2020 Nova Scotia Attacks

Late in the evening on Saturday, 18 April 2020, a 51-year-old man assaulted his common-law wife in Portapique, Nova Scotia. He then began a 13-hour rampage in which he committed multiple shootings and set fire to several homes in 16 locations. Using a vehicle disguised as an RCMP police cruiser and wearing an old RCMP uniform for much of the time, the killer murdered 22 people and injured six others. He was shot and killed by two RCMP officers at a gas station south of Enfield, Nova Scotia, 100 km from where the violence began. It is the worst mass killing in modern Canadian history.

This article contains sensitive material that may not be suitable for all audiences.

Late in the evening on Saturday, 18 April 2020, a 51-year-old man assaulted his common-law wife in Portapique, Nova Scotia. He then began a 13-hour rampage in which he committed multiple shootings and set fire to several homes in 16 locations. Using a vehicle disguised as an RCMP police cruiser and wearing an old RCMP uniform for much of the time, the killer murdered 22 people and injured six others. He was shot and killed by two RCMP officers at a gas station south of Enfield, Nova Scotia, 100 km from where the violence began. It is the worst mass killing in modern Canadian history. This article contains sensitive material that may not be suitable for all audiences.


Nova Scotia Attacks Memorial

A memorial for the victims of the 2020 Nova Scotia attacks, in The Hydrostone neighborhood of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 1 June 2020. A photo of the six victims of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) CH-148 Cyclone helicopter crash off Greece on 30 April 2020 had been added to the lower right part of the memorial.

Portapique, 18 April 2020

The rampage began in Portapique — a community of about 100 people on Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy — on Saturday, 18 April 2020. At a party that evening, 51-year-old denturist Gabriel Wortman (hereafter referred to as either the shooter or the killer) and his common-law wife of 19 years, Lisa Banfield, engaged in a loud and long argument. They left the party for their nearby cottage, where Banfield went to bed. Shortly before 10:00 p.m., the shooter woke her. Then, as he had done many times before, he assaulted her. He was dressed in a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) uniform, which he had likely purchased online.

The shooter ordered Banfield outside, warning her not to slip on gasoline he had poured over the floor. He then fired shots near her feet. He pulled off her shoes, dragged her by her hair, and pushed her into the back of a decommissioned RCMP vehicle. It was one of four he had purchased from the federal government surplus auction site, GCSurplus. He had made the vehicle appear authentic by adding accessories and replica decals. He was armed with four firearms: a Colt law-enforcement grade carbine rifle; a Ruger mini-14 rifle; a Glock GmbH semi-automatic pistol; and a Ruger P89 semi-automatic pistol.

Banfield looked back to see the cottage on fire. As the shooter poured gasoline on his nearby garage and truck and set them ablaze, Banfield escaped from the car and hid in the woods. A neighbour, Lisa McCully, saw the fires and called 911. Leaving her two young children asleep inside her home, McCully crossed the road to check on her neighbours. The killer shot and killed her.

The killer then left his property in the replica police vehicle and drove to the home of Greg and Jamie Blair, who lived on the next road. He shot and killed Greg and then chased Jamie into the house. Hiding her two sons in a bedroom and blockading the door, she called 911. The killer sprayed the bedroom with gunfire, killing Jamie, as the children hid under a bed. The boys ran to the McCully house and hid with their friends, the McCully children.

Meanwhile, the shooter moved to the home of Frank and Dawn Gulenchyn. He shot and killed them and set fire to their house. A couple living nearby saw the fire, called 911, got in their car and rushed to help their neighbours. They slowed when they saw an RCMP vehicle, but recognized the driver, whom they knew. He fired two shots at them; one bullet tore through the man’s shoulder and the other grazed his forehead before he managed to speed away.

The killer continued his rampage. He killed Peter and Joy Bond, a retired couple. Corrie Ellison and his brother Clint came to see what was happening; Corrie was shot and killed, causing Clint to hide in the woods. The shooter then moved on to the home of Jolene Oliver and Aaron Tuck and their teenage daughter, Emily Tuck. (The killer had previously tried to buy their property but was rebuffed.) He killed all three of them before continuing his rampage, killing Elizabeth Joanne Thomas and John Zahl.


Initial Police Response

RCMP officers arrived in Portapique at 10:26 p.m. They found dead bodies and buildings on fire. The wounded witness, whom the killer had shot as he drove past, told the officers the identity of the shooter, and that he was dressed as an RCMP officer and driving an RCMP cruiser. More officers arrived as part of the Critical Incident Program. They operated under the assumption that the shooter was likely to commit suicide, but they also established perimeters, searched homes, and used police dogs to look for the killer. They stationed a roadblock on what they thought was the only road out of the community, unaware of a dirt road next to a blueberry field, which the killer took out of town.

The RCMP communicated with the public through Twitter. Their first tweet, at 11:32 p.m., stated that they were dealing with a “firearms complaint.” The police did not mention the RCMP uniform and replica police vehicle, the fires, the murders, or the identity of the shooter. People in the Portapique area were advised to remain in their homes.

Debert and Wentworth, 19 April 2020

Shortly after 11:00 p.m., the killer arrived in Debert, a small town 24 km northeast of Portapique. He hid his vehicle behind a welding shop and remained there for more than six hours. At 5:32 the next morning, he left, driving north.

At 6:29 a.m., the killer entered the Wentworth area, about 40 km from Debert. He stopped on Hunter Road, at the home of a couple he knew. He shot and killed Alanna Jenkins and Sean McLeod and set fire to their house. He also shot and killed their neighbour, Tom Bagley.

Around this time, back in Portapique, the killer’s common-law wife, Lisa Banfield, emerged from the woods where she had been hiding. She went to a neighbour’s house and called 911. She reported what the RCMP had been told several hours earlier; the identity of the shooter and the fact that he was wearing an RCMP uniform and driving a replica RCMP vehicle. At 8:02 a.m., the RCMP tweeted that there was an active shooter in Portapique, unaware that at that point he was more than 50 km away. At 8:54 a.m., the RCMP tweeted a picture of the killer with the warning that he was armed and dangerous.

The killer left Wentworth, heading south on Highway 4. At 9:43 a.m., near Wentworth Provincial Park, he slowed down, and through an open window shot and killed Lillian Hyslop, who was walking along the side of the road. At 10:08 a.m., the killer pulled a car over. He shot the driver and then shot another person driving by, taking the lives of Kristen Beaton, who was pregnant with her second child, and Heather O’Brien. He then continued south, driving through Truro.

At 10:17 a.m., the RCMP warned the public for the first time, via Twitter, that the shooter was dressed as an RCMP officer and was driving a replica RCMP vehicle. At 10:25 a.m., the shooter stopped briefly outside a gas station in Millbrook before continuing south on Highway 2.

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Shubenacadie and Enfield, 19 April 2020

RCMP Constables Chad Morrison and Heidi Stevenson radioed each other and agreed to meet at the intersection of Highway 2 and Highway 224. Morrison arrived first and assumed it was Stevenson who soon pulled up beside him; but then, from inside his replica vehicle, the killer shot Morrison several times. Morrison was seriously wounded but managed to escape and call for backup. The killer, meanwhile, sped away. Heading south on Highway 2, he collided with Constable Stevenson’s vehicle as she was heading north for her rendezvous with Morrison. When Stevenson emerged from her badly damaged vehicle, the killer shot and killed her; he also shot and killed Joey Webber, a passerby who arrived on the scene. The killer then stole Stevenson’s handgun and Webber’s silver 2007 Ford Escape (misidentified as a Chevrolet Tracker in some early reports) and continued south.

At 11:06 a.m., the killer arrived at the home of a professional acquaintance, Gina Goulet. He shot and killed her. He then changed out of the RCMP uniform, stole Goulet’s Mazda 3, and continued south down Highway 102. He drove toward Enfield, stopping at a gas station south of town. RCMP tactical officers coincidentally pulled into the same gas station and began to refuel. They noticed blood on the head of the man sitting in a car at an adjacent pump and then recognized him as the killer. As the officers approached the vehicle, the killer raised and pointed the service handgun he had taken from Constable Stevenson. The officers fired several shots and the killer died at the scene.

irving-big-stop-gas-station-enfield-nova-scotia

The Irving Big Stop service area, restaurant and gas station on Highway 2 in Enfield, Nova Scotia. This is the location where the perpetrator of the 2020 Nova Scotia attacks was shot and killed at 11:26 AM on 19 April 2020.

The Killer

The shooter was known to police prior to the April 2020 killings. People who knew him described him as intelligent, paranoid and abusive, with a tendency toward violence when intoxicated. In 2002, he had pled guilty to assaulting a teenager. In 2010, he had threatened to kill his parents after a younger brother, who had been given up for adoption, re-entered their lives. The killer became estranged from his parents and refused to have any contact with the brother. In 2011, police in Truro received a tip that the killer was angry with police and wanted to “kill a cop.” A safety bulletin was issued to all police departments in the province; it included details about the killer’s properties, firearms and mental state. The RCMP claim they purged the bulletin in 2013 during routine file maintenance. Also in 2013, a neighbour reported to police that the killer was harassing him, that he was abusive and violent with his common-law wife, and that he illegally owned guns (he did not have a licence or a permit, and one of his rifles was restricted).

The killer was also described as a survivalist. He believed that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 proved his long-standing belief that no one in authority could be trusted and that society’s institutions were collapsing. In the weeks preceding his rampage, he purchased and stockpiled food, water, weapons, ammunition and gasoline. He also liquidated his investments and withdrew all his savings from several banks. He placed $475,000 in cash in fireproof containers at one of six rural properties that he owned.

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He had also purchased four decommissioned police cars from the federal government surplus auction site, GCSurplus. (It stopped selling surplus RCMP vehicles in February 2021.) He persuaded a local friend to print police decals, which he used to make the vehicles look authentic. He also added thousands of dollars worth of accessories, including a radio, a light bar, and a divider for the back seat. He had told some friends that he was gathering and outfitting the old cars as a tribute to fallen police officers. He had told others that if society crumbled, his escape would be easier if he was disguised as a police officer.

Among the killer’s childhood friends was disgraced New Brunswick lawyer Tom Evans. In the 1980s and 1990s, the two had committed petty crimes such as smuggling cigarettes over the United States border. When Evans died in 2009, the killer inherited Evans’s estate, which included a Ruger mini-14 semi-automatic rifle; one of the weapons used in the attacks. A mutual friend who lived in Maine provided the killer with several other weapons that were smuggled illegally over the US border. Those weapons included a Ruger P89 pistol and two Glock semi-automatic handguns. The killer had no firearms licence and so was prohibited from owning weapons. (See Gun Control in Canada.)

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Aftermath

People across Canada and around the world were shocked by the events in Nova Scotia. Families of the slain grieved. Friends, neighbours and heartbroken strangers raised funds to help the families. Restrictions necessitated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic made funerals problematic, but families and friends paid tribute to the fallen as best they could with flowers, songs, roadside memorials and other tributes of remembrance.

On 1 May, 12 days after the killings, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a federal ban on 1,500 makes and models of military-style assault weapons and variants of semi-automatic rifles, including the Ruger mini-14 model used by the shooter. (See Gun Control in Canada.)

Later that month, the families of the victims launched a class action lawsuit against the killer’s estate, which was estimated at $2.1 million. On 4 December 2020, police arrested the killer’s common-law wife, Lisa Banfield, along with her brother James and her brother-in-law Brian Brewster. They were charged with unlawfully purchasing and transferring ammunition, which the killer used in his attacks. Police made clear that those charged did not know that the attack was being planned. On 5 February 2021, this lawsuit was changed to include these three people, claiming that by illegally providing the killer with ammunition they had helped him prepare for the killings. A second class action lawsuit was filed by the victims’ families in August 2020 against the province and the RCMP, alleging that they did not do enough to stop the killer.


Criticism of RCMP Response

Concerns were raised regarding the RCMP’s response to the events and its handling of the manhunt. After the initial killings and fires in Portapique, police mistakenly assumed the shooter would probably commit suicide. They thought they had blocked the only road out of Portapique late that night but were unaware of a dirt road near a blueberry field, which the shooter used to leave the community. The police force was also criticized for only using Twitter to communicate with the public; for not using the emergency Alert Ready system (often used in Amber Alerts) to send a general alert to the public; and for long delays in communicating often inaccurate or incomplete information.

The police defended their response, arguing that their communication with the public during the tragic 13 hours was due to events happening quickly and in a confusing manner. Criticism among many Nova Scotians and in the media nonetheless continued to grow. In July, more than 300 people held a rally at the Bible Hill RCMP detachment near Truro, demanding an investigation into the RCMP’s handling of the case.

On 22 July, federal and provincial officials announced a joint, independent review of “the causes, context and circumstances giving rise to the incident, the response of police, and steps taken to inform, support and engage victims, families and affected citizens.” The review panel was made up of former federal justice minister and attorney general Anne McLellan, and former Fredericton chief of police Leanne Fitch; it was chaired by retired Nova Scotia chief justice J. Michael MacDonald.

However, the panel was immediately and widely criticized because hearings would be held in private, and evidence and information collected would be kept confidential. The panel’s terms of reference also did not compel witnesses to speak under oath. Within a week, the federal and Nova Scotia governments launched a public inquiry instead. The Mass Casualty Commission kept two commissioners from the panel; McLellan was replaced by Toronto lawyer Dr. Kim Stanton. The public inquiry was scheduled to report to the federal Minister of Public Safety and the provincial Justice Minister in November 2022.