HALIFAX—In the end, the killer’s rampage was ended by his empty gas tank and a stroke of good fortune that favored an RCMP dog handler.
By his telling, it was sheer coincidence that RCMP Const. Craig Hubley pulled into an Enfield, NS gas station on April 19, 2020, to top up the gray Chevy Suburban he was driving just as the killer, who was driving the stolen car of his latest victim, was doing the same.
Hubley’s attention, he says, was tweaked by the bruise on the forehead of the man in the gray Mazda at the opposite pump, and by the unattended trickle of blood running down his face.
Looking closer, he recognized the killer from pictures Hubley had seen at his command post.
“Benny, it’s him,” he called out to Const. Ben MacLeod, the Emergency Response Team officer who had been riding with him, as he drew his pistol and pointed it at the killer.
According to Hubley’s police report, the killer heard his call, raised a gun and pointed it at him. Hubley pumped a dozen 9mm rounds from his Sig Sauer 226 through the passenger window of the Mazda, until he was sure the shooter couldn’t return fire. At the same time, MacLeod was firing his carbine at the killer through the front windshield.
That marked the end of a 13-hour siege of terror in northern Nova Scotia, where Gabriel Wortman, a 51-year-old denturist, had killed 22 people, shot pets and burned multiple houses, beginning the evening before in Portapique, NS, with an assault on his common-law wife as they celebrated their 19th anniversary.
Hubley, the officer who would stop the killer, sketches out his movements through the day — and the thoughts that went through his mind leading up to their fateful encounter — in a statement he made for an investigation by Nova Scotia’s police watchdog, the Serious Incident Response Team, into the events of those 13 hours. It was recently released by the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry.
Hubley, 19 years in the RCMP, the last nine as a Police Dog Service handler, was not supposed to be working that day. But in the early hours of the morning, at 1:30 am, he’d gotten a call from his acting sergeant, telling him of an active shooter situation in Portapique.
Wortman by then had killed 13 people and burned four buildings, including two of his own, before disappearing into the night.
Though police knew it when Hubley got his call, it would be nearly nine more hours before they would tell the public, via Twitter, that the killer was dressed in a Mountie uniform and driving a replica RCMP car.
By 8:30 that morning, Hubley was at the impromptu RCMP command post set up at the Great Village Fire Hall, about 10 kilometers from the scene of the previous night’s killings.
He was briefed. There were two photos of the shooter on the wall — he was smiling in one. He was driving a replica RCMP car, which had a push bumper on the front, something that Hubley had never seen on a Nova Scotia RCMP car.
Hubley was tasked to go to the crime scenes in Portapique with his police dog to try and track the killer.
“I knew that Wortman had used a firearm to murder people and possibly utilized police equipment to give himself an advantage,” Hubley said in his police statement. “I thought he had a plan and was executing it. This was an extremely dynamic and dangerous situation.”
On Orchard Beach Drive, air filled with the residual smell of the previous night’s fires, he saw the bodies of Greg and Jamie Blair, of Corrie Ellison and of Lisa McCully in the yard in front of her house. It looked to him, he wrote later, as though McCully had been shot while trying to flee the killer.
Another officer, ERT member Const. Ed Clarke asked him to look at the Blair’s dog, shot by the gunman as he killed the Blairs. Hubley examined the dog, a small Boston Terrier, and told Clarke that he didn’t think the animal would live.
“Const. Clarke told me that the dog had to live because it was the only thing the kids of the people who were dead at the house had left,” Hubley wrote.
The two men wrapped the dog in a blanket and drove it out of Portapique to be transported to a Truro veterinarian.
Hubley, meanwhile, pondered the state of mind of the killer.
“I thought that his mindset would have had an air of vindictiveness, given that he shot a family pet that could not have been a threat to him given its size,” he wrote later. “Killing these people and their pet and burning a house suggested to me that Wortman was causing as much death and destruction as possible.”
Hubley spent the rest of the morning tracking the killer, first to a home on Hwy. 4 in Glenholme, where the gunman tried unsuccessfully to gain entry, then to the stretch of Plains Road in Debert, where he shot Heather O’Brien and Kristen Beaton in their cars on the side of the road.
I have admitted I felt helpless at the time.
“I believed that Wortman was now killing random people and using the police equipment he had to shield his murderous attempt from everyone he encountered,” he wrote. “I believed that Wortman was going to kill anyone he encountered.”
As an RCMP dog handler, Hubley enjoyed a certain measure of operational independence. He drove on, trying to track the killer, with MacLeod in the passenger seat, and his dog in the back.
As he reached Hwy. 104, he heard shouting over the radio: “stop shooting!” or “who are you shooting at?” I have recalled later. It was a call from the Onslow fire hall, where evacuations from Portapique were being accommodated and where two RCMP members opened fire on another of their number, apparently assuming it was the killer.
“Everyone slow down and take a breath,” said ERT team leader Cpl. Tim Mills a few moments later.
Hubley drove on, going south on Hwy. 102 trying to intercept the killer, hearing over the radio of the death of Const. Heidi Stevenson at the killer’s hands and the wounding of Const. Chad Morrison. He heard that the gunman had taken Stevenson’s gun from her.
“I believed that he had no intention of surrendering,” Hubley wrote later. “I believed that he was trying to kill as many people as possible.”
The gas tank of the Chevy Suburban he was driving was more than half empty. Hubley decided to top it up and exited the highway at the Irving Big Stop in Enfield.
Many of the pumps at that station had orange bags on the nozzles, indicating they were out of order, said Hubley in his report, and he drove on to the first working pump he found.
That was when he spotted the gunman on the opposite side of the pump he’d chosen.
Hubley’s account, so far uncorroborated publicly, was released as part of the source material for the commission’s reports on the gunman’s actions in Glenholme, where he tried unsuccessfully to enter a home and on Plains Road in Debert, where Kristen Beaton and Heather O’Brien they were killed.
The results of the commission’s investigation into the shooting of the gunman — along with supporting source material — are expected to be released when the inquiry resumes next week.
The inquiry into Canada’s worst mass killing continues Monday, when it presents the results of its investigation into the incident at the Onslow fire hall, where two RCMP officers opened fire on another officer and a civilian, apparently thinking they had found the gunman.
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