There was a series of fires in the early 2000s at the Dartmouth addresses that eventually became the Nova Scotia mass shooter’s denture office parking lot, and no one suspected the man next door.
As part of the rampage that became the worst mass shooting in modern Canadian history, the shooter, who the Halifax Examiner calls GW, lit several fires. GW had stockpiled hundreds of dollars worth of gasoline in the lead-up to his killings, and on April 18 and 19, he burned down his own home in Portapique along with those of many of his victims, and multiple cars left in his wake.
With those fires in mind, the Examiner looked back at a series of blazes in Dartmouth in the early 2000s.
Through news reports, fire investigation reports, property records and interviews, the Halifax Examiner has pieced together a timeline of fires next to GW’s Portland Street dental clinic:
- May 1998: GW buys 193 Portland St.
- October 2000: fire at 191 Portland St.
- September 2001: fire at 189 Portland St.
- Early October 2001: another fire at 189 Portland St.
- Late October 2001: GW buys 189 and 191 Portland St.
- December 2003: fire at 191 Portland St.
- April 2004: GW ordered to demolish 191 Portland St.
GW bought the building at 193 Portland St., which later became his home and his denture clinic, in May 1998.
Two years later, on Oct. 8, 2000, there was a suspicious fire next door, in the three-unit apartment building at 191 Portland St. The headline in the Chronicle Herald a few days later: “Arson suspected in Dartmouth flat blaze.”
The Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency report into the fire in the ground-floor apartment said it was “suspicious in nature with a probable incendiary start.”
Smoke alarms were disconnected and investigators found multiple Bic lighters with the safeties removed. There was a red gas can near the area of origin — a kid’s bedroom. The woman renting the apartment told the fire department she didn’t own a gas can and “had no use for one.”
A window in that bedroom, along the narrow alleyway between 191 and 193 Portland St., had been left open.
Scott Wheeler was working for Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency at the time in the fire prevention division. Having started as a firefighter back in the 1980s, he got into fire prevention in the late 1990s and eventually became lead fire investigator with the municipality. He’s now working for an engineering firm, investigating fires for insurance companies.
At the time of these fires, Wheeler was still learning the ropes from a pair of more experienced investigators, but he acted as lead investigator and wrote the report on the fire at 191 Portland St. in October 2000.
“It was in the bottom apartment and yeah, there was lighters all over the place in the living room,” Wheeler said in an interview.
“You could see where they were doing some illegal drugs back then like marijuana and that and in the back bedroom, there was a small bedroom and we were cleaning it out, that’s where most of the damage was there. We found the gas can in that bedroom on the floor.
“It looked like somebody just poured some gas in [the window] and then threw the can in and lit it on fire.”
The fire was obviously suspicious, and Wheeler handed it off to the police.
“If they would have came up with a suspect or somebody like that, then they would have contacted us to let us know that they caught somebody because usually you ended up going to court, right,” he said.
“As far as I know, they never caught whoever did it.”
It’s hard to pin arson on a suspect, Wheeler added.
“Unless you catch that person with the match in their hands or, or something like that, it’s very hard to prove,” he said.
Less than a year later, on Sep. 14, 2001, the building next door caught fire. Wheeler was there, too.
The cause of that fire at 189 Portland St. was undetermined. Electrical was ruled out, and there was no one living in the apartments at the time.
“Just because we said it was undetermined doesn’t mean that we couldn’t find the cause. But there might have been like, two two different things that might have caused it,” Wheeler said.
There were cigarette butts everywhere, he recalled.
Just weeks later, on Oct. 7, 2001, there was another fire on the third floor of the same building, which was a standalone apartment.
“Arson is suspected in a weekend fire that gutted a Dartmouth building charred in a blaze three weeks ago,” leads the Chronicle Herald story.
The report from Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency said “low level charring was evident at base board level” in a bedroom in the front of the house.
“Heavy charring at this level is usually consistent with the use of a flammable or combustible liquid,” Fire Prevention Officer Craig MacDonald wrote.
Three weeks later, on Oct. 29, 2001 — the same day he assaulted a young man on the sidewalk outside the denture clinic — GW bought 189 and 191 Portland St. from Craig Lipton. Lipton had purchased the two properties at about the same time GW bought 193 Portland St.
In an interview with the Examiner, Lipton said he got to know GW as he worked on the two buildings and the denturist lived and worked next door. Lipton was working to flip the two properties.
“And so being there all the time, and him living next door, you know we just kind of ran into each other a lot. And you know, had a little bit of, I guess a kind of a friendship … for a little bit,” he said.
Lipton said GW “wanted to get some parking for his denture clinic and have some more room.” If GW owned the two lots, he could better access the back of his property at 193 Portland St.
“It would sort of allow him access without having to, you know, having to ask me permission or it would just give him that whole parcel of land, which was a pretty good size for, for that area for the downtown area,” Lipton said.
After the two fires in September and October 2001, just a year after the first in October 2000, Lipton decided it was time to sell.
“I first offered it to him because that was just, just felt natural,” Lipton said.
Wheeler, the fire investigator, remembers GW wanting the properties for a different reason.
“He wanted to buy those properties because at that point, he wanted to build it into an apartment building,” Wheeler said.
The plan was an apartment building across 189, 191 and 193 Portland St. with commercial space in the ground floor to house the denture clinic. But after he got the properties, GW found out he couldn’t develop them, Wheeler recalled.
“There was some kind of burial ground or something there, an Indian burial ground, and he couldn’t,” Wheeler said. “The only thing he was allowed to do was to put a parking lot there.”
There is a burial ground around the properties. In a 2018 article, Dartmouth historian David Jones wrote about the multiple instances of bones being found in the soil under and around the St. James Church at the corner of modern-day Portland Street and Prince Albert Road.
“Given the lengthy record of the discovery of human remains on the St. James Church hill (from 1844 and potentially earlier to 1954) and the 1894 discovery of a stone hammer at the site of the Church Manse, it is highly recommended that the Nova Scotia Museum, Special Places and the Mi’kmaq be contacted ahead of any potential further ground disturbances in the area of the hill,” Jones wrote.
The site is noted for its “elevated archaeological potential” — along with much of the surrounding area — in the municipality’s land-use bylaw. That means anyone hoping to develop the site may be referred to the provincial Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage “for any action it deems necessary with respect to the preservation of archaeological resources in accordance with provincial requirements.” It doesn’t appear that rule was in place in the early 2000s, but at any rate, GW never applied for a development permit for the site.
After GW bought 189 and 191 Portland St., he demolished the building at 189 Portland St. It’s unclear exactly when that happened, but Google Earth satellite imagery shows it was gone by May 2003.
In December 2003, there was another fire at 191 Portland St., but Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency didn’t find this one suspicious.
The fire ripped through the back of the building after a worker used a blowtorch to try to thaw out a frozen oil line.
“Apartment fire accidental,” declared the Chronicle Herald headline a few days later.
In Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency’s report, investigator Craig MacDonald wrote that a security guard at the scene told him the blowtorch started the fire.
“I contacted the building owner ([redacted]) who’s business was located next door. A conversation confirmed the information provided by the guard, informed me that a burner technician was in the process of thawing a frozen line and this is what caused the fire,” MacDonald wrote.
MacDonald wrote that he later contacted the technician who was using the blowtorch, who confirmed “that’s how the fire started.”
“There may have been a minor delay in reporting the incident as attempts were made to extinguish the fire plus the fact the fire may have been burning inside the walls for an unknown length of time before discovery,” MacDonald wrote.
On April 22, 2004, the city’s Dangerous and Unsightly Premises committee ordered GW and his parents, who were on the deeds for all three properties at the time, to demolish the building.
The city issued a demolition permit the same day, and GW eventually built a split-level parking lot covering both 189 and 191 Portland Street, with a lower level abutting Portland Street, then a driveway up the hill to a higher level at the rear of the properties, which also allowed convenient access to a garage behind the denture clinic at 193 Portland St.
Despite GW’s open desire to own the properties and the timing of it all, Lipton never considered any connection between the fires at the properties and the fires GW lit during his rampage on April 18-19, 2020.
“I never put two and two together like that,” Lipton said.
“But yeah, it’s kind of an interesting relationship, all those fires and then his fires now.”
Lipton said the two buildings’ former tenants often wanted to come back and live in the buildings, but he was trying to renovate them. That meant he didn’t consider that GW could’ve been responsible.
“He didn’t seem the type, plus these two buildings were crack houses, and had a bad reputation,” he said.
Wheeler felt the same way. Fires weren’t uncommon in the area, with what Wheeler described as a young and low-income population.
He said GW was “helpful” every time there was a fire — answering questions about what he’d seen.
“He was very obliging,” Wheeler said.
After hearing that the mass shooter was a denturist on Portland Street, Wheeler thought it couldn’t be him.
“I wouldn’t think him because he seemed to be a nice person,” he said.
“There’s a dark side to everybody, I guess.”
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Zane : it certainly seems possible. Whenever the properties all around a place start burning it is inevitable people start wondering. A well known ‘big house’ in Lawrencetown saw both (all) of its immediate neighbours go up in smoke and yes, people up and down the the Shore took to speculating ! Excellent job of investigative work…
Interesting, and excellent reporting!