RCMP in Nova Scotia say they are now investigating whether others may have assisted the gunman in Canada’s deadliest mass shooting as the death toll rose Tuesday to 22 victims.
It is the first suggestion other suspects may have had some role in the devastating rampage across rural Nova Scotia last weekend, which police have previously said was committed by Gabriel Wortman alone.
RCMP included the information in a media release they issued Tuesday afternoon and said they would not answer further questions about it.
The list of victims includes one 17-year-old. The rest were adults, men and women, both people who knew the killer and strangers apparently chosen at random.
Among the dead is a family of three, the parents of two children and RCMP Constable Heidi Stevenson, a 23-year veteran of the force and a mother of two.
In the days after the killings, questions are growing about why RCMP only alerted the public to the manhunt through Twitter, and did not activate a provincial alert during the lengthy period in which the gunman was on the run, and known to be armed and homicidal. RCMP have said he was wearing an authentic RCMP uniform, and driving a highly sophisticated replica of an RCMP vehicle.
Multiple victims were killed on Sunday morning, about 12 hours after the original bodies were discovered.
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said provincial authorities were informed about the fires in Portapique around midnight on Saturday. He said there was the potential the fires could lead to forest fires in the area.
He said in the hours that followed the province provided air support to the police investigation, and by Sunday morning had activated the Emergency Management Office, including bringing in staff especially to deal with the technicalities of the provincial alert system, but RCMP never asked for an alert to be issued.
“In this case, the RCMP has to ask for that alert to go out, because quite frankly, we need the information from them. What is it that they want in that alert to notify to citizens? ... ” Mr. McNeil said. "We had staff on hand in the morning to be able to do that, but it was not requested.”
Asked why an alert was not requested by RCMP, he said, “That is something that all Nova Scotians are wondering.”
RCMP Chief Superintendent Chris Leather said in a press conference on Monday that RCMP believed at the time that Twitter was “a superior way to communicate” the threat to the public, but will be looking further at that decision.
Outside Portapique – where the shooting began at about 10:30 Saturday night – the road remained blocked by police, as a steady procession of mourners came to drop off flowers and notes at a makeshift memorial, and bring refreshments for RCMP.
“We have no words for it. It’s just terrible,” said Rose Kaulback, who arrived in a pickup truck with her husband, Karl, to drop off flowers outside the community of Portapique on Tuesday.
Their nephew, Greg Blair, and his wife, Jamie Blair, were killed in the attacks, leaving two sons, aged 10 and 12. Ms. Kaulback said the boys are staying with another one of her nephews.
“It’s just like a bad dream that you hope you’re going to wake up from," Ms. Kaulback said, wiping away tears. Her voice cracked with emotion.
Around noon on Tuesday, three military vans and a large green army truck of soldiers dressed in fatigues and medical masks arrived in Portapique to offer logistical support to the RCMP, who are still processing multiple crime scenes.
The RCMP’s resources have been so strained by the sheer size of the investigation that officers from around the province – from Yarmouth to the Annapolis Valley – were being called in to help.
Meanwhile, families and communities are trying to mourn the devastating losses, amid the restrictions of a global pandemic that requires them to stay apart and limit contact.
“Every household is just heartbroken,” said Rilla MacDougall, who lives in nearby Bass River. She says she took ukulele lessons with Lisa McCully, the teacher who was killed in Portapique, and that Ms. McCully also taught her grandchildren at a school in Bass River. “Because of the virus, we’re unable to hug each other.”
RCMP say there are 16 separate scenes being investigated, at least five of which involved house or vehicle fires. In addition to the scenes in Portapique, victims were found in the communities of Wentworth, Debert, Shubenacadie/Milford and Enfield.
The gunman died after being shot by police in a parking lot in Enfield, outside Halifax, about 13.5 hours after the shootings began. His death is counted by RCMP as the 23rd casualty.
Another RCMP officer, Constable Chad Morrison, was injured but has since been released from hospital. RCMP say members of the public were also injured, but no information has been released about how many people were hurt, or what the nature of their injuries are.
At the RCMP detachment in Enfield, where Constable Stevenson worked, hundreds came by to lay flowers or flags, or otherwise pay their respects.
Several officers from the detachment, with tears in their eyes, took part in a ceremony with members of the local Miꞌkmaq community, lighting a fire that will burn around the clock for a total of four days.
Trevor Chenier, a local Miꞌkmaq man who organized the ceremony, said he hoped it might bring some peace to a mourning community. Others who visited the scene said they wanted to show their support however they could.
“This is my community, these were my neighbours,” said John Nason, who brought a load of wood to the detachment in the back of his pickup truck, to fuel the ceremonial fire. “They were good people.”
Gerry Young, a retired staff sergeant with the Ottawa Police Department who now lives in Bedford, N.S., became emotional when he saw the memorial.
“We just want to know why,” Mr. Young said. “We might know the when, but it’s the why.”
The RCMP statement says investigators are looking into whether the killings were premeditated, and trying to determine why the 51-year-old Dartmouth denturist committed them.
“We aren’t speculating on Gabriel Wortman’s motives,” the statement read. “Trying to answer this question is part of the investigation.”
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