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Canadian police say 23 victims after rampage in Nova Scotia

Rob Gillies
Associated Press

Toronto — Canadian police said Tuesday they believe there to be 23 victims after a gunman went on a rampage in rural communities across Nova Scotia over the weekend.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said they have recovered remains from some of the locations of the fires. Earlier, authorities said at least 18 people were killed in the 12-hour attack. 

As fears mounted that more victims would be found in burned-out homes, a young man said that his grandparents were missing and believed dead after their log cabin was set ablaze during the attack. 

A memorial pays tribute to Royal Canadian Mounted Police Constable Heidi Stevenson, a mother of two and a 23-year veteran of the force, along the highway in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, on Tuesday.

Justin Zahl said he finally heard from police after frantic calls for information and seeing images of his grandparent’s home in the rural town of Portapique burned to the ground, with their cars in the driveway. 

It was not immediately clear, however, if the remains police said had been found Tuesday included those of his grandparents. 

“Most likely bodies in the rubble but no ID on who yet,” the distraught 22-year-old said police told him of the couple, who adopted and raised him and his 19-year-old brother, Riley. 

Police teams were spread out across 16 locations in central and northern Nova Scotia, including the neighborhood where the 12-hour rampage began late Saturday on Portapique Beach Road, where the suspect, Gabriel Wortman, lived.

Police have warned the death toll will almost certainly rise as investigators comb through homes destroyed by fire. 

Meanwhile, questions emerged Tuesday about why a public emergency alert was not sent as the rampage ensued. Police provided Twitter updates, but no alert that would have automatically popped up on cellphones.

Zahl told The Associated Press he last heard from his grandmother early Saturday evening via iMessage on her iPad.

“They were angels,” he said, adding that the couple were like parents to him and his brother. “He was the smartest man I knew, and could hold a conversation with anyone.”

He said John Zahl, in his late 60s, and Elizabeth Joanne Thomas, in her late 50s, lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before retiring to their dream home in Nova Scotia in 2017 after falling in love with the place on a visit. Justin and his brother lived with them for a while but both young men no longer do and neither was at the home during the attack, he said.

Officials said the suspect, identified as 51-year-old Wortman, also died in the weekend attack. Authorities did not provide a motive for the killings. 

Authorities said Wortman wore a police uniform and made his car look like a Royal Canadian Mounted Police cruiser allowing him to travel easily within a 30-mile (50-kilometer) area around Portapique, where the rampage began. A police officer was among those killed. 

As the attacks unfolded, police warned residents in the neighborhood to lock their doors and stay in their basements. The town, like all of Canada, had been adhering to government advice to remain at home because of the coronavirus pandemic and most of the victims were inside homes when the attack began.

But no wider warning was issued.

Several bodies were later found inside and outside one house on Portapique Beach Road, authorities said. Bodies were also found at other locations in Nova Scotia and authorities believe the shooter may have targeted his first victims but then began attacking randomly as he drove around. 

Authorities believe Wortman acted alone. Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Brenda Lucki said he was not well known to police. She said police were still studying the crime scenes to determine what weapons were used.

Meanwhile, many questioned why a public emergency alert was not sent province-wide as the rampage ensued. Police provided Twitter updates, but no alert that would have automatically popped up on cellphones across Nova Scotia was sent — even though the system was recently used to advise people to maintain social distancing because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“There should have been some provincial alert,” said David Matthews, who heard a gun shot while he was walking with his wife on Sunday. Shortly after they returned home, their phone started ringing with warnings from friends that there was an active shooter in the neighborhood, he said. 

Cheryl Maloney, who lives near where one victim, 54-year-old Gina Goulet, was killed, said she was likely saved by her son, who messaged a warning Sunday morning: “Don’t leave your house. This guy is at the end of your road and he’s dressed like a cop.”

“I really could have used that provincial warning, as I walk here all the time and I’ve been in the yard all week,” she said.