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The Royal Canadian Mounted Police released a recent photo Micheal Zehab Bibeau. (RCMP)
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police released a recent photo Micheal Zehab Bibeau. (RCMP)

Drugs and religion key themes in Ottawa shooter’s troubled life Add to ...

The night before he attacked the heart of the nation’s capital, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau went into a stairwell at his Ottawa shelter and knelt on a standard-issue white bathroom towel to pray.

For years, Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, tried and failed to use prayer as a shield against the drug addiction and mental instability stalking him through adulthood, but that is just one shade in a complex portrait composed from dozens of interviews, court records and archives found along Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau’s cross-country path.

This was a man who tried to divorce himself from family and moved to British Columbia to get a fresh start, only to land in the same sewer of petty crime and drugs that trapped him in Montreal. He tried to find community with fellow Muslims but drove them away. He would preach to the infidel one day and smoke crack cocaine the next. He even tried to rob a McDonald’s wielding a sharp stick, hoping to go to prison and get help with his drug addiction. He served one day in jail.

The residents of the Ottawa Mission where Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau bowed in final prayer had their own piece of the picture, and there too he failed to fit in, putting off people with his extreme religiosity. “So as I’m walking by this guy I start singing that Christian hymn I’ll Fly Away,’” said one resident, who wanted to be known only by his street name, Cakeman. “I’m a jokester. But I could see he didn’t think it was funny. He didn’t even look at me.”

Five hours later, at around 8:30 a.m., someone at the shelter pulled a fire alarm. Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau slipped out. Ninety minutes later, he arrived at the National War Memorial, where he shot Corporal Nathan Cirillo before moving on to Parliament.

His mother, Susan Bibeau, was at a loss Thursday to explain what happened, saying her son was lost. “I am mad at our son, I don't understand and part of me wants to hate him at this time,” said Ms. Bibeau, who is a deputy chairperson in the federal immigration department. Ms. Bibeau said she had lunch with her son last week, the first time she’d spoken to him in at least five years. “I have very little insight to offer.”

The gunman was born Michael Joseph Paul Abdallah Bulgasem Zehaf Bibeau on Oct. 16, 1982, in Montreal, to Ms. Bibeau and Bulgasem Zehaf, a businessman of Libyan descent. In his school years, friends knew him as Mike Bibeau.

Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau attended a strict, private, French-language high school called Collège Laval, where students wore jackets and ties and could be penalized for swearing or having an untucked shirt. He was a well-liked classmate known for his ready smile and his skill with a Ping-Pong paddle. “He was part of our little ‘immigrant’ gang,” recalled classmate Vito Garofalo, who lost touch with him after high school. “He was a good kid and he was funny. He just fit in.”

He was also a fairly large boy who didn’t hesitate to look after himself. “He was a strong boy,” said Mr. Garofalo. “He had the capacity to pick up anybody if he wanted to. But he wasn’t a troublemaker.”

In those days, few students knew about his Libyan background, and one former classmate said everyone thought he was Italian. Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau switched to a public school in Laval in his fourth year.

“He likes to laugh and his smile drives girls crazy. He’ll go far in life. He’ll surely be a businessman in the near future,” the inscription in his graduation yearbook read.

Within five years of graduation, around 2004, Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau was repeatedly in court for petty criminality, often linked to drugs such as marijuana and PCP. He decided to break away from his troubled Montreal life and head West.

“He told me at some point in his life, I guess his 20s, he cut ties basically with his parents,” said former B.C. friend Dave Bathurst. “He worked at mining in Squamish. At some point he ended up living in Burnaby. He rented a single room, as far as I understand.”

The fresh start did not endure. Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau was arrested in Vancouver on a robbery charge three years ago. He was a devout Muslim – but also a crack addict looking for redemption. A psychiatric report filed in British Columbia provincial court found he wasn’t mentally ill and could be released. The document, however, also describes him as a deeply troubled man.

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