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Domestic assault may have triggered Canadian rampage that left 22 dead

Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers prepare to take a suspect into custody at a gas station in Enfield, Nova Scotia on Sunday April 19, 2020. Canadian police arrested a suspect in an active shooter investigation after earlier saying he may have been driving a vehicle resembling a police car and wearing a police uniform. (Tim Krochak/The Canadian Press via AP)

(CNN) — A domestic assault could have been the catalyst of a Nova Scotia shooting rampage that left 22 people dead, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said Friday.

A police time line indicates the 12-hour rampage began in the quiet town of Portapique on Cobequid Bay Saturday, when the gunman assaulted his longtime girlfriend, according to Nova Scotia RCMP Superintendent Darren Campbell.

The woman escaped and hid in the woods after an assault “that very well could have been the catalyst” of the slaughter, Campbell told reporters. But investigators have not discounted the “possibility of any pre-planning at this time,” he added.

The woman, who’s still recovering from serious injuries, emerged from the woods several hours after the first shooting deaths. Campbell said she provided police key information about the gunman.

Police said Gabriel Wortman, 51, led police on a miles-long manhunt across the Canadian province. He died after a confrontation with police. He was wearing a RCMP uniform and drove what appeared to be a police cruiser, according to Campbell.

The girlfriend, who continues to cooperate in the investigation, told police in the early morning hours Sunday that he was armed with several weapons and ammunition. She also provided the details of his appearance and vehicle, Campbell said.

Officers responding to the first 911 calls late Saturday came upon the bodies of 13 victims in Portapique, the superintendent said. Some were lying on the road. Some structures, including the gunman’s properties, had been set ablaze.

Police said Friday that Wortman fatally shot at least two victims after pulling over their cars.

Campbell said police initially believed the killings were confined to the area and ordered a lock down. Officers also believed the gunman might have been in one of the burning strictures.

“You have to appreciate that they believed that they had that area contained,” Campbell said.

But the rampage, which spanned 16 locations, continued, with the gunman killing nine other people over several hours, police said.

The victims included RCMP Constable Heidi Stevenson, whose vehicle was involved in a head-on collision with the gunman’s car. The suspect shot Stevenson and took her handgun and ammunition before killing a bystander, police said. He set both Stevenson’s cruiser and his car on fire.

Wortman knew and targeted some of his victims and randomly shot others, according to police. His girlfriend told police of a potential list of victims he would target.

“We identified other family members who could potentially be at risk,” Campbell said. “So we were contacting individuals we believed could have been on a list or were potentially at risk.”

Family and friends of the victims have said that an emergency alert by police could have prevented some deaths. Police on Wednesday admitted that they failed to issue a timely alert to the public.

“We hear the families of the victims full force,” Campbell said Friday. “They have every right to ask these questions and they have every right to be angry.”

Police have said that they learned about the gunman’s attire and vehicle from a witness between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. on Sunday.

The formal process for issuing an alert was initiated but it took several hours to make its way up the chain of command, police said. Nearly three hours later, an alert had still not been issued.

“I would not have let my wife leave … if I had that broadcast come across, that he was on the loose and he was driving an RCMP vehicle,” Nick Beaton, whose wife, Kristen, was killed by the gunman, told CNN partner CBC.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the failure to issue an alert would be part of a larger investigation.

“I think there are many families grieving incredible losses right now who are asking themselves questions about how things could have been different, how they might have been able to be warned earlier,” Trudeau said during a press conference Wednesday. “Those are extremely important questions that I know will be addressed through the investigation’s conclusions.”

RCMP said the gunman appeared to have acted alone. He did not have a license to own or operate a firearm, though police said that is still being investigated.