The woman who helped set police on the path to finding the gunman behind Nova Scotia’s mass shooting had seen his explosive violence first-hand.
She was there as it ignited this past weekend, the Star has learned.
On Saturday night, the man who would carry out the worst mass shooting in Canadian history had been with his longtime girlfriend when they got into an argument, according to a source with knowledge of the police investigation.
The fight escalated. He assaulted the woman and bound her at one of his properties in the rural farming community of Portapique, N.S.
Read more: Are you a victim of violence at home? Here’s how to get help amid COVID-19
At some point, she was able to flee into a wooded area. Details of the domestic attack were first reported by Global News on Thursday and confirmed by the Star.
Police would arrive to the scene that night to find neighbours dead, fires burning, and spend the entire rest of the night searching the area for the killer without success.
But then, a break. On Sunday morning, between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., the woman — whom police this week described as a “key witness” — gave officers a vital piece of information: Gabriel Wortman had an RCMP uniform and a replica cruiser, and she had a photo of it. Police would later tweet out a picture of Wortman’s mock police vehicle in a warning to the public.
By then Wortman was hours into a shooting rampage that would leave 22 dead across 16 crimes scenes stretching nearly 100 kilometres. Some victims were known to Wortman, others were not, police have said.
Among his eventual victims was RCMP veteran Const. Heidi Stevenson, as well as a 17-year-old.
Police finally located Wortman late Sunday morning at a gas station in Enfield, where he was shot and killed.
RCMP have promised to soon release a detailed timeline of the tragic events, but as the police investigation has continued, there have been scant details explaining what happened to the public.
The case has triggered a number of questions about the RCMP’s actions, including why they did not activate the province’s public emergency alert system.
Amanda Dale, a member of the advisory panel for the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, called some of the new details emerging out of the investigation “terrifyingly affirming of a pattern that we’ve seen in Canada.”
The observatory is an online information centre that aims to promote research and knowledge “to prevent femicide and other forms of gender-based killings in Canada.”
“In this case, we’re seeing at least the initial signs that it’s linked with misogyny,” Dale said.
She noted the fact that investigators believe the partner of the shooter was bound was “a huge red flag.”
“It’s highly correlated with domestic homicide.”
Earlier this week, members of a family who live near the denture clinic Wortman operated for years told the Star that he and his longtime girlfriend had seemed “perfect for one another” and enjoyed trips to sunny destinations.
But there were other episodes that gave some acquaintances cause for concern.
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John Hudson and his wife had been friends with Gabriel Wortman for more than 15 years.
About 10 years ago, their group of friends used to have bonfire parties down on Portapique Beach Road. It was during those parties, Hudson said, that some concerns began to emerge about Wortman’s behaviour.
“Back in those days, he was making a few threats here and there every once and a while but nothing serious and I just took it as, ‘Well Gabe, he’s just had too much to drink,’ ” Hudson said.
On one of those nights, at one of those parties, Hudson recalled, Wortman was having a fight with his girlfriend.
She wanted to leave, but Wortman had taken the back wheels off her car and thrown them in a ditch.
Hudson and another man took her to Wortman’s house, where she asked to come in and get her belongings.
“He said, ‘You’re not coming in here.’ And she said, ‘I just want my stuff.’ He said, ‘No.’ And he went back in the house.”
Wortman’s girlfriend asked Hudson to go into Wortman’s house to pick up her things.
Hudson obliged, and Wortman came back to the door.
“He said, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘(She) just wants me to come in and get her stuff so that way she doesn’t have to come in.’ He says, ‘I don’t want anybody at my house.’ And I said, ‘It’ll only take me a second, Gabe.’ And he said, ‘Nobody’s coming in my house. And I want you to know, I’ve got some guns in this house.’ ”
Hudson and his friend took the woman back to the bonfire, where the woman called some friends from Dartmouth, who drove the hour and a half to Portapique to pick her up at 1 a.m.
He said Wortman and the woman reconciled after that and remained together.
With files from Kieran Leavitt