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Canada mass shooting began with an argument between the gunman and his girlfriend, police say

An impromptu memorial in front of the RCMP detachment in Enfield, Nova Scotia, on April 20, 2020. It was the home detachment of slain RCMP Constable Heidi Stevenson, who was one of those slain during a shooting rampage on Sunday in Canada's worst mass killing.

TIM KROCHAK, GETTY IMAGES/TNS

By AMANDA COLETTA | Special To The Washington Post | Published: April 24, 2020

TORONTO — Canada's deadliest mass shooting began with the gunman's assault of his girlfriend, who escaped, hid in the woods overnight and emerged in the morning with information crucial to stopping him, police said Friday.

Darren Campbell, a superintendent with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Nova Scotia, said the assault and escape were a "significant incident" that could have been the "catalyst" for Gabriel Wortman's nearly 14-hour rampage in the eastern province last weekend. But he said he was not discounting that it was premeditated.

The details emerged as investigators for the first time laid out a specific timeline of the attack, which ended with 23 people dead, including an RCMP officer and the gunman, several structures in flames and 16 crime scenes.

Police have said that Wortman, who carried out part of the attack dressed in an authentic police uniform while driving a sophisticated mock-before up of an RCMP vehicle, acted alone. But they were investigating whether anyone assisted him before the rampage.

Campbell said the 51-year-old denturist had a handgun and several long-barreled guns. One of the guns has been traced to Canada, while the others were traced to the United States. Police were investigating how the obtained them.

The attack began the night of April 18 in the town of Portapique, where Wortman owned a residence. Campbell said officers arrived and found a man who said he had been driving when he was shot by someone in what resembled a police car. Police found several homes and cars on fire, including Wortman's, and many dead bodies inside and outside residences.

The next morning, Wortman's girlfriend emerged from the woods and provided police with detailed information about him, including that he was wearing a police uniform and driving a mock-up RCMP vehicle, police said.

In the hours that followed, Wortman continued his murderous rampage. He set homes on fire and shot and killed a woman out for her morning walk, as well as drivers he pulled over. Police said some of the victims were known to him, while others were targeted at random.

At some point, he removed the police uniform and drove to a gas station in Enfield, where he was shot and killed by a police officer who was refueling his vehicle.

The RCMP have faced criticism this week for their response to the attack and questions about how Wortman could have evaded them for nearly 14 hours.

"I've been a police officer for almost 30 years now, and I can't imagine any more horrific set of circumstances[than] when you're trying to search for someone that looks like you," Campbell said.

The police have also been condemned for tweeting information on the attack as it was unfolding instead of sending it through an emergency alert system that would have transmitted warnings to cellphones, radios and televisions. Some of the families and friends of the victims said the alert system might have saved lives.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said officials asked the RCMP if they wanted to use the system. Police said they were preparing to use it when the gunman was shot and killed.

As police searched for the suspect on the morning of April 19, they also shot at a firehouse where people who left their homes because of the rampage were being housed. The incident is now being investigated by a provincial civilian police watchdog.

Several mass murders in Canada have been rooted in grievances against women.

The country's previous deadliest mass shooting was in 1989, when a gunman killed 14 women and himself at Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique. In a suicide note, he expressed his hatred for "feminists."

In 2018, a man killed 10 people in a van attack on a busy Toronto thoroughfare. He later told police he was "radicalized" online, where he found a community of like-minded misogynistic men who refer to themselves as incels, or involuntary celibate men, and denigrate women.