Late on the afternoon of Sunday, April 19, I sat in front of my television waiting for an RCMP briefing I fully expected would help me make sense of the confusing cascade of disjointed, disconcerting, increasingly frightening news bytes and bulletins that had tumbled out and over one another all that day.
I’d woken to a radio news report of an active shooter in Portapique, Nova Scotia. I had to look it up on a map. Police were advising people there to lock their doors and stay inside, the CBC newsreader said. And then the news kept becoming newer, and more bizarre. “Several” victims … The alleged shooter is a Dartmouth denturist … Considered armed and dangerous … He might be driving a car decked out to look like an RCMP vehicle … He might be wearing a facsimile Mountie uniform … Sighted here … Seen there … House fires … Definitely multiple casualties … Police officer shot … Police cars ablaze … Gunman apprehended at the Enfield Big Stop, nearly 100 km from Portapique! … Wait! What? How? … Gunman reported dead … At least one police officer killed …
The RCMP briefing, when it happened, was almost as surreal as the day. Lee Bergerman, the commanding officer of the RCMP in Nova Scotia, began, not by recapping what was known or even indicating how many people had been killed or wounded, but with a heartfelt eulogy for Heidi Stevenson, the 23-year veteran officer and mother of two who’d been killed in the line of duty that day, and she also shared the news that another, then-unnamed officer had been wounded but was recovering and would be supported by his RCMP “family.”
It was understandable, it was human, it was important to know.
But — at least by itself — it was not nearly enough to allow the rest of us to begin to comprehend the magnitude of the very public tragedy that had just happened in our province.
RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather, who followed Bergerman to the podium, offered little more in the way of concrete detail. In fact, it wasn’t until the first reporter asked the first obvious question that we began to get even imprecise factual information.
There were “in excess of 10 people” killed, Leather explained, the final tally unclear “because, as we’re standing here, the investigation continues into areas that we have not yet explored across the province.” That too was unexplained.
Again, all of this seems understandable in the shell-shocked, still-smouldering immediate aftermath of what we now know was the largest mass killing in Canada, a rampage made all the more complicated and confusing for investigators because the killer managed to zigzag his way through the heart of the province, setting fires, switching vehicles, settling scores, shooting strangers with both malice aforethought and seemingly incidental savagery. When all was said and done, the death toll topped 22, the crime scenes numbered 16.
The problem was that the RCMP’s public communications didn’t improve in the days that followed. There were briefings with little information, briefings with questions that went unanswered, cancelled briefings.
While that too may have been partly the result of all the still unfolding investigations unfolding in real time, it also seems — in too large a part — the result of a traditional close-to-the-vest, knowledge-is-power police culture that still does not understand the public’s right to know or that the RCMP needs to be as transparent and forthcoming as possible.
Which is why it isn’t nearly good enough for the RCMP to conduct an internal investigation into what happened and why, and then tell us what they decide we’re allowed to know. Or for the Serious Incident Response Team, which includes ex-police officers, to be the only semi-outside agency to investigate the police’s use of force during the incident.
This isn’t just about the RCMP’s actions or inactions during the incident.
- What are the rules around individuals being allowed to own even cobbled-together lookalike police and emergency vehicles? Should they be changed?
- If some of the weapons the killer used came from the US — as seems to have been the case — how did he get his hands on them, who sold them to him, how did he get across the border? That’s a larger gun-control question we need to answer for all sorts of different good reasons.
- We now know the killer had been charged at least once before with criminal assault. And we know, from reporting by journalists, that acquaintances had expressed concern about his “controlling behaviour” with his girlfriend, whose assault last Saturday night was just the first attack in what became his murderous spree. Had she sought help before? Had others ever flagged his behaviour with her to authorities?
- And then, of course, there is that troubling question everyone is now asking: why did the RCMP not issue an emergency alert to warn other residents in other parts of the province there was a gunman on the loose, probably driving an RCMP-alike vehicle and dressed in a Mountie uniform?
There are so many questions to answer.
But those answers, it’s worth noting, shouldn’t necessarily lead to blame.
While I understand the anger some family members of murder victims have expressed about the lack of an alert, I also believe it’s easier for the rest of us to find fault than it is to put ourselves in the unfathomable position first responders and emergency dispatchers must have confronted after a quiet rural Saturday night in the middle of a COVID-19 lockdown suddenly exploded in violence and mayhem.
As RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell put it when he belatedly released the Mounties’ own still incomplete timeline of events on Friday, April 24, five days after the killings: “The police officers responding to the initial 911 call and the subsequent calls did not have the benefit of the knowledge I am about to share with you. The initial complaint was of a shooting.”
Let’s follow that train.
- At 10:26 p.m. on April 18 — even before the first officers arrived at the Portapique home from which the initial 911 call came — they encountered a man who told them he’d been shot by another man in a passing vehicle. Police called in emergency responders to tend to him and moved on.
- As police units began arriving on the scene, they discovered “several people” dead in the road. When they began checking nearby homes for victims or suspects, they discovered eight different residences on Portapique Beach Road, Orchard Beach Drive and Cobequid Court “where people were found deceased.”
- In the darkness, they also saw flames shooting skyward from several nearby “structure” fires. With a shooter on the loose, however, firefighters were unable to battle the blazes, and the structures burned to the ground. Was anyone inside?
- The RCMP activated its critical incident response program. “At this point perimeters were established,” Campbell explained. “Specialized units responded, including police dog services, emergency response teams and a DNR helicopter. We also had the explosives disposal unit, crisis negotiators and the emergency medical response team on standby. Within a very short time, we also engaged specialized units and resources from J Division in New Brunswick… First responders engaged in clearing residences, searching for suspects, providing life-saving measures. Telecommunicators remained on the line with witnesses in the immediate area.”
- While all that was happening, police identified the suspect, discovered he possessed “a pistol and barrelled weapons” and learned he lived in one of the burning structures where both the house and garages “were fully engulfed in flames.” Was he inside? Had he committed suicide? Or was he still on the loose?
- Knowing he owned several lookalike police vehicles, two of which were burning, the Mounties asked Halifax Regional Police to dispatched officers to the suspect’s Dartmouth denturist’s office in the middle of the night where they found what they initially believed was his only other police-alike car.
- The manhunt went on throughout the night in the area around Portapique where — having established their perimeters — the Mounties still believed the killer would be found.
- After 6:30am., the suspect’s girlfriend — who’d been assaulted and had been hiding in woods overnight — emerged after calling 911. She told police he owned a fourth, unregistered, “fully marked and equipped replica” police cruiser, was wearing a police uniform and was loaded down with weapons.
- Realizing he might have slipped through their cordon, the RCMP issued a BOLO — be-on-the-lookout — bulletin to all police officers in Nova Scotia.
- Officers on the scene, however, continued to search for the suspect in and around Portapique in case he was still there.
- This is where things get murky. According to the police version, “more than 12 hours after our initial arrival in Poratpique, we began receiving a second series of 911 calls” from the Wentworth area, more than 60 km north of Portapique.
- Thanks to Tim Bousquet’s weekend reporting for the Examiner, we now know the gunman had actually been spotted driving in the area hours before those calls, at around 6:30am., and that he’d probably been killing people on Hunter Road, north of Wentworth, since at least 7am.
- He murdered Alanna Jenkins and Sean McLeod, a couple who were “known to the gunman,” and set their house on fire. When Tom Bagley, a retired firefighter who lived nearby, came to investigate, he was shot dead in their driveway at around 8:45am.
- Lillian Hyslop was walking by the side of the road when the gunman killed her. Police received that 911 call at 9:35.
- Soon after, he “pulled” a vehicle off the highway and shot one of the occupants.
- Then, he “encountered a second vehicle and shot and killed that female victim.” Those victims were Heather O’Brien and Kristen Beaton, both VON nurses. Beaton was pregnant.
- At some point, the gunman also knocked on the door of a house on Highway 4, but the occupants — who knew the man and saw he was carrying a weapon — didn’t answer. They called 911 instead. The man left.
- At 10 to 11am that morning, the killer — still driving his RCMP lookalike vehicle — came upon Cst. Chad Morrison about 100 km south of Wentworth at the intersection of Highway 2 and 224, just off Highway 103 near Stewiacke. Morrison, who had been waiting to meet Cst. Heidi Stevenson as part of the ongoing response to the killer on the loose, wasn’t surprised to see a marked RCMP vehicle pull up beside him. But it wasn’t Stevenson; it was the killer. He shot and wounded Morrison, then crashed his fake police car head-on into Stevenson’s arriving vehicle. The two exchanged gunfire, and he killed her, as well as Joey Webber, a passerby who had happened on the scene. The gunman took Cst. Stevenson’s gun and ammunition, set fire to his and Stevenson’s vehicles, and escaped once again, this time in Webber’s silver SUV.
- A few minutes later, he stopped at a home on Highway 224 where he shot and killed Gina Goulet, a denturist he knew, then changed out of his police uniform and stole her red Mazda 3.
- Continuing south for 20 more km on Highway 224, the killer finally arrived at the Irving Big Stop in Enfield where he stopped to get gas. “While he was at the gas pumps,” Campbell reported, “one of our tactical resources came into the gas station to refuel their vehicle. When the officer exited the vehicle, there was an encounter and the gunman was shot and killed by police at 11:26 a.m.” …
Thirteen hours, 22 murders, seven fires, 16 crime scenes…
Even laid out in an ordered timeline, the events of that night and morning are mind-bogglingly impossible to wrap your head around. I’m guessing none of the officers on the ground or the dispatchers in the ether — who were all attempting to make sense of what they were confronting in real time — had ever encountered such an unlikely scenario, even in the most intense active-shooter, mass-murder training exercise.
We need to be kind to all of them even as we rightly demand answers to our many legitimate questions.
The fact is the murderer is dead. There will be no trial. There is no need to put off asking — and answering — questions.
The best — perhaps only — way to get those answers now is through an independent public inquiry. The province’s justice minister can call a fatality inquiry into any violent death. So can the chief medical officer. Perhaps most significantly, the premier can appoint a full-on public inquiry into all aspects of the tragedy and make recommendations to prevent such a tragedy happening again.
Stephen McNeil should do just that. Now.
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