RCMP say Gabriel Wortman may have been an “injustice collector,” in a June 8, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

RCMP say Gabriel Wortman may have been an “injustice collector,” in a June 8, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Seeking to explain Nova Scotia shootings: Inside the ‘threat-sensitive brain’

Behavioural analysis points to ‘injustice collector’

HALIFAX — More than seven weeks after a man disguised as a Mountie killed 22 people in rural Nova Scotia, the RCMP have finally hinted at what may have motivated one of the worst mass killings in Canadian history.

Last week, RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell told a briefing that a behavioural analysis of the killer determined he was an “injustice collector” — a term that is well known among criminologists.

But what does that description really mean? And what does it tell us about the 51-year-old denture-fitter responsible for so much carnage and mayhem?

“It’s a way of seeing the world,” says Tracy Vaillancourt, Canada Research Chair in Children’s Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa.

The term was coined by Mary Ellen O’Toole, a former FBI profiler who is now a director of the forensic science department at George Mason University in Virginia.

Michael Arntfield, a professor and criminologist at Western University in London, Ont., says injustice collectors are disproportionately middle-aged males who have tabulated an inventory of every perceived slight over the course of their lives.

“Injustice collectors have a negative or adversarial interpretation of every encounter,” he says. “It’s their default setting.

They can nurture grudges for years. They often feel cheated or disrespected by others, even though there may be no evidence to support those beliefs. And these negative thoughts often get stuck on an endless, self-fulfilling loop.

Vaillancourt prefers the term “anger rumination.”

“It creates a threat-sensitive brain that is always looking for evidence to confirm the world is against them,” says Vaillancourt, a professor who specializes in the study of violence.

“It builds up to be an internal narrative of: ‘These people are jerks. These people are bad. They deserve what they get.’ They become desensitized to the suffering of their victims.”

Witness statements, documents and police disclosures confirm the killer, Gabriel Wortman, displayed many of these traits — though not all the time.

According to court records, his relationship with an uncle soured in July 2015 after Wortman lost a legal battle involving a shared property in Portapique, N.S., the tiny community where he started his homicidal rampage on the night of April 18.

Longtime neighbour John Hudson says the killer made a point of burning his uncle’s former home that night, even though he had moved away years ago. Among Wortman’s first victims was 49-year-old teacher Lisa McCully, who had purchased the uncle’s former home.

“It didn’t have anything to do with Lisa,” Hudson speculated in an interview in April. “He didn’t have her in mind. He was thinking of the problems he had with his uncle.”

Hudson also recalled how Wortman was particularly perturbed about stonework on a neighbour’s log home, which resembled the style of his own home.

“He would tell me, ’They’ve just disgraced that place.’ He thought they were copying him. He did worry about those things.”

Arntfield, a workplace violence consultant and former police detective, says the focus on petty grievances is consistent with injustice collecting.

“Over the course of their lifetime, this reaches critical mass, and some act out,” he says.

Wortman killed 13 people in Portapique before slaying another nine people the following day in several communities in northern and central Nova Scotia. He was fatally shot by a Mountie at a gas station in Enfield, N.S.

The RCMP said the killer’s victims fall into one of three categories.

“Some recipients of his wrath of violence were targeted for perceived injustices of the past, others were reactive targets of his rage and others were random targets,” Campbell told an RCMP briefing last Thursday.

Vaillancourt says anger rumination can sometimes be linked to growing up in a hostile environment, though that is not always the case.

In a police document used to obtain a search warrant, one witness described Wortman as a smart psychopath who had been abused as a boy and was paranoid about the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, even though Wortman routinely had run-ins with neighbours, police and others in authority, those types of interactions are not reliable predictors for violent behaviour, Vaillancourt says.

“There’s a lot of people who are injustice collectors,” she says. “Your next-door neighbour might be one. You’re mom might be one. There’s a lot of people who view the world this way and don’t go on a shooting rampage.”

Still, Wortman’s history of domestic violence was well known among some of his neighbours, and police have confirmed the killings started shortly after he assaulted his long-term common law wife, who survived the attack.

Intimate partner violence is a strong indicator that an individual is more likely to be violent towards others.

Arntfield, who works with the Canadian Association of Threat Assessment Professionals, says experts can use actuarial tools to spot potentially violent injustice collectors among terminated employees.

These tools, which include the MOSAIC threat-assessment system in the U.S., are also used by politicians and other public officials to determine the threat posed by people sending threatening correspondence.

One key trait is the use of pseudo-legal language. Other clues include obsessions with police or the military and access to firearms, both of which applied to Wortman.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2020.

Nova ScotiaShooting

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The newly built Parkland Regional Library Services. (Photo Submitted)
Parkland Regional Library system moves into new offices in Lacombe

“Someone with a Parkland Library card can borrow from 350 libraries in Alberta,” Ron Sheppard

The Mountain Cree Traditional Band headquarters in Mirror, Alta. has been the target of theft and vandalism. (Photo submitted)
Mountain Cree Traditional Band’s headquarters broken into five times

AWNTB says not enough been done to deter crime in Mirror, Alta.

Alberta has 3,651 active cases of COVID-19.  (File photo)
750 new COVID-19 cases identified in Alberta Sunday

Central zone currently has 1,182 active cases of the virus

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine deliveres to Canada are being delayed because of complications at their European distribution facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Delays of Pfizer vaccine delivery to impact Alberta’s vaccination plans

Alberta has administered 74,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine so far

A scene from “Canada and the Gulf War: In their own words,” a video by The Memory Project, a program of Historica Canada, is shown in this undated illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Historica Canada
New video marks Canada’s contributions to first Gulf War on 30th anniversary

Veterans Affairs Canada says around 4,500 Canadian military personnel served during the war

Indigenous people gather for a ceremony for Cindy Gladue held at the courthouse in Edmonton, Alta, on Wednesday, January 13, 2021. Bradley Barton, a 52-year-old long-haul truck driver from Ontario on trial for manslaughter, is accused of killing Gladue. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
People stand in support of mother as new trial gets underway in death of Cindy Gladue

Bradley Barton, a long-haul truck driver from Ontario, will now be tried for manslaughter in the 2011 death

(Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
RCMP say ice climber seriously injured after reportedly falling 12 metres near Abraham Lake

Police say man’s injuries were serious but not life-threatening

U.S. military units march in front of the Capitol, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021 in Washington, as they rehearse for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony, which will be held at the Capitol on Wednesday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Biden aims for unifying speech at daunting moment for U.S.

President Donald Trump won’t be there to hear it

Facebook/ The Open Door 24/7 Integrated Response Hub- Wetaskiwin.
Wetaskiwin residents show support for 24/7 Integrated Response Hub

Wetaskiwin residents and City Council members showed support for Hub with positive signs.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on December 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
No place for ‘far right’ in Conservative Party, Erin O’Toole says

O’Toole condemned the Capitol attack as ‘horrifying’ and sought to distance himself and the Tories from Trumpism

A passer by walks in High Park, in Toronto, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. This workweek will kick off with what’s fabled to be the most depressing day of the year, during one of the darkest eras in recent history. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
‘Blue Monday’ getting you down? Exercise may be the cure, say experts

Many jurisdictions are tightening restrictions to curb soaring COVID-19 case counts

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19: Provinces work on revised plans as Pfizer-BioNTech shipments to slow down

Anita Anand said she understands and shares Canadians’ concerns about the drug company’s decision

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a news conference outside Rideau cottage in Ottawa, Friday, January 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau says Canada’s COVID vaccine plan on track despite Pfizer cutting back deliveries

Canadian officials say country will still likely receive four million doses by the end of March

Most Read