HALIFAX — The spectre of pandemic-fuelled social chaos and widespread looting appeared to haunt the Nova Scotia mass shooter a month before he carried out his killing rampage of April 18-19, 2020.
Twenty-two people — including a pregnant woman — were killed in the 13 hours of shootings and house burnings that began in Portapique, N.S., and carried on in several other communities the next morning.
Over the past year, a provincial court judge has been gradually releasing portions of witness statements used by police to obtain search warrants, with the latest disclosure on Wednesday evening.
In one of the court documents released, Ontario lawyer Kevin Von Bargen told police he was a friend of Gabriel Wortman's and that shortly after the pandemic started in Nova Scotia, the killer became "convinced that the world economy was going to collapse."
The documents refer to an email Wortman sent Von Bargen on March 18, exactly one month before he began his rampage. As described by police in a document to obtain a warrant, the killer told Von Bargen he was "getting a bunch of ammunition because when the government stops handing out money people will be desperate and will start to steal, rob and pilfer from people."
Wortman told his friend "it was going to be worse than the depression because there was no way to stop the sickness (COVID-19) and it was like a forest fire," the document says. In a summary of a March 19 email to an unnamed person, the gunman is quoted as writing, "Thank God we are well armed."
Wortman's spouse, Lisa Banfield, even told police that the killer had bought up large quantities of rice and other food. She said he was "paranoid" that the federal government was going to seize people's money in exchange for shares of some sort.
As previous releases of witness statements have revealed, during the weeks before the mass killing, the murderer turned his investments into cash and purchased over $800 worth of gasoline and propane. After the killings, police would find $705,000 wrapped in tin foil packages inside an ammunition can at one of the gunman's Portapique properties, the documents say.
Some were noticing the killer's behaviour in those final weeks, the court records suggest.
After the killer pulled up at a Brinks Canada office in Halifax on March 20, 2020 to pick up $475,000 in cash — driving one of the Ford Taurus vehicles he'd purchased from the federal government — a Brinks employee noted it looked like a police car and found it odd that the reflective tape was still on the vehicle.
In addition, a person whose name is blanked out told police on April 19 last year that the killer "ordered large amounts of ammunition within the past month and picked it up at (name redacted)."
Police have charged Banfield, her brother James Banfield and her brother-in-law Brian Brewster with unlawfully supplying ammunition to the killer in the month before the mass shooting. All three are pleading not guilty, and police have said they "had no prior knowledge" of Wortman's intentions.
Not all of Wortman's shifts in behaviour appear to have been driven by the pandemic, according to witness statements to police.
For example, Von Bargen said in the year before the shooting, "(the gunman) switched from being obsessed with vintage Honda motorcycles to police cars and was buying the cars off a (federal) government surplus website."
The killer would carry out his shootings while disguised as an RCMP officer and driving a replica patrol car.
The court documents contain records of the killer's PayPal purchases of gear he would use to create a replica RCMP vehicle, extending back to March 22, 2019. Websites bookmarked on the killer's computer included information about some of the police car components he was buying and "11 Things You Didn't Know About Cop Cars."
During the summer of 2019, Wortman described to Banfield how he had attached a bumper ram onto the police car he'd bought from the federal government surplus store.
Meanwhile, the killer's interest in guns, particularly his two semi-automatic rifles, was evident. Previous releases have indicated Wortman acquired the rifles illegally, one from a person he knew in Houlton, Maine, and the other through the estate of a deceased friend in Fredericton.
The newly released documents say his computer bookmarks include sites with information about the Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle and the Colt C7 semi-automatic rifle.
In addition, there is a note saying that on June 24, 2019, Wortman attended the non-restricted firearms course and completed it. However, police have stated that the killer didn't actually possess any licence to own firearms.
When Wortman was killed by police on the morning of April 19 at a gas station in Enfield, N.S., he still had a large supply of ammunition on hand — as he possibly prepared to carry on to Halifax.
According to statements by police firearms investigators, his Glock .40 calibre, semi-automatic pistol, with a laser pointer sighting grip, was on the front seat and it was loaded with an over-capacity magazine.
To his immediate right there was a cardboard box with ammunition and a metal can containing more loaded ammunition magazines.
Two rifles were lying in the back seat, including the Colt semi-automatic, with three loaded, over-capacity magazines, each with up to 30 rounds.
The second semi-automatic rifle, the Ruger Mini 14, also had an over-capacity magazine designed to hold 40 rounds of .223 calibre bullets, and there were three more magazines ready to load — two of them over-capacity ones that could hold 40 rounds.
There was also a Ruger P89, semi-automatic pistol, with an empty magazine in it and one round in the chamber, and he had the Smith and Wesson firearm belonging to RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson, whom he had killed that morning, with 13 rounds in its chamber.
In describing her spouse's attitude in the final weeks before the massacre, Banfield told police, "It was like he was preparing for the end of the world."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2021.
Michael Tutton and Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press