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Grandson fears missing grandparents killed in Canada attack

Justin Zahl, who was raised by his grandparents in New Mexico, said he heard from police after making frantic calls and seeing images of his grandparents’ home burned to the ground.
A memorial pays tribute to Royal Canadian Mounted Police Constable Heidi Stevenson, a mother of two and a 23-year veteran of the force, along the highway in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, on April 21, 2020.Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press via AP

A young man says his grandparents are missing after their two-story log cabin was set ablaze during the rampage by a gunman that left at least 18 dead and homes in smoldering ruins in rural communities across Nova Scotia over the weekend.

Justin Zahl said Tuesday he finally heard from police after frantic calls for information and seeing images of his grandparents’ home in the rural town of Portapique burned to the ground, with their cars in the driveway. He said he was told their bodies are likely in the ruins.

“Most likely bodies in the rubble, but no ID on who yet,” the distraught 22-year-old told The Associated Press of the couple, who adopted and raised him and his 19-year-old brother, Riley.

“All I have to do is wait,” he said in a post on Facebook showing photos of the destroyed cabin and a frantic request for information.

Police teams were spread out at 16 locations across central and northern Nova Scotia, including the neighborhood where the 12-hour rampage began late Saturday on Portapique Beach Road, where the suspect, Gabriel Wortman, lived.

Police have warned the death toll would increase as investigators comb through several homes destroyed by fire.

John Zahl, in his late 60s, and his wife, Elizabeth Joanne Thomas, in her late 50s, lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they raised their two grandsons before retiring to their dream home in Nova Scotia in 2017 after falling in love with the place on a visit.

Justin Zahl and his brother lived with them for a while but both young men no longer do. Justin Zahl lives in Lake Echo, about 85 miles south.

Zahl said it might be more than a week before he gets confirmation from authorities about his grandparents’ fate. He said he last heard from his grandmother early Saturday evening via iMessage on her iPad.

“They were angels,” he told the AP, adding that the couple were like parents to him and his brother. “He was the smartest man I knew, and could hold a conversation with anyone.”

John Zahl was originally from Minnesota and his wife from Winnipeg, Manitoba, their grandson said. She worked for HCSC Blue Cross Blue Shield in New Mexico and he worked for FedEx for 20 years and previously worked for the Navy as a Russian translator. He had also taught behaviorally challenged students at middle and elementary schools in Albuquerque before moving to Nova Scotia.

Officials said the suspect, identified as 51-year-old Wortman, also died in the weekend attack. Authorities did not provide a motive for the killings.

Authorities said Wortman wore a police uniform and made his car look like a Royal Canadian Mounted Police cruiser allowing him to travel easily within a 30-mile (50-kilometer) area around Portapique, where the rampage began. A police officer was among those killed.

As the attacks unfolded, police warned residents of the rural community to lock their doors and stay in their basements. The town, like all of Canada, had been adhering to government advice to remain at home because of the coronavirus pandemic and most of the victims were inside homes when the attack began.

Several bodies were later found inside and outside one house on Portapique Beach Road, authorities said. Bodies were also found at other locations in Nova Scotia, and authorities believe the shooter may have targeted his first victims but then began attacking randomly as he drove around.

Authorities believe Wortman acted alone. Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Brenda Lucki said he was not well known to police. She said police were still studying the crime scenes to determine what weapons were used.

The dead officer was identified as Constable Heidi Stevenson, a 23-year veteran of the force and mother of two.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday he spoke with Stevenson’s family and with another officer who was wounded and is now recovering at home.

“This week we are all Nova Scotian,” Trudeau told a news conference. “The families of the victims can count on the unwavering support of not only their neighbors but of every single Canadian.”