He appeared obsessed with the police and owned eerily realistic copies of police uniforms and a homemade replica squad car. He fitted dentures for customers, many of them elderly admirers of his comforting bedside manner. He had a childhood fascination with air guns.
The day after a deadly rampage in a small and sleepy seaside community in Nova Scotia, a picture began to emerge of the killer, Gabriel Wortman, the soft-spoken, seemingly amiable 51-year-old denture specialist behind the worst mass shooting in Canadian history. The death toll totaled at least 19 including Mr. Wortman.
Mr. Wortman, who ran two denture clinics in Nova Scotia, began the massacre late Saturday night in the town of Portapique, a close-knit beachside village of about 100 residents on the Bay of Fundy. It ended 12 hours later at a gas station in Enfield, 55 miles away, with the gunman dead, bodies strewn across a more than 30 mile area, five houses smoldering in flames and 16 crime scenes.
Among the dead were a police officer, two nurses and an elementary schoolteacher. Stephen McNeil, the premier of Nova Scotia, described the massacre as “one of the most senseless acts of violence in our province’s history.”
The killings have deeply shaken Canada, a country with a relatively low level of gun violence, as it grapples with the Coronavirus pandemic. The tragedy has also traumatized Portapique, the kind of picturesque rural summer getaway familiar to many Canadians, where local residents are known to leave their doors unlocked and where everyone knows everyone.
Lenore Zann, the local member of Parliament for the area where the killer struck, said that the lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the pandemic, had exacerbated the horrors of the violence at a time when people were already feeling isolated and disoriented.
“Know this whole thing is just crazy. We feel like we’re in a strange movie and we just can’t seem to get out of it,” she said.
One line of investigation will be whether and how Covid-19 may have played a role. Among the many unanswered questions the police were examining on Monday were whether Mr. Wortman had been self-isolating or had been with family and if that could have affected his state of mind. Did the rampage start as a domestic squabble that spiraled? How many guns was he carrying? And where was he trying to escape to when he died after police gave chase?
On Monday, police officers were combing crime scenes, interviewing witnesses and searching for bodies in the five properties burned during the killings. Chief Superintendent Chris Leather, of the Nova Scotia Royal Canadian Mounted Police, would not say how Mr. Wortman died, though witnesses said they had heard shooting.
The police said they did not know the motive for the killing spree and had not found a note from the shooter. But they said that dead bodies had been found inside and outside a private residence, where the shooting began, and that Mr. Wortman had known at least some of the victims.
Part of the spree appeared planned, the police said, given that Mr. Wortman had been wearing what looked to be a police uniform, although it was unclear whether it was real or fake, and had been driving a bogus police cruiser that seemed virtually identical to a Mounties car. The cruiser had allowed him to camouflage himself as he sped away. Later, it burst into flames and the police said Mr. Wortman switched to a large sport vehicle he apparently had commandeered from a member of the public.
During the manhunt, which spanned 12 hours, the police warned residents that Mr. Wortman was armed and dangerous. Already confined, residents said they locked their doors and hid in their basements, petrified that Mr. Wortman could break in.
Mr. Wortman’s acquaintances described him as having been “a little different,” but they were nonetheless stupefied that he had been identified by the authorities as the attacker.
“Gabriel always had a sadness about him, but I was so shocked to hear that he’d hurt other people,” Candy Palmater, a university friend and Canadian comedian, told the Halifax Chronicle Herald. “I don’t know what his later adult life was like, but I can tell you that at university, people weren’t nice to him.”
Mr. Wortman grew up as an only child in a working-class household in the suburban town of Riverview in New Brunswick, just across the Petitcodiac River from Moncton, one of the province’s largest cities.Friends said his father was absent.
He went to the University of New Brunswick. According to The Globe and Mail, he had studied to be a mortician before settling on becoming a denturist, a licensed dental health professional who provides dentures and can design, construct and repair removable dentures.
He became very wealthy, said people who knew him, owning a denture clinic in the city of Dartmouth with a branch in Halifax, the provincial capital of Nova Scotia. Portapique residents said he was a commuter who owned three properties including an old cedar log cottage.
Pierre Little, a former friend and publisher of a Maine newspaper, remembered Mr. Wortman from school. He wrote on Twitter about how the two of them used to “shoot his machine gun air pellet or BB gun, I can’t remember which, behind his house in Bridgedale. Quite a rare airgun for the eighties.”
Mr. Wortman’s high school girlfriend said she was shocked by the news, as the man she had grown up with was kind and “always looking out for the underdog.”
“He was always so happy — just never angry,” said the former girlfriend, who identified herself as Lisa but asked that her last name not be used, citing her fear of being stigmatized by the association.
During high school, Mr. Wortman was known as the “Wheelie King” for the wheelies he would do on his dirt bike, racing past the school, she said.
Loretta Parlee, who attended high school with Mr. Wortman, posted on Facebook a photo from his yearbook, dating from 1986 and showing a smiling young man with long hair. His entry said that he enjoyed cruising around on one wheel on his dirt bike and listed his likes as “good skiing and time spent with friends.” It said his pet peeves were “cold weather” and English. “Gabe’s future may include being an RCMP officer,” the entry ended, referring to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
High school friends said that Mr. Wortman could be generous. In 2014, he gave free dentures to a cancer survivor who had lost all her teeth from medication and was unable to afford dentures.
“My heart went out to her,” Mr. Wortman told CTV, a national broadcaster, which covered his act of generosity. “There’s so many ways for people to get dentures, but it seems like the people who really need them are the people who are getting left behind.”
Now, families of victims are trying to make sense of the tragedy.
Darcy Dobson, the daughter of Heather O’Brien, the nurse who was killed, wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday that “a monster murdered my mother today.”
“She drove down the same street in the same town she drives through every single day,” Ms. Dobson wrote, saying that her mother had texted their family group at 9:59 a.m. Sunday. “By 10:15 she was gone,” she said.
Ms. Zann, the local member of Parliament for the area where the killings took place, said it would take a long time for the area to recover.
“The majority of people right now are just in a state of shock that this would happen in such a sleepy little area as ours.”