'She was just like an angel': Winnipeg-born woman believed to be victim of Nova Scotia shooting

A woman who grew up in Winnipeg is believed to be one of the 22 victims killed in this weekend's shooting in rural Nova Scotia, one of the worst mass killings in Canadian history.

Elizabeth Joanne Thomas and her husband, John Joseph Zahl, are presumed dead

Elizabeth Joanne Thomas, left, and her husband John Joseph Zahl, right, are believed to be dead after their home was burned to the ground over the weekend during a mass shooting rampage. (Submitted by Justin Zahl)

A woman who grew up in Winnipeg is believed to be one of the 22 victims killed in this weekend's shooting in rural Nova Scotia, one of the worst mass killings in Canadian history.

Elizabeth Joanne Thomas, 58, who went by Joanne or Jo, grew up in Winnipeg's Windsor Park neighbourhood. Thomas and her husband, John Joseph Zahl, 69, are presumed dead after their home near Portapique was found burned to the ground on Sunday morning. 

Police say a gunman went on a rampage that began late Saturday in the small community of Portapique and ended 12 hours later in Enfield, N.S., nearly 100 kilometres south. The gunman was fatally shot by police officers.

The couple lived next door to the man police say was responsible for the killings.

The couple's family hope they will remembered for more than how they died.

 "They lived a good life, they were devoted to each other, almost 35 years of marriage, they loved their children fiercely and afforded them as many opportunities to travel and experience a wonderful life," said Joanne's sister Lori Thomas from her home in Brandon. Man.

Lori last spoke to her sister on Friday, when the pair chatted about cooking and gardening and Joanne feeding the wildlife that would visit their acreage in Nova Scotia.

"This is extraordinarily difficult," she said.

 "We are so overwhelmed and so shocked. It has not hit me exactly as I know it will later on, but I have to be strong," said Lori, who cares for their youngest sibling, who has special needs.

The couple had moved to the Portapique area in 2017 to spend their retirement, family says. (Go Fund Me/Gena Lawson)

The couple had several children — four from John's previous marriage and two adopted sons, who were their grandkids that they raised as their own.

John Zahl's daughter and Joannne's step-daughter, Jennifer Zahl Bruland, lives in Minnesota, and heard news of the shooting on Sunday.

"I immediately tried to contact them and didn't get responses, and they were always very good at getting back to me so I started getting worried Sunday evening," Jennifer said.

While her parents' remains have not been found, Jennifer said the family is slowly coming to terms with what's happened.

"I've seen pictures, I know that my parents' house is gone," she said, from her home in St. Cloud, Minn.

"I know they are missing and presumed dead.

"It's devastating, it's nothing I ever expected to happen."

Jennifer wants her parents to be remembered for the lives they lived, not what happened to them.

"They were loved by family and friends from Manitoba, from New Mexico, from Minnesota, from Nova Scotia, but we are stunned, we're struggling because this is a senseless act and it's affected so many families," she said.

"I'd like people to remember my dad and Joanne for the kind acts that they did and the laughter and the joy that they shared with so many people."

'They were kind people'

Joanne met her husband while living in North Dakota to attend college, where she was studying speech pathology. 

"They met and they fell in love almost immediately, it was like a whirlwind romance," said Jennifer.  "They knew they were right for each other, they were very much in love."

From there they moved to Albuquerque, N.M., where John worked for FedEx, and Joanne later worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield. 

Joanne and John met while they were both living in North Dakota. (Go Fund Me/Gena Lawson)

The couple retired in 2017 and moved to Nova Scotia. 

The couple embraced the community there and Joanne volunteered with the homeless, did fundraising projects for their church, and helped victims of human trafficking. 

"They were kind people, they were generous people," Jennifer said.

Despite having spent several years in the U.S., Joanne was a proud Canadian, and never gave up her citizenship, Jennifer said. 

"My dad fell in love with Canada," she said.

Jennifer remembers visits to Winnipeg with her parents and her stepmother always spoke of her the city she grew up in fondly.

"She always had a Jeanne's cake for her birthday and whenever my dad would pass through Winnipeg … he would pick up a Jeanne's cake for her," she said.

"Jeanne's cakes are a big deal for the family."

'Your life does change in a heartbeat'

Joanne's son, Justin Zahl, said while he spent much of his time growing up in the U.S., he recalls summer trips to Manitoba, where the family would spend time with Thomas's parents . 

"She loved it," Justin said. 

"She obviously had lots of friends there."

He said he is still waiting for more information to emerge from investigators and is trying to take things one day at a time and reflects on his mother's generous spirit.

"She was just like an angel," he said. 

"She would help anyone, it doesn't matter … even the person, the killer, she would've helped him. He lived right next door."

Joanne's friend, Rhonda MacLellan, also said if Joanne had heard gunshots, she would have gone to try to help.

"They're not the kind of people who would say, 'That's none of our business, let's not be concerned,'" said MacLellan. "If somebody needed help, they would part the Red Sea."

'Get-things-done' woman

MacLellan said Joanne was a friend who always gave her comic relief and was someone with whom she could share her heart. She said she was playful, exuberant and a "get-things-done woman."

She said they actually first met at a funeral. When MacLellan arrived, she took the last empty seat in the hall — right next to Joanne.

When she sat down, Joanne joked that MacLellan probably lucked into a good parking spot as well. When MacLellan said that she had, Joanne joked again, "I knew you lived a charmed life."

A picture of Rhonda MacLellan, taken by Joanne Thomas, on the back deck of Thomas and Zahl's home in Portapique, N.S. (Rhonda MacLellan/Facebook)

"It was just such a lovely line: 'I knew you lived a charmed life," MacLellan told CBC.

"I just thought, 'I like this woman.' And I was just so happy that she liked me too and we just sort of hit it off."

MacLellan wrote a tribute to her friend and said she's been overwhelmed by the kind responses.

MacLellan said Joanne and her husband "didn't know a soul" when they moved to the area, but had quickly started to become rooted in the community.

"She right away got in and served and helped. If she would have been here 20 years, she would have known everybody in the town," MacLellan said.

The couple were supposed to be away on a European cruise, but had to cancel due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Physical distancing guidelines have made it hard for the family to grieve, Lori said. She says under normal circumstances she'd want to be out east  to support her nephews and be together as a family.

"To feed people, to hug people, to organize, to comfort, and my ability right now to do so is very limited," Lori said.

"This is not just a community tragedy or a familial tragedy, this has become a national tragedy, human contact is so important."

"Love your family and hold them close, because your life does change in a heartbeat," she said.

With files from Bryce Hoye, Emma Davie