Grudge Hoarders and Mass Murder

Frustration accrual and social collapse became a pressure cooker.

Posted Jun 09, 2020

On Saturday, April 18, 2020, Gabriel Wortman started killing neighbors in the rural community of Portapique, Nova Scotia. Police located 13 shooting victims inside and around several burning homes, but Wortman had left the area.

The search led to multiple sites where nine others were killed. After 13 hours, police located Wortman in a gas station. An armed confrontation resulted in his death. This week, Canadian news offered statements about Wortman’s character and motive, although a full review is still ongoing.

Canadian authorities had warned about Wortman’s potential risk for violence nine years ago, when an acquaintance heard him threaten to kill a cop. Several experts now call him an “injustice collector,” a person who holds long-term grudges and develops the notion he must punish any perceived offense. The phrase has been used to characterize American mass murderers as well. Christopher Harper-Mercer, who killed nine at Umpqua Community College in Oregon in 2015, was labeled a "wound collector." So was Christopher Dorner in 2013.

Michael Arntfield, a professor and criminologist at Western University in London, Ontario, told Canadian reporters that injustice collectors are disproportionately middle-aged males who amass an inventory of perceived slights. "Injustice collectors have a negative or adversarial interpretation of every encounter," he said.

Personally, I think it's more accurate to call them hoarders than collectors. They fully internalize grievances to the point where they find both solace and an identity in their long lists. They develop a pathological need to control others (like hoarders with objects), and the more grudges they accumulate, the more unforgiving they become and the more insulated they feel from the world’s uncertainties. Their fantasies feature them "winning” against those who’ve done them wrong, shored up with righteous justifications for whatever they decide to do.

Grudge hoarders view perceived affronts as a show of disrespect. Couple this with an attitude of narcissistic entitlement, and you have a simmering pot of resentment, ready to boil over into rage. Getting armed for action is but a short step away.

People who live with grudge hoarders who turn violent are often their first targets. Wortman’s common-law wife was among the earliest victims. He assaulted her when they were arguing after attending a party. In handcuffs, she escaped. Wortman set the house on fire and went back to the party to shoot people, killing seven. He proceeded to other homes, setting fires and shooting more residents. Emergency calls brought the police, who discovered 13 dead and one wounded.

Early the next morning, Wortman’s wife found a phone to call 911. She described his fake police uniform and refurbished police cruiser (he had four). By then, he’d burned houses in a town twenty-three miles away and killed more people. A male police officer he’d shot survived, but a female officer was killed. Wortman then hijacked an SUV, killing the driver, to continue to the home of a female friend, whom he killed. He changed out of his uniform and stole her car. Police put out updated BOLOs, finally bringing him down.

With 22 dead and three injured, this murder spree rates as Canada’s worst to date.

Spree killers are not all alike, although they’ve often been characterized as such. For a book, Spree Killers, former FBI profiler Mark Safarik and I collected 359 spree cases from 43 countries and identified five primary motivational categories: Anger/Revenge, Mission, Desperation, Mental Illness, and Robbery/Thrill. Each had subcategories.

In the Anger/Revenge category, spree killers might 1) target all of their victims, 2) target some and also kill randomly, or 3) kill entirely randomly or opportunistically. In other words, some spree killers who have a grudge or seek revenge know exactly who they want to kill, while others have a more generalized need to act out or punish. The Anger/Revenge category represents 30% of the spree cases in our database. In this study, 34 of 111 anger/revenge cases involved the subcategory that includes Wortman – a mix of targeted and random murders.

Few people were surprised by Wortman's violence. The 51-year-old was known as a paranoid, controlling bully. He’d once been ordered into anger management counseling, but it did little good. Wortman apparently had ambitions to become a police officer, but later expressed a wish to harm police. Like other anger-motivated spree and mass killers, Wortman had trouble accepting life’s frustrations. A denturist by trade, he'd recently been forced by the pandemic to close his practices for an unspecified period of time. This situation only magnified the emotional force of other grievances.

Wortman had lost a legal battle with his uncle in 2015 over property in Portapique. This home was among those Wortman burned, killing the current owner (not the uncle). Among his other targets were those with whom he'd had issues. A spokesperson for the RCMP said the killer's victims fell 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.”

His wife survived, but over the years she'd experienced Wortman's assaults. In Spree Killers, Safarik and I cite studies that include domestic violence as a precursor to other types of future violence, especially if the person strangles his partner. Reportedly, Wortman was known for assaulting his wife, was obsessed with police, and had a significant stash of illegal firearms – all factors that show up in violence prediction assessments. As a grudge hoarder, he continually amassed negative emotional energy but his rigid personality blocked any way to vent it. Armed and dangerous, with further frustrations from COVID-19 restrictions, he launched a fatal rampage.  

References

Safarik, M. & Ramsland, K. (2019). Spree killers: Practical classification for law enforcement and criminology. CRC.