‘Almost unbelievable:’ How disbelief may have shaped RCMP response to N.S. shooting spree

Click to play video: 'Radio communication details RCMP response during mass shooting'
Radio communication details RCMP response during mass shooting
Transcripts of communication between RCMP members are 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 – Mar 1, 2022

This story contains disturbing details. Discretion is advised.

The four Nova Scotia RCMP officers who first responded to Portapique were admittedly in disbelief.

As they rushed toward the tiny seaside community on April 18, 2020 at speeds of more than 120 km/h, each of them questioned whether details gleaned from frantic 911 calls made by a woman and her two children about a man driving a police car and shooting his neighbours could possibly be true.

“It almost sounded, like, almost unbelievable, right?” Const. Stuart Beselt told an RCMP investigator five days after the incident.

“To be honest, like, at that point I thought it was fake,” Const. Aaron Patton would later say. “Someone else that was hallucinating or schizophrenic or I don’t know what.”

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The RCMP officers’ recollections of what happened in Portapique were released as part of the public inquiry tasked with investigating the shooting spree perpetrated by Gabriel Wortman. The killing spree lasted 13 hours and left 22 people dead.

These details have never before been discussed in public and provide insight into the mindset of police, how they acted that night, and whether anything could have been done differently. Experts say they also shed light on possible biases and deficiencies in police training about mental health issues and about how women and children often aren’t believed when they report violent crimes.

“We discount things that women and children say when it comes to violence,” said Farrah Khan, a gender-based violence expert at Ryerson University.

“There is often a prejudice against women, a disbelief in women, a thought to second guess women who tell you things, and this is how misogyny is baked into our institutions.”

Click to play video: 'Police training needs to better address concerns of women, children'
Police training needs to better address concerns of women, children

Khan is a member of the federal government’s advisory council on strategies to prevent gender-based violence. She said systemic distrust of women and children is significant because statistics show private violence often becomes public violence. That’s what happened in Portapique when the gunman assaulted his common-law partner before turning his rage against neighbours and strangers.

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Research from the U.S. also shows the overwhelming majority of mass shootings occur inside the home. Known as “family annihilation” killings, these murders most often involve a man killing his entire family before turning the gun on himself. About a third of all public mass shootings – where at least one victim is killed outside the home – start with family violence and then spread into the community.

Statistics also show that most mass shooters are suicidal and in the midst of an extreme mental health crisis leading up to their crimes.

“The origins of these crimes are in a personal crisis. Often that crisis manifests itself in things like domestic violence that spills out into a community,” said James Densley, a criminology professor and co-founder of The Violence Project.

A ‘police car’ in the driveway

The RCMP said early in their investigation that the gunman’s lookalike police car – his car looked nearly identical to an RCMP cruiser – was critical to his ability to evade detection and remain “steps ahead” of police during the 13-hour manhunt.

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RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell said on April 24, 2020 that it wasn’t until the morning after the shootings started and the gunman’s common-law spouse emerged from a hiding spot in the woods that police received detailed information about the car.

But 911 transcripts and witness statements released by the inquiry show police were told from the very first moments of their investigation that the gunman was driving an RCMP cruiser.

Transcripts of radio communications from that night also show Patton asked local RCMP detachments if they were missing any vehicles.

Patton would later question whether the lookalike vehicle allowed the gunman to escape Portapique.

“Maybe that was him leaving and he rolled right past the checkpoints,” Patton told an RCMP investigator, according to a transcript of their conversation. “When we left we just drove past the checkpoints, like, we didn’t stop to talk to people.”

Beselt, meanwhile, told RCMP investigators and a lawyer for the public inquiry that he believes he did everything he could to stop the gunman and that looking back he doesn’t think he could have done anything differently. Patton said the same.

Transcripts of these conversations show neither RCMP investigators nor the lawyer for the public inquiry asked first responding officers why they doubted details they received from 911. They also didn’t ask the officers if their distrust of the 911 callers influenced their response to the shootings in any way, either before or after they arrived in Portapique.

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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 transcripts show officers volunteered several reasons why they distrusted the information 911 dispatchers received from Jamie Blair, who was killed by the gunman, and her children: nothing bad ever happens in Portapique, the callers reported seeing a cop car, which seemed unbelievable, there were multiple calls about the same complaint, and the callers might have been “delusional.”

The information Blair and her children provided 911 in the 25 minutes before officers got to Portapique was accurate. This includes the gunman’s first name and profession, the fact he was driving a police car and the kind of weapons he was using.

“There’s a police car in the f***ing driveway,” Blair told a 911 operator at 10:01 p.m. “The man was coming back up on the deck with a big gun.”

Blair was still on the line with an RCMP call-taker when she barricaded herself and her children in her bedroom. The call ended with Blair whispering quietly and then screaming as the sound of possible gunshots was heard.

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At 10:16 p.m. – nine minutes before officers arrived in Portapique – the Blair children called 911 from a neighbour’s home to report that their parents had been killed by a man with a big gun driving a police car. They also said the gunman set their home on fire.

Transcripts and audio recordings of police radio communication show all of this information – except details about the sounds of gunshots on the call with Blair – was transmitted to first responding RCMP officers that night.

“As we start to get close there, you could see smoke coming up in the distance, and then at that point I’m like ‘holy f**k, this is probably legit,’” Patton told an RCMP investigator, according to a transcript.

It wasn’t until Beselt arrived on scene and had a chance encounter with Andrew MacDonald, a victim he knew from playing hockey, that he knew he was responding to an active shooter situation.

“Once Andrew said that he’d been shot and I know, like, this guy is shooting random people,” Beselt told inquiry investigators, according to a transcript. “We were like, OK, let’s go.”

A fire-destroyed property registered to Gabriel Wortman at 200 Portapique Beach Rd. is seen in Portapique, N.S., on Friday, May 8, 2020. The commission of inquiry probing the mass killing in Nova Scotia that claimed 22 lives in 2020 is again delaying public hearings, saying they are now expected to begin late next month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan. AV

Beselt and two other officers then initiated the RCMP’s Immediate Action Rapid Deployment protocol and entered Portapique on foot at about 10:30 p.m. – roughly half an hour after Blair called 911 to report her husband was shot.

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Christian Leuprecht, a policing expert at Royal Military College, said this was the right response given the information officers had at the time.

He said based on their training and the kind of calls police typically receive in rural areas – mental health calls, domestic incidents and firearms complaints – the first responding officers were in a “very difficult” situation prior to arriving in Portapique.

Still, he wonders whether RCMP command should have sent more officers to Portapique right away based on the first 911 calls.

“When there is a shooting incident in rural Canada and, for instance, you only have a couple of members on duty, should that immediately then be a call to the commanding officer to get everyone who is around in the detachment out of bed in their cars?” Leuprecht said.

Court documents show the RCMP critical incident response – the force’s highest level of police intervention – wasn’t initiated until after 10:40 p.m. Police believe the gunman used his lookalike RCMP cruiser to escape Portapique at about 10:45 p.m.

Changing police response

The inquiry is tasked with investigating how the RCMP responded to the shooting spree and making recommendations for change.

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For Khan, these findings and recommendations ought to consider how the initial RCMP response might have been influenced by the fact that the first 911 calls came from a woman and her children.

She also said the inquiry needs to look at what information first responders didn’t have when speeding toward Portapique – a complete history of the gunman’s violent past, including reports of intimate partner violence, death threats made toward his parents and a police officer, illegal weapons complaints and a 2001 assault conviction.

“That is horrible that they weren’t able to get that information to help those officers make really good decisions,” she said.

Court documents produced by the RCMP and information from other local police forces show the gunman had a long history of run-ins with police.

In the decade before the killing spree, police were called to his home based on complaints made by neighbours and police officers. In all of these cases, no action was ever taken against the gunman and nothing was found to warrant criminal charges or further investigation, police said.

Jillian Peterson, a psychologist and co-founder of The Violence Project, said it’s not unusual that no one person or agency has all the information about a single suspect.

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“We see this again and again. All this information exists and no one is putting it together,” Peterson said. “It’s no one’s job to make sure it all lives in one place.”

Peterson, who’s studied every public mass shooting in America since the 1960s, said it’s also not unusual for first responders to act with disbelief when called to mass shootings.

“My guess is that in a rural community like (Portapique), there’s not a lot of murders happening on a regular basis,” she said. “What happened there was so outside their usual experience that they could not wrap their heads around the fact that it could be actually happening.”

Peterson said police forces in North America need to be better at understanding and disrupting the “pathways to violence” that often precede mass shootings. This means recognizing the warning signs and possible “red flags” in a person’s life and either getting them help or making sure the police and courts intervene.

In the case of the Nova Scotia shooting, Peterson said first responders and other officers on scene ought to have had more information about the gunman sooner.

She said not having this information put the RCMP and the public at a disadvantage because no one in a position to stop the gunman had any idea how dangerous he was.

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“That seems to me like a systems failure,” Peterson said. “If you’re not knowing arrest histories and conviction histories and histories of violence, that’s really problematic.”

Anyone experiencing a mental health crisis is encouraged to use the following resources:

  • Mental Health & Addictions Provincial Crisis Line: 1-888-429-8167
  • Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (toll-free) Available 24/7 or Text CONNECT 686868
  • Emergency: 911

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