It’s been nearly six months since the horrific killing spree that left 22 people dead in Nova Scotia, and while the RCMP investigation continues, so does speculation on whether the attack could have been prevented.
Police documents released last month revealed that the gunman had a cousin in the RCMP, who claims to have known Gabriel Wortman beat up his father and had a private life as “almost a career criminal” who never got caught.
That cousin also told police he “knew Gabriel Wortman was capable of killing someone,” but never thought he would go on a rampage.
A criminologist, however, says it’s unlikely or impossible this relative — duty-bound to preserve peace and prevent crime — could have done anything to change Wortman’s trajectory, despite his knowledge of Wortman’s alleged violence and illegal activity.
“You need evidence and it has to be evidence that a Crown prosecutor would say is sufficient to proceed to trial,” said Carleton University criminology professor Darryl Davies, a frequent commentator on RCMP and policing issues in Canada.
“Simply saying to somebody in a detachment where you work, ‘my (cousin) is a psycho’ — that doesn’t mean anything. Zero.”
Even if the cousin was stationed in the same province the gunman lived in, he would have required more than secondhand information and his own observations in order to intervene, Davies explained, especially in the absence of other witnesses and formal a complaint to police.
“There are individuals in our society right now…that are extremely dangerous people and neither the community nor the police are able to incapacitate these people and they won’t be able to until something horrific happens,” said Davies.
“Sorry, but that’s our legal system.”
Wortman was 51 years old when he dressed as an RCMP officer and went on a rampage spanning 16 crime scenes, lighting houses ablaze and killing 22 innocent people.
In an interview after the April attack, his cousin told RCMP Sgt. Corey Kilborn that Wortman had a “difficult upbringing,” describing him as a “strange little guy” whose parents were “bizarre.”
The cousin’s name is redacted in the documents, obtained through a court challenge launched by Global News and other media outlets, but he said he “pretty much grew up with” Wortman.
He described the gunman as being paranoid about money, a “scammer and an opportunist” who put himself through university by smuggling tobacco and alcohol across the U.S. border, and plotted to cheat Revenue Canada.
The pair visited one another on multiple occasions over the years.
During their visits — including at least one to Portapique — the cousin told police he never saw illegal weapons or police vehicles at Wortman’s cottage or warehouse, but he knew Wortman associated with criminals, having “two convicts working on the property in Portapique living in a trailer.”
At one point, the cousin said police were called to an incident between Wortman and his parents, but nothing ever came of it.
The cousin said he ended their in-person relationship in 2016, after a family vacation they both attended in the Dominican Republic, during which Wortman “beat up his father.”
He told Sgt. Kilborn, he “knew as a police officer, he had to get his distance from Gabriel.”
It’s unclear today whether the cousin, who retired from the Mounties sometime after 2012, ever reported Wortman to police, investigated what he knew of Wortman’s alleged crimes, or even discouraged Wortman’s behaviour on a personal level.
Since the attack, reporting by Global News and other media outlets has revealed multiple red flags were raised to police about the gunman’s alleged history of violence, but due to privacy concerns, police are unable to reveal who raised them — family or not.
According to Nova Scotia RCMP, in 2010, someone complained to police Wortman was “uttering threats” — a matter investigated by Halifax Regional Police that did not result in charges. One year later, someone tipped off police that he had a large stash of weapons and intended to “kill a cop.”
A third report was made to police in 2013 — by the gunman’s former neighbour, Brenda Forbes — that he had a cache of guns and had beaten his girlfriend publicly, but RCMP have no record of that report today.
Forbes spoke with Global News at length about her experience with Wortman, which drove her and her husband out of Portapique in 2014.
Davies emphasized, however, that red flags are not enough.
“Could (the cousin) have had a private conversation with somebody in the force about this? I don’t think it would have led to anything,” he said. “They’re not going to act unless they have a complaint.
“They actually have to have an affidavit from somebody; somebody has to make a written statement, a declaration and sign it, before it’s going to be acted upon. Even then, it may not be acted upon.”
According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Act, officers must enforce the laws of Canada “in any province in which they may be employed.” That includes the prevention of crime, the preservation of peace and the apprehension of criminals.
Nova Scotia RCMP spokesperson Lisa Croteau said these rules apply “to active members even when they’re off duty,” but declined to comment on whether the cousin ever did, or should have, reported Wortman to police, based on what he says he knew.
The police documents do not reveal where the gunman’s cousin was stationed as an officer.
Russell Grabb, a retired RCMP superintendent with 30 years of experience, also declined to comment on the gunman’s RCMP cousin, citing a lack of specific knowledge about the mass shooting or the investigation.
He did, however, provide additional context on an RCMP officer’s responsibility to report to police, even when a matter is outside their jurisdiction, involves a family member, or takes place while that officer is off the clock.
“I think anyone familiar with the RCMP Act would agree that when you come into possession of information that suggests a family member is predisposed to committing serious crimes on an ongoing basis, or is about to commit serious crimes, or if you witness them commit a serious act — like the act of domestic violence on a family vacation — then clearly there’s an obligation to report that to whomever has jurisdiction back home in Canada, again without commenting directly on this case.”
If someone professes to an officer, on or off duty, they have committed illegal activity in the past, he added, then “obviously” there’s a clear obligation on part of the officer to either “take action” or “report it to the appropriate authorities,” whether it’s their own peers or officers in another detachment.
Without substantive information that clearly spells out a duty to report, however, Grabb said “the benefit of the doubt” should go to the RCMP member under scrutiny.
Davies said it may be time to consider new legislation that enables police to act in extraordinary circumstances where public safety is in jeopardy, but when they lack the kind of evidence that would usually be required to enact a warrant or arrest.
“In some cases we need to start looking at a provision that allows police to act when a person is clearly — clearly — considered to be a highly dangerous individual and there’s a loads of circumstantial evidence to support that,” he said.
“That would require examination and some careful consideration, because we can’t start randomly picking people off the street or giving any one person that type of discretion.”
RCMP are still working on their investigation into the massacre, the deadliest of its kind in Canadian history. Croteau said officers are currently trying to determine how the gunman obtained his weapons and police uniform, and whether anyone knew in advance of his plans or helped him carry them out.
The question of whether the attack could have been prevented will likely form part of the public inquiry ordered by the federal government in July.
Meanwhile, the families of those killed have launched a class action lawsuit against the RCMP and Nova Scotia government, alleging police failed to protect the public and prevent the attack, and the province failed to adequately equip police to do so.
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