An RCMP investigator told a close friend of the N.S. man who killed 22 people that police didn’t plan to hold the Maine man accountable for giving the killer a gun, but wanted to know about how the shooter acquired his weapons and smuggled them across the border to ensure guns wouldn’t make it into Canada in the future.
A transcript of the May 2020 RCMP interview with Sean Conlogue — a resident of Houlton, Maine who knew Gabriel Wortman for more than two decades — has been posted online by the public inquiry examining the April 2020 mass shooting.
A CBC News investigation found that though Conlogue and at least one other person in Maine may have broken U.S. federal laws by helping the shooter obtain two of the guns he used during the April 2020 rampage, it is unlikely they will face charges.
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. Investigators believe the shooter, who didn’t have a firearms licence, obtained three of the guns he used during the massacre in Houlton and smuggled them into Canada.
Police traced two of his weapons back to Conlogue, who told investigators he had no idea what his friend was planning. In a four-hour interview, RCMP Staff Sgt. Greg Vardy asked him about their relationship, guns and border crossings.
The gunman frequently stayed at Conlogue’s home and had online orders shipped to his address. Conlogue said he’d given Wortman a Ruger handgun as a “token of appreciation” for the work he did around his property during his visits.
In response, Vardy told Conlogue it was illegal for him to do so.
“I’m not interested in charging you…. I want to know, like, the truth,” the Mountie said.
“We don’t have any inkling of coming down here, coming after Sean Conlogue for this event. This is about knowing what’s happened for those 22 families, so that in the future this stuff is not gonna happen again. In the future, that these guns will never get across that border.”
Frequent border crossings
Search warrant documents show the Canada Border Services Agency determined the gunman crossed the border at Woodstock, N.B., a short drive from Houlton, 15 times in the two years prior to the shootings.
That included in April 2019 when the shooter stayed with Conlogue for a week to help him after a foot surgery. During that visit, police believe Wortman purchased a high-powered rifle — a Colt Law Enforcement-brand carbine 5.56-mm semi-automatic — after attending a local gun show.
Conlogue said he was in bed recovering and didn’t go to the show, but assumed Wortman went with a mutual friend. Vardy named the man but the public inquiry has not released any documents related to interviews with him.
He told Vardy he saw the shooter counting cash and remembers seeing a rifle the day before the gunman left to return home to Nova Scotia.
“I said, ‘what in the hell do you need something like that for?’ And I think his words were ‘I’ve always wanted one,'” according to the transcript of his RCMP statement.
Getting the guns across the border
Conlogue also told RCMP that he believed Wortman took the rifle back into Canada by wrapping it up in the aluminum tonneau cover of his truck.
“The day they left…. He was working on his roll-up top,” Conlogue said, adding that he “didn’t want to rock the boat” and never asked about the gun or the border crossing specifically.
Others, including Conlogue’s friend, Scott Shaffer, and the gunman’s partner, Lisa Banfield, also told investigators they believed the guns were smuggled that way.
Banfield said she asked her spouse about it and he explained he’d leave the cover rolled up and the back of the F-150 pickup open.
“So if they’re looking for something, they’re looking inside, they’d have no reason to open the tonneau cover,” Banfield told RCMP on April 28, 2020, adding he denied ever taking guns across the border while she was with him.
Conlogue was also aware that Wortman had taken guns across the border before.
After the death of their mutual friend, Fredericton lawyer Tom Evans, Conlogue said Wortman wrapped Evans’s Ruger Mini in a blanket and brought it to Maine. That rifle was another gun police found at the end of the 13-hour rampage.
While speaking with Vardy initially, Conlogue was vague about two Glock handguns that went missing from his home, before explaining that Wortman called him in the fall of 2017 to say he took them. Conlogue said his friend had permission to use the handguns, but the agreement was they were supposed to stay in his Houlton home.
“I didn’t know until he had told me that he took those guns across the border and I [pretty] near had a heart attack,” Conlogue said in the RCMP interview.
“It broke my heart because he betrayed trust that I’d had in him… I probably at that time I should have said something.”
Information crucial for border security
Ronald Vitiello, the former head of the U.S. border patrol, said having someone close to the gunman report his activities could have impacted how agents interacted with the gunman during his many border crossings.
He said people who know an offender are the best source of up-to-date intelligence.
“If somebody that had suspicion about his illegal activity went to the RCMP or went to local authorities or went to the border authorities and said, ‘Hey, look, we think this individual is doing X, Y and Z’… that might have been enough to scrutinize his travel back and forth a bit more,” he told CBC News.
“It highlights the need for individuals to report suspicious activity. It highlights the need for both countries to co-operate on the security regime to protect both the border community and the homeland at large, right? Both Canada and the U.S.”
The tonneau cover in the back of a vehicle would be a common place to search if the shooter was flagged as a potential threat, he said.
The Canada Border Services Agency told CBC it uses “data, intelligence and risk indicators to identify illicit firearms.”
“Guided by intelligence” border agents use tools that include X-ray machines, including hand-held ones, and detector dogs, the government agency said in a statement to CBC News.
“Their specialized training, expertise and knowledge, in detecting contraband and prohibited or restricted goods, allows them to always be on the lookout for dangerous goods,” it said.
But witnesses who spoke to police, including Banfield, said Wortman was rarely searched. He had a NEXUS card, which meant both the U.S. and Canada considered him a low-risk traveller.
NEXUS card for low-risk travellers
Anyone can apply for NEXUS. The program was designed to speed up border crossings.
Applicants must go through an interview process and pass the risk assessments of U.S. Customs and Border and CBSA background checks.
Criminal convictions will show on those checks and new convictions will result in someone’s membership being cancelled, Rebecca Purdy, a senior spokesperson for the CBSA, said in an emailed statement.
Wortman didn’t have a criminal record, though he received a conditional discharge after pleading guilty to a 2001 assault. Meeting conditions set by the court, which included nine months of probation and a $50 fine, meant the case could be resolved without a conviction on his record.
Once approved, NEXUS members crossing land borders show their card at a reader. They then pass a border officer who decides if they are required to enter an inspection area, the CBSA told CBC.
Members may still be subject to in-depth searches because anyone crossing the border can be referred for a secondary search, the agency’s statement said. Referrals happen as the result of factors such as document validation, declaring goods and the payment of duties and taxes.
It said everyone is required to report controlled or restricted items like firearms and people importing goods aren’t supposed to use the NEXUS lane either.
CBSA has tip line
Vitiello said the authorities need people to flag illegal activity for the system to work well.
“Having a regime that allows for low-risk travellers and people to come in and out of both countries conveniently and friction-free is a good thing, right? It helps drive both economies,” said Vitiello.
“It highlights the need for the co-operation among border authorities – co-operation with regard to intelligence and threats to criminal or in the terrorism regime. “
CBSA said people can always report concerns to CBSA Border Watch by calling a tip line or submitting information online.
In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, the agency seized 955 guns at border crossings, including non-restricted, restricted and prohibited firearms. That was up from 548 during 2020-2021 when travel was limited due to the pandemic. In 2019-2020, the agency seized 753.
Gunman linked to firearms before 2020
The 2020 attacks weren’t the first suggestion that the gunman, who never had a licence to possess or use firearms, had them anyway.
CBC previously obtained records through freedom of information that show in 2011, a Truro police officer circulated a tip to other policing agencies that a source reported seeing firearms at the gunman’s Portapique, N.S., cottage and that he kept a handgun in his night stand and a long gun in a compartment by a fireplace.
That same report also referenced a 2010 investigation into threats against the gunman’s parents and information on file about him having “several long rifles.” The RCMP said in June 2020 that they were looking into past interactions that officers had with the shooter.
In 2013, Brenda Forbes, who used to live in Portapique, told police she reported to RCMP that her neighbour was abusive toward his partner and had illegal weapons.
Boasted of history of smuggling
Guns also weren’t the only thing people thought the gunman took over the border illegally.
David McGrath, the partner of one of Lisa Banfield’s sisters, told RCMP the shooter had boasted about smuggling things in university.
“He used to run tobacco over the border when he was like, I don’t know, 20 years old. He was good at it,” he said. “He’s been shady his entire [life] as far as I’m concerned.”
Shaffer also told police the gunman would also pour vodka in jerry cans to make it look like he was taking gas across the border to save money since alcohol was cheaper in Maine.
Conlogue said his friend was known to put liquor in beer bottles. He didn’t know his guns were used in the mass shooting until Vardy told him.
“That man was in my house, that man was a monster and I didn’t see it, neither did anybody else,” Conlogue said.
“Honest to God it’s eating me alive…. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I’ve lost 25 pounds… evil… that’s what it was.”