By Michael MacDonald and Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press
HALIFAX — For those grieving the victims of a gunman who left a trail of burned homes and at least 19 dead in Nova Scotia, anguished questions emerged Monday on what led to such horror.
“Why? It’s just why?” said Kelly Blair, 48, who’d lost her younger brother Greg Blair, 45, and his wife Jamie.
“I honestly don’t really know what happened. They were both shot. That’s all we know, we don’t know why. We don’t know,” she said by telephone from her Truro, N.S., home.
The murder and arson rampage that tore through 16 crime scenes on the weekend left tragedies that rippled throughout the province.
The Blairs had two small children who’ve now moved in with another family; a school teacher husband of an RCMP officer is widowed; and — in a province struggling to overcome the COVID-19 crisis — frontline nurses have been gunned down at a time their skills are desperately needed.
Some families didn’t even know as of Monday evening if their loved ones were among the dead, as the police forensic identification unit struggled to keep up with the pace of identifying those who were burned in their homes.
Long-time Portapique resident Lucille Adams said she knows a couple who live in the area and haven’t been heard from since Saturday night.
“Their two sons are here right now at Portapique Beach Road and they were asked to give (RCMP) photos to identify their parents,” Adams said in an interview outside her home. “They are there, and they are hoping to get answers …. My heart goes out to those boys.”
In the village, some people who knew 51-year-old denturist Gabriel Wortman, identified by police as the killer, said there were signs of problems in the life of a man who outwardly seemed an affable, house-proud owner of a sprawling log home.
Neighbour Nancy Hudson said she met him about 18 years ago when he bought the property on Portapique Beach Road, which is just a short walk from her home on Highway 2.
“He was very jovial,” she said in an interview just outside her house. “But there is another side to Gabe. He had some issues, especially with his girlfriend.”
Hudson said she and her husband used to socialize with the assailant and detected “some underlying issues that I think he had with his relationship. It was a red flag …. (What happened on the weekend) wasn’t a surprise to some degree, but not to this extreme.”
She said he was obsessed with his girlfriend. “Just being jealous about things with her. I think that’s where things got in the way …. She was a beautiful girl.”
RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather told a news briefing the public will need to wait to learn of possible motives and a detailed timeline, adding there is no suspect alive to provide answers. Wortman was shot dead by RCMP officers on Sunday next to the gas pumps at a service station in Enfield, N.S.
Leather said the shooter managed his almost 100-kilometre rampage before the final “takedown” by using a mock police cruiser and wearing an RCMP uniform almost identical to the real thing. He said the crime scenes include five burned buildings where it is feared additional bodies will be found inside.
That “speaks to why we don’t have a final total, because we expect that to rise in the coming days,” he said, adding that some victims knew the killer while others did not.
The victims of the weekend rampage also include a teacher and two correctional officers killed in their home over 50 kilometres away from Portapique.
Meanwhile, after an excruciating day unable to contact her sister, niece and brother-in-law, Tammy Oliver-McCurdie learned Sunday evening that the family, neighbours of the killer, had been found dead in their Portapique home.
Jolene Oliver, who was turning 40 this year, her husband Aaron Tuck, 45, and their 17-year-old daughter had moved to the community after Tuck’s father died a few years ago.
An emotional Oliver-McCurdie said it’s a small comfort to know that the close trio died together.
“No matter how much they went through in life, they always stayed together, and there were times that they had nothing,” Oliver-McCurdie said from Alberta.
Justin Zahl finally heard from police on Monday after a day of frantic calls for information and seeing images of his parent’s home on Portapique Beach Road burned to the ground, with their cars in the driveway.
John Zahl, in his late 60s, and Elizabeth Joanne Thomas, in her late 50s, raised their family in Albuquerque, N.M., but retired to their dream home in Nova Scotia three years after falling in love with the place on a visit, their son said in an interview from Halifax.
Police told Zahl Monday that the two-story log house had burned down but could not confirm whether his parents were inside. “The police said there are most likely bodies in there, but they have not been confirmed to be my parents,” he said.
Portapique is home to about 100 residents. But while the first victims were discovered by RCMP there, the killer’s rampage continued across a swath of northern Nova Scotia.
Jody MacBurnie, a neighbour and close friend of Alanna Jenkins and Sean McLeod, correctional officers who were killed at their home on Hunter Road, in Wentworth, N.S., described a frightening morning on Sunday for residents of a rural road in the small town.
He said he saw RCMP cruisers rushing up the road, “then we came to find out their house was on fire.”
Teacher Lisa McCully was identified as one of the dead. She taught at Debert Elementary School, about a 20-minute drive northeast of Portapique.
Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Unions, her colleagues and students knew McCully “not only as a passionate teacher but as a shining love in their lives.”
The Victorian Order of Nurses noted the deaths of nurses Heather O’Brien and Kristen Beaton.
“All of our frontline care providers are heroes. Yesterday, two of those heroes, Heather O’Brien and Kristen Beaton, were taken from their families, and from VON,” wrote Jo-Anne Poirier, president and chief executive of the agency.
Gina Goulet, a 54-year-old in Shubenacadie, N.S., battled cancer twice before her life was taken from her Sunday, her daughter Amelia Butler said.
Goulet worked as a denturist for 27 years, but Butler couldn’t say whether she had encountered the shooter, who worked in the same field.
RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson, a 23-year member of the force and mother of two, has been identified as the officer killed. Leather said a male officer who was shot has returned home after being released from hospital.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid tribute to Stevenson and the other victims Monday in the House of Commons.
“She was great police, she was a great mom. She embodied the values that built this country. Values like integrity, honesty, compassion,” he said. “For her community, she paid the ultimate price and her service will never be forgotten.”
He noted that like Stevenson, many other victims were serving their community. “A teacher, a nurse, a child’s grandparent, a parent’s child. Who has the words to ease our sorrow?” he asked.
Later Monday, the White House released a statement with President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump sending their condolences to Canada.
“The United States and Canada share a special, enduring bond,” the statement said. “As friends and neighbours, we will always stand with one another through our most trying times and greatest challenges.”
Governor General Julie Payette released a video message Monday night.
“A tragedy of this scale is so rare in our country that is almost beyond our comprehension,” she said. “It calls for more than simple words. It calls for tears. And for solidarity.
“We do not choose when hardship comes, but we can choose how we respond to it.
“More than ever, let us stay united in these hard times — to reach out, be kind to one another and to care for those who need it.”
— With files from Keith Doucette, Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Adina Bresge.