Canadian police have not determined a motive for the weekend killing and arson spree that left 22 people dead, and the gunman.
TORONTO (AP) — Canadian police said Tuesday they believe there are at least 22 victims of a gunman wearing a police uniform who shot people in their homes and set fires in a rampage across rural communities in Nova Scotia over the weekend.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said they have recovered remains from some of the destroyed homes. Earlier, authorities had said at least 18 people were killed in the 12 hours of attacks.
Officials said the suspect, 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman, was shot and died on Sunday. Authorities did not provide further details or give a motive for the killings.
The dead include a 17-year-old and a police officer, a police statement said. All the other victims were adults. There were 16 crime scenes in five different communities in northern and central Nova Scotia, it said.
“Some of the victims were known to Gabriel Wortman and were targeted while others were not known to him,” the police statement said.
Authorities confirmed that Wortman was wearing an authentic police uniform and one of the cars he used “was a very real look-alike RCMP vehicle.”
“This is an unprecedented incident that has resulted in incredible loss and heartbreak for countless families and loved ones. So many lives will be forever touched,” police said.
In an earlier news release authorities said they believed there were 23 victims, but Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokesman Daniel Brien said the death toll included 22 victims and the gunman.
As fears mounted that more dead would be found in burned-out homes, a young man said Tuesday that his grandparents were missing and believed dead after their log cabin was set ablaze.
Justin Zahl told The Associated Press he finally heard from police after frantic calls for information and seeing images of his grandparent’’ home in the rural town of Portapique burned to the ground, with their cars in the driveway.
It was not immediately clear if they were among the remains police said were found.
Police teams spread out across the 16 crime scenes including the neighborhood where the rampage began late Saturday on Portapique Beach Road, where the suspect lived.
Police have warned the death toll will almost certainly rise as investigators comb through homes destroyed by fire.
Zahl said he last heard from his grandmother early Saturday evening via iMessage on her iPad.
“They were angels,” he said, adding that the couple were like parents to him and his 19-year-old brother, Riley. “He was the smartest man I knew, and could hold a conversation with anyone,” he said of his grandfather.
He said John Zahl, in his late 60s, and Elizabeth Joanne Thomas, in her late 50s, lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before retiring to their dream home in Nova Scotia in 2017 after falling in love with the place on a visit. Justin and his brother lived with them for a while but no longer do and neither was at the home during the attack, he said.
Authorities said Wortman made his car look like a Royal Canadian Mounted Police cruiser allowing him to travel easily within a 30-mile area.
As the attacks progressed, police warned residents in Portapique 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 the attack began.
But no wider warning was issued, and questions emerged about why a public emergency alert was not sent provincewide 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 should have been some provincial alert,” said David Matthews, who said he heard a gunshot while walking with his wife Sunday. Shortly after they returned home, their phone started ringing with warnings from friends that there was an active shooter in the neighborhood.
Several bodies were found inside and outside one house on Portapique Beach Road, police said. Bodies were also found at other locations in Nova Scotia and authorities believe the shooter may have targeted his first victims, then attacked randomly as he drove around.
Authorities said Wortman did not have a police record, but information emerged of at least one run-in with the law.
Nova Scotia court records confirm he was ordered to receive counseling for anger management after pleading guilty to assaulting a man in the Halifax area on Oct. 29, 2001. The guilty plea came on Oct. 7, 2002, as his trial was about to begin.
He was placed on probation for nine months, fined $50 and told to stay away from the man, and prohibited from owning or possessing a weapon, ammunition or explosives.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Brenda Lucki said police were still determining what weapons were used in the attacks.
Cheryl Maloney, who lives near where 54-year-old Gina Goulet was killed, believes she was saved by a warning message Sunday morning from her son that said: “Don’t leave your house. This guy is at the end of your road and he’s dressed like a cop.”
“I really could have used that provincial warning, as I walk here all the time and I’ve been in the yard all week,” she said.