Nova Scotia gunman didn't hide his fake RCMP cruiser — even from police, says ex-boss

The man police say killed 22 people in Nova Scotia last weekend made no secret of his quest to build a near-perfect, highly detailed replica of an RCMP cruiser, according to those who knew him.

'Most of us thought it was all a bit of a hobby,' says former employer

RCMP in Nova Scotia tweeted out this photo of a mock RCMP vehicle on the morning of April 19 — alerting the public that a suspected mass killer was posing as a police officer. The RCMP have since said it wasn't a real RCMP vehicle, but looked identical in every way, with the exception of the numbers police circled in this photo. (Nova Scotia RCMP)

The man police say killed 22 people in Nova Scotia last weekend made no secret of his quest to build a near-perfect, highly detailed replica of an RCMP cruiser, according to those who knew him. 

"He created the car," said Donald Walker, a Dartmouth, N.S., funeral director who employed the suspected gunman years ago, and remained on friendly terms. "He didn't walk up to the auction and there was an RCMP car already decked out like that. 

"Most of us thought it was all a bit of a hobby, not something that would lead to this kind of situation."

Walker says Gabriel Wortman, a 51-year-old denturist, pulled out his cellphone on one of the last occasions that they saw each other — either late last summer, or in early fall — and proudly shared pictures of an authentic-looking, marked RCMP cruiser. 

Walker's understanding is that Wortman purchased the then stripped-down surplus police car from a government auction site and then went about restoring it, going as far as to have all the appropriate RCMP decals made by a graphics company. 

And Walker says the police were apparently aware of what Wortman was doing.

"He said that he had talked to the police," the funeral director said. "That they suggested to him, if he was going to take it to car shows, that he not drive it on the road, but take it by trailer."

It's not clear whether the car came to the RCMP's formal attention, or was perhaps simply discussed on a more casual basis with an individual officer.

At a news conference in Dartmouth on Wednesday, Chief Supt. Chris Leather said the RCMP first became aware the suspected gunman was driving a replica car, and wearing an authentic police uniform, when they interviewed a crucial witness between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. last Sunday — the morning after the killing spree began in Portapique, a community about 40 kilometres west of Truro. 

The information investigators gleaned then wasn't shared with the public until more than two hours later, at 10:17 a.m. local time, via a tweet with a photo of the mock cruiser. 

Earlier this week, however, an RCMP news release claimed the public was informed of the danger as soon as police learned of the suspect's disguise.

Leather said the delay in notifying the public about the car and uniform was a matter of information flow in a "dynamic and fluid" situation.

The suspected gunman died in a standoff with police in Enfield, north of Halifax, shortly before noon on Sunday.

Theft deterrent 

But Wortman's attempts to obtain a replica police car date back years, according to a Dieppe, N.B., businessman, who says Wortman tried to purchase a decommissioned RCMP cruiser from him at some point in late 2017 or early 2018. 

Bernard Cain says Wortman told him that he was a retired Mountie —a lie — and claimed he wanted to park the squad car outside of his cottage to deter thieves. 

"He was having trouble with the locals breaking into cottages in the offseason," said Cain. "He wanted to put the car on the front corner and then move it over to the other corner ... So if the local yokels were going up and down the road they'd see the police car, and they'd know to stay the hell away."

The deal quickly fell apart, says Cain, because Wortman was unwilling to pay anything near the $2,800 asking price. 

A photograph of Kristen Beaton, one of the 22 victims of last weekend's mass shooting in Nova Scotia, is seen at a makeshift memorial in Debert, N.S., on Thursday. (Tim Krochak/Reuters)

CBC News spoke with two mechanics who regularly work on RCMP vehicles. Both asked not to be named in order to protect their business relationship with the force. Based on photos of Wortman's cruiser, they said it was a near-perfect replica, and would have been next to impossible for a member of the public to sniff out as a fake.

However, both pointed to the positioning, and type, of radio antenna on the rear of the car as being incorrect. And they said the lights on the top of the cruiser, and bars between the front and rear seat, were not standard RCMP issue. 

But some details were almost too good. One of the mechanics said the detailing, cutting and placement of the RCMP decals were letter-perfect, suggesting Wortman had sought help from someone who regularly kitted out the force's vehicles. 

It's a point that others who know policing have been raising as well. 

Michael Arntfield, a former detective who now teaches criminology at Western University, wonders if a professional assisted Wortman. 

"These stripe/strike packages, as they're known, are laser measured. They're done by third party vendors who have all the specifications," he told the CBC. 

"What questions were asked as to why he was doing this? What was the purpose of this? Did he hold himself out as a police officer when he had this done?" Arntfield asked. "These are questions, I think, that should be answered sooner than later."

The RCMP did not answer media questions on Thursday, but in his Wednesday briefing Chief Supt. Leather said determining just how Wortman obtained his replica vehicle, and apparently authentic uniform, is a "key element" in the investigation. 


Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.

With files from Lisa Mayor, Matt Pierce, Thomas Daigle and Jill English