The following is an excerpt from 22 Murders (Random House Canada), investigative journalist Paul Palango’s account of the April 2020 killing spree by Nova Scotia denturist Gabriel Wortman, and the many unanswered questions about the RCMP’s response. This excerpt begins on the morning of April 19, as news began to spread about the previous night’s extreme violence in Portapique, N.S., even as Wortman was able to continue his spree into a second day.
Approaching her sixty-fifth birthday, Lillian Campbell Hyslop and her husband, Michael, were enjoying their retirement in the scenic Wentworth Valley. They had moved there in 2014, after Michael had inherited a property that sat near the corner of highways 4 and 246, known locally as the 4 and the New Annan Road.
It was a good fit genealogically for her, a return to her roots, as it were. Lillian Campbell (no relation to RCMP superintendent Darren Campbell) was raised in the Scottish settlements of Glengarry County in Eastern Ontario, which were founded in 1784 by United Empire Loyalists who fled across the border from New York State. The area had long clung to the Gaelic language, just as Gaelic traditions continued to thrive in northern Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island. There was even a Gaelic college not terribly far from Lillian’s new home — Colaisde na Gàidhlig, just south of Englishtown, of all places, on Cape Breton.
Between Lillian’s Ontario childhood and Nova Scotia retirement, she and Michael had spent thirty years in Yukon, which was about as far from Nova Scotia as they could reside in Canada. Lillian worked as a nurse at Whitehorse General Hospital and later for the Yukon government in its health services branch. She sang alto in a choir. As Gabrielle Plonka described it in the Whitehorse Daily Star, Lillian and Michael were active in the “mushing community.” They raised sled dogs when they lived in the Grizzly Valley. Michael had once managed the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile international sled dog race that runs every February from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Whitehorse. In later years, both he and Lillian volunteered during the race, which could take ten to sixteen days to complete over exceptionally rugged terrain.
“Her nature, her compassion, her gentleness, her spirits were just so good,” Lisa Triggs, an old friend of Lillian’s, told Plonka. “She would walk into a room and literally, Lillian would scan the room and right away from across the room she’ll smile at you and make you feel like you’re the only person in that room. I think her nature is just what made her an exceptional soul. There was nothing violent about her nature; she was always kind. She could deal with any situation.”
After breakfast on the morning of April 19, Lillian put on her safety vest and got ready for her regular morning walk down to Old Station Road — almost 10 kilometres there and back. Neither she nor Michael had any idea about the horror going on all around them. There had been no alerts. Even those who had access to and could decipher the RCMP’s tweets could be forgiven for not recognizing the extreme danger. No one knew where Wortman was.
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Shortly after Lillian went out the door, around 9:30 a.m., Michael began to hear from friends about the murders. The RCMP was in the midst of responding to the first 911 calls from Hunter Road, about 13 kilometres to the north. By that time Lillian had already turned the corner and was heading south on the 4.
As Wortman sped along the smooth, recently paved highway, the RCMP was nowhere in sight. Cindy and Carlyle Brown had seen four RCMP cars coming from Oxford or Springhill, but they were well behind Wortman in Cumberland County. He was headed back to Colchester County. Same police force. Different jurisdictions. Under normal circumstances, they aren’t tuned in to the same assistance channel.
The RCMP said it knew from Wortman’s partner that he might be targeting other people. Even though a public warning hadn’t been put out, the RCMP on its own or with the assistance of Halifax Regional Police had evacuated or offered protection to a number of people, including former lawyer and now judge Alain Bégin. With the flood of 911 calls coming in from Hunter Road around 9:15 a.m., the RCMP had to know where Wortman was and that he was continuing to kill.
Wortman drove for about six minutes from Hunter Road and was approaching the New Annan Road intersection. He could likely see Lillian Hyslop turning the corner and walking away from him on the other side of the road. She got a little more than 100 metres down the road, just past the big, green rectangular road sign alerting drivers to turn right for West New Annan and Tatamagouche.
It was around 9:34 a.m. when Wortman either drove across the highway or made a U-turn, stopped near Hyslop, took aim at her head with his laser sight and shot her, killing her instantly. She was his seventeenth victim in about eleven and a half hours. A witness called 911 immediately and said they had “heard a bang” and seen an RCMP car leaving the area.
At 9:43 a.m. the RCMP alerted the Truro Police Service that a woman was lying by the side of the road and may have been hit by a police car. The RCMP cars responding to the call would have been coming from Oxford, Springhill or even Pugwash, a little farther away but still closer than Truro.
Wortman continued on his way south. By now, even he had to be amazed by the lack of police presence. He was driving down a main highway, heading back to the very area where he’d started killing, and there wasn’t a roadblock to be found. A few kilometres down the road he reached Folly Lake and was back in Colchester County. A few minutes after that he crested Folly Mountain and began his downhill descent to near sea level. In the middle distance he could see the sun glistening off his beloved Cobequid Bay. Did he wonder if he would ever witness those glorious tides again? Or did he have a plan to somehow escape with his life?
Soon he was back at the intersection with Plains Road, from which he had come earlier that morning. He didn’t turn, and continued south. About 400 metres down the road on his right was the Hidden Hilltop Family Campground. He had driven about 41 kilometres in twenty-five minutes and had killed Lillian Hyslop along the way. He had so far gone undetected, but now there was a Mountie approaching him from the other direction.
The Mountie passed him and recognized Wortman’s vehicle. The RCMP says the time was 9:47 a.m. The location they provided was not specific. The Mountie radioed his dispatcher and then made a U-turn to go after Wortman, but the killer had disappeared.
Excerpted from 22 Murders by Paul Palango. Copyright © 2022 Paul Palango. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.