At least two people in Maine may have broken U.S. federal laws by helping a Nova Scotia man obtain two of the guns he used during the April 2020 rampage that left 22 people dead, a CBC News investigation has found — though it appears unlikely they will face charges.
After police shot and killed the gunman at a gas station in Enfield, N.S., they found five firearms in his possession. Investigators traced three of the weapons back to Houlton, Maine, a small town less than seven kilometres from the New Brunswick border that the shooter visited frequently.
Court records and documents released by the public inquiry examining the tragedy outline how investigators believe Gabriel Wortman got them. They suggest a longtime friend in Houlton gifted him one handgun and he took another from that man’s home. He also arranged to purchase a high-powered rifle for cash after attending a gun show in the town.
The shooter, who didn’t have a firearms licence, smuggled the guns into Canada. Based on American law, he should never have been able to obtain them in the first place.
In the U.S., it is illegal for an American to transfer, sell, trade, give, transport or deliver a firearm to someone they know is not a U.S. resident, which includes Canadian tourists. Anyone found in violation may face fines or up to 10 years in prison, depending on the details of the offence.
Violations don’t always end up in court
It appears no one in the U.S. has ever been charged with providing guns used by the shooter.
A retired U.S. federal prosecutor said that’s not entirely surprising. Margaret Groban said firearms offences rarely end up in U.S. courts unless the accused is considered a risk to the community.
“Even though it is technically a violent crime and people say, ‘Why don’t you prosecute the crimes on the books?’, there aren’t resources available to do that and it may not even be appropriate to do it,” said Groban, who worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and now teaches a course in firearms law at the University of Maine.
“There could be a number of relevant facts that might enter into whether or not public safety would be served since the perpetrator of this awful rampage is deceased.”
She added that the priority is on stopping people “actively engaged in violent crime and using firearms to commit those crimes.”
Technical violations fall much further down the list.
No announced charges in U.S.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Exposives (ATF) does not have an active investigation underway, according to spokesperson Erik Longnecker. He said he was not aware of any charges related to the Nova Scotia mass shooting being referred at the local, state or federal level. CBC News could find no record of charges filed in court.
The FBI steered questions about the case to Canadian law enforcement, and said it couldn’t confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
Meanwhile, the RCMP bounced questions back to the Americans.
The Mounties said they have been working with their “international counterparts,” and “any decisions to lay charges on offences committed outside of Canada, would be considered by the relevant law enforcement agency.”
Early on, the RCMP said tracking the guns and figuring out whether anyone helped the gunman in the lead-up to the killings was a critical part of their investigation.
Only three people on the Canadian side of the border have faced any criminal charges: the gunman’s spouse, the spouse’s brother and her brother-in-law were charged with giving Wortman ammunition.
Since then, two of the cases were referred to restorative justice, while a guilty plea was entered on the third.
How he got the guns
Summaries of police statements released through a court challenge launched by CBC News and other media outlets shed some light on the investigation.
They show that, in the days and weeks after the killings, an FBI agent conducted interviews in Houlton, as did the RCMP and ATF.
One of the people they spoke with was Sean Conlogue, a longtime friend of the gunman who often hosted him and his partner, Lisa Banfield, in Houlton.
Conlogue, 68, lives in a two-storey house with a spacious garage, located on a quiet street dotted with aging Victorian homes. It’s not far from the members-only Elks Club in one of town centre’s stately brick buildings where he’d take Wortman for drinks.
The gunman would ship parcels to Conlogue’s address, including motorcycle parts and a light bar used to outfit the replica police cruiser used during the rampage. Conlogue later told the commission leading the public inquiry that he didn’t open the packages, and instead stored them at his home until the gunman picked them up.
Their friendship was close enough that Conlogue travelled to Nova Scotia for Wortman’s 50th birthday.
The gunman and Banfield also shut down their denturist business in Dartmouth, N.S., to care for Conlogue after he underwent foot surgery and needed help getting around, according to transcripts of Mass Casualty Commission interviews.
Some time before the killings, the gunman phoned Conlogue to say he was going to leave something for him in his will, Conlogue told the commission last fall.
The gunman and his spouse spoke with Conlogue hours before the violence in Portapique, N.S., started on April 18, 2020, one of the reasons lawyers representing victims’ relatives argued Conlogue should be called as a witness at the inquiry.
In a phone interview last November, the commission’s investigators didn’t probe Conlogue on the firearms. He told inquiry staff at no point was he under the impression he was being investigated criminally, and he expressed concern that his statements would become public.
Handgun ‘sign of gratitude’
Conlogue, who declined to speak with CBC News when two reporters went to his home in late March, met the gunman years before in New Brunswick. They shared a mutual friend, former Fredericton lawyer Tom Evans.
Wortman got one of the five guns later found by police — a Ruger Mini 14 — from Evans’s estate after his death, according to search warrant documents. That rifle and an RCMP-issued service pistol stolen from Const. Heidi Stevenson after he killed her during the mass shooting were the only guns investigators traced back to Canada.
The other three came from Maine, and court records suggest Conlogue once owned two of them — a Ruger P89 9-mm-calibre semi-automatic handgun, and a Glock 23 .40 calibre semi-automatic pistol.
Both handguns were considered restricted firearms in Canada, meaning people were only authorized to use them if they had a licence and it was for a specific purpose.
Two weeks after the shooting, the Canadian government announced a ban on 1,500 types of firearms, including the two rifles used in the killings, the Ruger Mini and a Colt M4 carbine. It was already illegal to adapt them with additional rounds through over-capacity magazines, as the gunman did.
Though his name is redacted in search warrant documents, Conlogue is identifiable because details match statements he and others gave to the public inquiry.
The records state that on May 7, 2020, Conlogue explained to an FBI agent that he gifted Wortman a Ruger handgun two to five years earlier “as a sign of gratitude” in exchange for odd jobs like tree removal, since his friend wouldn’t accept payment.
Conlogue told investigators that a few years before the shootings, he discovered his friend had taken two of his Glock handguns back to Canada, and when asked about it, Wortman said he “needed them for protection.” One of those Glocks was found with him at the end of the shooting rampage.
Conlogue’s close friends, Angel Patterson and Scott Shaffer, relayed a slightly different sequence of events in their interviews with the commission. They said that immediately after learning of the shootings, they were at Conlogue’s house and he told them he’d just discovered empty gun boxes in his home.
A semi-automatic rifle and a straw man purchase
That explains where police think two of the Maine firearms came from.
But what about the third?
Police believe the shooter arranged to purchase a Colt Law Enforcement-brand carbine 5.56 calibre semi-automatic rifle he admired after attending a gun show in Houlton.
It was April 2019, and he was staying at Conlogue’s home at the time, according to court documents and public inquiry transcripts.
Paul Harrison, who was on the executive of the Houlton Rifle and Pistol Club that ran the popular event, said all the people selling firearms inside the arena where it was held were authorized dealers. That meant every buyer had to go through an FBI background check before a sale went through.
He said Canadians could attend and browse the 50 to 60 tables displaying everything from ammunition to snowshoes and cookbooks, but could not purchase firearms.
It’s widely understood, he said, that a “straw man” purchase, where someone buys a gun for another person who is prohibited from being sold one, is “not a good thing.”
“For years, local people here have gone to jail for years for doing that,” he said. “So that’s pretty well-known that you don’t do that, whether it’s a Canadian citizen or someone that has a felony and is a prohibited person.”
Harrison said it would not have been difficult for authorities to track who purchased a specific model that weekend, particularly because all sales came with a paper trail.
“They knew all the vendors that were there. They talked to almost all of them. I’ve heard several say that the FBI called them,” he told CBC News.
It appears the authorities did trace the carbine’s path to some extent, though exact details of the transaction and who helped Wortman remain murky in public documents.
In the summary of the statement Conlogue gave to RCMP, he said he was aware the shooter went to the gun show with someone else and bought a rifle-type gun with a pistol grip.
Police spoke to people who either appeared to have been involved in the sale of the gun, or who knew about it. It’s not clear from court records whether the sale took place inside the arena hosting the gun show, or was a side-deal done outside. It’s also not clear who bought the gun, and how exactly it was turned over to Wortman.
One person, who was not identified in court records, told police he sold the gun for $1,000 US to a well-dressed older man who had a Maine licence with an address he thought was in Houlton.
Another person told RCMP there was a “quick and dirty” sale of a rifle for $1,250 US, and they “did not know that the gun was for Gabriel and did not want to get arrested and go to jail.”
The Mass Casualty Commission plans to release its report on how the gunman obtained firearms next week.
Groban, the retired prosecutor, said straw man purchases — where someone fills out the official paperwork and the gun ends up in someone else’s hands — are all too common in the U.S.
An estimated 100,000 people are caught lying on their firearms background check forms each year. That doesn’t count the people who get away with it.
She said by comparison, the U.S. attorney’s office only prosecutes about 14,000 firearms cases of any kind a year.
“Even if they just did a steady diet of these cases, they couldn’t even make a dent,” she said.
While she wasn’t privy to the details of the mass shooting investigation, she said factors such as a five-year statute of limitations and whether someone may have shown a fake licence could impact any consideration of proceeding with any charges.
A person’s remorse could also play a role, she said, if it was viewed as unlikely they would reoffend.
“If it was someone who …continued to give guns to people who then committed violent crimes, then that might be someone you would consider, that would weigh the scales more toward prosecuting,” Groban told CBC News.
“But if it was a one-off crime with someone where he had no knowledge that this kind of awful rampage would happen, that might weigh in favour of not charging it.”
Maine a corridor
She said Maine is considered a “source state” where it’s easier to get guns.
“I don’t think the fact of this horrible mass shooting would have been lost on the Maine authorities and clearly if some Maine-sourced guns were used that’s a tragedy,” Groban said. “And things should be done to make sure that that doesn’t happen again.”
David Pucino, deputy chief counsel at the advocacy organization Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, echoed Groban’s concern about resources, and said there is little enforcement of gun laws.
He’d like to see Maine make universal background checks through a registered dealer mandatory for all firearms transactions, calling private sales that don’t require them “a big failing in the state.”
“The United States gun problem doesn’t stop at our borders. It spills over and affects every country in the hemisphere,” he told CBC News from New York.
“It’s tremendously troubling the ways in which the circumstances that we’ve seen in the United States, these mass shootings, these acts of violence are something that are happening in other countries with U.S. guns, because we’ve been so, so negligent here that our country, our lawmakers have failed in so many ways in advancing a stronger gun safety regime.”
Houlton connection not welcomed
Eileen McLaughlin, a town councillor from Houlton, told CBC News it was unfortunate her community was now linked to the Nova Scotia tragedy.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a part of life to travel back and forth to New Brunswick, crossing the border and going to nearby Woodstock for dinner or picking up supplies when needed.
She said by virtue of being a border town, it may be a corridor for criminals, but there is little gun violence in the community and border patrol agents are a frequent sight.
“People want to blame somebody. They want to blame a place, an organization. They want to say, ‘Oh, he brought arms over from Houlton.’ It’s a reputation that just isn’t fair for a community that works really hard at enforcing laws,” she said.
“The people in Houlton would never have approved this person from having this weapon, and the law enforcement wouldn’t. Border patrol wouldn’t. The sheriff’s office wouldn’t. And there would have been clear legal ramifications if they had known that this had happened.”