UPDATE: As of Apr. 21, 2020, RCMP have confirmed that 23 people were killed in the shooting.
An RCMP officer was one of at least 19 people killed during a shooting rampage that began on Saturday night in Nova Scotia, and ended after a police pursuit and the gunman’s death.
Const. Heidi Stevenson, a 23-year veteran of the force and mother of two, was killed while another Mountie was left with non-life threatening injuries.
Police said some of the victims didn’t seem to have known the suspect, who reportedly wore an RCMP uniform and drove what looked like a police cruiser.
“The impact of this incident will extend from one part of the province to another,” said RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather during a Sunday evening press conference.
On Monday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at least 18 people were killed in the “senseless” violence. The RCMP later confirmed the death toll had risen to 19 and could rise as more victims are identified.
The death toll surpasses the 14 people killed in the 1989 Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, making it Canada’s deadliest mass shooting.
Police first responded to a firearms complaint and several 911 calls in the Portapique area, a rural coastal village about 130 kilometres north of Halifax, on Saturday night.
When they arrived, police found several people dead inside and outside a residence, said Leather, estimating “in excess of 10 people” had been killed. It was difficult to specify the number of victims because “the investigation continues into areas that we have not yet explored across the province.”
About 100 people live in Portapique year-round, while the population grows to about 250 with cottagers in the East Coast summer.
As a search was launched for Gabriel Wortman, 51, residents in the area were told to lock their doors and stay in the basement.
Police said Wortman, who worked as a denturist, was driving what appeared to be an RCMP cruiser and wearing an RCMP uniform.
“The fact that this individual had a uniform and a police car at his disposal certainly speaks to it not being a random act,” Leather said.
Police also said the shooter seemed to have switched cars several times during the manhunt which stretched through several communities over Saturday night and into Sunday morning along a busy highway.
The suspect search led to multiple sites around the region, some of which were on fire, said Leather.
Darcy Sack told CBC News that she came across two burning police cars and the suspect’s vehicle as she was driving near Highway 102 on Sunday.
“There was one officer we could see on scene and then all of a sudden, he went running toward one of the burning vehicles,” Sack said. “We heard gunshots.”
She said the suspect was dressed like a police officer.
On Sunday morning, he was stopped about 90 kilometres away in Enfield, a scene that was surrounded by a half dozen police vehicles.
Leather said the pursuit ended with the man’s death, but didn’t provide details on the cause. At one point, police and the suspect did exchange gunfire, he said.
Yellow police tape surrounded the gas pumps, and a large silver-coloured SUV was being investigated by police. A body was seen lying at the gas station. Police would not comment on the body’s identity.
“This was a quickly evolving situation and chaotic scene,” the chief superintendent said.
The Globe and Mail reported that an acquaintance said the suspect was obsessed with the police and interviewed others who said he bought old police cruisers at auctions.
N.S. RCMP Commanding Officer Lee Bergerman said that Stevenson left behind two children and a husband. “Heidi answered the call of duty and lost her life while protecting those she served,” she said. “Earlier this afternoon, I met with Heidi’s family and there are no words to describe their pain.”
Leather told reporters there are no indications the COVID-19 pandemic might have played a part in the attacks.
On Sunday, Trudeau touched on the shooting during his daily pandemic briefing.
“My heart goes out to everyone affected in what is a terrible situation,” he said.
“As a country, in moments like these, we come together to support one another. Together we will mourn with the families of the victims, and help them get through this difficult time.”
Watch Trudeau’s statement:
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil described the massacre as “one of the most senseless acts of violence in our province’s history.”
“I never imagined when I went to bed last night that I would wake up to the horrific news that an active shooter was on the loose in Nova Scotia,” McNeil said in Halifax on Sunday.
In a series of tweets, he added that all Nova Scotians would be affected by the tragedy.
“It’s okay to feel sad, or angry, or hopeless,” he wrote. “But what’s not okay is to bear all of those feelings alone. Reach out to a loved one, a friend, a neighbour. And if you need more support, that’s okay too. The provincial crisis line is available 24/7: 1-888-429-8167.”
With files from The Canadian Press