Justin Zahl holds onto little hope his parents are alive.
He’s praying they’re stranded somewhere without a phone, and that maybe he will find them.
But when he considers all the facts, he knows John and Joanne Zahl are likely among the more than a dozen victims of a 12-hour shooting rampage in Nova Scotia this weekend.
The couple lived next door to the 51-year-old man the RCMP say killed at least 22 people, marking the deadliest mass killing in Canadian history.
His parents’ house burned down, Zahl told HuffPost Canada, his voice breaking with emotion. From photos he’s seen online, their cars remain in the driveway.
Zahl, 22, last heard from his mother around 7:30 p.m. Saturday. They’d laughed, and all was well, he said. He went to bed early, and when he woke up Sunday morning, he was alarmed to see she hadn’t sent her usual goodnight text.
Then his girlfriend told him about an active shooter near his parents’ home in Portapique, N.S.
“Automatically, I called every one of their numbers 60 to 70 times,” Zahl said. When they didn’t answer, he drove the hour and half to the rural cottage community of Portapique.
Police stopped him at a roadblock five kilometres away.
“They wouldn’t give me any information, or let me know if my house was burnt down, or on fire,” Zahl said. He headed home, where he’s been waiting for an update.
He said he got a call from a police officer at 1:30 p.m. on Monday telling him there’s a very good chance their bodies are at the scene, but they haven’t been identified and it could take up to a week to find out.
“I don’t know what the f**k I’d do without my parents, I really don’t,” Zahl said.
Zahl described Joanne as “an angel” who volunteered at the local church and headed a non-profit group called the Laundry Project, which helped people in need do laundry. She baked cookies and muffins for them throughout the year, and nanaimo bars at Christmas.
“She’d do everything she could to help as many people as she could,” he said. “My dad was right behind her, supporting her the whole way.”
John was originally from Minnesota and Joanne from Winnipeg. They met in the U.S. and the family, including Zahl’s brother Riley, lived for a while in Albuquerque, New Mexico where John worked for FedEx, and then as an educational assistant.
“My parents helped me with everything,” said Zahl. He always felt welcome in their home.
John and Joanne moved to Nova Scotia in 2017. His mother loved the fall colours and watching the cows out to pasture on her drive home, said Zahl. John and Joanne knew the gunman as a friendly neighbour, someone they could count on if they ever needed help.
“Now I’m waiting to find out where their bodies are,” Zahl said.
The shooting rampage ended after a police pursuit and the gunman’s death. Police said some of the victims didn’t seem to know the gunman, who reportedly wore an RCMP uniform and drove what looked like a police cruiser.
The victims include an RCMP officer, a teacher, two nurses and two correctional officers killed in their home.
Here’s what we know about the victims. This article will be updated as more information becomes available.
Joey Webber, a father to two girls, was running an errand on the morning of April 19, according to Theresa Gould, the organizer of his family’s GoFundMe page.
Webber’s family members went looking for him when he didn’t return. It was a couple of hours before his family, including his wife Shanda, found out he had been killed.
Webber had just started to head back to work a couple days before the shooting. He was the sole provider for his family.
“My heart is breaking for his family back home,” said Webber’s cousin Tamara Amero in a Facebook post.
An avid walker, Hyslop was a common sight on the roads of Wentworth Valley, N.S., according to The Chronicle Herald.
The newspaper reported that Hyslop’s husband Mike had received calls from neighbours around the time of the shooting, to warn him that Hyslop should stay off the roads. But the call came too late.
Hyslop and her husband had recently moved to Wentworth to retire, the Herald reported.
Jamie Blair and Greg Blair
Jamie and Greg Blair were described as “two beautiful souls” by relative Jessica MacBurnie in a Facebook post. Together, the couple had four sons and ran a gas installation company.
In a Facebook post by friend Victoria Lomond, Jamie was described as a “care-free, kind and fun loving woman” who always put her sons first.
“The last moment of her life were spent protecting her littlest two from unspeakable harm,” said Lomond.
Jamie and Greg were happily married, Lomond said it was “hard to determine who loved the other more.”
The couple’s dog, Zoe, was found injured after the shooting. Lomond said that Zoe was taken to an animal hospital, where she is now healing after a lengthy surgery.
RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson, a 23-year veteran of the police force and mother of two, was killed while responding to the shooting.
“I met with Heidi’s family and there are no words to describe their pain,” Nova Scotia RCMP Commanding Officer Lee Bergerman said in a statement Sunday.
“Two children have lost their mother and a husband his wife. Parents lost their daughter and countless others lost an incredible friend and colleague.”
An outpouring of support came from across the country.
Trudeau spoke of Stevenson during his daily news briefing from his home in Ottawa on Monday.
“Const. Stevenson died protecting others. She was answering the call of duty, something she’d done every day when she went to work, every day for 23 years,” Trudeau said.
“Each and every day, our officers work hard to make the world a better place, and they represent the very best of Canada,” said Bill Blair, minister of public safety and emergency preparedness in a statement. “Const. Stevenson will be remembered for her commitment to public service and her dedication to keeping the community safe.”
Ellison, 42, was remembered Monday as a thoughtful, kind friend who went out of his way to help others.
“He’s the type of person that I don’t think anybody would want to see that happen to him,” his father Richard Ellison says.
Corrie Ellison lived in Truro, N.S., but was visiting his father in Portapique when he was killed. Richard Ellison declined to comment on how his son died.
Ashley Fennell says she was good friends with Corrie Ellison for almost a decade. She describes him as “a beautiful soul.”
“I’m so lost for words, you were there for me when I needed you most,” said Ellison’s friend Ashley Fennel in a Facebook post.
Ellison had no children of his own but he loved kids, Fennell says. He would join Fennell and her son swimming in the summer and last Christmas, he offered some money for her son’s gifts.
He once paid for Fennell to take her son on a trip to a water park when she was struggling.
“I would call him, and it didn’t matter what he was doing, he would jump for me,” she says.
He had texted her about picking up a cigarette roller about a week ago, but the two never arranged a time with the ongoing pandemic. Fennell didn’t know it would be the last time she talked to her friend.
“I didn’t text him back right away and now I’m regretting all this,″ she says. “He was just such a nice guy.”
Peter Bond and Joy Bond
Peter and Joy were identified by several family members on Facebook as victims of the shooting. According to the Chronicle Herald, the Bonds were residents of Portapique, N.S.
“So sad to hear this,” said relative Sylvia Boudreau-Macdonald in a post. “Peter was a very kind man.”
Heather O’Brien, a practical nurse from Truro, N.S., was killed in the shooting. She was a wife, mother and grandmother, said Jo-Anne Poireir, president and CEO of Victorian Order of Nurses (VON), in a statement.
“She shared her deep caring of others as a VON nurse for nearly 17 years,” Poireir said.
O’Brien’s daughter, Darcy Dobson, described her mother as kind and beautiful.
“I want everyone to remember how kind she was,” Dobson wrote on Facebook. “How much she loved being a nurse. The way her eyes sparkled when she talked to her grandchildren and the way she just LOVED Christmas,” she continued.
“Let those things define her, not the horrible way she died.”
Another VON employee was killed in the shooting: Kristen Beaton, a continuing care assistant, wife and mother, said Poirier.
Beaton had worked with VON for nearly six years, and was caring and compassionate, she said.
In the days before her death, Kristen worked on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, encouraged people to stay home, and advocated for more personal protective equipment to be distributed to health-care workers, according to her Facebook page.
Beaton’s husband Nick said she was pregnant with their unborn child when she was killed, in an interview with CTV’s Lisa LaFlamme.
“We never got to tell our family,” said Nick in the emotional interview. “We were going to tell them this week, she was on vacation.”
Beaton’s husband said that he had warned her about the suspect when reports came in, and was on the phone with her minutes before she was killed. But wasn’t aware that the shooter was driving a replica of an RCMP cruiser until much later.
“I said ‘Babe, run him over. Even if it’s not him we’ll deal with it’,” Nick told LaFlamme.
“We need to be her voice now,” wrote Nick in a statement. “So please for Kristen’s sake, protect the ones who are protecting us. She cried everyday before and everyday after work scared to bring this [COVID-19] home to her son she loved more than I could even imagine anyone could love one person.”
Jolene Oliver, Aaron Tuck and Emily Tuck
The family was together when they were killed, said Jolene Oliver’s sister, Tammy Oliver-McCurdie, on Facebook.
“Don’t know who I will call to chat for hours, solve world problems and laugh at crazy stuff,” Oliver-McCurdie wrote about Oliver. “From afar, Jolene, even through the tough times, we were always close and loved one another. Will be terribly missed.”
Oliver-McCurdie is fundraising to hold funerals in Nova Scotia and Alberta, where many family members live.
Oliver was the youngest of three children and loved books and poetry. Emily Tuck, 17, played fiddle, was into welding and fixed vehicles with her father, Aaron Tuck.
“Aaron was amazing at fixing cars,” Oliver-McCurdie wrote. She described him as having “a great mechanical mind.”
Shelly McLean, a relative of three, is grieving the loss of her family in Calgary. Their deaths caught the attention of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who said he “can’t imagine” what McLean must be going through.
Sean McLeod and Alanna Jenkins
The couple, who were both correctional officers, were found dead at their home in Wentworth, N.S., according to The Canadian Press.
Sean McLeod’s daughter, Taylor Andrews, said she can’t imagine living without them.
“I just can’t wrap my head around the fact that I’ll never be able to call my dad to ask him some silly questions about being a grown up, or see the way my baby’s face would light up and squeal ‘Nana’ when she walked through the door,” Andrews wrote on Facebook.
The couple’s house was burned to the ground.
“They had a home that everyone loved to be at and they loved having everyone there and always made them feel welcome,” Andrews told HuffPost.
Tom Bagley died trying to help his neighbours, said his daughter, Carlene Bagley, in a Facebook post.
“This beautiful soul was taken from me yesterday so unnecessarily I can’t even comprehend it,” Bagley said. “He died trying to help which if you knew him, you knew that was just who he was all the time. I know he meant something to so many people.”
Bagley was passing by one of the crime scenes, close to where he lived, when he was shot and killed, according to CBC News.
Bagley worked for decades on the fire brigade at the airport in Halifax, reported The Chronicle Herald.
“The bottom line is: I loved the guy,” Joe MacLean, who worked with Bagley, told the local newspaper.
“Bagley would give you the shirt off his back, there is no doubt about it. If you called him and went to see him, he’d give you whatever you needed.”
Goulet, who lived in Shubenacadie, N.S., beat cancer — twice.
Her daughter, Amelia Butler, said Goulet was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2016. Goulet, 54, was warned that her prospects didn’t look good, but she beat the odds.
Goulet was diagnosed with cancer a second time late last year, and had almost fully recovered when she died.
“She fought so hard for her life,” Butler said.
Her mother was an avid angler and would often retreat to her cottage with her two dogs to go bass fishing.
Goulet was also a salsa dancer who would travel to Cuba whenever she got the chance: “That was the place where she was the happiest.”
Goulet was a denturist for 27 years. Butler couldn’t say whether her mother encountered the shooter, who worked in the same field.
Dawn Madsen and Frank Gulenchyn
Dawn Madsen worked at a long-term care home in southern Ontario’s Durham Region before retiring in 2019, said the region’s chair, John Henry, in a statement.
She and her husband, Frank Gulenchyn, were both victims of the shooting, Henry confirmed.
Dawn leaves behind two sons. On her Facebook page, she described herself as someone who was “finally living the dream.”
Teachers across Nova Scotia are mourning Lisa McCully, who was identified as one of the victims. The Nova Scotia Teachers Union called her a “passionate teacher” and “one of our own.” McCully taught at Debert Elementary School, about a 20-minute drive north of Portapique, N.S., where the shooting rampage is believed to have began.
“[Our] hearts are broken along with those of her colleagues and students at Debert Elementary, as well as her family and friends who knew her not only as a passionate teacher but as a shining love in their lives,” union president Paul Wozney wrote.
“She was a free spirit,” said John Rocca, whose children McCully used to babysit, in Facebook post. “She travelled the world and would drop by the house to tell us about her exploits.”
McCully was a mother to two children. A month before her death, she posted a video of her children and her singing, while she played the ukulele, as a way of keeping busy during quarantine.
With files from Jon Rumley and The Canadian Press
CORRECTION: This article previously referred to the shootings as the “deadliest mass shooting” in Canadian history. Due to the nature of the victims’ deaths, this is not factual. The story has been updated.