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Regional police investigators confer outside the shooter's denture clinic in Dartmouth, N.S., on April 20, 2020.

Tim Krochak/Getty Images

They call them the wannabes, and every police force knows a handful.

Before the days of digital radio encryption, they were the ones who listened to police scanners religiously, and rolled past crime scenes driving decommissioned cruisers.

“Often there was no nefarious intent,” said University of Western Ontario criminologist Mike Arntfield, who encountered a few people fitting the description during his 15 years with the London Police Service. “It was compulsion, part of a broader fantasy world they had developed. They were forever dancing on the line of personating an officer.”

Over the weekend, Gabriel Wortman, 51-year-old denturist in Nova Scotia, obliterated the line, killing at least 22 people across 16 crime scenes, according to police.

Nova Scotia mass shooter was a denturist with an obsession for policing

‘Our hearts are broken’: The victims of Nova Scotia’s mass shooting, Canada’s deadliest

Nova Scotia mass shooting: What we know so far about the victims, suspect and timeline of events

The shooter’s background bears the hallmarks of two distinct but opposing personality types familiar to police: the wannabe, who generally reveres law enforcement, and the criminal impersonator, who co-opts the badge for illicit purposes. Although the Nova Scotia massacre contains familiar elements, they combined in a horrific way that has no parallel on this continent, say those who study such crimes.

As the killings unfolded, Mounties in Nova Scotia warned residents that the shooter was driving what appeared to be an RCMP cruiser and possibly wearing an RCMP uniform.

But it wasn’t just any replica cruiser. A picture of the car shows an exact copy of a modern Ford Taurus RCMP cruiser, right down to the rims, decals and lights – what’s collectively known as the car’s “strike package.”

“That shows a level of attention to detail that is far beyond what I’ve seen before in cases of personation of police,” Dr. Arntfield said. “This is completely off the dial."

Bill McCormack, who lived across the street from Mr. Wortman’s Dartmouth denture clinic, said he frequently brought home big-ticket purchases such as low-rider motorcycles and all-white decommissioned police cars. But the purchase that really caught his attention was a search-and-rescue zodiac that turned up in the clinic’s parking lot. Mr. Wortman told him he’d bought it at a government auction.

“It was the kind the police or the army would have,” Mr. McCormack said.

Joe Rushton, who has family members who know the shooter, says he owned three former police cruisers purchased at auctions. As well, he had two handguns and a shotgun similar to police-issue firearms. “He was an enthusiast,” Mr. Rushton said. “He was a perfectionist, wanted to have everything just right.”

The fixation was never known to verge on criminality. RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said on Monday that the gunman was “not well known to police” and was not on the RCMP’s “radar.” That detail sets him apart from the hundreds of cases in which someone has donned a uniform solely to break the law.

“It happens far more often than we think it does,” said University of Colorado Denver criminologist Mary Dodge, whose research on police impersonation has turned up more than 300 cases around the world. “It’s an easy crime of opportunity.”

She found that when wannabes do cross the line into criminality, it’s because there’s been a challenge to their authoritarian nature that they must confront.

As familiar as she is with the archetype, Dr. Dodge couldn’t come up with any analogous case. “This is an outlier,” she said.

With reports from Greg Mercer and Lindsay Jones

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