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Visitors to a roadside memorial pay their respects in Portapique, N.S., on April 24, 2020.The Canadian Press

Nova Scotia RCMP say the deadliest mass shooting in the country’s history began after the gunman assaulted his common-law partner, who escaped into the woods before he went on his rampage.

Police have released a detailed account of the killings – 22 homicides committed over a huge swath of rural Nova Scotia by a 51-year-old denturist who had a collection of guns and used police vehicles.

Superintendent Darren Campbell, the officer in charge of support services for the Nova Scotia RCMP, said Friday that the gunman’s common-law partner has become a “significant key witness” in their investigation and that she has been co-operating while she recovers from the injuries she suffered that night.

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“We are saddened but in no way shocked … that violence against women lay at the heart of this heinous crime,” the Transitional House Association of Nova Scotia (THANS) said in a statement. The organization is working to end violence against women in the province.

“We must not dilute this problem by speaking of a single act of rage but rather recognize that male violence is part of a bigger social problem of entitlement and toxic masculinity," THANS said in the statement. "We need to recognize the underlying attitudes and beliefs that tolerate and normalize smaller acts of violence against women and perpetuate an environment that leads to deadly outcomes.”

Police have also revealed that they believe the long guns used by the killer were obtained in the United States; that his look-alike RCMP vehicle may have allowed him to escape a police perimeter; and that he was stopped and killed by happenstance – when a police officer pulled into the same gas station where he was refuelling.

Supt. Campbell described the chaotic scene that met the officers who arrived at the rural beach community of Portapique just before 10:30 p.m. Saturday. First, they found a man whose car had been shot at as the gunman sped past him. Then, they discovered a grim setting: Homes were on fire and 13 people were dead.

"Upon arriving, they located several people who were deceased and lying in the roadway and several structures fully engulfed in flames,” he said.

He said police are still trying to determine the motive for the killings. Although police know the rampage began with an attack on the gunman’s common-law partner, they are still working to determine whether the massacre was preplanned.

“Obviously, as part of this investigation, that’s a consideration that we have. That could have been a catalyst,” Supt. Campbell said. “But we’re open to all possibilities and we’re not excluding the possibility that there was premeditation involved.”

The gunman managed to elude police until the following morning, when more 911 calls came in, this time about 60 kilometres away in the community of Wentworth. The gunman killed a couple there and burned down their home, then fatally shot a neighbour who came to help. He later killed a woman who was walking her dog along the nearby road, Supt. Campbell said.

The gunman’s authentic-looking cruiser and uniform complicated efforts to stop him, he said.

“I can’t imagine any more horrific set of circumstances when you’re trying to search for someone that looks like you,” Supt. Campbell said. “That obviously was an advantage that the suspect had on police, that he had on the public.”

As he continued on his rampage, the shooter appeared at a home in the Glenholme area, knocking on the door of a couple who were hiding inside. He left when they wouldn’t open the door, Supt. Campbell said. Then, about 45 kilometres south, in the village of Debert, witnesses described him stopping two vehicles, then shooting and killing the drivers.

In Shubenacadie, he shot an RCMP officer who mistook the approaching fake police car for a real RCMP cruiser driven by a fellow officer. That officer was wounded and drove himself to a nearby hospital. A few minutes later, Constable Heidi Stevenson, a 23-year RCMP veteran, collided with the gunman’s vehicle. Gunshots were exchanged.

“The gunman took Constable Stevenson’s life. He also took Constable Stevenson’s sidearm and her magazines,” Supt. Campbell said. “A passerby who stopped was fatally shot."

The killer, who did not have a firearms licence but had a handgun that originated in Canada and several long guns police believe were obtained in the U.S., stole the man’s SUV and drove to the home of a nearby denturist, Gina Goulet, and killed her.

He changed clothes and transferred his weapons to her car. The manhunt finally ended about 25 kilometres away, when he stopped for gas at an Irving Big Stop.

“While he was at one of the gas pumps, one of our tactical officers came to the gas station to refuel their vehicle,” Supt. Campbell said. “There was an encounter, and the gunman was shot and killed by police.”

Peter Jaffe, academic director for Western University’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children, was surprised that the domestic-violence element was not publicly shared by police until the fifth day of the investigation.

“For me, that’s a big question. We are in day five after a national tragedy, and people are desperately looking for some answers," he said. "Not all of the answers, of course, because police are involved in a very complex investigation – but at least some understanding of what triggered this, so that they can start to grapple with the enormity of what transpired.”

Dr. Jaffe said that the police investigation will almost certainly be followed by a public inquiry.

“One of the themes has to be around domestic violence,” he said.

The solution to ending domestic violence and femicide is not just about a better police response, he said, education is also important. People need to know what domestic violence is and what the warning signs are, he added.

"Most people are still looking for a black eye,” he said. “To honour the lives lost, you have to be seeking for answers. We owe that not only to the people who lost their lives but also their family members.”

Lindsay Jones is a freelance writer

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