Inquiry details how N.S. killer escaped as trio of officers advanced

Click to play video: 'Radio communication details RCMP response during mass shooting'
Radio communication details RCMP response during mass shooting
WATCH: Transcripts of communication between RCMP members is showing the chaos they were faced with when responding to the Nova Scotia mass shooting in Portapique, N.S., the night of April 18, 2020. Graeme Benjamin reports. – Mar 1, 2022

Warning: This story contains content that may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.

The first three RCMP officers who responded to the Nova Scotia mass shooting walked through darkness toward gunfire and burning homes, but the gunman they pursued continued to kill before slipping away.
Transcripts tabled Tuesday at a public inquiry indicate the officers who raced — sirens screaming — to the scene in Portapique, N.S., were dispatched after a harrowing 911 call at 10:04 p.m. on April 18, 2020, from Jamie Blair, just before she was killed.

“The last thing we had was just a person screaming there (in Portapique),” the dispatcher radioed Const. Stuart Beselt as he drove about 50 kilometres toward Portapique’s unlit roads, arriving at about 10:25 p.m.

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A 92-page summary prepared by the commission of inquiry details the officers’ actions after they arrived in Portapique, and reveals that for about 90 minutes, they were the only police officers to enter the enclave.

As Beselt drove into the community in his patrol vehicle, he met residents Andrew and Kate MacDonald driving out. They had just crossed paths with the killer in his replica RCMP cruiser, and Andrew MacDonald had been shot. However, the inquiry heard Monday that at that moment the shooter was beyond Beselt’s line of vision, in a dip in the road 160 metres away.

Some time between 10:27 p.m. and 10:40 p.m., the killer drove south, deeper into the small community and fatally shot Joanne Thomas and John Zahl in their home.

At that point, as the first officers were advancing into Portapique, the killer, Gabriel Wortman, managed to elude detection. Rather than head north toward the Mounties, the commission believes he drove along a rough trail through a wooded lot that he owned in the south end of the community, ending up at his warehouse on Orchard Beach Drive, which he had earlier set alight.

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The commission says there is evidence Corrie Ellison — a visitor to Portapique — was taking photos of the burning building just before he was shot dead at 10:40 p.m.

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Within the next five minutes, it’s believed the gunman slipped out of the community by taking a dirt road that provided an escape route to the highway and allowed him to bypass police stationed on the main road into town.

But this wasn’t known to Beselt, a 24-year-veteran of the force, as he entered the community on foot with Const. Adam Merchant, a 13-year-veteran, and Const. Aaron Patton, a member since 2017.

According to the inquiry’s summary, he had put on his body armour almost immediately upon arriving, and after encountering the MacDonalds, he was ready to enter the community along with Merchant.

The commission documents show Beselt speaking to the MacDonalds at 10:28 p.m., and by 10:36 p.m., he was radioing Patton, who was just behind him, that he and Merchant could see a burning house halfway down Portapique Beach Road.

Beselt had studied the 2014 shootings of RCMP officers in Moncton, N.B., and believed being in a police car added to the danger. “I made the decision to run in, and I’m glad I did. I think it kept me alive, to be honest with you,” he told commission investigators.

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According to the commission’s transcripts and interviews, Beselt, Merchant and Patton advanced with carbines pointed forward and wearing body armour, while Const. Vicki Colford stayed at the intersection of the highway and Portapique Beach Road, to contain the area and care for the MacDonalds.

They were following basic RCMP training to create an “immediate action rapid deployment” team, which requires them to seek out someone posing a threat to others’ lives.

Just after 10:39 p.m., they radioed in that they were hearing shots being fired to their east, and found their way through a wooded trail that emerged at the killer’s burning warehouse property. By 10:48 p.m., Beselt radioed to a supervising officer that “things are blowing up or they’re shooting, I’m not sure.” They found Ellison’s body in front of the warehouse.

Recordings of the radio conversations were played during the hearings, and the senior counsel for the commission, Roger Burrill, noted the rising tension in the officers’ voices rising as they advanced into the chaotic scene.

Then, the three officers knocked on the door of Lisa McCully’s house, where her two children and Jamie Blair’s two children had taken shelter, and were on the line with a 911 operator. McCully had been killed by the shooter when she’d gone outside.

Meanwhile, back at the intersection of the highway, Colbert radioed incoming officers at about 10:48 p.m. that she’d been informed there were private, back roads that might lead out of the area.

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“If you guys want to have a look at the map, we’re being told there’s a road, kind of a road that someone could come out, before here,” she said. The commission’s investigators state it’s likely that message was directed at Cpl. Natasha Jamieson and Const. Chris Grund who were coming in from the Millbrook detachment.

The commission doesn’t indicate how they responded. However, it was probably too late: the commission’s investigators say the killer had likely already reached the highway and was driving away. It wasn’t until a little after 5 a.m. the next morning that police set up a checkpoint at the back-road exit where the killer had escaped.

Click to play video: '911 calls paint picture of Nova Scotia mass shooting timeline'
911 calls paint picture of Nova Scotia mass shooting timeline

The commission said GPS data suggests that the killer’s vehicle may have sped by two RCMP officers during his escape, but both Grund and Jamieson told commission investigators they didn’t notice a police car passing them.

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Shortly after 11 p.m. more officers had arrived at the entrance to Portapique Beach Road and the report describes their frustration as they awaited orders. Grund asked Staff Sgt. Andy O’Brien, the operations officer during the incident, about entering the community, but O’Brien “indicated that he only wanted one team in the community to avoid a risk of crossfire,” according to the commission summary.

Const. Bill Neil, arriving from neighbouring Pictou County, also asked supervisors to “give us something to do” at about 11:45 p.m. After the RCMP dispatcher indicated nobody was with the children, he and Grund were sent to bring them to safety, arriving at the McCully house shortly after midnight.

Grund and Neil were the first officers to join Beselt, Merchant and Patton in the community — more than 90 minutes after their original entry on foot.

Through all of this, the general public had been given little word of what was going on. At 11:16 p.m., Beselt radioed Brian Rehill, RCMP risk manager, to ask whether some kind of emergency broadcast might be made to warn civilians, but Rehill replied the police were using a 911 map to call as many residents as possible.

At 11:32 p.m. local time, the RCMP sent out a tweet saying they were “responding to a firearms complaint in the Portapique area,” and asked people to avoid the area and stay in their homes with locked doors.

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It wasn’t until 8:02 a.m. the next morning, over nine hours after Wortman had escaped the area, that they issued another tweet declaring an “active shooter situation.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2022.

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