heroic.”
But many have been much more critical of the RCMP response.
Records show the RCMP arrived in Portapique at 10:26 p.m., and it’s believed Wortman was still in the area for 20 more minutes. RCMP had blocked off the main road in and out of the community. But there was another way out, an unmarked road along the side of a blueberry field.
“That’s how we get out and there’s only one way out other than the way of the entrance, so that’s why it’s important,” says Joudry.
In addition to his knowledge of the back roads, Wortman had another big advantage. It was well known in the community that he was an avid collector of RCMP memorabilia. He had uniforms and four former RCMP cruisers. One of them had been on display at one of Wortman’s property for months, and it had all the markings of a real RCMP car.
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Almost immediately after police arrived on the scene, a witness reported he’d been shot by Wortman, and that the gunman was driving a replica police cruiser in the area of the blueberry field road. Police quickly accounted for three of Wortman’s former RCMP cars, but what they didn’t know was that there was a fourth.
RCMP have released little information about the decisions they made that night, but Joudry believes they thought Wortman was still in the area, or dead.
“They assumed he committed suicide and was in the community. You don’t assume,” says Joudry. “By assuming, that allowed him to kill people outside Portapique. No, it was just inexcusable.”
Police now believe Wortman drove up the blueberry field road and connected to the highway, which they had not yet blocked off.
Letting Wortman get past the RCMP allowed him to continue his rampage for 12 more hours and kill nine more people.
Throughout the night and into the morning of April 19, Wortman stayed ahead of police, killing people, discarding his police car and uniform, and taking the vehicles of his victims.
During that time, there was precious little communication with the public. Around 11:30 p.m. on April 18, Nova Scotia RCMP sent a vague tweet about a “firearms complaint.” In many rural areas of Nova Scotia, residents don’t use Twitter, or even have internet access.
Police did advise people to avoid the area and lock their doors. However, they didn’t alert the media, nor did they use Nova Scotia’s emergency alert system to warn residents about the active shooter incident that was unfolding.
It wasn’t until after 9 a.m. on April 19 that RCMP publicly identified Wortman as the gunman, and it was another hour after that before they alerted the public that he may be driving a lookalike RCMP cruiser, dressed as a Mountie.
By then, Wortman had killed six people outside Portapique, including Const. Heidi Stevenson, a 23-year RCMP veteran and mother of two. She had been on her way to meet fellow officer Const. Chad Morrison. The two were meeting to set up roadblocks.
Morrison had pulled up to Wortman in his replica cruiser, thinking it was his fellow officer. After Wortman shot him in the arm, Morrison managed to get away.
But a short distance away, Wortman spotted Stevenson’s car approaching. After an exchange of gunfire, Wortman killed Stevenson and set her car on fire.
Wortman killed two more people before the massacre finally ended.
Wortman had stolen his last victim’s car, but the fuel tank was empty, so he had to stop for gas in Enfield, N.S. A member of the RCMP’s Emergency Response Team happened to be at the same gas station at the time, and recognized Wortman. He shot and killed him at 11:26 a.m.
In all, Wortman had killed 22 people at 16 different crime scenes across northern Nova Scotia.
Criminologist Darryl Davies calls the RCMP’s response to Wortman’s rampage “a mess.” He says it’s clear, after several other active shooter incidents have been mishandled over the last decade, that big changes are required.
“There’s no change in the RCMP’s approach for dealing with high-crisis active shooter situations,” he says. “They’ve been slow to respond in the past, they’re slow to respond today, because they don’t have a plan in place; they haven’t trained their officers to respond to these types of crises.”
On Dec. 4, RCMP announced that Wortman’s common-law partner Banfield, who he allegedly assaulted on the night of the rampage, was being charged with illegally transferring ammunition to Wortman, which he used in his killing spree.
Two others, James Banfield and Brian Brewster, have been charged with the same offence. From obituaries, 64-year-old James Banfield appears to be Lisa Banfield’s brother, and Brewster her brother-in-law. When they announced the charges, RCMP also said none of the three being charged had prior knowledge of the gunman’s actions on April 18 and 19.
There may have been nothing RCMP could’ve done to save the 13 people killed in Portapique. But for grief-stricken families, many questions remain about failures to contain and stop Wortman before he gave Mounties the slip on that fateful Saturday night, allowing him to kill nine more people over the next 12 hours.
In fact, families had to stage protests to get the Nova Scotia and federal governments to call a full public inquiry. It will be at least two years before the inquiry releases its report. In the meantime, families are left with unanswered questions, mourning their loved ones.
The Nova Scotia Health Authority’s bereavement, grief and wellness co-ordinator Serena Lewis says healing could take months, even years.
“We can’t go back to before April 18 — that doesn’t exist anymore.”
“I remember sitting and talking with a youth one day and he said to me, ‘Is this ever going to be the same again?’ And I said, ‘If I said the words “Columbine” to you, what does that bring up?’ Some people globally have told me this could be a 20-year span for these communities — that’s if we lean in.”
She says many people are now suffering from PTSD, and even mundane sights like an RCMP car can trigger bad memories of the rampage. And, she says, the province is not in a good position to help people through it, particularly during the pandemic, when physical contact is discouraged.
“Where do you go when you’re grieving the most significant loss of your life? Who’s responsible for that? Because we have gaps,” she says. “So there’s no answer right now, and that’s a big part of this right now.”
For Jenny Kierstead, the initial shock of her sister Lisa McCully’s murder has given way to even more intense grief.
“It was easier when there was so much adrenaline and now it’s sinking in.”
Tyler Blair and his partner had a baby before his father Greg and stepmother Jamie Blair were murdered.
“I told my dad on our way to work one morning; his face just lit up. He was super excited. Yeah, he was more excited than I was, I think.”
Tyler Blair’s daughter will only know her grandparents from pictures.
“I’ll make sure she knows how much they loved her,” he says.
In the months after the rampage, for sale signs started appearing in Portapique. Leon Joudrey hasn’t slept at his place in Portapique since April 18. He is one of the people selling his home, in hopes moving away will put an end to the nightmares.
“I’m selling mine for the images I got in my head, driving around that night. I drive here. It’s all I see. I can’t sleep here, can’t shut my eyes.”
With files from Sarah Ritchie and Alexandra Kress