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This past June, the memorial at a former church in Portapique, N.S., was still crowded with tributes to the Nova Scotia shooting victims two months after their deaths.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

In June of 2010, an extraordinary reunion was organized in the tiny beachside community of Portapique, N.S., where two brothers who had spent 40 years as strangers would finally meet.

Gabriel Wortman, a denturist from Dartmouth, had invited Jeff Samuelson, his younger brother who had been given up for adoption as an infant in 1970, to his Nova Scotia cottage to get to know his biological family.

The occasion was a birthday party for their father, Paul Wortman, a man Mr. Samuelson had met only a few months earlier after spending years trying to track down his birth parents.

But instead of a feel-good gathering, and the beginning of a new relationship, the Portapique reunion quickly dissolved into an ugly fight between Mr. Wortman and his elderly father over title to a property, according to a number of people at the party. Police were called after the denturist threatened to kill his parents.

“It was nasty,” said Brenda Forbes, a former neighbour. “It went sideways. Jeff saw how messed up things were, and he said, ‘I don’t want any part of that family.’ ” Mr. Samuelson declined to comment for this story.

Gabriel Wortman, shown in an undated photo.

RCMP/The Canadian Press

Those who knew Mr. Wortman say the doomed reunion offers a glimpse into his complicated personality. On the surface, he was a friendly, often smiling, successful businessman who could charm people, but he was also a notorious boozer and a man who would quickly turn violent, vindictive and deceitful.

Nearly 10 years after that family gathering, Mr. Wortman’s rage erupted again. On the night of April 18, he assaulted his common-law wife, burned down his home and killed 13 of his neighbours in Portapique, torching many of their houses. As police arrived, he slipped past them in a fake RCMP cruiser, and travelled across a swath of rural Nova Scotia, killing another nine people, before he was gunned down by police the next morning.

In all, 22 people were killed in a 13-hour period – the deadliest mass killing in Canadian history. The Nova Scotia RCMP continue to investigate the case, and say they may never fully understand his motive.

The Globe spoke to dozens of people over the past two months to piece together a picture of the 51-year-old gunman. Those interviews revealed a number of red flags they say should have triggered police intervention long ago.

On at least four occasions, police were alerted to the gunman’s troubling behaviour: in 2001, for an assault on a 15-year-old boy; in 2010, for death threats against his parents; in 2011, when a police safety bulletin warned he had a stash of guns and had stated he wanted to kill a cop; and in 2013, for a violent attack on his spouse and another weapons complaint to the RCMP.

While he received a conditional discharge for the 2001 assault, the other complaints to police never resulted in any charges.

There were many other instances that should have drawn police to Mr. Wortman’s door, but in most cases, when family, friends, neighbours and acquaintances observed the denturist’s violent and disturbing behaviour, they just tried to stay out his way.

Mr. Wortman, in their eyes, was a “psychopath” and “sociopath.” He was the kind of man who made people nervous, bragged about knowing how to dispose of bodies and built miniature coffins as a hobby.

“We were all too afraid of him to go to the police,” said his uncle, Glynn Wortman. “I know he loved me, but I was scared to death of him.”


The memorial in Portapique includes hearts inscribed with the names of the 22 people Mr. Wortman killed.

Highway 2 in Portapique, shown in June. When his rampage began this past April, Mr. Wortman went down this highway from Portapique, where he owned property, to kill others en route southeast.

Photos: Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail


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Early warning signs

Mr. Wortman was born in Ontario and raised as an only child in the sleepy Moncton suburb of Riverview, N.B. He didn’t know he had a brother until he was an adult.

His family moved around a lot when he was young, with his father working at the Stelco steel plant in Hamilton, driving heavy equipment, before working in factories in the U.S., and then later buying and selling homes in the Moncton area.

It was a violent household, with a lot of fighting, according to statements given to police by people who knew him, and backed up by family.

“He hated his father, he wasn’t a father to him,” Glynn Wortman said. “The family was very dysfunctional.”

His parents, Paul and Evelyn Wortman, did not respond to interview requests. In an interview with Frank magazine, his father said he was heartbroken by the killings, and wondered whether they could have been prevented if the RCMP had obtained a search warrant to seize his sizable gun collection years ago.

As a teenager, he showed the duality of his personality – he told classmates he wanted to be in the RCMP, and said he planned to follow some of his extended family into policing. But he also acted above the law. He sped everywhere he drove, shot air-powered rifles around town and used stolen siding to refinish his parents’ home, his uncle said.

By the time he was a student at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, he had a bustling business smuggling cheap cigarettes from the U.S. and selling them to students. He continued to sell black-market cigarettes, even after he quit university and began studying to become a mortician, before settling on a career as a denturist.

“He was proud of it [smuggling cigarettes], that’s how he put himself through university,” Glynn Wortman said. “He did it for years. He was as crooked as the day was long.”

A Halifax police officer inspects the suite above Mr. Wortman's denture clinic in Dartmouth.

Tim Krochak/Getty Images

As an adult, even as his denture business grew, he seemed drawn to things outside the law. He hung around with people with long criminal records, used illegal radar detectors, boasted about buying stolen goods, sold black-market liquor and had large sums of cash stashed around his homes. Others said he seemed fixated on deceiving people out of money.

“He was evil, he was cruel,” said Steven Zinck, who says he lost his family home to the denturist in 2004 after Mr. Wortman loaned him $38,000 for a mortgage and tricked him into changing the title on the property. “He’d smile to your face while stealing the wallet out of your back pocket. He was a con man.”

He once told his uncle he wanted to build a secret marijuana grow-op inside a bunker in Debert, N.S., but cancelled the plan when he discovered mould inside the building. He kept a loaded pistol inside a pillow in an apartment above his Dartmouth clinic, his uncle said.

Cash was always king for the denturist, because he hated paying taxes. He often did denturist work under the table, Glynn Wortman said.

Mr. Wortman’s estate was worth an estimated $1.2-million, according to a recent court filing – but his uncle says if you count the cash he kept hidden, he had far more wealth than that. Despite his comfortable lifestyle, he fought bitterly with his family over money.

He splashed his cash on motorcycles, fancy Christmas parties, luxury cars and boats. He had plenty of disposable income that allowed for expensive jewellery, exotic vacations, a condo in the Dominican Republic and a big log home near the beach in Portapique.

It also allowed him to finance an unusual fascination with law enforcement – collecting multiple decommissioned police cars, a search and rescue Zodiac, authentic uniforms, weapons and other police equipment.

This cellphone photo was taken inside Mr. Wortman's garage in late 2019 or early 2020. On the upper level, a line of motorcycles can be seen; on the bottom is a replica police vehicle he restored.

He took that fascination with police vehicles a step further in 2010, when he bought an obscure Fredericton-based company called the Berkshire Broman Corporation.

The man he bought it from, Kipling Scott MacKenzie, has a lengthy criminal record, and, like Mr. Wortman, a long-running dispute with police and authority, according to Nova Scotia court records. Mr. MacKenzie described the company as a tree-maintenance business in corporate filings.

While its business assets may have been unclear, the Berkshire Broman Corporation did serve one critical purpose: It allowed the gunman to get around background checks when buying at least four decommissioned police vehicles from government auctions, including the look-alike police vehicle he used to flee Portapique.

With the 2001 assault, and the 2011 police safety bulletin, he would have had reason to disguise his ownership of the former police vehicles.

“If there’s anything in your past, or you’re a crook or whatever, they won’t sell to you,” said Bernard Cain, owner of a surplus shop in Moncton who has bought and sold used police vehicles for years.

Mr. Cain recalls meeting the gunman in the summer of 2018, when he walked into Mr. Cain’s shop claiming to be a retired policeman. He inquired about buying a used police car.

“I said, ‘What the hell do you want a police car for? I normally sell them to kids,’ ” he said. “He said he had cottages by the seashore, and they were being broke into in the off-season.”

They couldn’t agree on a price, and he left without buying the car.

Break-ins at his property were a sore point, and he covered the area in security cameras. He blamed police for failing to properly investigate a break-and-enter complaint he’d made, one of the reasons he said he wanted to kill a cop, according to an anonymous 2011 tip that resulted in the police safety bulletin.

That paranoia continued to build as the COVID-19 pandemic grew. In late March, he liquidated his assets and withdrew hundreds of thousands dollars in cash from a Dartmouth Brink’s depot, the RCMP say.

The RCMP, who are auditing the gunman’s bank accounts, believe he wanted to withdraw the cash because he was growing increasingly worried about the financial crisis caused by the pandemic. After Mr. Wortman was killed, police discovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in a fire-proof container on one of his properties in Portapique.

The police force has denied a report from Maclean’s magazine that the cash was a payment from the RCMP for passing along information about organized crime. Instead, the gunman appeared to be a “survivalist,” the RCMP said, preparing for a breakdown of society.


A 'Portapique Strong' bench sits on a rural property in the town.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

A history of violence

The gunman and his common-law wife might have seemed as if they were enjoying a luxurious lifestyle. But their time together was also marked by violence, coercion and other forms of abuse, according to multiple people interviewed for this story.

He controlled her movements and income and abused her in front of a crowd on several occasions, those who knew the couple said. They say he was verbally and physically abusive to her, and jealous of any attention she received, despite his own string of affairs.

The pair – he the tall, bald, successful businessman and she the petite and pretty assistant working by his side in his Dartmouth clinic – had been together for nearly 20 years. Mr. Wortman was previously married but divorced in 2001, and had no children.

Some of his assaults came with little warning. His uncle says in one incident a few years ago, he saw his nephew straddling his partner’s chest, choking her, after he’d accused her of cheating. Glynn Wortman said he and another man intervened, and she got away. No one called the police, he said.

“It usually happened when he was drinking beer,” said Glynn Wortman, who told her not to come back after the last assault. “I warned her ‘Don’t let him catch up with you,' because he was really out of his mind.”

During a bonfire in Portapique in 2013, the gunman threw his partner on the ground and began choking her again. At other get-togethers with neighbours, he would drag her away if she seemed to be having too much fun. On another night, also in 2013, the woman showed up at a neighbour’s doorstep, afraid for her safety.

“I told her there were places that could help her, but she was too afraid to leave,” said Brenda Forbes, a military veteran. “He would block her car off with his truck so she couldn’t leave. It only got worse.”

Ms. Forbes and her husband called police over the violent assaults. They were also concerned about a stash of unregistered guns. They gave statements to two RCMP officers, but Mr. Wortman was never charged.

Mr. Wortman’s common-law wife has declined to speak with the media. She is co-operating with police in their investigation of the mass murder.

His drinking was often out of control. Once drunk, he became a loudmouth, arrogant and sensitive to the slightest insult, say people who used to socialize with him in Portapique.

“I had to cut connections off with him for a few years because I didn’t want to fall back into the alcoholic oblivion,” said Cindy Starratt, a Portapique neighbour. “He’d recover, then he’d go back into it. He’d be sober for nine months, then he’d go back into it.”

His womanizing was also a poorly kept secret.

“He didn’t think too much about them, he didn’t care about them,” said Mr. Zinck, who used to do body work on Mr. Wortman’s cars in Dartmouth. “He thought he was a nice-looking guy, he had money and he could get any woman he wanted.”

One denture client said he made her feel uncomfortable, and his flirting would sometimes cross the line. Halifax’s Angela Saumure, who went to the clinic over a three-month period in 2018, said she put up with his unwanted attention, ignoring his offers of a job and invitations to visit to his cottage, until he made a crude sexual remark toward her when they were alone in an office.

“He asked me if I’d like to be his receptionist. Then he said something that made me not want to go back,” Ms. Saumure said.

Ms. Forbes says when his partner found out about the other women, he blamed Ms. Forbes for speaking out. He showed up at her home late one night, pounding on her door. Then he began stalking her, parking his car outside her home and staring at the house, at the same time every day for several weeks.

“That’s when he started getting creepy,” she said. “He’d get out of the vehicle and just stare, for about half an hour. I was living in fear.”

She and her husband say they left the community to get away from him. Six years later, the couple who bought their property were among the first victims killed by the gunman, who then burned the house to the ground.


This Portapique Beach Road property, registered to Mr. Wortman, is shown burned to the ground on May 9. Destroying the property and killing the occupants was one of the first stages of his killing spree weeks earlier.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail


A plan

Many people believe the gunman had been planning his attack for years. They point to his collection of weapons, including assault rifles he’d purchased on trips to the U.S., his stockpile of ammunition, gasoline and the fake police cruiser he used during some of his killings.

“That’s the psychotic part of him,” Ms. Forbes said. “This wasn’t just someone who flew into a rage.”

The gunman was methodical, she said. He was obsessed with getting the details right. His prized possession was his 2017 look-alike police cruiser, which he kept hidden in a warehouse near his cottage. The vehicle looked every bit like the real deal – right down to the RCMP decals, push bumper, radar, emergency lights and a communication box, according to photos of the vehicle taken last fall.

“He was a perfectionist, almost a little [obsessive-compulsive]” said Ms. Starratt, his neighbour on Portapique Beach Road who used to clean his house. “Everything in the house was immaculate. He was quite proud of it.”

A cellphone image of Mr. Wortman's replica vehicle notes the communication box and decals, details that would make it look more convincing even to RCMP officers.

While some might have seen a collector and gun enthusiast, others saw a threat to public safety. Mike Gregory, a former RCMP officer from Colchester County, N.S., said police had sufficient warnings about the gunman in 2011 – when a safety bulletin said he had a stash of guns and wanted to kill a cop – and should have dealt with him then.

“This person had a history of violence, it was known that he wanted to kill a police officer, he is still alive and living in the area and the bulletin is destroyed after two years? Something wrong with this picture. It’s very disturbing,” said the 25-year veteran of the force, who was retired when the bulletin came out.

“If this person was living in my area, every member would know about him.”

The 2011 warning was investigated by Halifax Regional Police, who sent their findings to the RCMP. The RCMP say an officer visited Mr. Wortman’s home twice, but didn’t see any weapons or threat to public safety. That bulletin was then purged from RCMP records, so police had no knowledge of it when the shooting rampage started.

As the Nova Scotia RCMP have tried to understand a motive for the gunman’s rampage, they’ve focused on a common profile used by forensic psychologists – calling Mr. Wortman an “injustice collector.” It’s a well-known term among criminologists, referring to those who nurture grudges and have convinced themselves the world is against them.

They’re disproportionately middle-aged men who have collected an inventory of every perceived slight over the course of their lives, and often feel cheated or disrespected by others, even when there may be no evidence to support that.

Leon Joudry, another neighbour, said the gunman always seemed confrontational. The pair had a run-in last summer, when he was hired to cut trees along his neighbour’s fence line. Frustrated by his arrogance and disrespect, he says he walked away from the job.

“People in the community always said ‘watch out for him,’ ” he said. “I just thought he was an idiot.”

Early on a chilly morning of April 19, Mr. Joudry learned how dangerous his neighbour could be. The gunman’s partner appeared at his house around 6 a.m, telling him Mr. Wortman had “gone crazy.”

She told Mr. Joudry he’d put her in handcuffs in the back of the fake police cruiser, but she managed to escape while he torched their home. She hid out in the woods for the night and emerged hours later.

He called 911 and heavily armed tactical officers soon arrived, taking her away.

Mr. Joudry, who didn’t know about the shootings until a neighbour called him in the middle of the night, is angry about the way police handled their response – choosing to not evacuate the area, and not issue a public alert, spreading information on Twitter instead.


Dehydrated flowers and a sign hang on the welcome sign to Portapique this past June.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail


Calls for inquiry grow

Today, there’s an eerie quiet in Portapique. Charred foundations and bulldozed lots sit where homes used to be. Some residents say they can never come back.

Among the people Mr. Wortman killed are Emily Tuck, a 17-year-old who died along with her parents; Tom Bagley, a retired firefighter; Gina Goulet, a denturist; two nurses; a teacher; two correctional officers; a father, Joey Webber, who was out picking up furnace oil; and RCMP Constable Heidi Stevenson, who died trying to stop the gunman.

The RCMP believe he targeted some of his victims because of disputes, in some cases driving a significant distance to their homes, while others simply crossed his path.

Calls for a public inquiry continue to grow. Families of victims say they hope any probe will examine the RCMP response the night the rampage began, but also whether police should have acted sooner. What’s clear is that Mr. Wortman operated freely for years – amassing a troubling cache of weapons, ammunition, police uniforms and a look-alike police car that he used in his attack.

Mr. Joudry tried to file a complaint about the RCMP’s handling of the shootings with the province’s police watchdog, but was told because he wasn’t injured, their mandate doesn’t kick in. He hopes an inquiry examines the lack of communication by the police during the deadliest rampage in Canadian history.

He bought his house in Portapique because it was peaceful, the kind of place where he could walk his dogs on the beach and go fishing whenever he wanted. Now, Mr. Joudry is selling his dream home near the bay.

“I can’t live there again,” he said. “When I close my eyes, all I see are those people he killed.”

Victims of the 2020 Nova Scotia shootings. Left column, from top: Sean McLeod and Alanna Jenkins; Lisa McCully; Heather O’Brien. Middle: Constable Heidi Stevenson. Right column, from top: Corrie Ellison; Emily Tuck, Jolene Oliver and Aaron (Friar) Tuck; Dawn Madsen and Frank Gulenchyn.

Family handouts, social media

The victims, continued. Left column, from top: Tom Bagley; Lillian Hyslop; Gina Goulet; Joey Webber. Middle: John Zahl and Elizabeth Joanne Thomas. Right column, from top: Jamie and Greg Blair; Kristen Beaton; Joy and Peter Bond.

Family handouts, social media

Young couples, new parents, retirees: The victims of Nova Scotia’s mass shooting


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