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Winnipeg woman among those mourned after shooting rampage

Joanne Thomas volunteered with her church and advocated against human trafficking in Nova Scotia

One of the presumed victims of Nova Scotia’s deadly weekend rampage is being remembered as a kind and gentle soul by those who knew her during her childhood in Winnipeg.

(Elizabeth) Joanne Thomas, 58, and her husband John Zahl, 69, are presumed dead following the events of the weekend in Portapique, N.S. Their home was burned to the ground, but their bodies have not yet been located and identified by authorities.

The nation was left reeling by the deadly events of the weekend, during which a man impersonating an RCMP officer shot multiple people and burned homes in a rampage across the Maritime province. By Tuesday afternoon the death toll had risen to 23 people. The alleged shooter, identified by police as Gabriel Wortman, 51, was killed after being intercepted by police in Enfield, N.S.

Elizabeth Joanne Thomas and John Zahl (back row) are seen with their grandchildren Riley Zahl (from left), Emily O'Neil and Justin Zahl in an undated photo.  (Justin Zahl / The Associated Press)

Elizabeth Joanne Thomas and John Zahl (back row) are seen with their grandchildren Riley Zahl (from left), Emily O'Neil and Justin Zahl in an undated photo. (Justin Zahl / The Associated Press)

"It’s unbelievable that with all the crappy people in this world, that their family is one to get hit like this. It doesn’t even make sense, and we’ll probably never know what happened," said Jeanine Remillard, from her Winnipeg home.

N.S. shooting rampage killed 22 victims: RCMP

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RCMP Chief Superintendent Chris Leather fields questions at a news conference at RCMP headquarters in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Monday, April 20, 2020. Investigators say a killer's use of a mock police cruiser and an RCMP uniform almost identical to the real thing helped him escape detection as he travelled between 16 crime scenes in a rampage that has left at least 19 dead in Nova Scotia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Riley Smith
RCMP Chief Superintendent Chris Leather fields questions at a news conference at RCMP headquarters in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Monday, April 20, 2020. Investigators say a killer's use of a mock police cruiser and an RCMP uniform almost identical to the real thing helped him escape detection as he travelled between 16 crime scenes in a rampage that has left at least 19 dead in Nova Scotia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Riley Smith

Posted: 22/04/2020 6:38 AM

HALIFAX - A murderous rampage by a Halifax man impersonating an RCMP officer has claimed 22 lives, police announced Tuesday as some questioned why more wasn't done to warn citizens along his route.

The RCMP confirmed in a news release that the killing began in Portapique, N.S., and when police arrived Saturday night they discovered several casualties inside and outside of a home. The killer's trail continued overnight and into the next morning through Wentworth, Debert and Shubenacadie before he was shot dead by police in Enfield at around noon Sunday.

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Remillard remembers moving into the house next door to Thomas's in Winnipeg’s Windsor Park neighbourhood when Joanne was only 10 years old. Remillard was close friends with Thomas’s mother until she passed away, and she was also a close family friend. Until this weekend, she continued her routine of speaking with Thomas two to four times a week to stay in touch.

After graduating from Windsor Park Collegiate, Thomas spent a year working with individuals with special needs before she left Manitoba to go to university in North Dakota. She’d been training as a speech pathologist when she met her husband, Zahl. The two followed his job with FedEx to Albuquerque, N.M., where Thomas went on to work as an executive with Blue Cross Blue Shield.

While Zahl had children from a previous relationship, the couple ended up adopting two of his grandchildren and raising them as their own children.

In 2017, the couple decided they wanted a change of pace and moved to Nova Scotia for their retirement.

"They’d moved to this incredibly idyllic, peaceful, friendly (place)," Thomas’s sister, Lori Thomas, told the Free Press from her home in Brandon, Man. "You visit, and you want to pick up and move there yourself."

“They’d moved to this incredibly idyllic, peaceful, friendly (place). You visit, and you want to pick up and move there yourself.” –Lori Thomas

Lori said the transition had been a stark one for her sister, moving from being a busy executive, travelling all the time, to landing in a slow-paced town like Portapique. But she managed it by throwing herself into the community, Lori said. Her sister volunteered with their church, provided laundry services to those less fortunate in the area, and worked as an advocate against human trafficking in Nova Scotia.

Remillard remembers the couple as people who would "open their arms to anyone" and she added that Thomas had "the energy of 20 people" and she used it all to serve others.

Remillard visited the couple the summer before last, and described their new two-storey wood cabin as the couple’s dream. She believes the man who allegedly carried out the attacks was their next-door neighbour, but she never crossed paths with him when she was there.

Wentworth volunteer firefighters douse hotspots as an excavator digs through the rubble of a destroyed home linked to Sunday's deadly shooting rampage. (Tim Krochak / Getty Images / TNS)

Wentworth volunteer firefighters douse hotspots as an excavator digs through the rubble of a destroyed home linked to Sunday's deadly shooting rampage. (Tim Krochak / Getty Images / TNS)

Many questions remain as RCMP continue to investigate the horrific events of the weekend. Lori is waiting for a call to supply her DNA to identify her sister’s body. But in the end, she says answers don’t change much for her.

"Even if we were to get every single blow-by-blow, minute-to-minute descriptor of what happened, it doesn’t change that they are no longer with us," Lori said.

The tragedy of the couple’s loss is deepened by the fact that they leave behind their 22-year-old adopted son, Justin; he lives in a trailer in Halifax, Remillard said, but due to some cognitive delays he has always relied completely on his parents. When word of the devastation in Portapique spread on Sunday, Justin became frantic for answers and has been in constant contact with Remillard ever since.

"It’s just such a difficult situation because we’re all so far away," Remillard said. The pandemic has made the efforts of family and friends to try and help him all the more difficult. Lori said she feels helpless, not being able to be there to support her nephew or to try and make funeral arrangements.

If COVID-19 hadn’t shut down most air travel, the couple would instead have been away on a trip to Denmark, Holland and England, Lori said.

“It is horrific, and it is unfathomable. Canadians don’t do this." –Lori Thomas

Each and every night Thomas had a habit of FaceTiming with her brother, Kenny, in Brandon, who has special needs. Lori cares for their brother and said it still seems impossible that his iPad won’t soon ring, with Thomas’s voice on the other end saying, "Hey brother, brother."

The Nova Scotia provincial flag flies at Memorial Park across the street from the Manitoba Legislative Building Monday in support of the victims of the massacre. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Nova Scotia provincial flag flies at Memorial Park across the street from the Manitoba Legislative Building Monday in support of the victims of the massacre. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

"It is horrific, and it is unfathomable. Canadians don’t do this. And when you hear such horrible things, you think how horrible it must be for families, and you think, ‘Boy that’s never happened to anyone I know.’ Well now it has happened to someone that I know," Lori said.

Lori said she doesn’t think the loss has truly hit her yet, but as she processes the events of the last few days, she tries to find comfort in the fact that the couple, of 35 years, were together in the end, and she hopes to share some of that comfort with the public, by sharing the details of her sister's life.

She laughs as she recalls that on every trip to Winnipeg, often even before she made it to visit her parents’ house, Joanne would stop at Dairi Wip for a hot dog, and it wasn’t uncommon to wake up to her eating Jeanne's cake for breakfast with a glass of milk.

"Her loss is such a senseless thing. It is difficult to make sense of it."

sarah.lawrynuik@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @SarahLawrynuik

Sarah Lawrynuik

Sarah Lawrynuik
Reporter

Sarah Lawrynuik reports on climate change for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press climate change reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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History

Updated on Tuesday, April 21, 2020 at 5:30 PM CDT: updates headline

8:37 PM: Updates headline

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