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On April 22, 2020, right after a mass shooting in which 22 people were killed, a couple placed a flag at a memorial in Portapique, Nova Scotia. Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press via AP
It was after 10 p.m. on a Saturday and quiet in the small town of Portapique, Nova Scotia, when gunshots rang out and bright flames from a house fire lit the night.
A man had shot at his partner, set fire to their house and in the span of a half-hour gunned down 13 people in the village, including two neighbors whose children were hiding behind a bed. Over the next 13 hours, Gabriel Wortman, 51, dressed as a police officer and driving a replica cruiser, killed nine more people, including a pregnant woman and a constable from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Three others were injured.
Wortman was shot and killed by police outside a gas station on April 19, 2020, the day after his rampage began. Officers searching the Mazda 3 he stole from one of his victims found five firearms and dozens of rounds of ammunition.
Three of those firearms — a Glock 23, a Ruger P89 and a Colt Carbine semi-automatic rifle — came from Houlton, nearly 300 miles and across an international border from the small beachside community where the worst mass shooting in Canadian history began.
Sean Cologue gave this Ruger P89 to Nova Scotia shooter Gabriel Wortman as a sign of gratitude for helping with odd jobs, according to a Canadian report about the attacks. Photo courtesy of the Mass Casualty Commission
Two guns, authorities would later determine, had been purchased by a friend of Wortman’s in Houlton and a third came from a gun show in the same Aroostook County town.
Three Canadians who supplied the gunman with ammunition used in the attacks faced charges. But the people in Maine who helped Wortman acquire guns have not been charged and likely never will be.
A Canadian Mass Casualty Commission charged with examining the shooting and recommending ways to keep communities safer released a detailed report last week about the firearms used in the attacks and how the gunman was able to access them.
In the days and weeks after the shootings, investigators from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Canada and the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives descended on Houlton, where they interviewed Wortman’s friends and acquaintances.
Transcripts of those interviews and the firearms report released last week document how investigators traced guns to a private sale at a Houlton gun show and to Sean Conlogue, a friend of Wortman’s who had given him the Ruger to thank him for doing odd jobs. Wortman took the Glock 23 from Conlogue’s home without his permission, according to the report.
Investigators determined that an acquaintance of Wortman’s purchased the Colt Carbine for him at the gun show for $1,000 cash, an illegal move known as a straw purchase, where someone buys a gun for another person who is prohibited from buying it.
It is a violation of federal law for a person to give, sell or transfer a gun to someone who is not a U.S. resident, though Conlogue told police he didn’t know he wasn’t allowed to do so. But that offense is rarely prosecuted because it is usually a low priority for the Department of Justice, which prosecutes around 14,000 firearms cases each year, according to Margaret Groban, a retired federal prosecutor who now teaches a firearms regulation course at the University of Maine School of Law.
When the Department of Justice is deciding whether to charge someone with a firearms offense, it looks at whether the person has a criminal record, has given guns to multiple people, was aware of the intent of the person receiving the gun, and shows remorse, Groban said.
“It is unusual to prosecute someone for violating this statute,” she said. “He himself has not committed a violent crime.”
A spokesperson for the FBI said the agency would not comment on a possible investigation of the Maine guns used in the attack. The ATF did not respond to requests for information about its involvement in the case, but a spokesperson told CBC News in Canada last month that there is no investigation underway and that no charges related to the mass shooting have been referred at the local, state or federal level.
Conlogue did not respond to messages from a reporter asking to discuss his connection to Wortman.
Maine has less restrictive regulations for purchasing guns than many other states, so it is considered a source state for guns, Groban said.
“If you opened Uncle Henry’s (classified ads) today, you’d see pages and pages of firearms for sale – and you don’t need a background check for those private sales (in Maine),” she said. “Our guns show up in other states at crime scenes or where it is not as easy to get a gun.”
It’s not surprising, therefore, that guns from Maine ended up in Canada, “but it’s tragic nonetheless,” Groban said.
THE HOULTON CONNECTION
Wortman, a 51-year-old denturist, was a frequent visitor to Houlton, where he sometimes stayed with Conlogue in his home near the town center. Conlogue told investigators that he had met Wortman through a mutual friend at an Irish pub in Fredericton, New Brunswick, decades earlier.
They grew close over time, often going to the Elks club down the street for drinks when Wortman was in town. When Wortman turned 50, Conlogue, who is in his 60s, traveled to Nova Scotia for the party. And when Conlogue was recovering from surgery, Wortman closed his business and came to Houlton for 10 days to care for him.
Conlogue allowed Wortman to ship items he purchased – mostly motorcycle parts but also a light bar later mounted on his replica police cruiser – to Conlogue’s house in Houlton. Conlogue told an RCMP investigator that he stacked the boxes unopened in his garage until his friend came to Maine to retrieve them.
Occasionally the two men would get together to skeet shoot. At Conlogue’s camp in Haynesville Woods, they shot at targets and clay pigeons. They also shot together at a gravel pit in Haynesville and off the porch of Conlogue’s camp in Forkstown, according to the commission report.
They used various guns, including a commemorative Smith & Wesson, shotguns and two Glock handguns owned by Conlogue. Wortman, whom Conlogue described as an “average shot,” enjoyed shooting the Glocks, the report said.
Conlogue told police he had given his friend a Ruger handgun two to five years earlier to show his gratitude for the tree removal and other odd jobs he did for him.
Investigators say Gabriel Wortman took this Glock 23 handgun from the home of his friend in Houlton and smuggled it into Canada. Photo courtesy of the Mass Casualty Commission
“Mr. Conlogue said he assumed the perpetrator could take a firearm into Canada and never questioned the perpetrator about how he would get the firearm home,” the commission report says.
A few years before the shootings, Conlogue realized Wortman had taken his two Glock handguns from a bedroom he used for storage, according to an interview transcript.
Conlogue told a detective “it broke my heart because he betrayed trust that I’d had in him,” but he did not report the guns stolen or push Wortman to give them back.
Conlogue told a detective that he asked his friend why he had taken them and Wortman told him that he needed them “for protection.” One Glock 23 that Conlogue had purchased in 2009 from a gun shop in Mattawamkeag was found in Wortman’s Mazda. Investigators later determined it was used to shoot multiple people during the rampage.
Police traced another gun from Maine, a Colt carbine 5.56 caliber semi-automatic rifle, to an annual gun show in a Houlton arena where table rentals started at $30.
The gun was originally purchased in Ventura, California, then transferred to a man named Gary Sewell, who arranged for his friend Don Dematteis to sell it at the Houlton gun show, held April 27 and 28, 2019, according to the report. Wortman saw the gun at the show, but as a Canadian citizen was not allowed to buy it.
Dematteis told the FBI and ATF that a man who said he was from Massachusetts approached him about buying the gun. Dematteis told him he could only sell it to someone with a Maine driver’s license and a concealed carry permit. The man was later identified through a photo lineup as Wortman, according to the report.
Later that day, Dematteis sold the gun for around $1,000 to a man in his 60s who had a Maine license. Because no paperwork or background check was required for that sale, Dematteis did not remember the man’s name, according to the report.
After the 2020 shooting in Nova Scotia, investigators traced the Colt Carbine used in the attack to Houlton. Officials say it was purchased for Gabriel Wortman at a local gun show. Photo courtesy of the Mass Casualty Commission
Detectives later determined the gun was purchased by Neil Gallivan, who initially told investigators he thought he was buying it for Conlogue. But Gallivan later admitted that the money used to buy the gun came from Wortman, the report said.
Investigators learned through interviews with witnesses that Wortman, who was not licensed to own firearms, smuggled the guns to Canada in pieces rolled up in the tonneau cover on the back of his pickup truck.
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
A month after the shootings, Conlogue told a sergeant from the RCMP that what had happened was “a nightmare to me,” according to a transcript of the interview. He said he just couldn’t wrap his head around it, and neither could others around town who knew Wortman.
“I believe, I really believe, and I hate to say it, but (from) what I can understand, what I read and what I hear on the news, he set me up and … that’s what kills me,” Conlogue told the officer. “The thing that eats at me are those people that got killed and that that man was in my house, that man was a monster and I didn’t see it.”
A motive for the violence has never been determined.
Less than two weeks after the mass shooting, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an immediate ban on 1,500 makes and models of “military-grade assault-style” weapons, including the types of guns Wortman used in the attacks.
In the wake of the attacks, the federal and provincial governments established the Mass Casualty Commission to conduct an expansive public inquiry. Its mandate includes examining the RCMP response, crime prevention and access to firearms.
People pay their respects at a roadside memorial in Portapique, Nova Scotia on April 26, 2020. A man went on a murder rampage in Portapique and several other Nova Scotia communities, killing 22 people. Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press via AP
The commission is expected to release a final report in November that lays out lessons learned and recommendations that could help prevent and respond to similar situations in the future.
The commission released an interim report on May 2, a required step in the inquiry that does not include recommendations or findings. The following day, the commission presented the firearms report to the public.
Commission counsel Amanda Byrd’s presentation of the firearms report was somber and at times emotional. She paused to compose herself and wiped her eyes before describing the bullets recovered from the body of 33-year-old Kristen Beaton, who was expecting her second baby. Byrd never spoke Wortman’s name, in keeping with a request from Trudeau to avoid giving him “the gift of infamy.”
Groban, the retired prosecutor, said that while some may want to focus on whether or not people should be prosecuted for their role in helping Wortman get guns, it’s more important to focus on how it happened and how to keep it from happening again.
Before giving others firearms, she said, people need to look for any indications that the firearms might be used for violence. Such warning signs might include owning multiple guns or having a history of domestic violence and trauma, Groban said.
“We want people to be more vigilant when it comes to firearms and red flags that may be present in those situations,” she said.
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