RCMP officers speak publicly about Moncton massacre for the first time

RCMP faces trial in 2014 Moncton massacre.
RCMP faces trial in 2014 Moncton massacre. Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

It was a sunny summer evening in Moncton’s northwest end. After a streak of rain, temperatures had climbed, and people filled the streets basking in first days of warmth.

As children played outside, a camouflaged man was spotted skulking down the middle of a road carrying what appeared to be two long guns, raising enough suspicion for several people to call 911.

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One caller said it seemed that the man had something on his mind, like he was on a mission. There was something about his expression, another told police; she believed he was a threat.

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Const. Fabrice Gevaudan took the lead as officers chased the suspect into the woods, Const. Shelly Mitchell said. Mitchell shooed a group of children to get in their homes and pushed ahead with her weapon drawn.

Then came the first round of gunfire.

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“In that moment, it was very real,” Mitchell said. “This was really happening.”

In the next 20 minutes, Gevaudan and two other Mounties were shot dead. Two more officers were wounded in the June 2014 Moncton massacre, and Mitchell said she hasn’t been operational since that month.

Nearly three years later, the RCMP and several of its officers sat on opposite sides of the aisle in a Moncton provincial courtroom at the force’s Labour Code trial last week.

The trial will resume Monday.

It’s allege the RCMP failed to provide members and supervisors with the appropriate information, instruction and training in an active-shooter event, and didn’t give members the appropriate equipment.

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Several Mounties who responded to the scene teared up on the stand as they relived the night of Justin Bourque’s shooting rampage.

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While their recollections of that fateful evening were incorporated in the RCMP’s independent review of the shootings, court heard officers speak publicly about the event for the first time. Witnesses told overlapping accounts of an unprecedented spree of violence in a city that had a zero-homicide rate in the three years prior to the incident.

They described futilely trying to revive wounded colleagues, feeling out-armed by a gunman out to assassinate police, and fearing they would be his next target. One witness recalled speaking to her dead mother as blood gushed from her gunshot wounds, not wanting to be alone and knowing no ambulance was coming for her.

Cpl. Peter MacLean, who was team leader at the scene, told the court he tripped and fell as officers pursued Bourque into the woods. Gunfire rang out, then an officer yelled that he’d been shot at, said MacLean.

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MacLean, who has 32 years of police experience, testified that he found Gevaudan lying face down in a backyard with his weapon next to him on the ground. He said he turned the 45-year-old officer over and saw he had been shot twice in the torso.

MacLean said he peeled off Gevaudan’s vest and tried to stop the bleeding. Gevaudan wasn’t breathing, but MacLean said he thought he felt a weak pulse in the officer’s neck, but it could have just been in his fingertips.

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MacLean told the court he was performing CPR when he heard a second volley of shots.

“It was unusual, because in police shootings, the norm is they shoot us because we’ve confronted them and then they try to retreat,” said MacLean. “In this case, he wasn’t retreating.”

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He and Const. Rob Nickerson officer decided they were too exposed, so they dragged Gevaudan to a low ditch by a fence, MacLean said.

Another officer arrived as they tried to resuscitate Gevaudan. Having lost his radio in the chase, MacLean said he grabbed Gevaudan’s receiver and weapon, and left the other officers to “do what they could.”

Court heard that as the shooting unfolded, people swarmed the neighbourhood to see what was happening. Officers said they frantically screamed for residents to get inside, but the gunman wasn’t aiming at them. It wasn’t civilians he was after, they said.

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Mounties testified that they used the suburban landscape to conceal themselves while tracking the shooter once it became clear that Bourque was hunting police. Officers jumped over fences, darted through unfenced backyards and covered each other as they hopscotched from house to house.

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“I had a sense that anything was possible,” Mitchell told the court. “At any moment in time, this person could be barrelling out of the woods at us.”

Mitchell joined a group of officers who were gathered near the bullet-riddled SUV as Const. David Ross lay on the ground.

“When I made my way towards him, I asked if I could put pressure,” Mitchell told the court through tears. “I looked at him and I saw he’d been shot in the head.”

Another officer told Mitchell to breathe as she realized there was nothing she could do, she remembered.

“It was kind of like this was going on in my head,” she said. “I really wanted to get this person.”

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Mitchell said she went behind a house and knocked on the patio door to ask the couple inside if she could borrow the keys to their car.

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She told the court her plan: “If I see this person, I’m going to mow him down with this car.”

Disguised in a non-police vehicle, Mitchell said she learned that Const. Eric Dubois had been wounded by gunfire, so she picked him up and took him to the hospital.

As she drove Dubois to the emergency room, Mitchell said she called her mother to let her know she was OK. Dubois gave her his pistol, so Mitchell tucked it into her vest and made her way back to the scene.

“The sense of urgency to move forward seemed most important,” she said. “He had killed my friends, my co-workers. And I wanted to stop him.”

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Const. Erik White told the court that officers set up a staging area in a fire station during a lull in the shootings. He said he heard gunfire in the distance, and then a call came in that a civilian was down.

As he dashed from car to car, White said a civilian pointed for him to keep going until he saw a group of people huddled around an open-doored car.

White said he pushed his way through the crowd and saw a body covered by a sleeping bag.

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“It’s one of yours,” White recalled a civilian saying. “It’s a cop.”

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White said he and a civilian dragged Const. Doug Larche, who was in plain clothes and body armour, off the street. They brought him to a house, which was locked, so White said he kicked in the door and carried Larche inside.

White said he gathered Larche’s firearms and contacted the RCMP’s Codiac headquarters.

Cpl. Jacques Cloutier asked if he should send an ambulance, White recounted, and he told him “there’s no point.”

Cloutier, who was filling in as staff sergeant while the command post remained open, testified that he let the phone ring off the hook as he listened to the staticky police radio and tried to piece together what was happening on the ground.

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As the nature of the threat became clear, Cloutier said he sent everyone in his office and holdovers from the previous shift to the scene without a briefing.

He told the court that he saw his primary role in the response as allocating resources, and officers kept pleading for more.

Cloutier said he had the ability to broadcast information over the radio, but he didn’t, figuring the officers would monitor the situation the same way he was – over the airwaves.

Officers testified that the radio transmissions were frenzied and full of misinformation, making it difficult to know how to respond.

Police were called in from across the region, but Mounties from other jurisdictions didn’t have access to Codiac’s radio channel, Cloutier said.

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Const. Darlene Goguen of the RCMP’s Riverview detachment testified that she pulled up to the scene not knowing where the shooter was until the bullets pierced the window of her car.

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Having been shot twice, Goguen recalled feeling blood streaming down her body as she drove until she couldn’t drive any further.

She told the court she was scared to touch the back of her head where the “hot, hot metal” had punctured her skin because she didn’t know what she’d find.

Goguen said she didn’t want other officers to risk their lives trying to save her, and an ambulance wasn’t coming.

Goguen called her boyfriend, but he didn’t pick up, and feeling faint, she let the call ring through to voicemail.

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Court heard that in the recording, Goguen spoke with her deceased mother, unsure how much time she had left.

“(I was) just asking her to be with me, because I was alone,” said Goguen.

Goguen said another officer put her in an SUV and took her to the hospital, where she was treated for her injuries.

Several Codiac officers testified that they were unaware that Goguen was wounded.

“I wasn’t really keeping track of where these members were,” Cloutier said.

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As a corporal, Cloutier said he was normally responsible for leading an eight-officer team, and had not been trained to take charge of an active-shooter situation. He said senior officers came to help him with the response, but he couldn’t recall them giving directions.

Cloutier said he tried to take notes as the action developed, but the phone would ring before he could finish a sentence. “I could barely write my name,” he said.

He said he had been working for more than 12 hours when another officer took over command at 5:45 a.m., but it would still be hours before Bourque was caught.

Last week, court heard from several officers who were on the front lines during those harrowing first 20 minutes of shooting and subsequent hours of panic.

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But as local Mounties scrambled to find Bourque, a much larger operation was getting underway.

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Hundreds of police officers would flood into Moncton, including three of the RCMP’s four emergency response teams in the Atlantic region, as well as those from the Quebec and national division, and tactical teams from nearby municipal forces. They were accompanied by medics, technicians, 11 police dog teams, an explosive disposal unit and special investigators. Several aircraft and five armoured vehicles were deployed to the scene.

All were sent in search of a 24-year-old man armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a shotgun. People in the area were told not to leave their homes until the shooter was caught.

After a 28-hour manhunt, Bourque would come out of hiding and surrender to police with his hands up.

Bourque, who was targeting police in an effort to start an anti-government rebellion, was sentenced to life in prison with no parole eligibility for 75 years after pleading guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder.

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But even with Bourque in jail, questions lingered about the police response to the massacre.

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Alphonse MacNeil, a retired assistant commissioner with the RCMP, concluded in a 2015 report on the Moncton shootings that high-powered weapons could have made a difference in that incident.

Two weeks into the Labour Code trial, the Crown has called several witnesses who testified that they lacked the proper weapons or training to deal with an active-shooter threat.

“We don’t take chances anymore,” Cloutier said. “We react as if any gun call is an actual battle.”

Two months have been set aside for the trial.

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